Strategic Posture Review: India

Strategic Posture Review: India

“The world is beating a path to your door,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron when visiting India last July. Cameron’s words were not mere rhetorical flourish: During the second half of 2010, the leaders of all the permanent U.N. Security Council members passed through New Delhi, underscoring India’s increasing importance in the global system.

Significantly, all the visiting dignitaries either affirmed support for India’s claim to a permanent seat on the council or, in the case of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, made a statement “supporting India’s aspirations for a greater role in global affairs.” Indeed, the reordering of global institutions to accommodate India is a key thrust of India’s engagement with the world. Such a shift is seen by the Indian elite as necessary to enhance India’s “strategic autonomy,” a central doctrine pursued zealously since independence by all Indian governments across the political spectrum. New Delhi considers that the past decade’s shift of global power from West to East, coupled with the global financial crisis, has only sped up the timetable for this process. As U.S. President Barack Obama put it in his address to the Indian parliament, “India isn’t emerging. It has already emerged.”

India’s Diplomacy: From Nonaligned to All-Aligned

Obama’s statement was borne out by the most-recent elections for nonpermanent Security Council seats, where India secured 187 out of a total of 190 votes cast. Compare this to 1996, when India trailed Japan and failed to make the cut, and it becomes clear how much ground India has covered in the last 15 years.

The country’s newfound confidence in the international arena comes in no small part from its steady growth rate through the worst of the global recession, making it the second-fastest-growing economy in the world, after China. India’s prowess in information technology, pharmaceuticals and automobiles is now recognized the world over. Growing trade, a stable currency backed by substantial reserves of foreign exchange, and strong macroeconomic fundamentals have accompanied India’s emergence, even as its already 300-million-strong middle class continues to expand.

Despite these economic strides, however, India is the most under-built of all major powers in the world. While this certainly poses a challenge to the sustainability of India’s growth, it also presents a huge opportunity. India, by some estimates, will need to spend more than $2 trillion in the next decade to repair its decaying physical infrastructure, ranging from expressways and ports to power plants and airports. It also needs to improve basic sanitation and provide homes to a massively urbanizing population.

These development opportunities are attracting recession-hit players from across the globe and could further cement India’s position as one of the new engines of the world economy. Indian policymakers are seeking to translate the heightened attention into a greater political role for India, and are currently engaged in what can be termed “contract diplomacy” during the global downturn.

Energy Outlook

One of the key sectors where this contract diplomacy has been in evidence is the nuclear domain. The world’s key suppliers of nuclear technology — including the U.S., France and Russia — combined to bring India out of its 34-year “nuclear winter” and open up what is potentially a $150-billion market for nuclear reactors and services. All three have been rewarded by India with wide-ranging contracts that span aerospace and defense as well as well as the nuclear sector.

India’s emphasis on nuclear power is, of course, driven by its desire to attain energy independence. One of India’s key vulnerabilities stems from its overwhelming — and growing — dependence on oil imports to run its economy. Nuclear power will alleviate some of its future shortfalls, but will, in turn, oblige India to look abroad for uranium, of which it has only modest reserves. Moving further away from oil will also require a turn to natural gas, sourced both domestically as well as from abroad. While India is building a number of liquefied natural gas terminals, in the long run it knows that the best way to source natural gas is via transnational pipelines. However, the prospects for the majority of its current pipeline projects remain mired in problems of geography and geopolitics.

The most economically viable project, the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline, seems to be going nowhere due to Iran’s refusal to guarantee the delivery of gas to the Indian border, an Indian prerequisite for accession to the project, given sensitivities about Pakistan’s reliability. The U.S., meanwhile, has been backing the rival Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which India has recently signaled it would approve. But it remains to be seen whether transit through Pakistan will prove to be a similar hurdle for this configuration as well.

The India-China Rivalry

India’s worldwide quest for energy resources is predictably bringing India into direct competition with China despite both sides’ oft-repeated rhetoric of peaceful coexistence. Indeed, just prior to Wen’s visit, the Chinese ambassador to India called bilateral relations “fragile” and in need of “special attention.”

