Interviews | Security | South Asia

Ajai Shukla on the Current and Future State of India’s Military

What to expect from ongoing modernization efforts and the current capabilities of the Indian military.

Franz-Stefan Gady
Ajai Shukla on the Current and Future State of India’s Military

In this Friday, July 26, 2019, file photo, Indian army soldiers keep guard near a war memorial during Kargil Vijay Diwas, or Kargil Victory Day, in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir.

Credit: AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan, file

The Diplomat’s Franz-Stefan Gady talks to Ajai Shukla, one of India’s leading defense analysts and reporters, about the current state and future trajectory of the Indian Armed Forces. Shukla is a former officer of the Indian Army, where he held various positions including commanding one of the service’s most elite tank regiments. Over the span of his journalistic career, Shukla reported from various conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq. He also covered the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War for Indian media outlets. Shukla is currently a consulting editor with the national daily, Business Standard, where he frequently writes on Indian defense policy and strategy. He posts his writing on Broadsword, a popular blog that he hosts on defense issues. 

The Diplomat:A book on Indian military modernization published in 2012 carried the title Arming Without Aiming, by which the authors principally meant that the India in the past has had difficulties executing a clear strategic vision when it comes to military procurement and long-term defense planning. The armed forces, according to the authors, suffer from balkanization of military organization, underpinned by a persistent dysfunction in the country’s political-military establishment, and a lack of strategic guidance. Do you agree with this assessment? Do you think the situation has improved over the last seven years? 

Ajai Shukla

That India has no strategic culture is a common perception amongst western security analysts, especially after it was famously enunciated by RAND Corporation analyst, George Tanham in the 1990s and echoed by Stephen Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta in their book, Arming Without Aiming. This was indeed true at the time of India’s independence in 1947, when leaders of the freedom struggle, such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, found themselves helming national security, strategy and intelligence without any previous experience in these matters. Nor were India’s first generations of generals, admirals and air marshals any better equipped, since many of them had been promoted to general rank with little service experience. The British exited from India without imparting to their successors any tradition of strategic thinking, high military command, internal security or intelligence. It has, consequently, taken time to build up experience and expertise in these realms.

Furthermore, generations of leaders in independent India have held the strategic belief that India’s biggest vulnerabilities are the deficit of economic and social development, rather than external threats. This conviction has held through three wars initiated by Pakistan in the hope of “liberating” Kashmir (1948, 1965 and 1999) and through its sustained use of proxies to foment insurgency in Indian states such as Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir. It has only been in crisis, such as the humbling military defeat by China in 1962, that Indian leaders have focused seriously on national security preparedness, and diverted a larger share of national resources to this end. Yet, each time a crisis blew over, New Delhi switched back its attention and resources to development and social sector expenditure.

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On the positive side, this confidence in its own stability and resilience has prevented India from being overly militarized, and from becoming a national security state like its twin, Pakistan. It has also ensured that a healthy share of its scarce resources have been allocated to urgent developmental priorities. Whether this bespeaks a lack of strategic culture, or the opposite, can be debated.

What can you tell us about the readiness levels of the Indian military? Is the Indian military ready for war? Is there a difference within the service branches? How about cross-service cooperation?

India’s military likes to portray itself as not just ready for war, but actually fighting one every day of the year. That it is a heavily committed army is beyond doubt. About one-third of the army is engaged at all times in counter-insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir and in the northeastern states where militancy is winding down, but is still significant. Another one-third is deployed round the year, manning the “no-war, no-peace” borders with Pakistan and China, which mostly run along high-altitude Himalayan terrain. The remaining one-third of the force should be training for its warfighting role, but actually spends much of its two-year “peace tenure” recuperating from operational deployment or preparing for its next tenure in the field.

Given these commitments, training for warfighting gets short shrift. Given the stovepipes in which the army, navy and air force operate, there is little appetite or time for inter-service training, although lip service is always paid to the need for it. Each of the three services tends to structure, equip, plan and prepare for single service operations. The air force, for example, accords far greater priority to equipping itself with air defense fighters than with ground support aircraft. Its stranglehold over attack helicopters, including tank killers such as the Apache AH-64E, means the army’s armored divisions must coordinate with the air force for integrating these assets into the land battle. Similarly, the navy focuses far more on capital warships – frigates, destroyers, aircraft carriers and submarines – than it does on amphibious warfare vessels that are crucial for exercising control over India’s numerous island territories.

