The Indian Army is undergoing a transformational change – in the words of the Chief of the Army Staff, MM Naravane – it is on the cusp of metamorphosis. One may be able to define a series of actions that may have led to significant changes.
Decisions on the formation of theatre commands and absorption of niche technologies portend the creation of an integrated and modern force that is increasingly looking at using its capabilities in more diverse and complex scenario. Surgical strikes, Balakot operations and even the actions at the Kailash Ranges – the ongoing theatre of conflict between India and China – are striking indicators of a paradigm shift in the politico-military decision-making matrix wherein calibrated force is likely to be used much more proactively. However, does this approach signal a perceptible change in the strategic culture in India?
Concept of Strategic Culture
The concept of strategic culture concerns how force is used by particular countries to attain political objectives. As a predictive tool, it became relevant during the Cold War era during debates on the use of nuclear weapons. As per the first generation theorists, certain organisational, political, historical and technological constraints and contexts defined the way a particular country made strategic choices.
The second generation theorists believed strategic choices ‘available’ to a country were based on a set of norms, identities, and ideas formed by its domestic structures, polity, and organisation. How certain strategic practices constituted the identity of a state defined the very boundaries or frontiers of that state.
The third-generation theorists think that a cause-and-effect link between strategic culture and strategic behaviour can be empirically established on the assumption that strategic culture limits behavioural choices from which one could derive specific predictions.
All three approaches assume the existence of a set of ideas and ideologies which constrain or narrow down a state’s choices concerning the use of military force to attain political objectives.
It is also necessary that strategic culture be diffused down to the ordinary citizen, especially in democracies. Though it is assumed that the elites defining the strategic culture of a country are aware of the collective will of the people, it is equally likely that the very nature of elite opinion formation divorces them from stated national goals and interests. The use of force then becomes an end-in-itself.
One of the major ways that strategic culture seeps into national consciousness is through media – print, radio, television, and now internet driven digital news – all are ways and means through which a country’s strategic choices are ‘visible’ to the citizens. Mass media, particularly television, was instrumental in bringing the Kargil war to the doorsteps of almost every Indian citizen. Akin to the coverage of the US invasion of Iraq during the First Gulf War, but far more urgent due to the nature of the operations – Indian troops defending their own territory – Kargil was responsible for the emergence of television media as the arbiter of India’s national security interests. Media has played a major role in the shaping of a more proactive ‘national’ will.
India’s Strategic Culture
India’s strategic culture has strongly been impacted by the unique circumstances concerning the demise of India as a subcontinent and the birth of India, the nation state. A number of residual geographic and historical contiguities were forced on India. This included defending frontiers created by an expansive foreign empire. British India also wielded the formidable strength of the Indian Army which was one of the largest and most professional forces in the world.
India inherited these legacies in 1947 and was immediately embroiled in a territorial dispute over the accession of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Since then, a series of wars and conflicts over Kashmir with China (1962) and Pakistan (1947-48, 1965, 1990, & 1999) have shaped India’s strategic culture as being that of a defensive or a status-quo power at the systemic level. Since its land borders are not settled, India’s foremost priority has been its territory and its preservation, precluding force projection.
The focus of the early political leadership was gaining and maintaining civilian control over the military. Creation of separate Service Chiefs for the three Services, refusal to create either Service Councils or the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) (request for this had been made by Lord Mountbatten as early as 1948 in the form of a Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee) and the complete ‘civilianisation’ of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) with no representations from the Services Headquarters – civilian control had been achieved at the expense of a coherent national security policy, skewed civil-military relations and a military leadership whose entire experience and expertise was relegated to decisions at the tactical and infrequently operational levels.
Apart from a small window after 1962, civilian control has been maintained even at the cost of operational efficiency and strategic clarity. Even diplomacy by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), which was supposed to be the soft end of the stick, has often worked without the stick. India’s diplomacy has always been strengthened with the use of force as evidenced by the humanitarian intervention in East Pakistan and helping the island nation of Maldives.
Though the cross-border surgical strikes of 2016 heralded a much leaner and packaged form of response to Pakistan-initiated events, Kargil was one of the major inflection points in India’s military history which shaped India’s strategic community and culture until recently.
