The military in 2023: Time to take stock - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla

The Indian Army is unique in the face of a multiple front threatens without any long-term security strategy

By Vikas Gupta

Defence News of India, 6 Jan 23

Another year has begun, with the strategic and diplomatic czars of New Delhi contemplating a bleak geopolitical landscape. Despite the efforts of our foreign service, our intelligence services and our renowned military, India remains the only major country in the world that faces a military threat on three and a half fronts on its own.

On land, India faces two nuclear-armed adversaries acting in concert; and seemingly endless insurgencies in Kashmir and the northeast. Simultaneously, the Indian Navy must monitor a gigantic maritime theater in the Indian Ocean, on which China seeks to encroach. Meanwhile, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues its three-year illegal occupation of Indian territory, apparently provoked into aggression by the empty bravado of a senior minister who bragged in parliament in 2019 that India would take back all of its claimed territories — Aksai Chin of China and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) of Pakistan, in itself an old Indian claim.

The Indian Army is pursuing these daunting challenges without any long-term National Security Strategy (NSS), with our top decision makers apparently believing that the military and security services must create their own strategic clarity. Meanwhile, the scientific and industrial base that must develop and manufacture the equipment to support our military ambitions has an easier time repeating slogans, such as Atmanirbhar Bharat (autonomous India). We can hardly blame them, since budget allocations to defense continue to decline as a percentage of national income; leaving the nascent private defense industry with the impossible task of producing high-tech weapons with its own resources.

Against this backdrop, the Indian Army’s most significant strategic shift in recent years has been its ‘north pivot’ – a shift from a primarily Pakistan-focused deployment to one more in line with the assertion many times repeated from New Delhi that China is “the enemy”. Number 1″. This argument was hard to sustain with a deployment pattern in which two-thirds of India’s 1.5 million-man army faced Pakistan on our western and northwestern borders, while less one-third clashed with China on our north-eastern and eastern borders.

This began to change in the summer of 2020, when India responded to China’s intrusions into eastern Ladakh by gradually inducting three infantry divisions (each with around 18,000 soldiers) to defend the Sino-Chinese border. India in Ladakh and Uttarakhand, which was previously the responsibility of a single division. Following this, the Army Headquarters (AHQ) shifted the operational role of one of its three armored strike corps from the Pakistani front to the border with China. This mechanized corps was renamed the Mountain Attack Corps with its two divisions loaded, equipped and trained to advance into Tibet.

Prior to this change, only 12 of the army’s 38 divisions faced China, while 25 divisions were deployed on the Indo-Pakistan border and one division was a reserve under the AHQ. After the reassignment, 16 Indian divisions will face China, 20 will face Pakistan and two divisions will be AHQ reserves. This powerful signal can hardly be missed in China or Pakistan. In Beijing, the PLA planners will have to redo their accounts for any attack on India. And in Rawalpindi, the change will have strategically reassured Pakistani generals, who have always cited India’s high threat levels as justification for their grip on political power.

Within the army, the most urgent organizational change – the restructuring of 17 single-service orders in a smaller number of three-service theater orders – crawl along. Few real changes have occurred, even after the creation of a tri-service Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) in 2020. The government’s lack of urgency is evident from the fact that it took nearly 10 months to appoint a successor to General Bipin Rawat, the first CDS, who tragically died in a helicopter crash in December 2021. For General Anil Chauhan, who followed him, crucial questions remain: theater commanders will return do they count in CDS in wartime, or in the Defense Council – a heavy committee under the Minister of Defence? Giving the CDS control of operations would require setting up a tri-service operations room, with a three-star general from each service controlling their respective operations. This is just one of the contentious issues that continue to be the subject of inter-service wrangling.

After three years of discussions, only the blurred contours of the first two integrated commands are visible: the National Air Defense Command which will protect Indian airspace and the Maritime Theater Command (MTC) which will control maritime operations. But there is little progress on the other integrated commands: the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) which will oversee India’s nuclear forces; the Special Forces Command in charge of clandestine operations; the Western Theater Command (WTC) which will control the Indo-Pakistan border from Gujarat to Siachen; and the Northern Theater Command (NTC) which will be in charge of the Sino-Indian border from the Karakoram Pass in Ladakh to Kibithu in eastern Arunachal Pradesh.

Last Friday, General MM Naravane, a sober and cerebral commander who retired as army chief last April, opened a window into contentious internal debates over the creation of integrated theater commands. Implicitly criticizing the government, he said an NSS was imperative before ‘theatricalisation’ could be implemented. Another essential prerequisite for dramatization was the creation of a Higher Defense Organization (HDO), with representatives from all government departments, to project national political consensus on the military. “Once we have an NSS, there has to be an interface between the government, which has been developing the strategy, and the military commanders on the ground,” he said. Discussing dramatization without those structures in place was like putting the cart before the horse, he said.

India remains perhaps the only major military power that has not defined its strategic objectives in a published NSS, which articulates its perceived security challenges and its roadmap for countering them. For decades, senior military brass have criticized the government for this failure, stressing that a clear NSS is imperative to describe the prevailing geopolitical scenario and to clarify the role India should play. From this would emerge a national defense strategy that clarifies our military ambitions: whether to limit ourselves to simple border defense or to play an expeditionary role, projecting power into a designated area of ​​interest. This, in turn, would clarify our approach to issues such as dramatization, equipment acquisition and force structuring.

Finally, to end on a positive note, the government took a bold step in June to cut the pension budget, which has come to constitute 23% of the annual defense allocation. Add to this the payroll of serving personnel and labor costs reach 54% of the defense budget. In order to have more money for capital expenditure on equipment modernization, the so-called Agnipathe Yojana aims to reduce the long lengths of service of its soldiers and, consequently, to reduce the number of those entitled to pensions after retirement. To this end, soldiers will be recruited for four-year terms, with 25% of them, who have proven their merit and courage as soldiers, being retained for longer terms. The Department of Defense says that in addition to reducing labor costs, Agnipath line up and file younger, fitter, more mentally robust and more technologically savvy, with the the average age is now 32 years old at 27 years old. While this may be true, the need to reduce labor costs is so pressing that many more innovative measures will be needed.