The challenge of changing Indian military doctrine


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THE past five years have seen a doctrinal renaissance for the Indian armed forces. In 2004, the army introduced a new warfighting doctrine seeking to alter its basic approach to war by leveraging advanced technology to fight short-duration limited conflicts in a nuclear environment. Later the same year, the navy released its first-ever maritime doctrine, which envisioned a ‘blue water’ role for the fleet and the introduction of nuclear-armed submarines as a component of the nation’s strategic deterrent. Having been the first service ever to release a doctrine in 1995, the air force recently updated its airpower doctrine to focus on extending its strategic reach from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca.

Why is any of this significant? What is military doctrine and why does it matter for either the armed forces or the country? What are the challenges of changing military doctrine and what obstacles might India’s armed services face in implementing their new doctrines? This essay explores these questions with a particular focus on the army and its evolving warfighting strategies, which illuminates the kinds of challenges and issues faced by all of India’s armed forces as they seek to articulate their role in the 21st century.


A military’s doctrine provides the basic principles that shape the way in which its forces are employed to achieve national objectives. Doctrine reflects a military’s customary way of fighting and provides a common frame of reference for military officers by identifying their general missions as well as the basic concepts about how the armed forces will carry out those missions. Doctrine does not provide specific answers as to how a given military problem should be solved; rather it provides a framework for thinking about those problems. As the army’s 2004 doctrinal publication notes, ‘Military doctrine is neither dogma nor does it replace or take away the authority and obligation of the commander on the spot to determine a proper course of action under the circumstances prevailing at the time of decision.’1

Military doctrine is distinct from a state’s grand strategy, which is concerned with the employment of all aspects of state power (diplomatic, economic and military) to secure national objectives. It is also different from military strategy, which concerns itself with the linking together of individual battles into campaigns that are designed to achieve a nation’s strategic objectives. However, military doctrine will be shaped by the decisions made regarding a state’s grand strategy, while military doctrine (specifically what the state’s armed forces can achieve) can limit or constrain the decisions made regarding military strategy. Doctrine is also distinct from military tactics which guide the employment and arrangement of forces in combat, although the development of tactics should be guided by doctrine. In this manner, doctrine provides a theoretical framework that links the strategic, operational and tactical levels of warfare.


For those seeking to measure a state’s power or understand its strategic thinking, paying attention to military doctrine is important for several reasons. First, doctrine can provide insight into the kinds of wars a military expects it will have to fight in the near future. Second, a study of doctrine can provide a guide as to how a military might fight the wars it expects. Third, the requirements of military doctrine often shape a military’s procurement pattern. It is one thing to monitor the acquisition of new weapons systems; however, to evaluate their contribution to a state’s military power one must also know how they will be used. Insights into all of these areas can be gained by studying a military’s doctrine.

Ideally, doctrine will provide guidance for all aspects of a service’s activities, including training, organization and force structure. In the absence of a clearly articulated doctrine, a service may have a difficult time maintaining a coherent approach to its preparation for future war. The navy is illustrative of this problem. Without a maritime doctrine to define how naval power furthered the country’s goals, its early acquisitions were driven more by the dictates of major arms suppliers than actual needs – leading one wag to remark that the Indian Navy is ‘one of the few major navies which first buys hardware, and then thinks about how to use it.’

Although it would likely be an anathema to General Helmuth von Moltke and the mid-nineteenth century German General Staff who are credited with the modern development of military doctrine, the contemporary promulgation of doctrine can also be part of a service’s public relations and strategic communications effort. A case in point is the new US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. On the one hand, this is a military manual articulating an approach to internal conflict. On the other hand, it is a public document that has been downloaded over a million times and is available for sale via the University of Chicago Press. In this manner the doctrine served as part of the US military’s effort to explain its new approach to counterinsurgency in Iraq under General Petraeus and build public support for that effort.

A similar phenomenon can be seen in the Indian military. With the air force claiming the lead role in the country’s nuclear force structure after 1998, the army and navy needed to make a case for their continued relevance. Thus, the rash of doctrinal publications issued over the past five years can be seen as both a response to the changing character of war in South Asia as well as an attempt to increase public awareness of the roles and missions of the various services in an attempt to generate support for their budgets and procurement plans.


Although the details of a state’s military doctrine can vary widely, they can generally be catalogued based on the methods by which forces are actually employed. With regard to the army and land warfare doctrine, the two most common doctrinal archetypes are attrition, which focuses on attacking the enemy’s strength, and manoeuvre, which focuses on attacking the enemy’s will and cohesion.

Attrition is focused on destroying the enemy’s strength, what Clausewitz called ‘the centre of gravity.’2 Armies implementing an attrition doctrine often seek victory by destroying or capturing enemy forces in the field. This leads them to focus on technology and equipment since achieving superior firepower and superior numbers are seen as the key to victory. From a command and control standpoint, attrition doctrines typically emphasize the central control of large formations while individual officers are expected to mechanically execute their duties according to standard operating procedures. Sophisticated leadership at the junior level is not necessarily a requirement for attrition warfare as personal initiative and innovation are not emphasized.

