Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis:
A Monthly Journal of the IDSA

February 1999 (Vol. XXII No. 11)

India’s Conventional Defence: Problems and Prospects
By Kapil Kak *


December 16, 1971, was a triumphant day in India’s contemporary history. A victory over Pakistan, following the 16-day war, validated the objective rationale for the force development strategy that we pursued in the wake of our disastrous military defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962, and the near stalemate with Pakistan in 1965. As in the past, there was no weak-kneed approach to macro military power. Reflecting the maturity of India’s lately-acquired strategic culture, tri-service combat forces were employed decisively to attain India’s national security objectives after a six-month-long mobilisation of manpower and stores.

Dissuasion and deterrence have constituted key components of our defence strategy for over two decades, even as they extracted a heavy economic cost for a developing country such as ours. But in security terms, the benefits have also been proportionate: conventional war has been cast away from the region, despite episodic “hiccups” with China, and a near decade-long Pakistan-engineered proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir.

Seen from another perspective, defence and strategic analysts, watching India’s defence expenditure reduce meaningfully in real terms since 1987–88, are inclined to take another view. They aver that the region’s peculiar form of “ugly stability” derives substantially from the inability of both India and Pakistan to attain political objectives through the instrumentality of conventional war. 1 In a sense, this diagnosis would equally apply to the India–China conditions as well.

Overt nuclearisation of India and Pakistan in May 1998, through their tests at Pokhran and Chagai Hills has added a nuclear dimension to mutual deterrence in the region. In the process, India’s long-term nuclear security concerns in relation to China may also have begun to be addressed. This development may actually presage greater regional stability, notwithstanding Pakistan’s pursuance of sub-conventional violence as a route to competitive security vis-à-vis a militarily stronger India. Our exemplary strategic restraint, befitting a threshold great power, has augured well for regional peace. Western fears on the subcontinent being a geo-political flashpoint, articulated with regular frequency, would appear to be part of the spin on their non-proliferation agenda. While economics constitutes the “core” of national strength, criticality of force as an ingredient of national power has not attenuated in any significant way.

Internally, India is in the midst of a churning of rising economic expectations. Competing demands for the national cake, notably from the social sector, expectedly tend to get deflected towards pressures to reduce defence expenditures. Prima facie, such calls may even appear rational and justifiable. But a more detailed threat-challenge analysis would reinforce the unalterable nature of the military component of security, although its importance may have diminished somewhat. Demands for defence cuts, thus need to be weighed very carefully.

The regional security environment of Southern Asia, having critical relevance to India, projects a range of existential challenges and threats of economic, politico-diplomatic and military dimensions. This paper seeks to explore the logic and prospect of our current conventional defence capabilities sub-serving national security objectives. Mega-trends that compel a more effective balancing of tasks and resources and their impact on capabilities are sought to be analysed in broad terms. Scenarios that affect the objectives of our conventional defences are sought to be evolved indicatively. There appears little doubt that right-sized conventional forces at the cutting edge—appropriately combat trained, equipped and manned—would constitute a national security imperative for decades. Management of national security, higher direction of defence and issues of nuclear policy would not be addressed in this paper.


Emerging Security Scenario

It has often been said that the 21st century will be Asia-centric as its potential for growth and the nature of strategic challenges that may accompany it are both immense. Nearly a decade since the collapse of the Cold War era bipolar world system, the security environment in Asia—a region in which India has great strategic stakes—has altered significantly. A wide-ranging and comprehensive National Defence Review by the newly-established National Security Council (NSC) could provide a realistic security matrix within which defence policies and the structures emanating from these could be configured. The more critical factors that directly impact the present and future security environment in this region are the American strategic and economic interests, emergence of China as a major military and economic power, Russian search for new strategic alliances in the area, increasing economic importance of the Asian countries and the void created in the resource rich Central Asian region by the break up of the former Soviet Union. 2 It is only a clear understanding of these mega-trends and a strategic vision for India in the evolving configuration that can place the salience of our conventional military power in its true perspective.

The dominant narrative of uncertainties and fluidities in the international security landscape, that is still in transition, makes the evaluation of threats and correlation of sources of challenge a difficult proposition. Interestingly, the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is sought to be directed not against a military threat but to cater for “uncertainty”! In the same breath, India is counselled at the highest levels of the US government that it faces no challenge from China! In the near and medium term, this assessment may have some relevance. But the scars of the humiliating defeat India suffered at the hands of the Chinese are deeply embedded in the psyche of the average Indian. It is difficult to believe that in the long term, the world’s two longest surviving civilisations would have a trouble-free relationship when the territorial dispute between the two countries has remained unresolved for half a century! Our defence structures should thus be based on the implications of China’s growing military capabilities rather than its articulated intentions.

