May 22, 2024

India’s national security policies contain unresolved dilemmas that create challenges for … what the country can do with—and for—the United States

The American national security bureaucracy is in love with India. Designating India as a “major defense partner” in 2016, then-defense secretary Ashton Carter noted this would allow “the United States and India to cooperate…in a way that we do only with our closest and most long-standing allies.” India’s prominence in the latest National Security Strategy, the rechristening of the U.S. Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command, as well as two new US-India military agreements all reflect the Pentagon’s hope that rising India will be a natural counterweight to a revisionist China.

And the Pentagon does have a point. India’s economy will soon be larger than that of the United Kingdom. Relative to China, India’s demographic profile is better poised to sustain economic growth. Its military expenditure is the fifth largest in the world and the country is now closer to acquiring a functional nuclear triad. Finally, a democratic, multi-ethnic, multi-religious India—it has the third-largest Muslim population in the world—provides a sharp contrast to an authoritarian, repressive China.

That said, India’s national security policies contain unresolved dilemmas that create challenges for both its posture and what the country can do with—and for—the United States. Five themes emerge upon a closer look at India’s defense policy: a persistent mismatch between India’s capability and threat environment; a small military-industrial ecosystem that affects domestic defense production; blurred lines between internal and external security priorities; weak coordination structures; and finally, poor communications and signalling strategies.

Mismatch between capability and threat environment

India’s external security environment is unique, globally as well as historically, in that it faces two geographically contiguous nuclear-armed adversaries, China and Pakistan. India’s disputed land borders with both only exacerbate this significant security challenge. To meet these challenges in budget year 2018-19 India’s defense budget was a meagre 1.49% of the country’s GDP. And much of that does little to improve capability.  India spends more money on ex-military personnel than it does on acquiring new weapons. In budget year 2018-19, salaries and pensions consumed 54.5% of total defense spending, while new weapons accounted for only 18%. In comparison, over roughly the same period, the US Department of Defense allocated about 22.8% of its budget to military personnel costs. The result has been a steady relative decline of India’s military capabilities against that of China’s and Pakistan’s put together over the last decade.

Budgetary pathologies also shape India’s military outlook and readiness. The army’s share of the defense budget is the highest among the services and the navy’s remains the smallest; laconic analysts have termed the Indian navy the “Cinderella service.” Consequently, India’s ability to project power remains limited and the country’s commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific” largely rhetorical. Within the army’s budgetary allocations, the share of manpower expenditure is overwhelming spending on new weapons, spare parts, and stockpiles. In 2018, the auditor noted that 40% of India’s ammunition stock would not last for more than ten days of warfare. However, the budgetary tilt towards the army’s manpower is unlikely to be corrected soon for electoral reasons. As one example, Uttar Pradesh, “the highest-represented state in current [2009 data] army recruitment” also makes up for almost 16% of all seats in the lower house of India’s parliament (out of 29 states). Any dramatic attempt to right-size the Indian Army will be politically very expensive.

Small military industrial ecosystem

An ineffective indigenous defense manufacturing and research and development base is another serious weakness. India is the world’s largest defense importer. Moreover, it is highly dependent on a single source. In the years 2013-2017, 62% of India’s defense imports came from Russia alone. (In comparison, during the same period the US accounted for an additional 15% of India’s weapons imports.) Rarely have countries aspiring to become “leading powers” depended on others for their arms. India’s reliance on foreign (especially Russian) arms complicates its foreign policy. Yet any attempt to dramatically reduce Indian dependence on Russian weaponry will likely meet stiff opposition within the government given the illogical yet abiding view that deep relations with Russia contribute to India’s “strategic autonomy.

Despite early promises by the current Modi government to build a domestic defense-industrial base for both internal consumption and export, foreign investment in India’s private defense sector remain meagre. The country’s elusive quest to domestically manufacture medium multi-role combat aircraft (potentially with foreign partners) at a time when the Indian Air Force’s squadron strength is at its lowest in over a decade illustrates this weakness and its consequences. Nonetheless, persistent political controversies deter domestic firms from entering the defense manufacturing market.

A related lacuna in India’s defense posture is a weak military research and development ecosystem. India’s research is mostly concentrated in the state-run Defense Research & Development Organization (DRDO), a lumbering behemoth with 50 laboratories under its control. A legacy of India’s past as a centrally-planned economy, the DRDO has “persistently over-promised and under-delivered.” Bureaucratic rigidity continues to impede greater involvement of non-government organizations in defense research and development. While India’s military leadership has highlighted the need to leverage next-generation technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data, the country has yet to create a DARPA-style agency to develop the innovative, asymmetric capabilities required to compete with China. Even India’s closest defense partners—Russia, United States, and Israel—are unlikely to share closely held technology. Therefore, unless the country’s political establishment finds a way to channel India’s strong civilian scientific and technical base towards defense innovation, the country is almost certain to fall behind China which has managed to do so.

Blurred lines between internal and external security

A further complication in India’s defense policy is the blurred line between the country’s internal and external security. A product of disputed borders with Pakistan (and to a lesser extent, China), multiple insurgencies—especially in the Indian-administered Kashmir—continue to sap military resources and shape priorities. Pakistan’s sponsorship of  terrorist attacks in India, such as the horrific 2008 attack in Mumbai, has caused India  to simultaneously attempt to deal with terrorism, insurgency, and external threats. Each of these  objectives demand distinct resources and force structures, straining India’s already limited national security budget.