Historically, the American way of war has relied on firepower and attrition, as exemplified by Ulysses S. Grant’s later campaigns of the US Civil War. Other historical examples of attrition include the World War I battles of Verdun and the Somme, the World War II battles of El Alamein and Stalingrad, the strategy of UN forces following Chinese entry into the Korean War and the Egyptian-Israeli War of Attrition.


The phrase ‘manoeuvre warfare’ often gives the false impression that it involves mobility while attrition warfare is, by contrast, static. Though armies employing manoeuvre doctrines do frequently employ speed and mobility, the primary differentiation is the focus on destroying the cohesion of the enemy forces rather than the forces themselves. Manoeuvre theorists argue that by moving forces into unpredicted locations at high speeds and making decisions faster than the opponent can, it is possible to defeat an enemy by destroying its cohesion.

The most famous historical example of this process was the German ‘blitzkrieg’ against France in 1940. Highly mobile panzer units drove deep into French territory along multiple lines of advance, bypassing French defences and strong points. Though the French still possessed numerous troops in the field, their high command was paralyzed by the presence of German forces behind their lines and was unable to respond to the quickly changing events on the ground – the result of which was catastrophic defeat and occupation.

In contrast to attrition, manoeuvre extends the possibility of achieving a decisive victory in a short war. However, since it depends on precisely applying force against an opponent’s weak point, it can also lead to catastrophic failure. Unlike attrition which puts a premium on material, manoeuvre doctrines emphasize people. Authority and initiative are devolved to junior level leaders who must be relied upon to problem-solve rather than react according to fixed operating procedures because a war fighting doctrine premised on creating confusion and disorder in the enemy’s organization cannot be centrally controlled.


Since independence, the Indian Army’s posture has been fundamentally defensive and attritional in orientation. This is not to imply that the army has only been employed defensively, but rather that its training and organizational outlook has traditionally favoured fighting on the defensive or undertaking carefully pre-planned offensives against fixed positions that seek to attrit the enemy’s strength through tactical engagements.

Since at least the 1980s, the army’s offensive power has been concentrated into three ‘strike corps’ – mobile armoured columns that were built around an armoured division with mechanized infantry and extensive artillery support. Defence was provided by ‘holding corps’ arrayed along the border which consisted of infantry divisions for static defence, mobile mechanized divisions that could respond to enemy penetrations, and a small number of armoured units. In case of a war, after the holding corps halted a Pakistani attack, the strike corps would counter-attack from their bases in the centre of the country and penetrate deep into Pakistani territory to destroy the Pakistan Army’s own two strike corps in a high-intensity battle of attrition.


Although innovative at the time, this approach proved poorly suited to respond to the changing character of the modern battlefield and the challenges posed by Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir. Following the events of Operation Parakram, the army signalled a reorientation of its thinking in 2004 when it unveiled a new doctrine alongside the Cold Start concept. Invoking the Revolution in Military Affairs – the idea that innovative applications of new technology in conjunction with operational or organizational changes in the military could render existing methods of conducting warfare obsolete – and the associated belief that future wars will be characterized by high tempo, non-linear operations, the army’s doctrine noted a need for a ‘shift towards the manoeuvre style of warfare.’3

A concrete manifestation of this shift towards manoeuvre, Cold Start seeks to leverage the army’s considerable conventional strength to respond to Pakistan’s continued provocation. Rather than deliver a catastrophic blow, the goal of Cold Start would be to make shallow territorial gains that could be used in post-conflict negotiations to extract concessions from Islamabad. This requires a reorganization of the army’s offensive power into eight smaller division-sized ‘integrated battle groups’ (IBGs) that combine mechanized infantry, artillery and armour. The eight battle groups would be prepared to launch multiple strikes into Pakistan along different axes of advance. The ground operations of the IBGs require integration with close air support from the Indian Air Force to provide highly mobile fire support.

In keeping with the tenants of a manoeuvre doctrine, Cold Start places a major emphasis on the speed of both deployment and operations. By moving forces into unpredictable locations at high speeds and making decisions faster than their opponents can, the IBGs would seek to defeat Pakistani forces in the field by disrupting their cohesion.


Attempting to reorient an army’s fundamental approach to warfare is an ambitious undertaking. It is one thing to articulate a new concept for warfighting, it is another thing entirely to be able to implement it. For example, although the US Army began exploring a shift to a manoeuvre doctrine in the early 1970s, it was not until the 1991 Gulf War (or some would contend the 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom) that it demonstrated true mastery of this way of war. The Indian Army’s new warfighting doctrine clearly illustrates the material, personnel and organizational challenges that can make doctrinal change difficult.

