India is poised to become one of the four largest military powers in the world by the end of the decade. It needs to think about what that means.
UNLIKE many other Asian countries—and in stark contrast to neighbouring Pakistan—India has never been run by its generals. The upper ranks of the powerful civil service of the colonial Raj were largely Hindu, while Muslims were disproportionately represented in the army. On gaining independence the Indian political elite, which had a strong pacifist bent, was determined to keep the generals in their place. In this it has happily succeeded.
But there have been costs. One is that India exhibits a striking lack of what might be called a strategic culture. It has fought a number of limited wars—one with China, which it lost, and several with Pakistan, which it mostly won, if not always convincingly—and it faces a range of threats, including jihadist terrorism and a persistent Maoist insurgency. Yet its political class shows little sign of knowing or caring how the country’s military clout should be deployed.
That clout is growing fast. For the past five years India has been the world’s largest importer of weapons (see chart). A deal for $12 billion or more to buy 126 Rafale fighters from France is slowly drawing towards completion. India has more active military personnel than any Asian country other than China, and its defence budget has risen to $46.8 billion. Today it is the world’s seventh-largest military spender; IHS Jane’s, a consultancy, reckons that by 2020 it will have overtaken Japan, France and Britain to come in fourth. It has a nuclear stockpile of 80 or more warheads to which it could easily add more, and ballistic missiles that can deliver some of them to any point in Pakistan. It has recently tested a missile with a range of 5,000km (3,100 miles), which would reach most of China.
Which way to face?
Apart from the always-vocal press and New Delhi’s lively think-tanks, India and its leaders show little interest in military or strategic issues. Strategic defence reviews like those that take place in America, Britain and France, informed by serving officers and civil servants but led by politicians, are unknown in India. The armed forces regard the Ministry of Defence as woefully ignorant on military matters, with few of the skills needed to provide support in areas such as logistics and procurement (they also resent its control over senior promotions). Civil servants pass through the ministry rather than making careers there. The Ministry of External Affairs, which should be crucial to informing the country’s strategic vision, is puny. Singapore, with a population of 5m, has a foreign service about the same size as India’s. China’s is eight times larger.
The main threats facing India are clear: an unstable, fading but dangerous Pakistan; a swaggering and intimidating China. One invokes feelings of superiority close to contempt, the other inferiority and envy. In terms of India’s regional status and future prospects as a “great power”, China matters most; but the vexatious relationship with Pakistan still dominates military thinking.
A recent attempt to thaw relations between the two countries is having some success. But tension along the “line of control” that separates the two sides in the absence of an agreed border in Kashmir can flare up at any time. To complicate things, China and Pakistan are close, and China is not above encouraging its grateful ally to be a thorn in India’s side. Pakistan also uses jihadist terrorists to conduct a proxy war against India “under its nuclear umbrella”, as exasperated Indians put it. The attack on India’s parliament in 2001 by Jaish-e-Mohammed, a terrorist group with close links to Pakistan’s intelligence service, brought the two countries to the brink of war. The memory of the 2008 commando raid on Mumbai by Lashkar-e-Taiba, another terrorist organisation, is still raw.
Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities are a constant concern. Its arsenal of warheads, developed with Chinese assistance, is at least as large as India’s and probably larger. It has missiles of mainly Chinese design that can reach most Indian cities and, unlike India, it does not have a “no first use” policy. Indeed, to offset the growing superiority of India’s conventional forces, it is developing nuclear weapons for the battlefield that may be placed under the control of commanders in the field.
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