The structural challenges of the Indian defence sector


Book review: Handbook of Indian Defence Policy, ed. Harsh V. Pant



Through this seminal account, Dr. Harsh Pant brings in a diverse set of scholars who take the understanding of India’s defense policy beyond the conventional understanding which hitherto restricted its focus to the armed forces and took India’s independence as a starting point for evolution of military policies. The scholarship Dr. Pant engages with, presents a multidimensional analysis consisting of the social, historical, structural and doctrinal issues which have guided the evolution and development of India’s defense policy.

The book is divided into 8 sections and my review of each section is hereinafter indicated:

Section 1: Soldier, State and Society in India

The section gives an elaborate account of the fundamental structure of Indian Army, which had its origins in the colonial era. Specifically, the book explains the recruitment policies of the British, based on the myth of ‘martial races’ (according to which only certain classes were fit to fight).

In the post-independence period, the civil- military relations were heavily skewed in favor of the former as Prime Minister Nehru was skeptical of military domination owing to his leanings towards liberal democratic institutions where a civilian supremacy was the norm. The hierarchical arrangement of civilian authority over the armed forces has its own complexities which have led to simmering tensions between them. Conflicting objectives between these domains have presented themselves in a wide variety of contexts ranging from wars, secessionist movements, developing nuclear doctrines, organizing a strategic culture and instituting defense reforms. Each of the above mentioned points is intricately as well as critically discussed to give an insight regarding the challenges which the armed forces have faced in their transition from a colonial to a post-colonial era.

Section 2: Military and Foreign Policy

The three chapters in this section analyze the armed forces’ interaction with the changing nature of warfare, their role in foreign policy and finally and India’s defense diplomacy.

The changing world order post-cold war and nuclearization of South Asia propelled a Revolution in Military Affairs, which was imbibed in the army’s doctrine in 2004. However, the book has focused on rectifying the shortcomings which still prevail, like the inter-services disconnect and the importance of a unified command under a Chief of Defense Staff (CDS).

Overall, some positive developments have taken place but some crucial grievances still remain to be addressed, which make India’s pace of responding to the changing nature of warfare as that of a ‘gradual incrementalism’.

The book then delves on role of military in foreign policy, which has increased over the years, but still India’s defense posture tells the story of a very defensive national psyche. If military has to be a serious instrument of foreign policy, it has to move out of this defensive shell.

The last chapter in this section delves on India’s defense diplomacy which has been erratic lately, owing to its dithering stance vis-a-vis USA and China and the lack of a clear strategic vision which an emerging superpower like India cannot afford to delay at this crucial juncture.

Section 3: The Services

Indian Army

The army is faced with a twin challenge of maintaining the internal as well as external security. Additionally, the emergence of a nuclear Pakistan has undermined the conventional superiority of the army which was evident with the Pakistan’s Kargil venture in 1999.

The domestic arena has kept the Indian army more occupied where it has faced insurgencies ever since the days of independence, first in the north-east, then in Punjab and finally in Kashmir. In the present times, the army is occupied in its counter insurgency operations in the Kashmir region, which took a violent turn in early 1990s and continues to challenge the state till date.  Here, the book sheds light on problems such as an over-emphasis on internal security which is seen as something regressive for the army, but it should be realized that at this moment, there is no alternative to the army as the police and the paramilitary forces still operate sub optimally, which the book explains later.

Indian Navy

The Indian Navy’s role came to be recognized in the 1971 Indo-Pak war when its operations in the twin fronts of West and East Pakistan led to a decisive Indian victory. With the realization of its crucial role, the year’s post 1971 witnessed a massive modernization and expansion of the naval infrastructure.

The end of Cold war reoriented the naval vision and the quest to emerge as a regional maritime powers expanded its operations across the full spectrum of Indian Ocean region (IOR), from the Horn of Africa to the Straits of Malacca.