The primacy of the economic factor played a major part in the dissolution of the Soviet Empire. Today economic strength is a crucial determinant of national security. Some years back, of all the institutions, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff reportedly commissioned the National Defence University to undertake a study to see how American per capita incomes could be improved upon in the decades ahead! It is clear that the developed world would strive to retain its dominant position at a time when new actors are emerging on the horizon. Non-proliferation regimes, denial of high-end technologies, the so-called human rights enforcement, and subtle means to impede the progress of growing economies are some manifestations of this trend. In such a scenario, the politico-military dimensions of security tend to be highly complex, multi-dimensional and transnational in form and impact. Retooling of defence structures suited to the new realities thus becomes a difficult proposition.


Strategic Doctrine

Close inter-dependence between the economic power of a nation and its military prowess has far greater relevance today than before. The break-up of the former Soviet Union serves as a classic example of the dangers inherent in a mismatch between the two. India’s vital national interests and objectives of territorial integrity, internal cohesiveness, safeguarding of the democratic system and equitable socio-economic growth of its massive population would largely shape the contours of its national strategic doctrine. Economic prosperity is a crucial determinant not only for national security but its military component as well. This is because faster economic growth would also generate larger capital for developing military capabilities. The necessity to have ever expanding areas of peace around the country is an essential pre-requisite to unhindered growth and development. As Air Commodore Jasjit Singh suggests, “In essence, there is a fundamental need to move from the classic paradigm of competitive security towards a cooperative inter-state model...Necessary precautions would, obviously, have to remain in place to cater for a potential adversary pursuing its own objectives and strategies.” 3 War prevention, thus, constitutes the core element of the strategic doctrine. Here the need for a national security doctrine, flowing from a strategic defence review, and the formulation of a defence policy as also clear-cut directives to the armed forces cannot be over-emphasised. This has been a chronic systemic weakness in India. Perhaps the newly established NSC has these tasks cut out for it.

Instrumentalities and mechanisms in the form of security and confidence-building measures to achieve peace in the region assume increasing importance and must be pursued relentlessly. However, until these initiatives achieve a measure of success, and mutual balanced conventional force reductions through negotiated treaties are a reality, deterrence would be a lynchpin of the strategy of war prevention. The implications of deterrence are to physically possess the requisite military capability (not capacity) and have the will to employ the same when needed. The adversary should be in the know on both counts. In sum, the strategic doctrine would need to be configured to (a) defence of India through adoption of appropriate military strategies; (b) prevention of war, and if that fails, prosecute it to obtain maximum benefits to national objectives fastest and at least cost; and finally (c) strategic defensive posture. The requirement would be to have a set of flexible policy options that offer alternative choices for a range of contingencies and are simultaneously proactive and cost-effective. Harmonised policy support in political, military and techno-economic terms would provide foundational strength which could eventually assist in jettisoning the reactive and add-on strategies that have characterised India’s strategic doctrine for decades.


Nature of Conventional War

The Clausewitzian concept of war “as an instrument of national policy”, for long germane to conventional defences, would appear to have distinctly eroded. Even the idea of territorial integrity has changed dramatically from that of the 19th century, when victims of war served as a human resource for further campaigns by the victor. Today, occupation, subjugation and fractionisation of an adversary through conventional war and ground operations are considered unthinkable. This finds increasing relevance in the subcontinental context as well. Earlier, war was limited in scope and time and space by choice; but now the nuclear and missile factors have assumed domineering influence. It could be that Sun Tzu’s implicit foreboding in the apt emphasis on the significance of war has now been vindicated. “War”, he said, “is a great affair of State. The realm of life and death. The road to safety or ruin. A thing to be studied with extreme diligence.” 4 Can conventional war as a concept then be buried for ever?

There is a belief that the utility of war and force has diminished and, with development of inter-dependencies, could diminish even further. “This belief is based on the idea that in modern industrialised society, there is no social acceptability for force, and that low acceptability reduces utility by increasing its political costs.” 5 It would appear that logically and rationally, regular inter-state war is no longer an option. Such a view, it needs to be recalled, prevailed in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, only to be turned on its head by the occurrence of two devastating World Wars. Thus, while the importance of conventional war may stand considerably diminished, “dependence on the strategy of military superiority continues to prevail as the guiding principle of States in matters of national security.” 6

There is an escalating inclination towards refinement of military power at a time when the war paradigm itself is undergoing a mutation. Risks of inter-state conflicts and technological changes appear to point towards greater use of the military as a sharpened instrument for political purposes without an armed contest. Perhaps nuclear and conventional forces could serve as coercive instruments even in the Southern Asian context. Another discernible trend is the enhanced role for combat power having long range strike proficiencies and all-weather day and night wherewithal to take out targets on the ground. Strikes at longer ranges, selectively and with discrimination could soon be a routine. It has been proven historically that as weapons acquired longer ranges and higher accuracies, temptation towards pre-emption also increased accordingly. Thus, in the overall matrix of India’s conventional military power, the balance requires to shift increasingly towards the Air Force and the Navy.


