A Former US Army Officer Examines the World View of the Indian Military

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A Former US Army Officer Examines the World View of the Indian Military

In a new book, a former U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency officer dissects perceptions and beliefs of Indian armed forces officers – and comes to some stark conclusions.

A Former US Army Officer Examines the World View of the Indian Military
Credit: Flickr/Wendy North

As India-U.S. military cooperation deepens, there is growing interest in the worldview of Indian armed forces officers among policymakers and analysts in the United States and allied countries: how they perceive India’s strategic challenges and how they want to tackle them militarily. Colonel David O. Smith (retired), a distinguished fellow with the South Asia program of the Stimson Center and former senior U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency officer, has been a long-time analyst of South Asian military issues. In a new book, “The Wellington Experience: A Study of Attitudes and Values Within the Indian Army,” Smith — based on observations of U.S. military officers who attended India’s Defense Services Staff College (DSSC) in Wellington, Tamil Nadu, over a 38-year period, from 1979 to 2017 – examines prevalent perceptions within the Indian armed forces about Pakistan, China, Kashmir and other core Indian national security issues. In an email interview with the Diplomat, Smith highlights the key points of his work.

Your study of the Indian Army follows a similar study you had conducted about Pakistan’s, based on experiences of U.S. students in the Command and Staff College at Quetta, which was published in 2018. If I had to ask you to identify three points of commonalities between the two – despite obvious differences – what would they be?

There are so many areas of commonality in what was observed at Wellington and at Quetta that it might be easier to list the differences. But since that was not your question, I will give what I consider to be three of the most obvious ones: pedagogy and institutional culture, inadequacy of doctrine for modern warfare, and the distorted view each side has of the other.

First, not surprisingly since both institutions spring from the same parent, both Wellington and Quetta continue to employ the pedagogy they inherited from the British commonwealth model and rely on competitive examinations to select student officers from nearly identical backgrounds.  Also observed at both institutions were what I described as “negative cultural behaviors” that promote cheating by using previous staff college solutions on exercises, tests, and research papers — what at Wellington is called PCK (previous course knowledge) and at Quetta is called chappa. The use of these techniques is so prevalent that it is part of each institution’s organizational culture.  Also common to both institutions is the unwillingness on the part of the Directing Staff and senior officers to tolerate much, if any, creativity or unconventional thinking in exercises or syndicate room discussions. And finally, an evaluation process in both that reinforces the already strong cultural propensity not to question doctrine or the opinions expressed by senior officers.

Second, both institutions are army-centric in their focus and teach an outdated ground doctrine that virtually all Western students thought was more suited to World War II than a modern battlefield. Both are deficient in inculcating an appreciation for the roles of intelligence, combined arms operations, logistics, and aviation support. And ironically for a tri-service institution supposedly committed to inculcating “jointmanship” in all three services, perhaps only the more army-centric Quetta pays less lip service to providing effective joint training than Wellington.

Third, the intensity of feeling and a high level of emotionalism about each other was identical, with Indian students at Wellington and Pakistani students at Quetta both seeing the other side as “evil.” This emotive lens was in evidence during in wargames and exercises where both sides typically overestimated their own capabilities while simultaneously underestimating those of their putative enemy. Ironically, the top finishers in each institution, typically those who had served abroad in United Nations peacekeeping missions or attended foreign professional military education (PME) institutions — where they had come in contact with each other — did not exhibit such emotive views and admitted that they invariably became good friends in such external settings.

In your book, you note the Indian Army’s Pakistan focus, writing, “Although China is perceived as India’s major long-term security threat, there is reluctance to characterize it as an enemy.” In light of the ongoing Ladakh standoff, do you expect this attitude to change, in terms of China being clubbed along with Pakistan as a military challenge? If so, does that hold promise of deeper U.S.-India military-to-military ties?

