What ails military modernisation?

Arming Without Aiming The pithy title says it all. It was a book waiting to be written for many years now. India’s military modernisation, or rather the lack of it, is a subject that is often invoked by commentators as a lament. But the subject has remained substantially unexplored. The biggest credit due to the authors, Stephen P Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta, is for being the first ones to attempt a comprehensive coverage of the subject. Academic disagreements apart, the work brings much-needed attention to the subject.

The major themes explored in the book include an overview of India’s defence reform efforts, how modernisation of the armed forces has proceeded, India’s nuclear capabilities and police modernisation, before arriving at the conclusions. The book ends with a chapter on India-US relations, which juts out as distinct from the rest of the book. It may be that chapter was added later for the American readership of the book.

Few will dispute the authors’ argument that

“India’s modernisation has lacked political direction and has suffered from weak prospective planning, individual service-centric doctrines, and a disconnect between strategic objectives and the pursuit of new technology.”

The criticism about the lack of planning is a fair one but the logic and events cited to buttress the claim are sometimes inaccurate. This flows from the book’s underlying assumption that all these shortcomings arise from India’s strategic restraint.

Western scholars like George Tanham and Stephen Rosen have made a case that India lacks a culture of strategic thinking. Arming Without Aiming takes that argument many steps further to suggest that India has had a consistent policy of strategic restraint starting from 1948 in Kashmir up till Mumbai terror attacks in 2008. The authors write: “India’s deeply ingrained tradition of strategic restraint most powerfully explains the puzzling inability of the Indian state to generate sufficient military power to alter its strategic position vis-à-vis Pakistan and China.” While the lack of policy articulation may not always indicate an absence of policy, to search for a unifying assumption across various stages of India’s development, under different leadership, and in different geo-political climates over a period of more than six decades convolutes the picture.

Is India all that strategically restrained, by design? Most of India’s neighbours would take strong offence to such a depiction of India’s policy in the region. Many times in the recent past, India’s neighbours have often raised the bogey of India’s big-brother attitude towards its smaller neighbours. India’s military forays into East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Sri Lanka and Maldives stand contrary to this assumption of strategic restraint. Those associated with planning and execution of at least two other military operations, in Siachen and Exercise Brasstacks, offer these moves as successful examples of the use of force to enable coercive diplomacy.

The idea of strategic restraint—if one were to accept for a moment that it exists—while a cause of many of India’s ills has served India’s interests well so far. The authors posit that India will have to “break out of” strategic restraint in order to “assume its place as a great power”. But it is strategic restraint that informed India’s aversion to foreign occupation—from Bangladesh in 1971 to Maldives in 1988—since the cost of extrication would have been ruinous as many other examples have shown. The authors do acknowledge the benefits that have flowed from such restraint, especially the absence of global alarm over India’s military rearmament.  Contrary to what the book argues, there is nothing to suggest that a restrained power can never be a great power.

Perhaps the most important chapter of the book is the concluding one: Fighting Change. It covers a subject almost entirely untouched in the Indian public discourse. Most Indian commentators remain fixated with the need for higher expenditure on defence procurement and on blaming the politico-bureaucratic apathy that hampers the procurement system. The authors go beyond the usual paradigm of greater outlays leading to better outcomes by focusing on larger issues of military modernisation. However, the discussion—which analyses India almost entirely through the prism of Pakistan—does not take into account the China factor in India’s strategic calculus, thereby missing out on a vector whose importance is set to grow.

In their final chapter, the authors chart the likely course of American-Indian interactions in the rearmament sphere. They posit that the two countries do not share a common strategic vision and have “differing versions of a just world order. Wide differences persist, notably in matters pertaining to the world economic order and global energy and environment…” The book argues that India’s strategic incoherence or restraint means that the United States shouldn’t get overexcited about the relationship, and should not over-invest in India. However, given this assessment, just as easily the argument can be made that it is all the more important for the United States to invest in a strategic partnership.

The most interesting part of the book however is its preface which delves into the history of why India has not been more focused in developing its military power. It is here that one comes to learn that British scientist P M S Blackett was hired as a defence adviser by Jawaharlal Nehru soon after independence, and that it was on his advice that Nehru agreed to keep the military spending below 2 percent of GDP.

It is necessary to read this book as an exploration of the major crisis in India’s military system. It helps us acknowledge the malaise, even if we disagree with its  diagnosis and prescriptions. India’s strategic thinkers, policymakers and political leadership must re-diagnose the problem and debate the treatment so that India’s strategic choices will not remain more limited than they need to.