After the relative calm and cooperation of the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when both China and India were calibrating a response to America’s so-called unipolar moment, the two Asian giants have seen their relationship become rather tenuous over the last few years. In 2006, China’s then-ambassador to India, Su Yuxi, stated in an interview that, “China claimed the entire territory of what India calls Arunachal Pradesh,” in India’s northeast. Since then, an ever-increasing number of Chinese incursions along the Line of Actual Control — the de facto border between the two countries — have been reported in the Indian media.

More recently, China has angered India by issuing stapled visas to Indian nationals residing in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. It has also moved troops into the Gilgit-Baltistan region of northern Kashmir to shore up the Pakistani army and protect its ongoing infrastructure projects in the region. India has responded by allowing the Dalai Lama to visit Sikkim and the Tawang monastery in Arunachal Pradesh, as well as by suspending all military-to-military contacts with the Chinese.

The Indo-Sino competition for resources and influence has also driven India’s Look East policy of engagement toward Southeast Asia, in particular spilling over into neighboring Burma. Although long a supporter of Aung Sang Su Kyi, India’s Burma policy has been characterized by realpolitik over the last decade. At stake are wide-ranging Indian interests, chief among which are Burma’s gas reserves and security cooperation to deal with insurgent groups in India’s troubled northeastern states. India has aggressively courted the ruling junta to become its major democratic benefactor, shielding it from Western opprobrium during tense times such as the failed 2008 Saffron Uprising. In return, India has secured river transit and energy projects, while also working out a mechanism with the junta that will allow Indian security forces to engage in hot pursuit of Indian insurgent groups who cross the Indo-Burmese border at will.

China has upped the ante by offering considerable economic and military aid to India’s subcontinental neighbors, such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, in addition to being Pakistan’s “all-weather ally.” India is using its growing engagement with Mongolia, Singapore and Vietnam to counter Beijing’s push. Indeed, Vietnam may become the first country to receive Indian nuclear technology.

Reaching out to like-minded democracies in Asia, India has also entered into defense treaties with both South Korea and Japan, including exploring areas of joint weapons production. India seeks much-greater investment from these two countries and has cemented free-trade agreements with both, something it has refused to do with China.

As these moves and countermoves unfold, India remains keen to strengthen ties with the U.S. as an offshore balancer to manage China’s assertiveness. India and the U.S. today conduct more military exercises with each other than with any other country. Washington’s lead role in reintegrating India into the global nuclear market, its recent removal of export controls from key Indian institutions and its support for Indian membership in global nonproliferation bodies like the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Waasenaar group have elevated it to the level of India’s premier strategic partner. Nevertheless, India will not allow its strategic autonomy to be constrained by any Western containment strategy toward China.

Strategic Regions

Afghanistan. Traditionally averse to the Taliban — whether of the “good” or “bad” variety — and supportive of Afghan President Hamid Karzai as well as the Northern Alliance before him, India remains very apprehensive of a U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan. In particular, India fears a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan that could become a breeding ground for jihadists who may then be directed toward Indian Kashmir by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.

India is also worried about the future of the considerable investments it has made in rebuilding the country, ranging from telecom towers to hospitals. Indian companies have also recently begun looking for Afghan mining opportunities. There, too, they are facing competition from the Chinese, who would likely benefit from increased Pakistani influence in Afghanistan.

The Persian Gulf. Even as India complements the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, New Delhi has made it clear that it does not share Washington’s perception of Iran’s geopolitical trajectory. Iran is crucial to India, not just as a source of energy, but also as a bridge to Central Asian markets. Moreover, India has made some progress in convincing the U.S. of Iran’s indispensability to achieving any Afghan peace process.

Keeping with its balanced foreign policy, India has also considerably increased its engagement with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (GCC) — particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Saudi Arabia is currently India’s largest oil supplier, and has instituted a “Look East” policy of its own that seeks to leverage India’s technical and commercial capability to upgrade the Saudi economy. New Delhi has also expanded security cooperation with the GCC, while the warm bilateral relationship with Oman includes deep intelligence, defense and trade ties, and an undersea gas pipeline currently under consideration.