India’s Military Strategy

As Arun Singh avers in a 1997 study, 7 India’s military strategy of conventional defence would encompass a strong and viable defensive posture of dissuasion and a potent and credible counter-offensive capability of deterrence. Dissuasion implies powerful defences (which extract a high price before the aggressor achieves the almost inevitable penetration) as also mobile reserves that blunt and limit such intrusion without unacceptable loss of territory. Undoubtedly, some losses may have to be accepted. On the other hand, deterrence is predicated to strong and credible counter-offensive capabilities that inflict unacceptable losses on the aggressor at a place of the defender’s choice. The mere threat of a counter-offensive would deter the aggressor from embarking on changing the status quo. Such a strategy, with varying force mixes, is expected to shape force structures and weapon mixes as well. It applies both with regard to China and Pakistan, although the altitude-terrain compulsions imposed by the Himalayas place severe restrictions on major counter-offensives by both sides.

Conventional war, should it take place, would be constrained in time and space, scope and political objectives. The conflict would be characterised by high-intensity, fast tempo, manoeuvre-oriented operations and the duration is unlikely to exceed 5–7 days and, if it does, the side with a higher sustainability and recuperability would have a clear advantage. Success in the 21st century conventional war would lie in possessing strategic capabilities, higher technological levels, missiles, satellites, modern inter-service-patched command, control, communications, computers, intelligence and interoperability (C4I2) systems. For greater combat effectiveness potential, state-of-the-art reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition (RSTA) capabilities and domination offered by technology-intensive force multipliers are considered mandatory needs. Needless to emphasise, rate of induction of such systems would follow an incremental pattern and be a function of resource availability, more vigorous time-quality credibility of indigenous R&D throughput and a balanced prioritisation of force-weapon mix on an inter-service basis. Responsibilities and tasks would need to be clearly delineated in futuristic time-frames so that turf battles on operational functions are eliminated altogether.


Threat Perspectives and Challenges

As for any nation, geography is India’s destiny, with history constituting another security dimension. China would remain India’s primary long-term strategic challenge, with Pakistan serving as a short/medium threat of far lower magnitude. Threat perspectives that tend to govern India’s conventional defences are the security policies China and Pakistan pursue both individually as also collusively. Futuristic maritime developments in the Indian Ocean, which would leverage India’s economic and energy security, need to be taken into account. Also, commensurate with India’s responsibilities as a large nation in Asia, a certain minimal military capability would need to be sustained. As a Rand Corporation study has brought out, “For India survival means survival as a great power, and security has become synonymous with the safety that enables India to develop, maintain and prosper in its political eminence.” 8


Greatly enhanced tri-service combat operations and improved targetability and accuracy of nuclear weapons, medium and long range missile are being sought. Relative balance of force-technology-weapon mix from the standpoint of our deterring China would be of utmost relevance in planning force structures.


To strengthen a tenuous national identity and strive for equivalence, a confrontationist posture against India would prevail for at least a decade or two. Abandoning the Shimla Agreement, internationalising the Kashmir issue and endeavours to destabilise India by aiding and abetting terrorism would be the policy mix it will pursue. However, in strictly conventional terms, Pakistan poses a very limited threat.

Maritime Challenge

Internal Security


Resource Support Trend : GDP and CGE Proportion

Conventional defence structures are a function of envisaged tasks and the related capabilities that need to be built. Resource allocation forms the third element of this foundation. Significantly enough, in the history of independent India, the period since 1971 has been the longest one when war has not occurred. It could be argued that perhaps the sufficiency of our military capabilities may have deterred war. Perhaps the high levels of military capabilities-in-being were possible through acquisition of weapon systems from the Soviet Union at relatively lower costs in Indian rupees generated out of trade surpluses. Resources for defence had been forthcoming at fairly steady levels to hit an all time high of 3.59 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1987–88 (see Fig. 1). But it has been a downslide ever since. Allocations have fallen sharply to average 2.54 percent of the GDP during the period 1990–91 to 1997–98 (see Fig. 2). As a proportion of Central Government Expenditure (CGE) as well, defence allocation has dropped from 22.73 per cent in 1971–72 to 13.58 percent in 1997–98.

Figures 1 and 2 are not available.

Analysts ascribe the current predicament to the view that the “threat situation is not immediately oppressive and developmental schemes and social welfare needs are impossible to ignore. These facts together with the growing perceptions that in the post-Cold War world internal turmoil is the foremost danger to national security and because war on a sustained basis has become obsolete, that a strong military is more a hedge against domestic disorder, have probably induced a belief in the government that current underfunding of the defence effort will not have catastrophic consequences.” 11 On the other hand, reports in the media have for long alluded to the resource-driven run-down in India’s cutting-edge capability, raising fears of a conventional deterrence breakdown. A comprehensive evaluation of resources required for defence during the next 15 years appears a mandatory need. This resource plan should expectedly form part of the Strategic Defence Review when the same is undertaken by the NSC. Such a review needs to be undertaken once every five years.

