Military modernization in India

SUNIL DASGUPTA and STEPHEN PHILIP COHEN

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INDIA’S rapid economic growth and new found access to military technology, especially by way of its rapprochement with the United States, have raised hopes of a military revival in the country. Against this optimism about the rise of Indian military power stands the reality that India has not been able to alter its military-strategic position despite being one of the world’s largest importers of advanced conventional weapons for three decades.1

Questions about India’s ability to raise adequate military capacity have long haunted the country’s defence establishment, but the recent history of modernization and reforms illuminates the causes of insufficient military mobilization in the country. We use the long tradition of the study of civil-military relations to argue that the efficient conversion of resources into military power depends on the organization of the state, the military, the relationship between them, and between these institutions and the people.

In India, civil-military relations have focused too heavily on one side of the problem – how to ensure civilian control over the armed forces, while neglecting the other – how to build and field an effective military force. We believe that this imbalance in civil-military relations has caused military modernization and reforms to suffer from a lack of political guidance, disunity of purpose and effort, and material and intellectual corruption.

Sixty years after embarking on a rivalry with Pakistan, India has not been able to alter its strategic relationship with a country less than one fifth its size. India’s many counterinsurgencies have lasted twenty years on an average, double the worldwide average, as reported by a recent RAND study.2 Since the 1998 nuclear tests, reports of a growing missile gap with Pakistan have called into question the quality of India’s nuclear deterrent. Indeed, with the exception of nuclear weapons, sixty years of military research have not delivered one weapon to the armed forces that has altered the country’s strategic position. The high point of Indian military history – the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 – therefore, stands in sharp contrast to the persistent inability of the country to raise effective military forces.

 

No factor more accounts for the haphazard nature of Indian military modernization than the lack of political leadership on defence. Key political leaders rejected the use of force as an instrument of politics in favour of a policy of strategic restraint that minimized the importance of the military. Jawaharlal Nehru, for example, wrote in 1938 that he did not see any significant military challenge to an independent India; the only military role he saw for the Indian Army was in suppressing the tribes of the North West Frontier, who were, in any case, too primitive to fight a modern military outside the tribal areas.3

The Government of India held to its strong anti-militarism despite the reality of conflict and war that followed independence. Much has been made of the downgrading of the service chiefs in the protocol rank, but of greater consequence was the elevation of military science and research as essential to the long-term defence of India over the armed forces themselves. Nehru invited British physicist P.M.S. Blackett to examine the relationship between science and defence. Blackett came back with a report that called for capping Indian defence spending at two per cent of GDP and limited military modernization.4 He also recommended state funding and ownership of military research laboratories and established his protégé, Daulat Singh Kothari, as the head of the labs.

Indian defence spending decreased during the 1950s. Of the three services, the Indian Navy received greater attention. The decade saw the negotiations for the acquisition of India’s first aircraft carrier. The Indian Air Force acquired World War II surplus Canberra transport. The Indian Army, the biggest service by a wide margin, went to Congo on a UN peacekeeping mission, but was neglected overall. India had its first defence procurement scandal when buying old jeeps and experienced its first civil-military crisis when army chief K.S. Thimayya threatened resignation in protest of political interference in military matters. The decade culminated in the government’s ‘forward policy’ against China, which was foisted on an unprepared army and led to the war of 1962 with China that ended in a humiliating Indian defeat.

 

The foremost lesson of 1962 was that India could not afford further military retrenchment. In the aftermath of military defeat, the Indian government launched a significant military expansion programme that doubled the size of the army and raised a fighting air force. With the focus shifting North, the Indian Navy received less attention. A less recognized but close second lesson of the war was that political interference in military matters ought to be limited. The military – and especially the army – asked for and received operational and institutional autonomy, a fact most visible in the wars of 1965 and 1971. In both wars, the army chiefs explicitly asked for autonomy.5

The problem, however, was that the political leadership did not suddenly become more comfortable with the military as an institution; they remained wary of the possibility of a coup d’etat and militarism more generally. Indian political leaders had been subjugating the military to effective civilian control since independence in line with standard civil-military relations practice. This process expanded. The military was further subjugated to the civilian bureaucracy.

 

In 1968, for example, the Indian government established the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), staffed with civilian bureaucrats. IDSA clashed repeatedly with military assessments of threats and solutions. According to K. Subrahmanyam, one of the first directors, the institute survived pressure from the military due to the protection of successive defence secretaries – civilian bureaucrats serving the defence minister.6 The idea behind the IDSA – developing greater civilian capacity in military matters – was a laudable one, but it became part of a larger effort to control the military. In particular, the military leadership, placed in a location away from government offices, was increasingly denied political access.

