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Clarifying India’s Strategic Doctrine

Ali Ahmed was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • October 25, 2010

    India’s strategic doctrine not being available in written form has led to the impression that India lacks one. The next step in the criticism is that this is evidence that India lacks a strategic culture. India’s emerging great power status refutes such criticism. The critique has its origin in well-intentioned circles of the strategic community desiring that India do ‘more’ for security. The dissonance was in evidence during the Golden Jubilee seminar of India’s National Defence College on ‘The Role of Force in Strategic Affairs’.

    Cumulatively, the addresses by Prime Minister, Defence Minister and the National Security Adviser explicated India’s strategic doctrine. The strategic doctrine is in keeping with the tenets of defensive realism. Formal speeches are useful for expounding on strategic doctrine, as indeed was the case at the seminar. The doctrine however itself should be available in the form of a National Security Strategy document or white paper as is the case in some other countries. That this is not so in India’s case makes for dissonance in understanding what it is exactly, leading to some of the charges eventually sticking.

    The advantages of a written doctrine are many. Firstly, it serves as a “First Step”, since strategic doctrine informs grand strategy and military doctrine. The latter is central to the military planning and acquisition process. Secondly, it makes a State’s actions predictable. This is useful for reassuring neighbours, including adversaries. Thirdly, it lends a center to the strategic debate.

    In case strategic doctrine is diffuse, as is the danger in India’s case, then the deliberations of the strategic community resemble those of the famous ‘blind men of Hindoostan’ huddling around an elephant. In other words, the elephant first needs to be identified. Criticism is only useful when well-grounded.

    On all three counts, there is scope for improvement. There is also a long-standing and valid position that defence planning suffers in the absence of official articulation of strategic doctrine. The force planning and acquisition process lacks a starting point. It is no wonder that the HQs IDS has listed the formulation of a draft national security strategy, forwarded to the Ministry in 2007, among its achievements. The draft NSS has not exited the apex system as a finished product yet. Successive National Security Advisory Boards, beginning with the first headed by K. Subrahmanyam till the extant one whose period expires this year, have engaged in this exercise. Governments of different hues have declined to place on record exactly where they stand.

    The follow-on military doctrinal process suffers, already problematic because of the absence of a CDS. The outcome, as suggested by Ashok Mehta in a piece in the Tribune (13 October 2010), is that ‘Each service does its future planning singly and not as an integrated whole to achieve a collective capability. Service Chiefs look out for clues about strategic aspirations from prime ministerial speeches at the combined commanders’ conferences and other heady occasions.’

    The strategic doctrine, as read into the speeches mentioned, reasonably has as its aim a stable strategic environment in which India can progress its economic trajectory. ‘Cold Start’ and ‘two front’ thinking appear to militate against this. If there is dissonance within, it could give rise to “apprehensions” externally, with adversaries being quick to perceive ‘threats’ and using their ‘apprehensions’ to further their respective “national security”. For instance, Pakistan has used ‘Cold Start’ as an excuse for not shifting forces to their western border. The Indian Army Chief in an interview has lately had to downplay Cold Start. How much American interlocutors had to do with this is a matter of current speculation.

    The second, ‘two front’ formulation, is understandable in terms of the institutional predilection of militaries in general to prepare for the ‘worst case’ scenario. A strategic doctrine contained in a Strategic Defence Review has utility in providing an assessment of the probability of such a scenario. The scramble to prepare for the ‘two front’ scenario would then not end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy in triggering a neighbour’s insecurities.

    The third point, on dangers of a lack of a center, is best illustrated by the discussions at the seminar on the implications of a policy of defensive realism. Defensive realism posits use of force as the last resort and with a defensive purpose. This is in keeping with India’s non-expansionist philosophy and position as a status quo power. This does not imply that once force is resorted to, it would only be on one’s own territory and defensively at that. The doctrine does not preclude offensive employment of the military. At the NDC seminar, the spin placed by critics was that the strategic doctrine enunciated implied only a defensive military doctrine. This straw-man was then energetically attacked. Had the strategic doctrine been formally explicated elsewhere, then such attacks could have been avoided. The danger is that the vociferous strategic community could drive the government to over-compensate; fearing criticism that it is not ‘doing enough’ on defence, it may venture further in a direction than it may originally have intended.

    This brings out the last, but most significant issue. India’s is a defensible strategic doctrine for an emerging power. It preserves India from becoming a player in the incipient contest between the US and China. It protects prioritization of economic development and stability. It preserves the domestic space from any buffeting from the stand off between the West and Islam. It is in keeping with India’s strategic culture of ‘resolve and restraint’ (VR Raghavan).

    However, from India’s defence acquisition and doctrinal direction that bespeaks of an extra-territorial military capability, it would appear that India also has a strategic doctrine in incubation for a middle term future in which it sees itself as a player of consequence. The ‘professed doctrine’ tides India over the interim as it builds up the economic indices of power. The latter - ‘incubatory doctrine’ - is for preparing for the future in which as a regional player and nascent great power, India would require sharing the global strategic burden. The problem appears to be that the military is taking its cues from India’s ‘aspirations’ (Mehta), rather than its objectives grounded in current reality.

    This takes India back by a decade and half when the Standing Committee on Defence queried the government on strategic doctrine. It is surprising that the famous answer given by the defence secretary then remains true today: ‘But all the elements of the doctrine are well known and have been incorporated from our constitution downwards. There have been several publications. There have been policy pronouncements by Ministers in Parliament. So, our national security doctrine is well known and the absence of a written document…does not create any confusion or lack of clarity in this matter. I however accept that we do not publish it as a document as such.’ Post the reforms pursuant to the GOM report, there is little excuse for this. This would certainly have to change by the time India gets to its ‘incubatory doctrine’. That it is creating dissonance in its ‘professed doctrine’ now should be reason for the change to begin today. The NSCS has its task cut out on this score.