Ground forces dominate Indian military strategy. Since its independence, India has fought five wars along its unsettled northern land borders, and its most vexing security threats today—as illustrated by the ongoing Chinese incursions in the northern region of Ladakh—still loom across those same borders. The Indian Army commands a clear and growing majority of military budget allocations and an even larger share of military personnel. But how does India use its ground forces, and how well do they serve Indian security interests?
The Indian Army—and by extension, Indian defence policy—is dominated by an orthodox offensive doctrine. This is an approach to the use of force that centres on large army formations, operating relatively autonomously from political direction. The doctrine’s theory of victory relies on the logic of deterrence by punishment––that India’s threat of a prohibitively costly retaliation will convince its enemy to refrain from aggression. The punitive cost often takes the form of capturing enemy territory as a bargaining chip, even though India usually pursues strategically defensive war aims to maintain the territorial status quo.
This orthodox offensive doctrine was practiced through several successive conflicts, institutionalised through organisational reforms and professional military education, and codified in official publications, including the latest Land Warfare Doctrine, released in 2018. Since the army is by far the largest and best-resourced service, at the forefront of every war and current-day plans, this doctrine has taken on even larger proportions as the de facto national military strategy of India.
The stubborn dominance of the orthodox offensive doctrine, even in the face of drastic changes in India’s strategic environment, renders the military a less useful tool of national policy. In the two decades since India fought its last war in and around the district of Kargil in 1999, three major strategic trends have fundamentally changed India’s security environment: nuclear deterrence has made major conventional war unlikely; China’s military power and assertiveness now pose an unprecedented threat; and radical new technologies have redefined the military state of the art.
India’s security policy has not kept pace. Given the balance of military power on India’s northern borders, India cannot decisively defeat either Pakistan or China on the battlefield. Without the ability to impose such unacceptable costs, India’s doctrine will not deter its rivals, which both have significant resolve to bear the costs of conflict. The continued pursuit of large, offensive military options also raises the risk that its enemies will rely on escalatory—even nuclear—responses. And because the doctrine demands a force structure of large ground-holding formations, it pulls scarce resources away from modernisation and regional force projection—a problem made especially acute as the Indian government makes tough economic choices amid the coronavirus pandemic.
A more challenging strategic environment
Since India fought its last conventional war in 1999, its strategic environment has changed considerably. As India’s inchoate responses to crises since then reveal, its military doctrine and force structure still have not adapted. The scholarship on military innovation presents a broad consensus that military strategies are most likely to change in response to changes in the state’s external environment.
In India’s case, three major strategic changes of the 21st century provide sufficient external motivation for change. First, the open declaration by India and Pakistan that they had nuclear weapons, which introduced a new, confounding element into India’s security policy. Second, the extraordinarily rapid modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which poses a new, more comprehensive threat from China. Third, the step change in the complexity and effectiveness of military technology.
A failure to adapt
Despite the abundance of incentives, India’s military strategy has not adapted quickly to the evolving strategic environment. While the motivations for change are apparent, the mechanisms for change are problematic.
Adapting to external changes requires accurate strategic assessments and a rational deliberation of policy options. Such tasks are best performed in a periodic strategic planning process. The US government is mandated to produce a written National Security Strategy. All major powers—including China, France, Japan, Russia, and the UK—produce defence policy white papers. India is alone among major powers in not regularly producing such a deliberate planning document.
The services’ organisational cultures are another powerful impediment to doctrinal change. Left to its own devices, the Indian Army has persisted with deep-rooted practices favouring the orthodox offensive doctrine. Meanwhile, the generally non-expert civilian bureaucracy is unable to drive change or arbitrate between intra-military disputes. Even occasional episodes of reassessment have reinforced the army’s existing patterns in strategy and doctrine rather than challenging them.
Given that the military is unlikely to overhaul its strategic approach independently, the final major impediment to doctrinal change has been the traditional absence of authoritative civilian direction to change. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, empowered by two decisive electoral mandates, has provided the political muscle to enact some of the long-overdue reforms. The transformative change was the establishment of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) position — although there is no evidence yet that this reform will also change the doctrine.
A less useful force
Given the absence of major reforms, the Indian military will become decreasingly useful as an instrument of national power. The army remains, by far, the largest and best-resourced of the Indian military services, accounting for 57 per cent of the defence budget (compared to 23 per cent for the air force and 14 per cent for the navy) and for 85 per cent of military personnel (compared to 9 per cent for the air force and 4 per cent for the navy).
Within the army, the bias favouring conventional offensive operations is perpetuated through an officer promotion system that uses quotas to greatly favour officers from the combat arms, especially infantry and artillery. The army’s general staff reflects this combat-arms privilege and perpetuates it through its control of doctrine and organisation of the force.
However, it lacks the key enablers to deter or defeat a modern, information-era adversary—especially the C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities that knit together sensors and shooters and the long-range precision weapons that can target the enemy’s vital rear areas and lines of communication.
It lacks the organisation for joint deterrence and war-fighting, in which the military services are integrated with each other from the highest levels of command down to tactical units, both to defend the Indian homeland and to project expeditionary power into the region.
Perhaps most fundamentally, it lacks a theory of victory that would use Indian forces to coerce, deter coercion, and, if necessary, fight, all in ways that are responsive to national political direction.
Recommendations for the Indian Army
The recommendations are designed to require relatively modest additional resources and generate minimal resistance among other services or the civilian bureaucracy.
- Consider new theories of victory. To deter and defeat coercion, the Indian Army should consider rebalancing its doctrine with greater use of denial strategies. It should more frequently seek to make coercion and territorial revisionism prohibitively costly or unfeasible for the enemy rather than relying on ex post facto punishment.
- Consider how to be the supporting element of a joint force. Indian forces will increasingly be compelled to deter and fight in multiple domains and different theatres, and the army should therefore consider how to play a productive role in new missions where it supports a main effort elsewhere.
- Consider new niche capabilities. The army can make sizable and qualitatively different contributions to joint combat by developing more robust intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities and by increasing its capacity for long-range precision strike.
India and its army cannot ignore the prospect of a major war, or indeed of a simultaneous collusive threat on both fronts. It must therefore retain the capacity for major conventional operations. Given the length of India’s borders and the size of Pakistan’s and China’s armies, this would require maintaining a sizeable conventional force. However, India should prepare not only for the most dangerous scenario but also for more likely enemy courses of action.
As the Indian Army’s own Land Warfare Doctrine recognises, grey zone and hybrid threats are a central feature of the contemporary and future strategic environments. Meeting those threats does not require a major resource investment; rather, most fundamentally, it requires rethinking India’s traditional orthodox offensive doctrine.
Indian planners and strategists have begun the necessary discussions. However, reform efforts continue to be thwarted by the lack of formal planning processes, the organisational interests of the military, and haphazard civilian-directed change. Top-down change will remain patchy as long as political leaders focus on short-term tokens of bravado at the expense of long-term investments in modernisation.
Modernisation is more than only new equipment and organisation; it also involves new theories of victory, and doctrinal change that allows responses along the full spectrum of conflict. Punitive incursions into enemy territory, using mass and firepower, are rarely effective in wartime, and even less useful as coercive options in peacetime or crisis. If the Indian Army remains focused on conventional offensive operations, it will become increasingly irrelevant as a tool of national security policy.
Arzan Tarapore is a research scholar on South Asia at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University.Views are personal.
This is an edited excerpt from the author’s paper The Army in Indian Military Strategy: Rethink Doctrine or Risk Irrelevance first published by Carnegie India. Read the full paper here.