 

The Indian civil-military relations landscape has changed marginally since. In the eighties, there was a degree of political-military confluence in the Rajiv Gandhi government: Rajiv appointed a military buff, Arun Singh, as the minister of state for defence. At the same time, Krishnaswami Sundarji, an exceptional officer, became the army chief. Together they launched an ambitious programme of military modernization in response to Pakistani rearmament and nuclearization. In the end, the move to pre-empt Pakistani rearmament and nuclearization failed. Pakistan’s nuclearization allowed that country to escalate the subconventional conflict in Kashmir while stemming Indian ability to escalate to a general war, where it had superiority. India is yet to emerge from this stability-instability paradox.

We do not know why Rajiv Gandhi agreed to the specific kind of military modernization that occurred in the mid-eighties, but then stepped back from using this capacity in 1987 during the Brasstacks crisis. Sundarji later wrote in a veiled work of fiction, and told his many friends that Brasstacks was the last chance India had to coerce Pakistan to accept terms.7 Apart from Brasstacks, the mid-eighties saw Indian military assertion in the Siachen glacier and in Sri Lanka, both of which proved to be expensive, if not outright failures. The peacekeeping mission to Sri Lanka became India’s Vietnam. Indian presence on the Siachen glacier has drained the army’s resources so much so that Pakistan has found it to its advantage to reject New Delhi’s efforts to negotiate an end to the issue.

 

The puzzle of Brasstacks stands in a line of similar decisions. In 1971, India did not push the advantage of its victory in the eastern theatre to the West. Instead, New Delhi, under uberrealist Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, signed on to an equivocal agreement at Simla that committed both sides to peaceful resolution of future disputes without any enforcement measures. India’s decision to wait 24 years between its first nuclear test in 1974 and the second set of tests in 1998 is equally puzzling. Why did it not follow through after the 1974 test, and why did it test in 1998?

We have argued that underlying these puzzles is a remarkable preference for strategic restraint. Indian leaders simply have not seen the use of force as a useful instrument of politics. This foundation of ambivalence informs Indian defence policy, and consequently its military modernization and reform efforts.

To be sure, military restraint in a region as volatile as South Asia is wise and has helped persuade the great powers to accommodate India’s rise, but it does not help military planning. Together with the separation of the armed forces from the government, divisions among the services and between the services and other related agencies, and the inability of the military to seek formal support for policies it deems important, India’s strategic restraint has served to deny political guidance to the efforts of the armed forces to modernize. As wise as strategic restraint may be, Pakistan, India’s primary rival, hardly believes it to be true. Islamabad prepares as if India were an aggressive power and that has a real impact on India’s security.

 

What suffices for a military modernization plan is a wish list of weapon systems amounting to as much as $100 billion from the three services and announcements of coming breakthroughs from the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), the premier agency for military research in India. We discuss DRDO in the next section; here we focus on the services themselves.

The process of modernization is illustrative. The armed forces propose to acquire certain weapon systems. The political leadership and the civilian bureaucracy, especially the Ministry of Finance, react to these requests, agreeing on some and rejecting others. A number of dysfunctions ensue.

First, the services see things differently and their plans are essentially uncoordinated.8 Coming off the experience of the Kargil war and Operation Parakram, the Indian Army seems to have arrived at a Cold Start doctrine, seeking to find some fighting space between subconventional conflict and nuclear exchange in the standoff with Pakistan. The doctrine may not be official policy, but it informs the army’s wish list, where attack helicopters, tanks, and long-range artillery, stand out as marquee items. The Indian Air Force, meanwhile, is the primary instrument of the country’s nuclear deterrent. The IAF’s close second role is air superiority and air defence. Close air support, to which the IAF has belatedly agreed and which is essential to the army’s Cold Start doctrine, is a distant fourth.

 

The Indian Navy has been angling for a return to the Panikkar vision of the country – dominance of the Indian Ocean region. It wants to secure the country’s sea lanes of communications, protect its energy supplies, and guard its trade routes. It wants further to be the vehicle of Indian naval diplomacy, not only in the region but also in the rest of the world. It sees a role in the anti-piracy efforts in the Malacca Straits and the Horn of Africa. The Indian Navy’s role in India’s nuclear posture, however, is unclear, though the country has launched a project to build a nuclear submarine. What is even more ambiguous is how the Indian Navy might contribute in the event of a war with Pakistan. It almost seems that the navy would like simply to brush past the problem of Pakistan and reach for the grander problems – Indian emergence as a great power, and China. Accordingly, the Indian Navy’s biggest procurement order is a retrofitted aircraft carrier from Russia.