In terms of current rupees, defence expenditure over the years has been marked by a distinct upward trend. It went up from Rs. 11,967.4 crore in 1987–88 to Rs.35,620.00 crore in 1997–98, notching an impressive average decadal growth rate of 11.68 percent. But the inflation-induced reductive factors change the growth rate picture considerably. At constant 1981–82 prices, 12 the average growth rate was an abysmal 2.72 percent. (See Fig. 2 for the differential trend.) Had the higher inflation for defence equipment, generally 10–15 percent more than normal inflation, been factored in, the capability that this expenditure bought would stand further attenuated. Thus, while the current rupee index may be essential for purposes of actual allocations, spending and budgetary control process, it cannot be accepted as one that provides an indication of the real capability that is sought to be acquired.


Current and Constant Prices Linkage

An objective index of enhancing defence capabilities through resource mobilisation is the allocation made for the crucial non-manpower-related capital account in constant rupees. Weapon systems and equipment acquisitions, combat stores, spares, ordnance, fuel, etc form part of such expenditure. As seen from Fig. 3, the expenditure during the decade 1987–88 to 1997–98 in current rupees increased from Rs.3,107.6 crore to Rs.8,907.0 crore, representing a decadal average growth of 11.36 percent. But at constant 1981–82 prices, the expenditure increased from Rs.2,156.3 crore to Rs.2,658.8 crore showing a decadal average growth rate of 2.41 percent only. The situation has been further compounded by the unfavourable market-driven devaluation of the rupee.


Impact on Modernisation

Acquisition of capital stocks ex-India, sensitive as these are to exchange rate variations, can be severely constrained. For example, in 1997–98 the value of the dollar to the rupee was Rs.37.16 as against Rs.12.96 in 1987–88. This represents a purchasing power reduction to less than 35 percent of its earlier value. Trend analysis of capital expenditure (constant 1981–82 rupees) indicates an average growth of 4.37 percent over the thirty-year period 1967–68 to 1997–98. But disturbingly, the last decade (1987–88 to 1997–98) has dealt a severe blow to the defence modernisation process with growth averaging 2.41 percent.

The dimunition in outlays over the last decade, in real terms, would have been even more substantial for equipment acquisitions, stores and spares as these are sensitive to higher defence inflation and exchange rate variations. Lowered levels of modernisation, training-status, operational logistics and maintenance are the obvious consequence. Defence projects on this count even today remain paper exercises. As articulated in the media, “The Army’s modernisation budget for the next six years has been slashed from Rs.25,000 crore, recommended by the Ministry of Defence to Rs.9,546.46 crore. After contractual obligations are met, only Rs.1,454.62 crore will be available.” 13 The Air Force may have been luckier with a reported 25 per cent cutback on capital expenditure for the year 1998–99.

A holistic evaluation of the modernisation needs of defence is a systemic imperative, in which an assured commitment of resources over a long term facilitates force development planning, more so on a tri-service basis. Future defence planning of this type with a committed resource support imparts a “capability” orientation to the defence structures that are sought to be created. It may be time to move away from the threat based options. Resource planning should follow 15-year time-scales: sacrosanct allocations for the first five years, less firm commitment over the next five and only indicative projections addressing the last five years. Such a system would assist the Ministry of Defence and Service Headquarters to undertake a more realistic perspective planning after inter se priorities for force-weapon mixes have been pre-designated. Whatever the option chosen, the imperative for higher allocations on capital account to rectify the imbalances in defence modernisation does not brook any delay.


Increased Defence Expenditure and Developmental Dimensions

Force modernisation in the past has followed spurts and cycles, inhibiting even spacing out of new system acquisitions. Manpower costs are rising at over 13 per cent with defence growth rates in current rupees being lower than this. For the Army particularly, imbalances in the man-machine mix persist. Restructuring options are also limited. There appears no alternative to a significant increase of defence expenditures as unaltered trends in threat environment and the need to sustain a minimum capability as an insurance would not permit radical downsizing of the force. Stepping up of budgetary allocation, in principle, to at least 3.5 per cent of the GDP and sustaining it at that level for a 15-year time horizon may be the only answer to India’s long-term defence policy planning. Such a provision may also permit induction of affordable high technology weapon systems that would characterise the battlefield environment of the 21st century. Reductions in manpower may have to be made simultaneously. It is worth noting that for 25 years after the disastrous war with China in 1962, India sustained defence expenditure at 3.1 per cent of GDP on an average without any adverse impact on economic growth rates. Yet fears on this issue persist.