At present significant material shortfalls appear to impact the army’s ability to implement manoeuvre warfare on a large scale in the near-term. Despite the recent acquisition of several hundred advanced T-90 tanks from Russia, the army’s tank corps suffers from a low operational readiness rate because much of its equipment is at the end of its service life. Similarly, the army possesses only ten per cent of the self-propelled artillery the integrated battle groups will require. In addition, there are serious questions as to whether the army possesses the mobility and logistical capability to implement a manoeuvre doctrine. Limited supplies of spare parts, primitive logistical networks, and inadequate maintenance facilities will also hinder offensive operations.

While the army has demonstrated a significant capability in the use of advanced information technology such as sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles and communications systems to enable network-centric operations, this capability could require the equivalent of three commercial telecommunications satellites worth of bandwidth during a large-scale conflict. Although the army is attempting to gain the necessary funds to address these issues as part of its modernization programme, the defence budget is limited and both the air force and the navy are pressing their own competing claims.


The army also lacks sufficient personnel. A manoeuvre doctrine requires junior officers who possess the initiative and flexibility to react to changing circumstances on the battlefield without explicit instructions from their superiors. This poses a significant challenge for an institution that has demonstrated an unwillingness to entrust authority to junior and non-commissioned officers. Furthermore, the army faces a shortage of more than 11,000 junior officers, and those it does have are the product of a military education system that does not necessarily foster the initiative and creativity demanded by manoeuvre warfare.


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a manoeuvre doctrine and a limited-war concept face practical questions about how they relate to India’s broader national security goals. For example, some analysts, such as Gurmeet Kanwal, argue that firepower (attrition) will trump manoeuvre on a nuclearized battlefield, suggesting a doctrinal shift towards manoeuvre might not be the proper way ahead. In the context of an Indo-Pak conflict, it remains an open question whether or not it is possible to undertake limited conventional operations against Pakistan without triggering a nuclear response.

What is clear, however, is that preventing escalation in a limited war requires clear signalling of intentions by both sides. Yet, by its very nature, manoeuvre warfare seeks to surprise, disorient and confuse the adversary’s decision-makers – a very risky pro-position in a nuclear environment. Moreover, the development of a manoeuvre doctrine and the associated improvements in the army’s warfighting capabilities are likely to increase the asymmetry with Pakistan’s conventional military power, putting Islamabad under increasing pressure to rely on its nuclear arsenal for self-defence.

It is also worth considering what effect a doctrine change could have on India’s strategic goals vis-à-vis Pakistan. Indo-Pak relations have improved considerably since the Composite Dialogue was initiated in February 2004. While the dialogue has been suspended in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, the perception of an expanded conventional threat from India could have the pernicious effect of reversing this progress and even encourage the Pakistan Army to reassert itself in the domestic political sphere, which would be a negative development for both countries.


How is it that the Indian Army has come to articulate a doctrine that it lacks the material and personnel to implement, one that may not actually be aligned with the nation’s broader strategic goals? The army’s experience serves as a case study that highlights the issues facing all three armed services. It is certainly the case that many new military doctrines are aspirational – particularly those that seek to alter the fundamental method by which a service fights its wars. However, doctrinal development in India is severely handicapped by the country’s particular civil-military relations. The service chiefs have been granted operational autonomy in return for extremely limited input into national security policy-making at the highest levels. At the same time, few politicians are well-versed in military affairs, and the actual expertise in defence matters of the Ministry of Defence’s civil servants is patchy at best.

Moreover, the civilian leadership has not provided the kind of national vision or grand strategy on which the military can base its concepts for future missions and the forces they require. As a result, the armed services are often left to develop their strategies and plans without significant political direction – a practice that is unlikely to result in the fusion of strategic and military goals.

Furthermore, in the absence of true joint leadership of the armed forces, each service principally develops its own concepts without coordination or relation to the other two. Therefore, the army articulates a doctrine that puts the air force in a subordinate role providing close air support to ground troops, while the air force’s own doctrine and acquisition pattern emphasizes strategic bombing and air-to-air combat. Meanwhile, both services have largely ignored the navy, which is pushing to develop a broader reach requiring numerous large-ticket items such as aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines that will compete with the army and air force for a share of the procurement budget. Thus, in an era where joint warfare is seen as the way forward, the 2006 joint doctrine aside, the armed services own individual doctrines are remarkably disjointed. The lack of both strategic vision at the political level and strong institutions to enforce inter-service coordination suggests this problem will not be resolved in the near term.


The past five years have seen all three services articulate doctrines for their vision of the future of war. On the whole, this is a positive development in that a promulgated doctrine can provide a guide to help ensure that the services’ training, procurement and personnel policies are in line with their concept of future military operations. The problem is that military doctrines cannot be developed in a vacuum. In the absence of strong political guidance as to the nation’s strategic goals and the conditions under which the armed forces would be employed, the armed services are being forced to improvise – which can strip doctrine of many of its useful functions if they lack inter-service coordination and develop ways of fighting that are incompatible with the political objectives of the country’s leadership.



1. Indian Army Doctrine, HQ ARTRAC, Shimla, 2004, p. 1.1.

2. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1984, pp. 595-6, 617-9.

3. Indian Army Doctrine, pp. ii and 1.12.