Despite its visible presence in the region, maritime security was severely undermined during the 2008 Mumbai attacks where the attackers entered India through the Arabian Sea. Another challenge was in the years 2013-14 when a series of blasts in the ageing fleet of naval ships and submarines resulted in resignation of the then navy chief. Heavy reliance on imports is yet another issue which has to be addressed. India’s growing influence as a regional power in the IOR states that it is high time that the navy is used as an effective instrument of state policy.

Indian Air Force

The Air Force is the most innovative and adaptive entity among the three services, which has been active since Kashmir dispute began in 1947 where it performed to task of transporting troops to defend Kashmir against Pakistani invasion. Though it was not used during the 1962, Sino-Indian war, its role was very effective in 1971 war. Besides this, it has been engaged in numerous missions of domestic as well as international nature including UN operations.

Despite the impressive feats achieved by each of these organizations in their individual capacity, a unified command is yet to be established, only after which an optimal and coordinated decision making will utilize the full potential of the armed forces, which still lack unity.

Section 4: Doctrines

The successive wars fought by the Indian army helped shape its doctrinal evolution. Long delayed, Indian army’s doctrine got released in 2004(on conventional warfare) and 2006(on sub-conventional warfare). Events like the end of Cold War, nuclearization of the Indian subcontinent, Operation Parakram and the Cold Start doctrine have heavily influenced Indian army’s doctrine making and its offensive posture. However, if analyzed along with the nuclear doctrine, a disconnect appears as the nuclear policy is a political domain kept out of military influence, an anomaly which must be worked upon.

Known as the ‘Iron fist in a velvet glove’, the doctrine on sub-conventional warfare is principled on a humane, people centric approach but the presence extrajudicial powers with the army in conflict zones makes the role of the armed forces controversial . Further, an aggressive approach to deal with insurgency in the following doctrine of 2010 makes the people centric principles of this approach questionable. The loss of civilian lives in conflict zones cannot be ignored in this regard the accountability for such loss is yet to be established.

Regarding the navy, a key highlight about the Indian navy stated in the book is that it has seen some strategic maneuvering after the end of Cold War and has expanded its outreach considerably, especially in the crucial maritime zones of Asia and Africa. Its presence among the near as well as far flung island states indicates in form of cordial maritime relations indicates its emergence as a net security provider in the IOR. The navy is also an important element of the nuclear strategy; hence the focus on induction of Nuclear powered submarine and Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles.

For Indian Air Force, the credit for giving it a doctrinal structure goes to Air Commodore Jasjit Singh whose works equipped the aviation strategists with the understanding of modern western air power theory and operations at a time when India opened its doors to western hardware. The air power came to be seen not as an adjunct of the land power, but a distinct entity capable of decisive action. Today, full spectrum capability (ability to carry out conventional as well as a limited air warfare) have become an integral part of Indian Air Power. However, achieving an inter dependency and a complete understanding of air power by other two forces would result in complete doctrinal evolution of the forces.

Section 5: Defense and Development

India’s defense budget has come a long way since the days of independence, from a meagre INR 92 crores in 1947 to a staggering INR 2.29 lakh crores in 2014. Initially not considered important, the Indian leadership was compelled to focus on defense spending after it faced the humiliating defeat in the 1962 war and a twin threat from China and Pakistan. At present, despite the high absolute numbers, the defense spending is only 1.78% of the nation’s GDP for the year 2014-15, falling from 3.25% in 1988.

Noticeably, allocation to R&D has been on the rise with an emphasis on creation of a robust indigenous base. However, time and cost overruns in many projects have raised widespread criticism regarding the utilization and efficacy of the R&D sector in India. Another issue confronting the army is gross under-utilization of capital acquisition budget.