A number of studies concerning the impact of military spending on economic growth have been unable to arrive at any objective and credible conclusions, but the trends are not discouraging and need to be addressed briefly. In a study on 103 countries, Alex Mintz and Randolph Stevenson opined that military expenditures had a significant positive effect on growth in only 10 per cent of cases. 14 Presence and direction of causability between defence and development made Newman Kwadwokusi conclude that the relationship cannot be generalised. It may depend among other things on the sample period of study and the level of socio-economic development of the country concerned. 15 A recent work of Jordon Cohen in Israel shows that a short-term focus fails to reveal any economic benefits accruing from cuts in defence spending, the main features being indirect, long-term and nuanced. 16 The South Korean experience presented in a research project by Oyvind Osterind shows that military expenditures have no significant direct effects on economic growth. 17

In an analysis of India’s economic data, Emile Benoi 18 inferred that defence burdens of developing countries tend to either correlate positively with their growth rates or at least do not have an unfavourable net effect on economic growth and development. A recent study by Robert Looney and David Winterford on the economic consequences of defence spending in seven countries of West Asia and South Asia revealed that during the period 1960–87, India experienced substantial periods of positive net economic benefits from defence expenditures. 19 It could thus be said that levels of expenditure at 3.5 per cent of GDP, considered a national security imperative, would be easily affordable for a 15-year period without impacting growth adversely. The intersect between defence expenditure and negative growth for a developing country is reported to occur when defence allocation as a proportion of GDP is maintained at 6.5 percent for long periods. For sustaining purely conventional capability, Parliament’s Standing Committee of Defence had recommended increasing the defence budget to 4 percent of GDP. The French policy in the post-Cold War period reportedly offers a valuable example. It has fixed the defence budget ceiling at 3 percent of GDP for a future conflict scenario of low intensity war. Many defence experts and analysts, including a distinguished former Foreign Secretary, strongly advocate a 4 percent route for India. We could fix the ceiling at 3.5 percent, a level of allocation that would not only assist in expediting the long-stalled modernisation process but help bridge the technological gap between India and China. Minor variations here are of less consequence than the important need to have an assured commitment of resources right until 2015. It is here that the budgetary process assumes its own salience.


Budgetary Process

A few considerations relating to the budgetary process need to be highlighted briefly as the existing system has many drawbacks. The current line item budgetting indicates only the “input” expenditure under broad heads and sub-heads. There is no way of ascertaining the capability the expenditure is creating or the output that is available in performance terms. Optimally, the budgetary process should provide some idea of the total money cost to achieve defined objectives. Indicative costs of sustaining various components of a force (say an infantry division or a destroyer or fighter squadron) would in turn help compare alternative choices to achieve the desired goals. Holistic assessments in overall preparedness levels, inter-se prioritisation of force-weapon mixes and allocation of resources between alternative options would then be objective and cost-effective. Until the budgetary system and process is recast, changes that could be made are as follows:


Broad Possibilities—Force Restructuring

Regional Balance

It would be useful to recount the major defence modernisation of India, China and Pakistan and build-up of new forces that began in the mid-1980s. “The South Asian build-up included acquisition of more capable longer range arms by both sides, increased mechanisation of the infantry and expansion of indigenous arms production and maintenance capabilities.” 21 But India and Pakistan were unable to sustain the modernisation process into the 1990s: the average growth of defence expenditure for India in the 1980s at 1981–82 constant prices was 8.07 percent but the same nosedived to 2.82 percent in the 1990s (1990–91 to 1997–98). In contrast, the Chinese defence budget grew by 159 percent in 1986–94 and along with downsizing of manpower, it improved war-fighting capabilities through improved “coordination between the services, rapid response, electronic warfare, logistics support and battlefield survivability.” 22 After the Gulf War of 1991, “conventional war under high technology conditions” and information war have become high thrust areas. Impressive capabilities are sought to be developed in long range air power, blue water naval forces, airborne early warning, carrier-borne operations and force multipliers like airborne early warning and aerial refuelling systems. This should provide an idea of the force structure philosophy of India’s primary strategic challenge.

