From what we know of it, the plan to reorganise the armed forces seems to have been designed with the defensive mindset that marked a newly decolonised nation only occasionally pushing back against Pakistani provocations.
It doesn’t seem to have been designed for an emergent and aspirant India that might wish to project its economic and political weight across the Indian Ocean, and possibly to central Asia, southeast Asia, or the Gulf region.
This is not good enough. We must think creatively, and fast. For, the future is upon us. The armed forces of an aspirant great power must make their presence felt even if they don’t go to war.
A country with a security set-up as large as India’s could treat the entire world as its arena, for space technologies and cyber resources, including 5G and artificial intelligence, are key tools of contemporary warfare and can reach across the planet.
Cyber tools can disrupt the computerised instruments of enemy aircraft, missiles, submarines, and other weapons platforms, hack settings of enemy infrastructure such as electricity grids, airports, or command and control networks, and/or spread propaganda virally.
Not just cyber and space assets, drones, biological weapons (including epidemics, even pandemics) and economic war are all instruments of contemporary warfare.
There has been talk in security circles of a cyber command, a space command, even a special forces command. One hopes these are on the anvil. But the theaterisation plan seems to be based on a territorial approach to war.
The plan, by chief of defence staff Bipin Rawat, has been discussed in newspapers over the past fortnight, and caused a bit of a public spat on TV between Rawat and chief of air staff RKS Bhadauria last Friday.
Rawat’s with the army’s engineers shocked many officers, retired and serving, for it indicated a blinkered infantry-centric approach. One sincerely hopes the technological dimensions of current and future wars too are in sharp focus when the plan to revamp the forces is finalised.
Air force and navy have a long reach
To be sure, armies are vital for invasions meant to conquer territory. But that is not India’s doctrine.
Armies are also crucial to block foreign invasions. And sure, air attacks can make it tougher for invading forces to advance. But they can play a bigger role than that. The air force could harass, pummel, and degrade the enemy’s supply lines, infrastructure, and/or command centres.
The air force could reach enemy cities more easily than the army. The navy too, for the most vital cities tend to be coastal. One way to demoralise a country invading India would be for submarines to target, say, Karachi or Shanghai, and for aircraft or missiles to strike the PLA’s extensive supply lines (transportation) from China’s heartland to the extreme west of Tibet and Xinjiang.
This could require sophisticated cyber and stealth technologies, possibly space-based assets. The air force should in any case be given relatively state-of-the-art missiles and drones, since it is the force best equipped to understand and manage things that fly.
Aircraft carriers, and naval and air bases abroad, should also get priority.
Tinkering is not enough
Unfortunately, what we know of the plan suggests a tinkering with the existing defence set-up rather than an imaginative vision for the future.
Strategic planners still don’t seem to see that, even just to avoid being overtaken by China’s expansionist plans, India must compete with China for economic, cultural, and strategic relations with other Asian countries, if not beyond Asia too. Because I see the Belt and Road Initiative as the sinews of a transcontinental empire.
Far from taking account of this, even the current tinkering is not always well-advised. For example the army’s current eastern command defends complicated borders with Tibet, Myanmar, and other countries, and defends several states with insurgencies. So it might perhaps have best remained separate from the central command, which abuts Nepal and the part of Tibet adjacent to Uttarakhand and Himachal.
As it stands, the plan is for the central and eastern commands of the army to be integrated into an eastern theatre command, with some component of the air force at its disposal. Ditto on the western front. But the northern command, which faces China and Pakistan, as well as insurgency in Kashmir, is being kept separate, and without an air wing.
This indicates a lack of conceptual clarity.
Against China, the current central command may need to coordinate with the northern command’s area of operations more than with the eastern command's.
Triad of convergent threats
The plan appears to treat threats from China and Pakistan as unconnected. It creates separate theatres for each, ignoring the growing jointmanship between those two countries.
The fact, however, is that Chinese troops are already in Pakistan-controlled parts of Jammu and Kashmir, and all three Pakistani forces have Chinese hardware, training, technology transfers, even licensed armaments production. Already, 22 years ago, General Musharraf chose to locate himself in Beijing during the Kargil clashes.
Several analyses have shown that the terms of China’s investments in China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects, and their “iron brothers” relationship could turn Pakistan into a subsidiary of China. Some even use the word “colony”.
I have argued for a decade that the two countries (and insurgency in Kashmir) constitute an interconnected triad of threats to India’s national security.
Combining the army’s forces facing Pakistan under one commander and those facing China under another commander might work for the army, but the air force would require more flexibility in case of a joint attack. After all, today’s fastest jets could traverse the length of India in an hour.
I hope the country’s venerable strategists approach their drawing boards with pens filled with innovation.