Moving on to the defense procurements, the book locates the challenges confronting this sector in the undeveloped strategic vision of India’s post-colonial leadership which was opposed to India attaining a military posture. Even despite facing several wars and conflicts throughout, it took the Kargil War in 1999 to give a wakeup call to the Indian establishment to set up an organizational structure for this sector, which finally came up in 1999. Private players were invited to invest and the Defense Procurement Procedure was promulgated for capital acquisitions. The book explains structure of procurement procedures along with the shortcomings which have impeded some big ticket reforms to streamline the procurement procedure.

Section 6: Security

The book takes a pan-Indian analysis of the major issues challenging India’s internal security, namely the Islamic terrorism, the Naxalite movement and the insurgency in India’s north-eastern states.

Islamic extremism

The Islamic extremism began in India in early 1990s when a nationwide communal polarization led to the demolition of Babri Mosque in 1992. The disenchantment among the Muslim population, along with their marginalization from mainstream representation was a ready fertile ground for Pakistan’s proxy agencies to recruit youth which solved the twin objectives of carrying out destabilizing activities as well an indigenization of militancy. Groups like the Indian Mujahedeen were a creation of this network and reached its operational apogee in 2008, when several major cities across India were targeted with serial blasts.

At present, what is alarming is the reports on a possible alliance of these groups with Al-Qaeda, after its leader Ayman Al Zawahiri announced the creation of Al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) in 2014. In this regard, the book could have recommended steps for inclusion of the marginalized minorities and to dissuade them from being radicalized, as these aspects are crucially linked to national security too.

Naxal/Maoist Movement

Beginning out of a communist revolt in the state of West Bengal 1967, the Naxalite movement has made deep inroads in India’s hinterland region. Its influence spans from Andhra Pradesh in South to the Indo-Nepal border in the north.

Functioning under different leaderships, the movement organized itself into a unified structure as the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in 2004. Recognizing the superiority of state’s forces, the Maoist movement relies on popular mobilization strategies and guerrilla warfare which has been so powerful that fatalities due to their violent actions prompted the ‘Operation Green Hunt’ in 2009 to tackle this challenge.

Absence of a strategy is evident due to ad-hoc shifts in state’s approach to this challenge. Added to this, a low police to people ratio, ill-equipped police and a thin presence of state’s administrative apparatus complicate the situation. Here, the book rightly argues that it is also the miscarriage of justice which has fostered a popular resentment among the people, something that is a bitter reality to be accepted by the Indian establishment.

North-east India

The insurgency in India’s north-east is as old as India’s independence when several groups emerged demanding secession. The protracted nature of conflict in this region is due to recurring emergence of factions and new entrants, known as the ‘vacuum fillers’. The states of Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura have recorded a spike in insurgent violence. However, counter insurgency efforts have been successful in Tripura due to a people centric approach and have also helped in effective intelligence gathering. This needs to be applied to other affected regions.

A significant challenge is the cross-border nature of these insurgencies where rebels have successfully used the porous borders to establish training bases in Bangladesh, Myanmar and even Bhutan. Support from Bhutanese and Bangladeshi authorities has been overwhelming and has given a blow to insurgent activities. With challenges abound, the book argues that the complacency on part of government while dealing with insurgency is detrimental to the north-east’s stability.

The suggestions provided in the book to deal with these issues are very important, yet limit themselves to providing structuring solutions to these problems, which are socioeconomic in nature, and hence demand a bottom-up approach, where the civilian(and not military) establishment must play a preponderant, especially in reaching out to those placed in the lowest rungs of the society.

Section 7: Institutional Infrastructure

This unit highlights the structural deficiencies which affect India’s national security apparatus which primarily include an absence of a military Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) and a paucity of long term defense planning. In fact, the position of a CDS is pending since the days of its recommendation by Lord Mountbatten to the then Nehru government. Besides this, the military chiefs are hierarchically placed below the Ministry of Defense whose highest decision making committees are staffed by generalist officers from the civil services. Time and again, these deficiencies have surfaced during the war times. Moreover, the exigencies of delivering on social and economic issues in a coalition government era resulted in the Cabinet Committee on Security (the highest level decision making body on defense issues) relegating defense related decisions.

