India has one of the world’s largest military forces and it is also among the largest military spenders in the world, both in terms of military expenditure and arms imports. Nevertheless, the Indian military faces huge challenges. This is partly the function of the variegated nature of these challenges, fighting in theatres as diverse as the Himalayas, the deserts of Rajasthan and the jungles in Chhattisgarh for the ground forces and equally diverse ones for the other two services. But India’s political and administrative systems are also to blame for a confused and confusing approach to every aspect of security policy, from nuclear weapons to counterinsurgency and defence research and production. These problems become even more acute when the current phase of military modernization is taken into account. The growth of the Indian military, a natural consequence of a larger economic pie (the proportion of wealth devoted to the military has remained low and steady), brings these issues into sharp focus. This volume, edited by Rajesh Basrur, Ajaya Kumar Das and Manjeet Pardesi, brings together both scholars and retired military leaders to present a comprehensive picture of the challenges that Indian military modernization faces. The story is one that is almost uniformly depressing.
One of the key problems is the civil-military disconnect that all former service officers pointed out at the end of each of their chapters. The problem itself is well known: unlike in the higher defence management structure of any other country, the chiefs of the military services are not integrated into the national security decision-making structure of the country except in times of crisis. The reason for this is an exaggerated fear of the military, which is repeatedly stoked by the Indian bureaucracy as a way of ensuring its own grip on decision-making. Admittedly, there is no perfect system of decision-making in any country but the Indian system is designed to be dysfunctional because there is no means for professional advice from the military to be directly sought or given, even on national security matters, to the political leadership. The most famous case is of course in the decision-making regarding nuclear weapons, where atomic scientists, the foreign service, economists and civilian bureaucrats all had say but the military was largely kept out. But it affects other areas too such as defence research and production. Indeed, one of the reasons why both Indian defence research as well as defence production today faces so many challenges is because the services were not well integrated into decision-making on these issues. Weapons were developed, such as the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), more at the behest of the scientific bureaucracy rather than for any requirements set out by the military service for whom the weapons were developed or even in consultation with them. Defence production was judged on the basis of output rather than quality or cost, which left the services with substandard equipment at exorbitant cost.
On the other hand, these problems are well known and even accepted today, with several books having recounted these horrors. It might have been useful for some authors, especially the ones from the services, to provide a slightly more detailed picture of these inadequacies. This could have been attempted through some case studies, even small ones. We know that there have been significant problems with almost every major research R&D effort of the last thirty years: the LCA, the Arjun Main Battle Tank (MBT), the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP), the INSAS rifle system, the Arihant/Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) and many others—the list is unfortunately very long—but there are only dribs and drabs of journalistic heresay about every one of these cases. We have yet to have any detailed account of the decision-making and programme histories of these cases.
Richard A. Bitzinger’s chapter on India’s defence industry outlines this situation in great detail, pointing out that though India had wanted to move from self-reliance (building weapons in India under licence from foreign manufacturers) to self-sufficiency (building weapons indigenously, without foreign help), this has not happened despite the passage of decades and the wastage of billions of dollars. Even where India co-produced weapons, it is not clear that India has benefited much or contributed much. For example, Bitzinger points out that on the much-touted Brahmos missile, a joint collaboration with Russia, ‘India’s contribution …, other than money, is hard to identify.’ In essence, even in such projects, Indian defence science and technology has had minimal contribution and such collaborations have not helped India develop its defence R&D or production base either. This suggests that future cooperation, such as on the Russian fifth generation fighter, will also likely be limited mostly to money, and it will not help in developing Indian defence science capacities.
Gurmeet Kanwal, one of India’s leading authorities on military and nuclear issues, argues convincingly that India needs roughly about 200 nuclear warheads of fairly small yields given India’s stated nuclear doctrine. One can quibble about the numbers, of course, though I find it reasonable, but the real question is if the Indian Government has done such calculations about the numbers of nuclear warheads it needs. This matters because in its absence, nuclear weapons development will continue on auto-pilot without any political direction or rationale. This has other consequences too: the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) negotiations are currently deadlocked, but if they should resume, India needs to have a clear idea of how much weapons-grade fissile material is necessary in order to define its own position. But this will be difficult unless India decides how many weapons it needs. I doubt if an exercise along the lines that Kanwal has done here has been attempted within the government. May be they can start by reading Kanwal’s essay.
Ron Mathews and Alma Lozano have an excellent chapter on the problem of offsets in India’s foreign defence acquisitions. Offsets are yet another method that India has used to improve its defence industries, by requiring foreign arms suppliers to also procure products and services from Indian defence manufacturers. Offsets are used by many countries around the world, especially those heavily dependent on imported weapons, as a way of compensating for buying foreign equipment by requiring that the foreign vendor also buys some local products. As the authors point out, such strategies have had varying levels of success, and the Indian policy as so far not had much success in doing much for India’s defence industrial base. On the other hand, harsh, politically driven requirements of such policies have led some foreign firms to withdraw from the Indian market, thus reducing India’s defence acquisition choices, surely not the intended effect of such policies. How the current regime’s ‘make in India’ imperative will impact on this policy is yet to be seen, but change is surely needed.
The next few chapters sit somewhat uneasily in this collection because they deal with less central issues. Bibhu Prasad Routray provides an excellent overview of some of the problems facing India’s Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs), focusing largely but not exclusively on the Central Police Reserve Force (CRPF). These CAPFs have grown hugely over the last decade but this growth has not been accompanied by any greater competence, much less efficiency. It is really a sad tale, with poorly trained troops being deployed on dangerous duties with little supervision, leading them to either commit atrocities, such as shooting at stone-pelters in Kashmir, or fall to insurgent bullets by the dozen, as has happened repeatedly in rural India against Maoists. He provides some useful recommendations but getting anyone in the Indian system to listen might be a bit of a problem.
Another chapter by Anit Mukherjee traces the inadequacies of civil-military interaction, interweaving the Indian case with theories of civil-military relations, showing yet again the uniqueness—and not in a good way—of the Indian case. The last two substantive chapters deal with India’s evolving military relationship with the old partner, Russia, and the new love, the United States. These are useful chapters that point to the difficulties in both relationships, some because of these partners but many because of New Delhi’s peculiarities. Pardesi points to all the reasons why India and the US should develop closer military ties, including strategic convergence, but India’s strategic culture creates repeated hurdles for such a relationship. Whatever the current feel good sentiment in the relationship, it remains to be seen if the promise will finally be fulfilled. Das’s chapter on the military relationship with Russia points to the enduring nature of this relationship, despite the fact that both Israel and the US have made deep inroads. The volume is rounded off by a concluding chapter from Prakash Menon, one of the more cerebral officers to come out of the Indian military establishment. Overall this is a competent volume about the depressing tale of Indian defence planning that does not hold out much hope for the future.
Rajesh Rajagopalan is Professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.