The Kargil war was fought just after India and Pakistan gained de-facto nuclear power status in 1998. India also used airpower for offensive purposes but did not cross the Line of Control (LoC). The combined use of massed accurate artillery fire, along with determining infantry assaults supported by airpower ensured that the conflict winded down with India regaining all its peaks. India started realizing the importance of limited operations where airpower could be used offensively.
Impact of Nuclear Overhang
Pakistan’s nuclear status started blurring what had been an unequal relationship morally, conventionally and culturally. An equivalence of sorts was established between the “two nuclear powers”. The strategic community started talking about deterrence in the Indian subcontinent. The stability-instability paradox wherein stability at the nuclear level allowed one to engineer instability at the sub-conventional level.
Paradoxically, India conformed to these miscalculated notions – there seemed to be a seamless transition from sub-conventional to conventional to nuclear conflict. The issue of a faux moral equivalence accorded to Pakistan – allowing it to target innocent civilians living on India’s side of the LoC, infiltrate terrorists inside Kashmir and spread terror inside India – was conveniently forgotten. A self-regulatory mindset entrenched itself where all offensive actions were seen only through the “nuclear overhang”.
There was an interregnum between the end of the Kargil war in 1999 and the surgical strikes of 2016. For 17 years, India was relentlessly provoked by Pakistan which stuck to conducting cross border terror attacks across the entire Indian mainland. Serial train blasts in Mumbai (2005), 26/11 attacks in Mumbai (2008), and a series of blasts across major Indian cities of Delhi (2005), Hyderabad (2007 & 2013), Ahmedabad (2008) and Pune (2010) by cells of terrorist groups supported and sponsored by Pakistan left India at cross-roads to respond militarily due to a lack of tailor-made force packages that could target and coerce Pakistan to stop cross-border terror activities.
One of the major reasons was reciprocation. India, as a responsible nation never targeted Pakistani civilians, but the dilemma was to inflict commensurate costs on the enemy. Due to its orthodox offensive doctrine which calls for set-piece attrition battles against enemy mechanised and infantry forces, India’s response to Pakistan’s sub-conventional aggression in Kashmir and across the Indian mainland did not deter adequately.
As a result, new thinking evolved which recognized that a conventional response to every terror attack was neither feasible nor desirable. Indian strategic thinking veered towards using force in a calibrated manner and keeping the tempo and execution of operations below a carefully assessed threat level of the adversary.
Kargil, therefore, allowed the perpetuation of the myth that any coercive action by India against Pakistan would result in the start of an unwinnable nuclear conflict. The onus of maintaining peace in the subcontinent rested squarely with India.
India’s strategic culture until the cross-border strikes had the following attributes:
- Overly focused on territory – both for preservation and bargain
- Strained civil-military relationship
- Relative exclusion of military leadership from national decision making process
- Reactive in terms of using force to attain national objectives.
- Despite possessing expeditionary capabilities, there is no intent of force projection
- In spite of occasional brilliance, having an overly rigid and orthodox strategic leadership
- Strategic Autonomy.
Era of Transformation
The cross border surgical strikes were ostensibly meant as a response to the attack on an army installation in Uri in Jammu and Kashmir by Pakistan-sponsored terrorists on 18 September 2016, which resulted in 19 Army fatalities. A bigger reason behind these raids and their subsequent acknowledgement by the Indian government was to test and ‘nudge’ Pakistan’s redlines and explore the space for tailor-made punitive operations that remained below the threshold of conventional operations.
Another reason why the surgical strikes were announced was to gauge Pakistani reaction and call their nuclear bluff. The Pakistanis, surprised by the scale and official acknowledgement of the raids, initially did not react and later, after multiple scrubs of the incident site took a few Pakistani and international journalists to the area to show that no raid of any sort had taken place. The raid was officially announced to also accomplish another goal, that of, cognitive dissonance which would ultimately lead to deterrence.
During the press conference after the raids, the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO), in the presence of the MEA spokesperson did allow Pakistan a breathing space by referring to strikes as “one-off actions”, to consider its next steps very carefully and placed the onus of disproving India’s contentions on Pakistan.
Barring an attack on a military garrison in Nagrota, terror incidents in the valley witnessed a major downturn in the aftermath of the surgical strikes. Terror attacks on the Indian mainland also dried up. The surgical strikes were not a bolt out of the blue. They were preceded by a similar hot pursuit action against insurgents in the North East on 4 June 2015 after an ambush against an Indian Army column resulted in the death of 18 soldiers.