The most frequently used word at DSSC to describe China was “competitor” despite the fact that by the end of the study all three groups of officers observed (senior officers, faculty, and students) ranked China as India’s principal external threat. Prior to Doklam in 2017, such ambivalence was reflected in the country as a whole by Pew Global Research polling, which showed that only 56 percent of Indians believed China’s growing military power was bad for India and only 51 percent thought China’s growing economy (with which India runs a growing trade deficit) did not bode well for the country. The post-Doklam meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping at the BRICS summit in 2017 reinforced another attitude observed at DSSC — confidence that border disputes could be deescalated or contained through diplomacy and that an eventual peaceful resolution of the border issue was likely.

Whether such attitudes about China in the Indian military have changed appreciably since the Ladakh crisis is probably too early to determine with any confidence. The observations at DSSC can be explained by a variety of factors, the two most important being the sensitivity of the Indian Army about its poor performance in the 1962 war with China and fear of a similar “embarrassment” in the future, and the relative absence of an emotional lens about Sino-Indian relations unlike those that distort India’s relations with Pakistan and, to a lesser degree, with the United States.

It is likewise too early to determine if a closer U.S.-India military-to-military relationship is in the offing although this has been a long sought goal of the past four U.S. administrations. Several recent steps auger well for such an eventuality, two examples being the Quad foreign ministerial talks in Tokyo and India’s signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA) with the United States, both intended to help counter growing Chinese influence in Asia. On the other hand, India has always prized the concept of strategic autonomy and many retired senior Indian military officers advocate only a “plug in-plug out” military relationship with the United States which implies the desire to become closer in the event of a crisis and to withdraw when the crisis is past. I think it unlikely that there will ever be a NATO-like relationship between our two countries, but certainly there is wide latitude for improvements in interoperability between our two forces. How the new Biden administration will handle U.S.-India relationship is not yet known. One potential friction point will almost certainly involve a future decision about granting or denying India a CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) waiver if it continues to buy large amounts of Russian military hardware like the S-400 surface-to-air missile system.

One of your study findings is that Indian army officers continue to exhibit mistrust when it comes to the United States despite deep political convergence between the two countries. Could you elaborate on that for Diplomat readers who haven’t had the opportunity to read your book yet? In your opinion, is there a variation of opinion about the U.S. among the three Indian armed services?

This was perhaps the most surprising (and disappointing) finding of the study. All three groups of Indian officers at the DSSC (in all three services) continue to mistrust the United States, which they consider to be neither an ally, a true friend of India, nor a trustworthy security partner. This finding would not have been surprising anytime in the first few decades of the study, but in light of the hyperbolic official rhetoric both sides have used in the past decade to describe the bilateral relationship, it is disappointing to say the least. Possibly the most insightful characterization of the current state of the relationship came from one of the most recent DSSC graduates I interviewed,, who characterized the Indian military’s perception of the United States as a friend from whom one can get many things, but to whom nothing needs to be given in return.

The principal reason for such a persistent level of mistrust over time is obviously the U.S. relationship with Pakistan. This relationship has been on a sharply downward trajectory since 2011, but that fact seemed not to have made any discernible impact on Indian students’ perception of the direction of the U.S.-India relationship. The difficulty of forgiving and overcoming these slights is likely due to the strength of persistent historical memory in South Asia. Even after 70 years, the experience of partition continues to poison India-Pakistan relations and in large measure still fuels the Kashmir insurgency. Another example is the USS Enterprise sortie into the Indian Ocean in 1971, which continues to be seen by India as a nuclear threat made by the United States. In all four decades of the study period, the Enterprise incident repeatedly resurfaced as the classic example of American perfidy, symbolizing perhaps an unspoken fear that in the event of a future war with Pakistan the United States would intervene similarly to deny India the fruits of victory.

Recently we have seen a push toward theater commands and greater jointness among the three services in India after the appointment of a chief of defense staff (CDS) last year. How do you assess these developments?

The appointment of a CDS is certainly a step in the right direction, but General Bipin Rawat has become India’s first CDS without a promotion to a five-star rank. I assume this means he merely will be “first among equals” within the Indian military hierarchy and without formal command authority over them. He is also concurrently designated as the secretary of a newly created Department of Military Affairs (DMA) within the Ministry of Defense, which gives him direct access to that ministry. But the devil is always in the details, and it remains to be seen whether the general will be sufficiently empowered to impose real jointness on what will almost certainly be three very reluctant service chiefs, or whether he will ultimately become a ceremonial military figurehead like Pakistan’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.