In evaluating the balance of conventional military strength of India and Pakistan, Arun Singh in his 1997 study concluded that “India’s traditional quantitative superiority in deployable divisional equivalents is gradually reversing....(it) has acquired a distinct edge in ground attack capabilties. Pakistan seems to be concentrating on air defence aircraft, presumably to counteract these changes. The emphasis on (India’s) ‘brown water assets’ seems to have increased at the cost of ‘blue water’ capabilities.” 23 In a scathing criticism of our conventional defences, a reputed defence commentator has said, “The policy of the last many years of husbanding maintenance spares and of conserving war wastage reserves and war stocks has so hurt the training aspects of the three services and degraded the country’s order of battle that the Indian military, it is alleged, is already a hollow ‘paper force’.” 24


The question often asked is whether India can afford a 35-division Army, an 800-combat aircraft Air Force and a 75-ship Navy? Perhaps the time may be right to restart the quality-quantity debate, given the extant threat environment and the imperatives of reduced funding in real terms. The answer obviously lies in streamlining combat organisations, reducing manpower and inter-blending higher technological levels. Yet, force multipliers, while providing greater combat effectiveness per unit of financial investment, cannot be a substitute for force. Adequate military capability requires to be sustained to counter clearly-quantifiable and quality-assessable military challenges of China and Pakistan even if the evaluation is “bean-count” based. India is perhaps the only country that has a line of control/line of actual control in lieu of a settled border with each of its principal neighbours. The compulsion to hold defensive positions physically along an arduous terrain poses an immense challenge to our Army. Its near 15-year-long counter-insurgency commitment in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir (not accounting for the north-east) constitutes yet another crucial dimension to limiting the choices for rightsizing.

Greater successes in shaping the strategic environment and resolving the border issues could reduce the pressure to sustain higher military capabilities. Even as our initiatives to evolve a more cooperative security paradigm with Pakistan have regretfully not evoked appropriate responses, these must continue unabated. As a threshold great power, India carries far greater responsibilities for international peace and security.

Perhaps more importantly, the “mutual and equal security agreement” of 1993 with China must be nurtured to provide a means to reduce tensions along the line of actual control. Taken to its logical conclusion of an eventual mutual agreement for force reduction, such a development could well lead to reduction of up to 4–5 mountain divisions. This idea has been mooted by a number of defence commentators over the years and could be pursued as a cost effective restructuring option after the modalities have been worked out by experts. About 1,00,000 personnel and roughly Rs.1,200 crore annually could be saved, although it may take about 4–5 years to complete the winding-down process.

For the next 10–15 years, China may not have the wherewithal in relation to its aims and objectives for conventional operations to adopt a highly aggressive posture. A large standing force may perhaps be an affordable luxury to cater for such a low probability land threat. After eleven mountain divisions stood sanctioned, no more than four were reportedly deployed, with the rest stationed in the plains. A strong air-land defensive posture and reserves—recceed and rehearsed—could constitute “adequate sufficiency” with regard to China. In substance, long range air power is perceived as a dominant component of this dissuasive strategy. Air forces would have to be trained to sustain extremely high preparedness levels, serviceability states, recuperabilities and sortie generation rates. There seems little prospect of reducing the numbers of Air Force assets with 200–300 Su27s of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force staring in India’s face and force multipliers under induction or in the pipeline. The quality of supporting infrastructure would also need to be radically modernised—in fact, our forward airfields in Ladakh (J&K), Arunachal Pradesh and Assam need to be upgraded for regular operations by multi-role fighter ircraft. Linkage of these measures to the confidence-building measures (CBMs) currently in place with China would have to be handled through appropriate diplomatic initiatives.

With regard to the Indian Ocean, our strategy for dealing with the Chinese in the 21st century would have to be premised on naval sufficiency, the objective being to counter sea-borne threats to our island territories and to subcontinental India. Eventually, we should have the wherewithal in the north Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal that would raise the potential risk to a “Desert Storm” like concentration of hostile forces in the region preliminary to a strike against India. The objective should be to have a capability that raises the cost to unacceptable limits of any attempt at securing ports or amphibious lodgements on the mainland or our island territories. It is with great perspicacity that Admiral W.E. Parry once said, “India’s geographical position should enable her naval and air forces to dominate the Indian Ocean.” India’s acquisition of the Su30 MK does appear to provide a modicum of shore-based oceanic reach that would be relevant in the context of the Chinese challenge.

In relation to Pakistan, conventional wisdom has it that without a distinct “thaw” in bilateral relations and more comprehensive CBMs, a substantive downsizing of forces at this juncture can be ruled out. Yet, having too large a superiority in numbers may also not be necessary. As General Sundarji avers, “If India were foolish enough to create a large conventional edge, it would be unusable for undoing Pakistan, or even for inflicting a decisive conventional defeat as in 1971 due to the near certainty that Pakistan would use her nuclear weapons in extremes in a Samsonian gesture.” 25

A number of analysts appear to believe that some degree of downsizing, particularly in mechanised forces, could be undertaken, more so when Pakistan is also under heavy budgetary squeeze. Such initiatives may also serve to enhance levels of confidence and promote peace and security. As mentioned earlier, the character of conventional war virtually rules out deep operations. “Force to space” ratios, rates of advance and problems of logistics have greater relevance today than before. The question of mutual reduction of mechanised forces and attack helicopters could be pursued in bilateral negotiations with Pakistan, even if the process of operationalisation takes a decade.