Israel. India’s top partner in the Middle East, however, is Israel. The two countries are involved in a number of joint military projects that will allow India to maintain a technological edge over its rivals. Cooperation in the civilian sphere is also on the rise, with Israel’s expertise in dry-land farming assuming importance in India’s agricultural renewal strategy. Israel also remains very concerned about Pakistan’s future and is coordinating intelligence efforts in this sphere.

The Emerging Global Order

India perceives the emerging global order as an interlocking web of relationships with a number of nodes driven by issue-based alignments. Consistent with this approach, India had no qualms about joining with China to resist the Western line at the Copenhagen climate-change summit, and has consistently articulated similar viewpoints to those of Beijing in World Trade Organization talks.

Importantly, however, India’s new posture is characterized by a call for reciprocity in its dealings with all major players. This doctrine was in evidence during Wen’s recent visit, when India refused to reaffirm the “One China Policy” in the joint statement as a response to China’s recent stand on Kashmir.

Building sub-alliances within the G-20 seems to be an Indian priority as well. The chief expression of this is the so called IBSA coalition among India, Brazil and South Africa, which creates a group of multicultural and democratic maritime nations that can exchange ideas for growth and cooperation given their similar developmental environments. These relationships are also being led by Indian corporations, which seek to use South Africa as a base for operations in the African continent, and eye Brazil for an analogous role in South America.

Projecting Power: Indian Defense Strategy

Military Buildup: Conventional Capabilities

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami saw an unprecedented level of deployment by Indian air and naval units in rescue and relief operations. The efficacy of these efforts left a deep imprint on countries in the Bay of Bengal littoral and beyond. A deeper impression, however, was made on Indian policymakers, who saw an increasing potential for using the Indian armed forces as an instrument of diplomacy.

At the center of the post-tsunami relief efforts was the tri-services command based in the Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) Islands. Known as the ANC, the command is a first-of-its-kind experiment by the Indian military, with a view to developing joint war-fighting and power-projection capabilities. The choice of the A&N archipelago is significant, as it sits astride the busiest ocean lanes in the world just before they enter the Strait of Malacca.

The ANC provides security to more than 600 islands in the chain from threats such as Thai pirates, Bangladeshi illegal immigrants and international terrorists. But it is also designed to seed the eastern Indian Ocean with surveillance capabilities including air and naval units as well as land-based, over-the-horizon radars — a demonstration of Indian capabilities meant for Chinese consumption, in order to highlight the vulnerability of China’s sea-borne energy supplies transiting the Indian Ocean.

The A&N is just one end of what India considers its core maritime area of interest, which stretches from the Strait of Malacca in the east to the Strait of Hormuz in the west. The zone defines the two extremities of the principal sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean region, where, according to India’s chief of naval staff, “The Indian navy sees itself as playing the role of a net-provider of security, and will put a specific emphasis on cooperation with other countries.”

To that end, India has made the development of its navy a priority, with a view to augmenting out-of-area capabilities in the 21st century. The Indian navy presently has 40 ships under construction in both domestic as well as foreign shipyards, including aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. It is also expected to place an order for four Landing Platform Docks of a foreign design to be built in collaboration with a domestic shipyard. The launch of India’s first indigenous nuclear submarine, the INS Arihant, in 2009 was not just the harbinger of true blue-water capability, but actually the culmination of a thought process set in motion during the closing stages of the 1971 Bangladesh war, when the Soviets dispatched a nuclear submarine to help India counter Washington’s deployment of the USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal in support of Pakistan.

