India’s 2017 Joint Armed Forces Doctrine: First Takeaways

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India’s 2017 Joint Armed Forces Doctrine: First Takeaways

India’s latest joint military doctrinal document offers new insight.

India’s 2017 Joint Armed Forces Doctrine: First Takeaways
Credit: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod

This week, India’s latest Joint Armed Forces Doctrine was made public. The document offers insight into the principles that guide the Indian military’s approach to warfighting. Released by Admiral Sunil Lanba, the chairman of the Indian chiefs of staff committee, the document focuses on India’s conception of its national security and its strategy for managing threats across the “full spectrum of military conflict.” In this sense, the document addresses the principles guiding the Indian military’s approach to everything from nuclear war to internal security and counter-insurgency. The document will merit sustained and serious scrutiny. Below, I highlight a few (early and provisional) takeaways that jumped out to me on a first read.

One of the first and most obvious observations that has already drawn headlines in the Indian press is that the doctrine explicitly acknowledges that so-called “surgical strikes” will, going forward, be a formal part of India’s retaliatory toolkit against “terror provocations.” India claimed to demonstrate this last September, after the deadly Uri attack, in which Pakistan-based militants killed more than a dozen Indian Army soldiers. Moreover, there is evidence of operations by Indian forces across the Line of Control (the de facto border demarcating India- and Pakistan-administered Kashmir) going back to the early 2000s. Nevertheless, insofar as the joint doctrine document is intended for consumption across India’s western border, the explicit mention of “surgical strikes” is a signal.

Second, given recent debates on potential shifts in Indian nuclear strategy, the presentation of India’s nuclear strategy in the document is revealing. First, this may be the first authoritative document released by the Indian government to drop the phraseology of “credible minimum deterrence” (CMD) for “credible deterrence” (CD) instead. CMD has been a mainstay in India’s nuclear strategy since the release of its draft nuclear doctrine in 1999 and so its omission in the 2017 joint doctrine stands out on a first read. We’ve seen non-CMD formulations in remarks by Indian officials — with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s October 2014 speech perhaps the best example. (Doval references “an effective deterrence capability which is credible.”)

The significance of the evaporation of “minimum” in the credible deterrence formulation may seem obvious (i.e., a larger, or at least less constrained, nuclear arsenal), but it’s unclear what precisely is meant by the change. What caught my eye, though, particularly given the recent debates about a possible shift in Indian thinking to entertaining certain varieties of (most probably conventional) counterforce targeting against Pakistan, is the following sentence:

Conflict will be determined or prevented through a process of credible deterrence, coercive diplomacy and conclusively by punitive destruction, disruption and constraint in a nuclear environment across the Spectrum of Conflict.

This isn’t the easiest sentence to parse out, but what’s meant here becomes clearer when taking into account a later definition of “disruption” in the doctrine document. Disruption is defined as “a lower form of armed conflict designed to shatter the cohesion of an adversary’s military force to prevent it from functioning effectively in combat.” The definition offers certain examples of disruption, which “may be achieved by destroying elements essential for cohesion, such as the command and control (C2) systems.” (Emphasis mine.)

Putting two and two together — i.e., this definition of “disruption” and the important words “in a nuclear environment” — one can’t help but think that what this is referring to is a form of ‘soft’ counterforce warfighting. Certain consumers of this document in Rawalpindi will have no choice but to work with the assumption that what is meant here is that Indian nuclear strategy now seeks to limit the damage Pakistan can inflict at the strategic level by degrading Pakistan’s integrated nuclear command-and-control capabilities in an initial conventional strike. This is particularly concerning given Pakistan’s plans to move its “third strike” capability partly to sea; India may presumably look to threaten VLF arrays that would allow Pakistan’s National Command Authority to communicate launch orders to its submarines in a crisis.

Critically, the document does emphasize that “no first use” remains a “defining [issue]” for India’s own nuclear C2, thereby upholding an important cornerstone of Indian doctrine since 1999. This further, at least, implies that for the moment New Delhi is not seeking to limit the damage Pakistan could inflict through a “comprehensive first strike” upon the mobilization of Pakistan’s low-yield first strike systems, like the Nasr. (For instance, as implied by Shivshankar Menon’s much-discussed passage highlighting a “potential gray area” of India using its nuclear weapons “if [it]were certain that adversary’s launch was imminent.”) But if conventional soft counterforce is now part of India’s warfighting strategy, it may occur earlier in the nuclear escalation ladder — presumably upon India becoming convinced of an “imminent” Pakistani first strike.

Third, the doctrine is revealing of the Indian military’s contemporary preferences for expeditionary and overseas operations. For instance, the document calls for “complete and effective inter-operability” with “countries, big and small” — a tacit endorsement of ever-closer logistics, communications, and intelligence collaboration with countries ranging from the United States, Japan, and Australia to smaller powers in Southeast Asia. Moreover, echoing the 2015 maritime security strategy, the joint doctrine emphasizes the salience of the Indian “diaspora” to the country’s national security strategy, “especially in the Middle East / North African regions, which are home to millions of Indians, remain central to our external security paradigm.”

I’ll stop here for now, with the caveat that the above conclusions are preliminary. The doctrine document includes quite a bit more that merits close analysis, including potentially a new portrait of how India separates the control of its nuclear weapons between military and civilian authorities. Moreover, there’s quite a bit of detail on how the Indian armed forces envision future conflicts (in short, “unrestricted, unpredictable, and hybrid”) and civil-military relations. I’ll endeavor to return to those in a future post in the coming days, but for now, consider this a first impression of the major issues.