I tend to agree with Indian scholar Anit Mukherjee who warns of three potential pitfalls in this new setup: first, the DMA is a uniquely Indian creation for which there is no precedent among the world’s democracies; second, the department is seemingly based on an assumption that military and defense affairs can be differentiated without creating confusion and bureaucratic turbulence; and third, the military’s current PME policies and short and rapid tenure system do not augur well for the ability to properly staff the new department. Mukherjee and other Indian defense analysts also note that the remit of the new CDS includes creating several joint theater commands. At the present time the Indian armed forces have only two joint commands and 17 single service commands, seven each for the army and air force and three for the navy. General Rawat apparently has decided to begin with low-hanging fruit, creating joint commands for logistics and a joint air defense command that combines the resources of the army and the air force, and will leave the much thornier issue of creating joint regional commands for a later time. It will certainly be interesting to see how it all turns out.

You write “The Indian Army ignores its own counterinsurgency doctrine in Jammu and Kashmir, and the extrajudicial killing of militants is an unacknowledged feature of that doctrine.” Could you elaborate on this? How do you compare the Indian army’s record in this regard with that of the United States and its allies’ during the global war on terror and beyond?

Let me answer the second part of the question first. A common attitude at Wellington is that India has gotten counterinsurgency right and the United States has not. Part of the explanation is rooted in the high level of distrust toward the United States mentioned earlier and is based on an Indian variant of schadenfreude, the feeling of pleasure or self-satisfaction derived from witnessing the failure or humiliation of another, in this case toward anything unsuccessfully undertaken by the United States. But the question that really should be explored is why the Indian Army believes its internal security doctrine is superior when the historical evidence supports a contrary conclusion. Of the four internal counterinsurgency operations, only one might charitably be considered as successful – the Khalistan insurgency. The two longest-running insurgencies – in northeastern India and the Naxalite movement – are at best simmering but “under control.” The last – Kashmir – is still going strong after 30 years, and in the past four years has become reinvigorated.

The first part of the question is more complex and is dealt with at length in the book.  Briefly, the prime direction of India’s doctrine of sub-conventional operations is WHAM — winning the hearts and minds of the local population in the area of insurgency. The Indian Army has sometimes embraced this concept, but more often, and certainly since 2016, has ignored it. The abuses of the Kashmiri civilian population by the army and Rashtriya Rifles, including rape, torture, murder, and disappearances, have been widely reported for the past 20 years in the international media and by any number of credible organizations. Such techniques were defended staunchly by then army chief Rawat, who in 2017 stated, “This is a proxy war and proxy war is a dirty war. It is played in a dirty way… People are throwing stones at us, people are throwing petrol bombs at us… I have to maintain the morale of my troops who are operating there.”

This quotation fuels within the army a narrative that the situation in Jammu and Kashmir is not an insurgency where WHAM is central to winning, but a proxy war to be fought with no such consideration. This fosters the attitude among both military and police units that Pakistan, not poor governance, is the proximate cause of the situation, and that local Kashmiri militants are not disaffected or misguided citizens but traitors to their country who deserve harsh treatment. This lends an emotive potency to Kashmir that was and remains absent in every other counterinsurgency campaign undertaken by the Indian army.

What do you assess to be the greatest strength of the Indian army? Its biggest weakness?

Let me say in conclusion what may not be apparent to your readers in my answers to the previous questions put me — that I am a longtime observer and a longtime admirer of the Indian Army. I was privileged during my army career to visit India many times in an official capacity and to observe Indian Army units in the north, south, east, and west (and in the middle as well) of the country, and to have visited any number of PME schools as well. The human capital of the Indian Army is superb — well disciplined, well trained, and willing to accomplish any task given — as good as any army in the world.  Similarly, its officer corps is professional, dedicated to serving the nation, and the senior leadership is the equal of any army in the world.  The criticisms I have made in my book hopefully will be seen for what they are intended to be — as objective, constructive criticism that is intended to promote positive change in an institution that I greatly admire.