Indian politicians have little electoral incentive to promote defense and foreign policy goals

The Indian government’s extensive focus on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency continues to shape the security bureaucracy as well as military doctrines. First, in 2016, Prime Minister Modi ignored customary practice for high-level appointments to appoint Lieutenant General Bipin Rawat as India’s army chief. As a former deputy chief of the Indian army wrote at that time, Rawat’s reputation as a counterinsurgency expert led to his selection over other candidates. (Privately, Indian Army officers note that the path to command positions now runs through a tour in Kashmir.) Second, the blurring of external and internal security has also meant that two of the five Indian national security advisors to date have been former chiefs of the domestic intelligence service. It is difficult to imagine a similar trend between the directors of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Council in the U.S. system. Finally, the Indian Army’s 2019 Land Warfare Doctrine reflects an ongoing preoccupation with “hybrid war” in Kashmir.

Interestingly, this blurring of domestic and external security has not translated to national security coming to the forefront as an important issue in Indian domestic politics, save for occasional election-time rhetoric around Pakistan and Kashmir. But as new research demonstrate, Indian politicians have little electoral incentive to promote defense and foreign policy goals that are considered a part of elite rather than mass politics.

Weak coordination structures

India continues to lack effective coordination mechanisms to promote jointness and interoperability among the three armed services. The foremost example of this problem is the lack of a chief of defense staff (CDS) akin to the American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While successive government committees have highlighted the need for a single point of military advice to the political leadership—and the Modi government expressed an early interest in creating such a position—persistent patterns of civil-military relations have prevented action. Absent an appointed CDS, the existing Integrated Defence Staff Headquarters (headed by a rotating Chairman of Chiefs of Staff Committee) is a largely ineffective institution. The absence of a CDS has also allowed contradictory statements from the three services about India’s defense readiness. For example, in the past the air force and army chiefs have given markedly different assessments as to whether India is ready to fight China and Pakistan simultaneously. Finally, the lack of a CDS has allowed the Indian Army to openly assert its “supremacy” over the other two services.

The lack of a formal unified defense management structure has given greater power to the office of the prime minister, skewing civil-military relations. Decisions on India’s key national security matters have always rested with the prime minister and a close circle of advisors, a more centralized power structure than in the US. For example, India’s military decisions in the run-up to its disastrous clash with China in 1962 were mostly taken by then  Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his defense minister (neither of whom had any military experience) along with a few army officers. Prime Minister Modi’s 2018 defense reforms proposals have reinforced this pattern, by empowering the civilian national security advisor to act as a “de-facto CDS.”

Poor strategic communications and signalling

While strategic communications and signalling are sometimes an afterthought of a nation’s defense posture, they are critical elements within democracies. For example, the United States routinely releases a plethora of official documents that communicate its priorities to the American people, assures its allies and signals resolve to its adversaries. Unfortunately, India has not followed this model. While the India polity at large is capable of calibrating its strategic communications in moments of crisis—the Indian media’s collective restraint during the 2017 India-China standoff being a case in point—the Indian government’s failure to produce a public national security strategy (NSS), despite three past attempts,  is a lost opportunity to sensitize the public to national security goals, justify defense spending and reassure international partners through an articulation of India’s long-term strategic commitments.

But whether this  is as much due to bureaucratic indifference  as it is a manifestation of India’s long-standing posture of strategic autonomy and ambiguity — of treating all partners on an even keel without revealing any preference – can be debated. What is clear is the damage the absence of such a document has done to the overall defense planning process. For one, when India released a Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces in 2017, it quickly became that it did not flow from any top-level politically-sanctioned strategy document. Instead it became, as observers writing in these (virtual) pages noted, a substitute for it. This would have been almost palatable had the doctrine not imposed an army-centric posture on the three services and neglected force projection questions – without political clearance.

In the absence of clear policy statements, observers are forced to parse through often elliptical writings by former government officials for clues as to India’s strategic direction. The on-going debate about India’s commitment to a nuclear no-first-use posture is a case in point. While India remains the only country in the world with a publicly-available written nuclear doctrine that spells out the circumstances under which it might use nuclear weapons, that document is widely seen as incredible by many experts. Contradictory off-the-cuff remarks from a serving defense minister only raised the already serious doubts about India’s no-first-use pledge. The apparently unintentional confusion surrounding India’s nuclear posture illustrates how much improvement is required in its strategic signalling.

Implications for the United States

These five persistent problems with India’s defense policy have three implications for the United States. First, the United States might have to reconsider its two-decades-old assumption that a strong India in will help protect American hegemony by serving as a countervailing weight to China. If India’s defense capabilities continue to fall behind that of China’s, a disappointed Washington might lose interest in India. Second, the lack of jointness within the Indian military, a function of weak inter-service coordination structures, limits the achievable level of interoperability between the militaries of the United States and India. The Indian military would face serious difficulties if required to coordinate joint force operations with American forces in a contingency. Finally, absent a public Indian strategy document that commits the country to certain objectives (along the lines of the US NSS) there will be lingering suspicions inside the Pentagon and elsewhere about the overall direction of India’s grand strategy and the United States place in it.


Abhijnan Rej is an independent scholar from New Delhi, India. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense. 

Photo: Army Lt. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, then commander of U.S. Army Pacific, talks with the director of general military operations for India before a demonstration put on by the two nations’ militaries at Camp Bundela, India, during exercise Yudh Abhyas 2009.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army/Fred W. Baker III, public domain.

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