Doctrinal reorganisation of the mechanised forces, especially in the context of the “n factor” could also be considered. Multifold mechanised advances along a broad frontage, with comparatively smaller but more compact combat groups may yield rich operational dividends and possibly offer overall savings in both capital stocks and manpower. Reorganisation of reserves/inventories, particularly of mechanised forces, may also generate considerable savings notably when deep operations are precluded and the duration of the conventional slinging match is unlikely to exceed 5–7 days. Such a reorganisation in the long supporting chain may also provide substantial savings. The key issue would be to carefully examine the hardware-mobility-manpower equation, primarily in the plains, so that reductions can be effected without compromise of the combat potential. Despite varying operational philosophies, such a requirement may apply equally to the Air Force and the Navy. For example, transfer to trade or commercialisation of infrastructural support services, already in the process of rationalisation, must be selectively widened in scope.

Manpower Rationalisation

The Military Balance (1998–99) assesses the strength of India’s active armed forces as 1,175,000 (Army: 9,80,000; Air Force: 1,40,000; Navy: 55,000). Significantly enough, active para-military strength is put marginally lower at 1,090,000 reflecting a near balance in India’s systemic response to the external and internal stimulii of the security and defence challenges. For India’s manpower-intensive Army, any meaningful personnel-downsizing would be predicated to the need to hold defensive positions along porous and unsettled borders and commitments in the near 15-year-long low intensily conflict (LIC) regime. At the same time, the desirability of having smaller, mobile, technologically oriented land forces for operations in the plains is beyond question, more so because the bulk of the resources for modernisation may have to come from depletion in manpower. This is specifically germane when 88 percent of its budget is spent on manpower and manpower related costs (pay and allowances, stores, supplies and moves, etc.) leaving merely 4 percent for effective modernisation out of the remaining allocation on capital account. Manpower costs have also grown in the past decade at 13.4 percent annually.

Within the existing conflicting imperatives, the broad approaches to manpower rationalisation are annotated below:

Technology Environment

Historically, the character of war, like all other forms of complex human behaviour always mutated slowly. But the sheer velocity of technological transformation, as part of the so-called revolution in military affairs, has compressed change cycles dramatically. We need to look at the emerging technologies essentially from the standpoint of doctrine, speed of adaptability, prospect of indigenisation and most important, affordability. 26 For India, the ratio of high technology assets to ordinary delivery platforms would remain low for years. As exemplified by China’s rapid strides in defence technological transformation, we also need to grapple with this new challenge. Here, specifically, stretching the operational life cycle of our existing weapon systems through mid- life upgrades could provide incremental modernisation at far lower and affordable costs. But in the long term, the suggested “3.5 percent GDP” approach alone can provide the means to create technological capabilities for a credible defence posture. The technological gap between China and India must not be allowed to widen.

In emerging warspaces, enhanced digital situational awareness and compressed detection-to-engagement and sensor-to-shooter time scales provide opportunities to employ joint combat power against precisely focussed elements of the adversary’s critical vulnerabilities. The action necessary to begin a change in force structures lies in the realm of joint service planning and national funding for acquisition or indigenous development of selected technologies. Broadly, these include dedicated military satellites for surveillance and communications, reconnaissance and target acquisition systems, command and control, intelligence gathering and decision support systems, airborne early warning platforms, information warfare, digitalised mapping, etc. In possible crisis scenarios, early detection of missile launch site preparations, ground force deployments and concentrations, C3 locations, air defence states and maritime intrusions will be obvious subjects of interest. Development of tri-service technological doctrines, specific to our own environment would help evolve technology development plans with committed resource allocations and completion time scales. As eventual end users of service specific systems under development, each Service Headquarters must exercise budgetary control over its programmes in the charge of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). This would smoothen weapon system induction into service and enhance the much-needed accountability of the DRDO.

Defence R&D

As rapidly advancing defence technology and self-reliance go hand in hand, our DRDO would need to grapple with a variety of new challenges. Higher levels of self-reliance in critical sectors can only be sustained through creation of advanced design and development capacities for weapon systems. India possessed good aircraft design and manufacture skills during the mid-Fifties to the early Sixties (HT2, Kiran, HF24 Marut) but the “art” remained unutilised after operational exigencies compelled direct buys and licensed manufacture. The complacency of the licence-production regime should now transform into effective capabilities for design, development and production. Joint ventures could initially be undertaken with selected foreign manufacturers, leading eventually to substantial self-reliance. China’s success in reportedly inducting thousands of unemployed Russian engineers and technicians for assistance in its defence technology development programmes is a case in point we could have gainfully emulated.