On India’s latest independence day, on August 15, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the government would appoint a Chief of Defense Staff (CDS), a single point commander for all three services. While this has the potential for propagating a more holistic, tri-service approach to military force structuring and operational planning, it remains to be seen how this decision will be implemented.

What are the most pressing material needs of the Indian Army, Air Force, and Navy?

The 1.2 million strong army has simultaneously too many personnel and too little firepower. It needs to shed 200,000-300,000 personnel and divert the savings into battlefield fire support, especially artillery and light attack helicopters. It will need to compensate for manpower reductions with investments in real time surveillance and command systems.

The navy, which aspires to be a key security provider in the Indian Ocean, needs more surveillance assets, including satellites, long-range shore-based radar, and long-range maritime surveillance aircraft such as the manned P-8I Poseidon and the unmanned Sea Guardian drone. Its surface warship fleet is badly short of helicopters for anti-submarine and airborne early warning roles. Minesweepers are badly needed. The conventional submarine force (diesel-electric SSKs, as well as air-independent SSPs) needs to be boosted from the current 15 to the planned 24 boats. Also essential is a line of six nuclear attack submarines (SSNs) that are under development, but could take another decade to enter service. A third aircraft carrier is proposed to be built indigenously but is awaiting official sanction.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) badly needs to provide mid-life upgrades for its fighter fleet – especially Sukhoi-30MKI and Jaguar aircraft – while simultaneously pushing through the long-delayed procurement of 114 multi-role fighters from the global market. The IAF must also take ownership of the Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) and the eponymous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) projects, which are currently making slow progress under the Defense Research & Development Organization (DRDO). A large number of Tejas fighters are needed to replace the IAF’s obsolescent MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters, most of which have retired without replacements, with the squadrons having been “number-plated”. The IAF also badly needs more force multipliers, particularly air-to-air refueling tankers and airborne warning and control systems (AWACS).

Do you think the Indian military’s budget is adequate for range of missions it is expected to fulfill in the future?

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The large number of weapons platforms languishing in the procurement pipeline point to a lack of capital funding needed to conclude those acquisitions. However, the government has signaled its inability to spend much more than 2 percent of the Gross Domestic Product on defense, inclusive of pensions. As a percentage of overall government spending, defense allocations have fallen steadily from 17.7 percent in 2017-18, to 16.5 percent in 2018-19, to 15.5 percent in the current year. That is insufficient to cater for the military’s missions of border protection, warfighting preparations and stocking, counter-insurgency, maritime domain protection, out of area contingencies and humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR).

That said, for a developing country like India, with its multiple security requirements, the defense budget is likely to remain inadequate. Instead, the missions will have to be tailored to the funds available. The military will have to re-prioritize spending with expenditure diverted to the most urgent requirements, such as creating and training more Special Forces units. There would also have to be greater inter-services consensus on where funding should be directed and prioritized.

Are operational requirements for the military shifting? For example, the Indian military has been planning for a two-front war with both China and Pakistan. Do you think this is a realistic scenario or should resources be shifted to meet other possible requirements in the near future?

A two-front war with China and Pakistan is a worst-case circumstance that would arise only from a simultaneous failure of Indian strategy and international diplomacy. Militaries cannot be structured, particularly for countries with limited means, on the worst possible eventuality; rather, they must cater for the most likely ones. However, Indian military planners routinely raise the bogey of a two-front war, throwing in another “internal security half-front” comprising of Kashmiri militants disrupting lines of communications in the interior.

It is not unusual for militaries to conjure up scare scenarios to bolster their annual bids for budget and resources. However, in India, where the bogey of a two-front war is not rigorously questioned, this has created an acceptance of shortfalls. The IAF’s current strength of 30 squadrons is accepted even though 42 fighter squadrons are assessed as the minimum needed for a two-front war. The navy’s Maritime Capability Perspective Plan – 2012-2027 envisions a force of 200 warships and 500 aircraft to control its Indian Ocean demesne in the face of encroachments from Pakistan and China. However the navy currently operates just 140 warships and 220 aircraft.

Until about a decade ago, the army’s eastern command, which safeguards much of the border with China, had seven divisions under command. In the event of hostilities with China, plans existed for three-to-four “dual task divisions” to be moved from the Indo-Pakistan border to the eastern command. Over the last decade, however, citing the possibility of a two-front war, the army argued that inter-theater reinforcement would not be possible. To make the eastern theatre self-contained, the army pitched for, and was sanctioned, four new divisions, including two that would be part of a new “mountain strike corps.” This shortsightedness swelled an already bloated army by 100,000 more soldiers, leaving less for equipment modernization.