India’s three services have dramatically different views of what their role in India’s security should be, and there is no political effort to ensure this coordination. Cold Start remains an iffy proposition. India’s nuclear deterrent remains tethered to a single delivery system: fighter aircraft. Meanwhile, the Indian Army’s energies are dissipated with counterinsurgency duties, which might increase manifold if the government orders the army to enter the fight against the rising leftist insurgency, the Naxalites. And all this at a time when the primary security threat to the country has been terrorism. After the Mumbai attacks, the Indian government and the people of India are said to have resolved to tackle the problem headlong, but today the government’s minister in charge of internal security, Palaniappan Chidambaram, is more under siege himself than seizing the hidden enemy.

 

The so-called officer shortage in the Indian Army exemplifies the lack of coordination, and indeed the failure of the country’s leaders to even ask the tough questions. The Indian Army has claimed an officer shortage for three decades. The shortage, especially in the ranks of captains and majors, is reported to be as high as 30 per cent.9 The army has argued that the shortage is the result of tough assignments, poor pay, and falling applicant quality. Two major pay hikes in the last fifteen years have not corrected the problem – instead the pay condition has worsened since the red-hot Indian private sector offers better paying jobs.

Given this serious condition, we asked a simple question: What has been the impact of the officer shortage on the army’s military effectiveness? The answer, unequivocally, is ‘none at all’. The response is inexplicable. If military effectiveness has not suffered, the officer shortage is immaterial. Indeed, it goes to the Indian Army’s credit that it has managed retrenchment of the officer corps so well. The army’s continued insistence that it has an officer shortage, however, suggests other motives. More importantly, the persistence of officer shortage as an issue suggests that political leaders are not sufficiently tuned to military matters.

Second, despite repeated calls for and commissions into reforms in the higher defence structure, planning, intelligence, defence production, and procurement, the Indian national security establishment remains fragmented and uncoordinated. According to Anit Mukherjee, a former Indian Army officer who has studied recent defence reforms, the government and armed forces have succeeded in reforms primed by additions to the defence budget but failed to institute reforms that require reprioritization.10

 

The Kargil Review Committee, and the Group of Ministers report that followed, for example, recommended a slew of reforms. The changes most readily implemented were those that created new commands, agencies, and task forces, essentially linear expansion backed by new budgetary allocations. The changes least likely to occur were those required changes in the hierarchy.

The most common example of tough reform is the long-standing recommendation for a chief of defence staff. A military chief, as opposed to the service chiefs, was seen as a solution to the problem that causes the army, navy, and air force not to reconcile their priorities. The government would also receive a single point of advice and have a single point of accountability for implementation of policy. However, the creation of the position of military commander-in-chief, which existed in the colonial era, has been passively rejected by the political leaders, mainly for fear of giving a military officer too much power.

The argument would be logical if political leaders stepped forward to fill the void, but they have not. To be fair, the IAF and the Indian Navy, the smaller services, have resisted the move based on their own fears that the much bigger army would return to the domination of the colonial period. Instead of a chief of defence staff, the government has tried to install an integrated defence staff that is supposed to undertake reconciliation between the services, but which really is a toothless body with little influence.

Lastly, the Ministry of Defence has a finance section deputed by the Ministry of Finance. This section oversees all defence expenditures, even after they have been authorized. Once the cabinet has approved a spending item, what authority does the section have to turn down requests? However, the finance section raises questions of propriety, wisdom, and policy that should under normal circumstances be under the purview of the defence minister. What should be an auditing function has transformed into a decision-making one, making defence spending hard to do in India.

 

Corruption in weapons procurement has been a political issue since the mid-1980s, when allegations of a series of paybacks in the purchase of Bofors artillery, HDW submarines, and other items mobilized an opposition that removed Rajiv Gandhi from power in 1989. Corruption scandals had erupted earlier as well, but by the mid-eighties, the problem became a central political issue and slowed down the acquisition process. Since then, Indian political leaders have tried hard not to appear to be corrupt, going out of their way to slow down new purchases.