Funding is a major constraint in providing greater impetus to R&D activities. As a proportion of defence expenditure, allocations first showed an upward trend in 1980 when these progressively increased from 2 percent to 4.6 percent in 1987. There was a marginal downslide from 1987–88 to 1991–92, possibly reflecting the overall deceleratory trend in defence expenditures. But subsequent budgets have restored the R&D share to higher proportions, though not adequately. As recommended in the Sixth Report of the Standing Committee on Defence (1995–96), R&D investments need to increase to at least 10 percent of the defence budget. But the allocations continue to hover at about half the proposed figure (5.34 percent in 1996–97, 5.23 percent in 1997–98). This imbalance needs to be corrected at the earliest if DRDO’s major ongoing projects for the armed forces, new technology development schemes and plans for increasing the indigenous content of defence equipment from 30 percent in 1995 to 70 percent by 2005 are to achieve any measure of success.


Salient Conclusions and Recommendations



*: Senior Fellow, The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.  Back.

Note 1: Among many others, Ashley Tellis is inclined to espouse this view. He has forcefully argued this line in the monograph, “Stability in South Asia”, Rand Corporation, Washingto USA 1997, p. 1.  Back.

Note 2: Lt. Gen. K.K. Hazari (retd), “Defence Structures and Systems” in Pran Chopra ed., India: The Way Ahead (New Delhi: Times Books, Har-Anand Publications, 1998).  Back.

Note 3: Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, Affordable Credible Defence of India, (New Delhi: IDSA, 1994) p. 1382.  Back.

Note 4: Dr. Harvir Singh, “A Study of War,” Indian Defence Review, January–March 1997 p 105  Back.

Note 5: Akhtar Majeed, “Military Force in the post-Cold War Era,” Strategic Analysis, November 1994.  Back.

Note 6: Lt Gen A.M. Vohra “Restructuring the Armed Forces,” USI Journal, January–March 1996, p. 27.  Back.

Note 7: Arun Singh, “India & Pakistan: The Military Balance : 1985–1994”, ACDIS Occasional Paper, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, March 1997.  Back.

Note 8: See n. 1.  Back.

Note 9: Gen. K. Sundarji, “India in the World of 2025 AD,” USI Journal, October–December 1997.  Back.

Note 10: Many defence analysts/scholars somewhat erroneously believe that the main Chinese threat to India consists of ground rather than modern air forces, and is relevant only in the hypothetical case of a collusive Chinese and Pakistani attack. See Rodney Jones, Washington Quarterly, Winter 1992, p.127. Perhaps the minimum nuclear deterrent may have to be conceptualised for this rare collusive scenario, possibly even necessitating jettisoning the declaratory or even treaty-based no-first-use option. The trend of long range acquisitions by China seems to portend a dramatic escalation in the “air force” component of the threat in the long haul.  Back.

Note 11: Bharat Karnad, “Cost-Effective Defence : Getting the Priorities Right,” Indian Defence Review, January–March, 1998, p.9.  Back.

Note 12: The conversion of defence expenditure to constant 1981–82 rupees from 1947–48 to 1997–98 was undertaken by the economist, Radha Kishore, who serves with the Confederation of Indian Industry, New Delhi.  Back.

Note 13: In the piece, “Army Demands Policing Fees” (Telegraph, November 5, 1998), the Finance Minister is also reported to have ruled out any extra funds for the Army’s modernisation.  Back.

Note 14: Alex Mintz and Randolph Stevenson, Journal of Conflict Resolution, June, 1995.  Back.

Note 15: Newman Kwadwokusi, Journal of Peace Research, March, 1994.  Back.

Note 16: Jordon Cohen, Journal of Peace Research, March, 1994.  Back.

Note 17: Oyvind Osterind, Journal of Peace Research, November, 1996.  Back.

Note 18: Emile Benoi, Defence and Economic Growth in Developing Countries (Lexington Books, 1973).  Back.

Note 19: Robert Looney and David Winterford, Economic Causes and Consequences of Defence Expenditures in the Middle East and South-East Asia, (Colorado: Westview Press, 1995) as quoted by Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, Strategic Analysis, October, 1996.  Back.

Note 20: Some of these suggestions have been proposed by A.K. Ghosh, former Financial Advisor Defence Services. His book, India’s Defence Budget and Expenditure Management in a Wider Context, (New Delhi: Lancer,1996) provides a fine theoretical underpinning to problems of defence budget management and brings forth valuable lessons.  Back.

Note 21: Rodney Jones, Washington Quarterly, Winter 1992, p.115.  Back.

Note 22: See n. 11, p 16.  Back.

Note 23: See n. 7.  Back.

Note 24: Ravi Rikhye as quoted by Bharat Karnad. See n. 11 p.15.  Back.

Note 25: See n. 9.  Back.

Note 26: Kapil Kak, “Impact of Information Technology on Warfare,” Proceedings: Seminar on Command and Staff Challenges in the 21st Century, Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, April 14–15, 1998.  Back.