India cannot win a two-front war and should not plan for one. Preventing such an eventuality should be a key aim of Indian diplomacy and global strategy.

One of the most controversial doctrinal shifts in recent years has been the adaptation of the so-called Cold Start doctrine, also known as Pro-Active doctrine, a doctrine geared toward swift offensive operations into enemy territory, by the Indian Army in response to attacks on Indian territory. There have been recent reports that the Indian Army is standing up its first so-called Integrated Battle Group, an instrumental component for the execution of Cold Start. Do you think the doctrine is a stabilizing or destabilizing factor in an inter-state crisis like we have seen in February 2019 between India and Pakistan? 

India’s “Cold Start” or “Pro-active Operations” doctrine, the existence of which is not officially acknowledged, aims to punish any Pakistani outrage or terror attack on Indian soil by quickly mobilizing a number of mechanized formations stationed in the vicinity of the Indo-Pakistan border and launching multiple swift, shallow offensives to cause attrition on the Pakistani Army and capture territory along a broad front. Essential for success is the ability to mobilize and launch attacks before the Pakistani Army can occupy its defensive positions in strength. To achieve this the Indian Army has moved several armored brigades into cantonments closer to the border. Further, the Cold Start attack is sequenced differently with defensive formations (or pivot corps, as they are called in Cold Start lingo), which are located closer to the border, given much of the responsibility for the initial thrusts rather than waiting for the arrival of the strike corps from their locations much farther from the border. These swift ground strikes would be integrated with the simultaneous and full mobilization of the air force and navy.

Pakistan’s military responded swiftly, taking both conventional and non-conventional measures to counter the threat from Cold Start. The non-conventional measures have garnered much of the attention, particularly Pakistan’s ostentatious operationalization of a tactical nuclear weapon (TNW) – the Nasr, or Hatf 9 short-range ballistic missile, presumably equipped with a miniaturized nuclear payload and fired from a multi-barrel launcher at battlefield targets. Pakistan has signaled in various ways that an Indian offensive breakthrough on the battlefield would face Nasr strikes, perhaps on Pakistani territory. Given India’s nuclear doctrine of assured massive retaliation, Pakistan’s threat of TNW use is enormously destabilizing. Besides the possibility of a terrorist strike uncontrollably escalating to full-scale nuclear war, India has highlighted, as have other worried countries, the danger of Pakistan’s TNWs – which must necessarily be forward deployed – falling into the hands of rogue actors, such as ideologically subverted military commanders or jihadi terrorist groups.

Pakistan has unconvincingly argued that its TNWs are adequately safeguarded. However, it may be more justified in believing that its conventional military counter to the Cold Start doctrine would successfully hold off Indian offensive thrusts, thus eliminating the requirement for TNW release, deployment and use. The conventional measures the Pakistan military has taken include a posture review termed “New Concept of Warfighting”. This involves a so-called “3-R” process to “Reorganize, Restructure and Relocate” its defensive formations. Each of them now maintain one-third of their strength in their defensive positions at all times, creating the operational time and space needed for building up to full strength in the event of a Cold Start attack. Further, Pakistan’s defensive formations have been beefed up with additional armor (earlier held centralized in the rear), providing them a greater ability to block Indian armor thrusts until more Pakistani units can be built up from rear areas.

The Pakistan military’s operational and intelligence assessments conclude that an Indian Cold Start offensive can be held off with conventional forces alone, without having to employ TNWs, or even issue a nuclear threat. That, in the view of Pakistani planners, would constitute a victory in a war initiated by India. This belief gave Pakistani intelligence agencies the confidence to go ahead with the Mumbai terrorist strikes in 2008, well after Cold Start was initiated. Indian analysts argue that the conventional deterrent posed by Cold Start has prevented Pakistan from initiating any more Mumbai-style misadventures. In fact, Pakistan has probably been held back by the international outrage and U.S. pressure following the Mumbai strikes.

As a nuclear-armed state, what do you make of the recent discussions of a gradual shift away from India’s no first use nuclear policy to a more ambiguous nuclear doctrine? 

In August, India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh placed a question mark over India’s doctrinal pledge of nuclear “no first use” (NFU), when he said India may not feel indefinitely, or unquestionably, bound to that commitment. This was clearly not just an off-hand comment, since the defense minister simultaneously tweeted the same message. Singh was echoing his predecessor in 2016, Manohar Parrikar, who had walked back from NFU, but later qualified that as his “personal views”. Earlier, the former chief of India’s Strategic Forces Command, Lieutenant General BS Nagal, had publicly declared that no Indian leader could stand by and wait for an adversary to nuke the country. In 2010, then National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon had repudiated NFU in a speech to India’s National Defense College. (That speech has since been amended on the foreign ministry website, removing the NFU repudiation).