Corruption is still a problem, as shown in the 2001 Tehelka expose of political leaders accepting bribes in return for defence contracts. Recently, Uday Bhaskar, the Indian Navy officer and defence analyst, wrote bitingly that for a number of years now the armed forces, which desperately need modernization, have been returning unspent funds to the treasury.

 

There is widespread recognition that corruption is morally venal and detrimental to the cause of Indian security. We believe, however, that the second- and third-order problems of corruption have unacknowledged impact on military modernization and capacity. The Defence Procurement Manual and Procedures on the Ministry of Defence’s website are the first steps in the right direction, but the Indian government has generally failed to build a transparent and legitimate procurement process. The result has been continued corruption and delayed acquisition. Even the purchase of coffins for soldiers during the Kargil war becomes grist for the mill. This is not to say no corruption occurred in the deal, but reaching clarity and consensus on even small budget items such as coffins, is much more difficult than it should be.

The deep roots of corruption extend to military research and development and to the heart of India’s foreign relations. Given the early beliefs about science and engineering being the ‘temples of modernity’, military research and development has received great political attention even when the budgets have not matched ambition. Since the mid-1970s, however, the DRDO embarked on a number of ambitious and well-funded projects to build a fighter aircraft, a tank, and missiles. All three projects floundered.

While the aircraft and tank projects have largely failed, the missile programme is considered successful. The reputation of the success carried the director of the missile programme, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, to the presidency. Yet in 2010, no Indian missile in the arsenal of the armed forces has managed to alter the strategic equation with Pakistan or China. The Prithvi short-range missile is not useful because of its range and liquid fuel needs. The longer-range Agni models have gone through numerous tests without entering the army’s arsenal. Other variations, such as Nag and Akash, have limited strategic purpose.

 

A series of articles in The Indian Express in November 2006 showed that the DRDO had not produced a single weapon system capable of altering India’s strategic condition. What is more, the reports said, the Indian government was unwilling to subject the organization to public scrutiny. An official investigation, called the Rama Rao Report, suggested reorganization of DRDO’s labs and facilities, but that is only the superficial problem.

The virtual monopoly over military research in state-owned labs has meant that the abundant energies of the Indian private sector have remained outside the defence industry. Where in the United States, small and medium-sized defence contractors form the backbone of the research complex, India is far from thinking along those lines. Despite recent efforts to include the private sector through various schemes, there continues to be distrust of private industry in the Indian defence establishment. We believe it is easier for a private foreign supplier to win a contract with the Ministry of Defence than it is for a small private Indian company to do so.

The problem with the DRDO is ideological corruption. For decades, the Indian government has accepted dishonest promises made by DRDO as the basis for providing billions of dollars of support because of the persisting ideology of autarky. The greatest success of military research in India comes not from the DRDO, but from the Atomic Energy Commission, which built the nuclear devices. But the government has been unwilling to subject DRDO to public accountability – claims of military secrets are disingenuous because the organization is not developing a weapon as yet uninvented; most of its work is reverse engineering. Instead, the head of DRDO serves as the defence minister’s scientific adviser. The two positions – of supplier and adviser – bring inherent conflict of interest, but this has not been an issue in India at all.

 

The second pattern of systemic corruption comes from the inability of the Indian defence system to wean itself from the supply of Soviet/Russian equipment. The reasons why India initially went to the Soviet Union for weapons are well-known. The United States chose Pakistan, India went to the Soviet Union. But that political decision was reinforced by ideas about the corruption-free nature of the state-owned Soviet defence industry and the profit-mindedness of western, and especially American, firms.

This characterization has always been untrue. Soviet/Russian suppliers have engaged in as much corruption as western firms, but because the Soviet Union was a closed system, the corruption – which was inevitably reported first in the press in the supplier countries – was never really reported in the Soviet Union. This tradition continues, though the Russian free press has been more critical of the country’s defence deals. Indeed, those who served as Indian ‘agents’ for the Soviet firms have highlighted the better business practice of Russians, a laughable matter in light of India’s recent travails with the retrofit and sale of the Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov. The tendency is reiterated in Indian preferences in dealing with the West as well. New Delhi seems to prefer government-to-government foreign military sales, which are in turn causing some degree of protest from users who want longer-term maintenance arrangements with suppliers.

 

In contrast, western firms have always been seen as money-grubbing, an opinion that exists across the political spectrum and is prevalent in the civilian bureaucracy. When the armed forces stuff their wish lists with western, not Russian, weapons, these elements of the system become suspicious. Fears of corruption surface, the DRDO promises to produce the system at home, and the acquisition process is held up.