Besides adding naval assets, India is also building hardened naval bases on both its coasts, the most prominent being INS Kadamba at Karwar, just south of Goa. These bases will house the blue-water assets India is presently acquiring, and de-congest existing bases, like Mumbai, that are shared with civilian agencies. Cooperation with existing partners in the Indian Ocean region is being expanded to include berthing rights in countries such as Oman and Mozambique, as well as the establishment of listening posts and refueling stations in Madagascar, Mauritius and Seychelles. These new facilities will also allow the Indian navy to increase the tempo of its fight against piracy in the North Arabian Sea.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is also very keen to be a part of the power-projection game and in recent years has acquired aerial-refueling capabilities, Israeli-origin Airborne Warning and Control Systems, and heavy fighters of the Russian Sukhoi family. It is in the process of acquiring more than 400 aircraft in the next decade, including an order for 126 fighter jets covered by the Multirole Medium-Range Combat Aircraft tender currently being decided among six competing models. The IAF remains India’s most capital-intensive force, soaking up more than 30 percent of the total outlay for planned acquisitions. Despite the naval buildup, this balance of funding is not going to change anytime soon, given that the IAF is set to invest $35 billion in jointly developing the Hal-Sukhoi Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), based on the Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA currently undergoing testing in Russia. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s late-December visit to India saw the signing of a preliminary design contract, valued at $295 million, for the FGFA.

Despite its very large tank fleet, the Indian army has traditionally been an infantry-heavy force with insufficient mechanization. With a view to transforming itself into a force that can mobilize quickly and retaliate with concentrated power, the army is inducting more infantry vehicles, cruise missiles, rocket artillery, advanced sensors and unmanned systems. It has also been running a longstanding artillery-gun competition to bring in more than 3,000 new 155-mm howitzers.

The ongoing conventional buildup detailed above is a direct result of the lessons of the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan, which showed that a limited war with a nuclear backdrop is still very much possible. Compounding this has been the fact that China has substantially upgraded its military infrastructure in Tibet with new railroads, highways, and airfields that are now capable of hosting heavy fighters like the SU-30 MKK. Moreover, given that the Sino-Pakistani all-weather friendship now includes Chinese troops operating within Pakistani-controlled territory in Gilgit-Baltistan, the Indian military is now talking about the possibility of a two-and-a-half-front war, whereby Pakistan and China coordinate a joint military attack on India, while also using domestic terrorist cells to target India’s rearguard.

Jointness and Network-Centric Capabilities

The multi-front scenario has also driven India to begin building a network-centric capability to reduce the sensor-to-shooter loop and allow India to face off numerically superior forces, if need be. The IAF has been first off the blocks in this sector with the inauguration of AF-NET, which data-links its air and ground assets. The navy is backing what it calls “Maritime Domain Awareness” and will be the first service to have a dedicated satellite for surveillance and communications. The army, meanwhile, is the leading recipient of a $3 billion fiber-optic network that will enable it to vacate parts of the electromagnetic spectrum now earmarked for civilian cellular networks. This emphasis on contemporary C4ISR systems — military shorthand for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — is a direct lesson of America’s wars in the Gulf and Kosovo, where large Soviet-style militaries were decimated by seamlessly linked high-tech American airpower. The upgraded C4ISR capability also ties in with an effective command-and-control system for India’s nuclear capability.

Significantly, all three services are engaged in bilateral and multilateral military exercises, most notably with the U.S., France, the U.K., Russia, Singapore, Oman and Japan. These war games bring an element of transparency to India’s military buildup. India’s forces underwent a similar expansion in the late-1980s, with the induction of two aircraft carriers, strategic bombers and even a leased nuclear submarine. At the time, this raised the hackles of Australia and some Southeast Asian nations about Indian intentions. The Indian military is clearly keen to avoid any such suspicions this time.

Exercising with the U.S. has reinforced the emerging belief in the efficacy of joint operations. The Indian army has earmarked a brigade’s worth of troops for amphibious operations, and joint exercises now routinely take place with the navy and air force in the Arabian Sea, where Somali pirates have recently been spotted nearby.

Another example of “jointness” is the military use of space. An integrated space cell is being set up by the three services to avoid duplication of space resources. In the next five years, India will also be rolling out its own version of the Global Positioning System, called the Indian Regional Navigational Satellite System, which would aid in both missile targeting as well as military navigation. Indian missile and anti-missile research also seeks to develop “universal” systems that enable all three services to operate them.