Policymakers in Islamabad and Beijing have never believed that New Delhi actually hews to an NFU policy, given its on-going investment in technologies and systems that go beyond a purely retaliatory nuclear policy. These include precision-strike missiles, ballistic missile defense systems and surveillance and reconnaissance means. Statements like Rajnath Singh’s only reinforce such skepticism.

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Loosening New Delhi’s NFU commitment would be consistent with Modi’s policy of creating additional policy options in the national security realm. This penchant has been evident in multiple ways: During the 2016 cross-border strikes on militant camps, the IAF’s February 2019 air strikes on Balakot, deep inside Pakistan, the recent anti-satellite (ASAT) test and, in August 2019, the shock dilution of Article 370, which had granted special status to J&K state in the Indian union. A dilution of New Delhi’s NFU pledge would create “use it or lose it” incentives in Pakistan for pre-emptive nuclear use in a crisis. It would also bring international pressure on New Delhi, which has reaped many benefits – such as a trade waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group – from being perceived as a “responsible” nuclear actor. However, Modi might well see benefits in ambiguity, keeping adversaries guessing while simultaneously denying any change in policy.

Has Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” initiative, exemplified in the defense realm by a new strategic partnership policy under the framework of the Defense Procurement Procedure 2016, been a success? What is the progress on increasing the indigenization of Indian military systems. What is the biggest strength of the Indian defense industry? Its biggest weakness?

Modi’s “Make in India” initiative has been characterized more by unrealistic target-setting and policy announcements than by what every analyst and policymaker accepts is the way forward: To empower the private sector to play a greater role in defense research and development (R&D) and manufacture, rather than providing preferential treatment to the MoD’s nine defense public sector undertakings (DPSUs) and 41 ordnance factories (OFs), which have monopolized defense manufacture for decades and continue to do so despite government promises of a level playing field for the private sector.

Vested interests within the public sector continue scuttling initiatives like the “strategic partner” (SP) policy, which envisaged building up private firms with proven technological excellence and deep pockets as alternatives to the DPSUs/OFs. This was to be done by reserving selected procurements – such as the building of naval helicopters and conventional submarines – for private sector SPs. However, when tendering began, it became evident that the government has succumbed to pressure and also allowed DPSUs/OFs to bid for these contracts. The Defense Procurement Procedure of 2016, the current bible of defense procurement, has failed to remedy matters. A new DDP, which is currently being formulated, is likely to be implemented in 2020.

The biggest strength of the Indian defense industry is probably the dynamism and entrepreneurship of its private sector, particular in information technology and software engineering – both crucial fields in defense production. Its biggest weakness is the nexus between government policymakers and the public sector, which continues to skew the playing field in favor of the latter.

There is a slow ongoing shift away from Russian military hardware to the procuring systems from other countries including France and the United States. The recent acquisition of Russian-made S-400 air defense systems, and the corresponding threat of U.S. sanctions, has caused controversy in Washington. Can you foresee a scenario where reliance on Russian systems will be significantly reduced in the near to medium-term with the United States stepping in as the country’s top weapons supplier? 

India’s shift from Russian systems to western defense platforms is discernible. However, over 60 percent of India’s arsenal, especially in the realms of submarines, aircraft and armored vehicles, continues to be of Soviet/Russian origin and keeping those platforms going will require continued procurement from Moscow. Russia also keeps alive its leverage in New Delhi by providing systems and technologies – such as nuclear submarine development assistance – that no other country is willing to supply. Russia also provides India certain categories of platforms, such as warships, helicopters and air defense weaponry, at attractive rates. The recent contracts for Krivak-III frigates, Mi-17V5 and Kamov-226T helicopters and S-400 air defense systems illustrate this.

As a former Indian Army officer, what is the one thing analysts and defense commentators who have not served most consistently miss when writing about the Indian armed forces? Do you think your service has given you particular insights into the military?

As a former military officer, I have ability to understand the mindset of defense planners and how the institution reacts to situations and initiatives. I am also able to read between the lines when the military puts out messages and statements. Finally, as a combat soldier, the personal experience of operating weapons systems and platforms has given me the understanding of how the overall effect is often far less than the sum of its parts. Analysts and commentators who have not served tend to take statements and situations at face value, which often presents a misleading picture.