The political rapprochement between India and the United States has not yet filtered into the system for attitudes to change dramatically. India’s growing military supply relationship with Israel is instructive. The most successful Israeli firm in the Indian market is Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), a state-owned company. IAI was quick to adopt the Russian model of operation in India: offering the DRDO co-development opportunities to win contracts. In contrast, American firms are reluctant to work with, let alone transfer high-end technology to a state owned enterprise. They would prefer to set up a subsidiary in India which could retain control of the technology. Given the civil-military arrangement, however, the debate in India does not hinge on these issues, American firms continue to have a disadvantage, and the Indian military wish list remains unfulfilled.

 

India has been one of the biggest importers of advanced conventional weapons in the last thirty years, but this sustained rearmament has not altered India’s strategic position. The armed forces push for modernization, but do not have the authority to mount the national campaign necessary for transforming the security condition of the country. Budget increases delivered by a rapidly expanding economy and access to western technology previously denied to India have led to optimism about Indian military power, but the dysfunction in India’s civil-military relations reduces the impact of rearmament. Arming without aiming has some purpose in persuading other great powers of India’s benign rise, but it cannot be the basis of military planning.

Without real change in the defence system, bigger budgets and newer weapons are unlikely to alter the political position of the armed forces within the Indian defence establishment. The armed forces are likely to be increasingly dissatisfied, especially with growing exposure to the operational cultures of western armies and defence corporations, but rebalancing India’s civil-military relations will require major institutional and attitudinal changes. Apart from the problems we have highlighted above, the Indian government will need to transform the way it thinks of defence. On the one hand, bring in the military to serve as a full-fledged arm of the government and, on the other, invite genuine public participation in everything from the security debate to military research and development, and not use secrecy as an excuse to hide failures.

 

Footnotes:

1. On top importers of arms, see Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Arms Transfer Database, http://www.sipri.org/contents/armstrad/output_types_TIV.html

2. On duration of insurgencies, see Ben Connable and Martin C. Libicki, How Insurgencies End. RAND, Santa Monica, CA, 2010, http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/2010/RAND_MG965.pdf. The difference between the average length of Indian and the average duration of other insurgencies could suggest the contrary conclusion that the performance of the Indian state is in fact better than other parts of the world when it comes to escalation control. In other words, the Indian state has been less willing and more able to resist escalation. The consequence has been a more lasting integration of rebels into the body politic when peace has finally come.

3. Lorne Kavic, India’s Quest for Security: Defence Policies, 1947-1965. University of California Press, 1967, pp. 24-25.

4. See Robert S. Anderson, ‘Patrick Blackett in India: Military Consultant and Scientific Intervenor, 1947-1972, Part I’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 53(2), May 1999, pp. 253-273 and Anderson, ‘Empire’s Setting Sun? Patrick Blackett and Military and Scientific Development of India’, Economic and Political Weekly, 29 September 2001, pp. 3703-3720.

5. On General J.N. Chaudhuri, see Stephen P. Cohen, ‘The Military and Indian Democracy’, in Atul Kohli (ed.), India’s Democracy: An Analysis of Changing State-Society Relations. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1988, p. 113. On Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw, see Stephen P. Rosen, Societies and Military Power: India and its Armies. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1996, p. 248.

6. In a personal memoir, K. Subrahmanyam has described the painful progress of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. He noted that the services refused to cooperate by sending serving offices to IDSA on detachment, and have recently developed their own tethered think tanks. See Subrahmanyam, IDSA – In Retrospect. Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, 2007.

7. Krishnaswami Sundarji, Blind Men of Hindoostan: Indo-Pak Nuclear War. UBS Publishers’ Distributors, New Delhi, 1993.

8. See Stephen Philip Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta, Arming Without Aiming: India’s Military Modernization. The Brookings Institution Press, Washington DC, 2010.

9. The 30 per cent figure is from Jaswant Singh, Defending India, Macmillan India, Bangalore, 1999. See further discussion in a report of a conference on ‘Military Sociology: Societal Changes and Impact on Armed Forces’, organized by the Indian Army affiliated think tank, The Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) in New Delhi on 28 April 2009. Report http://www.claws.in/index.php? action=details&m_id=314.

10. Anit Mukherjee, Failing to Deliver: The Post Crises Defence Reforms in India, 1998-2008, unpublished manuscript.

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