However, India is still some distance away from achieving complete cohesion among its various security agencies. One prominent area of discord is cyber warfare, where, given its vast IT sector, India has been rather slow to leverage its homegrown talent for this purpose. Nevertheless, according to a recent proposal, the National Technical Research Organisation, along with India’s Defense Intelligence Agency, will be the lead agencies guiding the creation of offensive cyber-capabilities.

Another area of interservice tension in the past has been with regard to the control of India’s nuclear arsenal, with the air force and army disputing ownership of India’s ballistic-missile assets in the late-1990s. The air force believed that long-range capability was its natural domain, as opposed to what it sees as a “tactically minded” army. Eventually, the Ministry of Defense ruled in favor of the army, arguing that only the army could spare the manpower required for managing India’s arsenal of road- and rail-mobile missiles. As of today, India’s Strategic Forces Command consists of both air force aircraft and army missile groups. A third dimension is being added with the navy’s introduction of submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

Calibrating the Response to Terrorism

Just as nuclear weapons have not ruled out limited war under high-tech conditions, they have not deterred terrorist strikes emanating from Pakistani soil. The Indian establishment has not yet been able to devise an optimal punitive response to major terrorist attacks like the 2008 Mumbai attack. Though now officially denied, at the time, there was much talk of implementing the army’s cold-start doctrine, which apparently envisaged multiple, shallow, armored thrusts into Pakistani territory backed by offensive firepower, designed to “adequately” punish Pakistan without crossing any of Islamabad’s nuclear “redlines.” However, it seems that the Indian government has been unable to convince itself of Pakistan’s reliability in sticking to its own redlines in the event of any substantial destruction. This is probably also the reason that the IAF was asked to stand down after the Mumbai attack, even though it publicly stated that it was ready to hit more than 5,000 targets in Pakistan. In a sense, India’s military buildup is serving more to deter a conventional attack than stop asymmetric warfare by elements in its neighborhood.

Indigenization, Defense Partnerships and Obstacles to Modernization

The significant conventional-force modernization has also resulted in India emerging as one the largest weapons purchasers in the world. The country is expected to spend $50 billion to $70 billion in the next decade on imported arms. A burgeoning economy makes the military expansion possible while spending between just 2 percent to 3 percent of GDP on defense. Nevertheless, Indian planners realize that there can be no real independent foreign policy without an indigenous weapons-production capability. As a result, there is now a renewed urgency to improve the level of domestically produced weaponry from the present 30 percent to 70 percent by 2020.

The greatest impediment to indigenization, much more than access to technology, is an inadequate industrial base and inefficient production. India’s shipbuilding schedules, for example, have been something of a disgrace, with Indian shipyards taking a decade to produce destroyer-sized warships. Naturally, this needs to change if India is to compete with China’s rapid buildup of naval assets.

In order to balance force requirements with the strategic goal of indigenization, India has begun to co-develop weapons with partners in Israel, France and Russia. Also, it has put in place an offset policy mandating that at least 30 percent of the total value of arms contracts be reinvested in Indian companies through work-share arrangements. Nevertheless, major global defense contractors believe that the biggest impediment to the development of India’s indigenous defense industry is the country’s foreign direct investment cap, which at 26 percent doesn’t allow them to bring in the best technology or make viable investments.

More broadly, defense modernization is also hamstrung by recurrent allegations of corruption and suffocating bureaucratic oversight. The army’s artillery modernization program, which continues to suffer from the stigma of the Bofors scandal dating back to the late-1980s, is illustrative. Every time the army is close to announcing a winner for its artillery competition, a contender is disqualified on corruption charges, leading to the process beginning all over again as mandated by Indian procurement rules. As a result, India has inducted no new artillery for more than two decades.

The use of a compartmentalized approach toward weapons development, which involves the end user — the military — in the process at a very late stage, has also been problematic, resulting in severe discord between the scientific community and the military over performance specifications and timelines. Typically, the R&D community promises too much, and the military wants even more. Meanwhile, bureaucrats allocate too little money given the ambitious goals in mind.