A positive development took place in the aftermath of Kargil war, following which an Integrated Defense Staff was established within the Ministry of Defense but it too became a victim of bureaucratic staffing, thereby affecting its efficiency.

The book, then explains the functioning of India’s intelligence institutions since independence in light of the constant threats faced on internal as well as the external front. For instance, the R&AW’s biggest achievement was its twin successes in liberating Bangladesh and raiding the Northeastern rebel hideouts operating from Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Contrary to the popular perception that intelligence failures have led India into crises, the book mentions that failure of quick response in the Kargil crisis and later the 2008 Mumbai attacks were more to do with structural failures to respond to the intelligence inputs, which were times provided by the agencies.

In today’s world with changing nature of threats, it is important that these agencies adopt future oriented reforms soon, but this crucial aspect doesn’t receive consideration beyond mere mention. In an increasingly globalized world with rapid technological advancements, the book falls short of explaining the course of action taken by Intelligence agencies in light of the latest and most dangerous threats, which come from transnational terrorist groups (especially the ISIS) or from cyber warfare. This has blurred the internal and external dimensions of threats. How the Intel agencies plan to cooperate in addressing these threats is not mentioned. Also, in this regard, the preparedness of India’s intelligence agencies to deal with the growing menace of cyber warfare is missing. This is important to highlight as along with a conventional threat of a direct confrontation, the cyber-attacks from China and Pakistan are a regular and rising phenomenon.

Indian Police

The Police in India is still dawns a colonial character, drawing from the Indian Police Act of 1861. It still functions as it did earlier to meet colonial requirements, that is, maintaining order by force. Reform committees too have fallen short of meeting these key issues. Connecting with the community, gender sensitivity, scientific investigations and formulating a concrete approach to fight insurgencies are key reforms which are required as soon as possible.

Similarly, the paramilitary forces require some crucial reforms, most importantly, achieving interoperability between various paramilitary forces for a coordinated response to future crises.

Section 8: Nuclear Weapons and Space

The book takes up the crucial issue of the need for an interface between conventional and the nuclear command. Here, the domains of cooperation identified are techno-industrial, infrastructural, personnel and Command & Control, focusing on which a conventional-nuclear interface can make the defense institutions effective. Besides this, such interface also requires an oversight coordinating mechanism which can come only if a CDS is established. Another anomaly highlighted by the book is the non- involvement of military in decision making related to nuclear issue(which is under civilian control) which contributes to the already existing schism between conventional and nuclear forces.

Lastly, the book touches upon India’s policy on space security and its missile defense program which are being pursued with greater concern after the realization that the space too is a strategic domain with changing technical nature of warfare.


Overall, the achievements as well as the challenges facing the defense policymaking are put in an elaborate framework, with a thrust on the latter. However, an overemphasis is placed on undermining Nehru’s decision to make the post-independence armed forces under the civilian establishment. This decision by the Nehru led government is considered as a key factor for the continuing civil-military schisms. What should have been realized is the immediate spatio-temporal context in which the Nehruvian regime was operating, which made the civilian authority over the army quintessential, notwithstanding its colonial origins and continuing traditions.

Besides this, in an ambitious attempt to cover each and every aspect of the defense and security domain, some of the key issues fall short of analyzing key issues with rigor, as more focus has been given on explaining their historical origins. Because of this, analysis of future challenges has not been adequately discussed. Also, despite the book being themed upon overhauling India’s defense infrastructure to meet future challenges, a quintessential challenge in the cybersecurity realm doesn’t find any mention.

However on the positive side, Dr. Pant deliberately chose to focus on the challenges so that the security problems arising from the present policies can be analyzed comprehensively and a future course of action should be charted out only after having grasped these issues. The book comes at a time when the India got a full majority leadership led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and hopes are high that the new dynamic leadership under him will implement these long delayed course corrections, which will lay a clear path for India’s emergence as a formidable global power.