Internal Security Threats

India also has to factor in a significant outlay on maintaining internal security. Clear and present threats include the Naxalite insurgency in eastern India, ethnic militias in the northeast and, of course, jihadi terrorism emanating from across the western border but including domestic linkages. The Mumbai attack underscored the vulnerability of India’s vast coastline. As a result, spending on paramilitary forces and the coast guard is rising steadily, with coastal security, in particular, being a focus of spending.

Post-Mumbai, there has been a renewed debate on the need to strike a balance between acquiring out-of-area capabilities and securing the homeland. The Indian army is the chief proponent of prioritizing the latter, understandable given its role in guarding India’s porous land borders. Indian policymakers, however, believe that the focus should be on capabilities, rather than on a threat-centric approach that diminishes flexibility. Concurrently, there is a renewed focus on border management, with efforts being made to integrate these areas into the security architecture via new infrastructure and outreach programs.

Beyond South Asian: India’s Strategic Future

The infrastructure improvements in the border areas are actually indicative of a change in the Indian strategic mindset. Earlier defense planners kept the border regions, especially those facing Tibet, devoid of transport infrastructure, so that any enemy invasion would be slowed by the risk of outrunning its lines of supply. Today, there is a move away from this defensive strategy to a more confident approach, whereby roads and advanced landing grounds are being built right up to the border, allowing Indian troops to conduct regular patrols and confront intrusions. Moreover, the new infrastructure would in theory allow the Indian military to mount its own offensive operations.

The shift constitutes a move away from the outpost mentality that was a relic of the British Raj. It is driven by the realization that developing border areas is crucial to retaining the loyalty of locals, which, in turn, is really the first line of defense against aggression.

The establishment of the ANC also grows out of this line of thinking. Following the militarization of the islands, the development of dual-use infrastructure will be used to facilitate tourism and maritime trade. As India’s former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran recently suggested, the islands could ultimately become a hub for break-bulk container traffic.

The new military thinking mirrors the changes in India’s overall orientation. The embrace of liberalism and globalization has given Indians the sense that they need not look at themselves as a former colonized country seeking to keep out new waves of external interference, but rather as a nation of people who may have what it takes to compete at the global level. This break from the past is no doubt a result of India’s emergence as a premier outsourcing destination for high-tech services, as well as the success of Indian corporations and individuals abroad.

Looking eastward from the A&N islands, the Indian navy believes that in any hypothetical conflict with China, it must be able to project power into the South China Sea. India’s engagement with Vietnam should be understood in this context, particularly in terms of berthing rights at Cam Ranh Bay. Vietnam may also become the first country to receive the Brahmos cruise missile and the Prithvi series of short-range ballistic missiles from India.

Until recently, Indian troops had been deployed overseas exclusively on peacekeeping missions, to which India has been a major contributor, or at the specific request of a foreign government. However, India is now setting up expeditionary bases of its own. India’s first overseas military base is located at Ayni, Tajikistan, not far from the Afghan border. Though its official status has been kept ambiguous, the base has been refurbished with Indian aid and is capable of hosting both helicopters as well as fighter aircraft. Ayni is likely to be central to India’s efforts to sustain the Northern Alliance after an eventual U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan.


Though riven by a million mutinies, India continues on its path to becoming a mature democracy and a global power. By 2050, India will have the largest pool of young people in the world and possibly an economy still growing at a fairly brisk pace. In order to fully exploit the demographic dividend that democracy and freedom offer, India must improve its governance and eliminate graft from public life, because only by getting the basics right can India sustain its progress. Nevertheless, in an increasingly interconnected world, where people-to-people contact is no longer a mere diplomatic euphemism, India has already gone beyond the proverbial South Asian sandbox and dehyphenated itself. India has indeed emerged. Its challenge now will be to help shape the global order into which it has emerged.

Saurav Jha studied economics at Presidency College, Calcutta, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He writes and researches on global energy issues and clean energy development in Asia. His first book for Harper Collins India, “The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power,” was published in January 2010. He also works as an independent consultant in the energy sector in India. He can be reached at

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