Proof of Concept Operations
The operation was conducted by Special Forces equipped with the latest weapons and technological enablers on 09 June 2015. This set the precedent for force projection by the Indian military across international borders, in pursuit of national interests. These were indicators of a sea change in motivation and a willingness to utilise the destructive potential of the armed forces for achieving specific aims.
The cross-border raids and the airstrikes against Balakot also served as ‘proof of concept’ operations – demonstrators that Indian armed forces were ready to conduct effects-based operations (EBO) for shaping the environment around them – a term which has generally been associated with the Airforce.
Starting with the DGMO press conference after the surgical strikes, there also has been a greater integration between the military and diplomatic instruments. A statement by an ex Member of National Assembly (MNA) of Pakistan regarding the Pakistan Army Chief’s fear of an imminent attack by India in case of non-release of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman underscores India’s growing regional clout and the increasing role played by the military in diplomacy.
India has pivoted towards multilateralism and is inclined to joining regional groupings of like-minded countries for achieving specific purposes. India’s stance has become more nuanced and that is one big change in its strategic culture. The increasingly important role played by the military, especially after the creation of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) and the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), in diplomacy is another big change. From the gifting of a submarine to Myanmar defence forces, visit of the current Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) to a number of strategically important countries, holding Malabar exercises alongside Australia, the role of the armed forces is much more visible in India’s diplomacy.
The stellar role played by the Indian Navy in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations across the globe has earned it plaudits, cementing India’s place as a responsible global player.
Assertive Strategic Culture
The emerging contours of India’s strategic culture are:
- Turn towards multilateralism and a willingness to join local groupings for specific purposes. Though India and the US are at loggerheads over issues such as immigration, climate change and trade disputes, their security challenges have converged, leading to the re-energisation of the ‘QUAD’.
- Force projection beyond own borders to achieve national security interests.
- An increasingly integrated role of the military with India’s diplomatic
The cross-border surgical strikes and the airstrikes against Balakote signalled an intent by India to pursue its national objective beyond its borders. It was also a statement in force projection that did not shy away from using airpower on enemy territory, a quantum jump in military calculations as per analysts. India’s emerging strategic culture, exemplified by the use of surgical strikes and Balakote air raids needs to be ingrained in the Indian psyche. An assertive Indian military needs to be closely integrated into the national decision-making process, enabling the country to use force to fulfil its national objectives. It is a gradual process but needs to be a consistent one.
Up The Ante
Some of the ways through which a more assertive strategic culture can be facilitated are:
- Conduct of ‘Potent Force Quick Time (PFQT)’ operations where the aim is to achieve dominance in each Object-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) cycle of the adversary. This will entail selecting, targeting and engaging limited objectives in a get-in-get-out (GIGO) mode. The aim should be inflicting unbearable punitive costs on the adversary rather than bargaining. The space opened up for limited operations should be exploited to the hilt. While undertaking defensive operations, the aim should be to deny the enemy access to own areas using emerging Anti Access/ Area Denial (A2/AD) technologies. Here long-range precision fires and niche technologies, especially robotics, can make a huge difference.
- The organizational culture needs to undergo a major transformation in favour of a more “results-oriented” and directive form of leadership. With the announcement of IBGs and theaterisation of forces into mission-specific tri-services commands, broad policy guidelines will have to be laid out and a large latitude to be given to subordinate formations to conduct operations.
- India’s ability to recover its legal territories from recidivist powers may also be facilitated by the usage of methods other than the direct use of force. It includes using lawfare, cognitive warfare and even academia, offensively. Mountaineering and survey expeditions staking claim to uncharted territories, especially along the LC and LAC can be organised and their results published in international academic journals. It will strengthen India’s case of using ‘historic’ and ‘scientific’ studies on international platforms.
- An offensive usage of social media combined with predictive analysis, Artificial Intelligence and 5G technology needs to be used to induce ‘cognitive dissonance’ in the adversary’s mind and ensure deterrence. There is a need to use cyber capabilities, physical and cognitive, to a greater effect.
- India’s turn towards multilateralism, in keeping with the PM’s vision of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) for Indo- Pacific has been cemented with multiple basing and logistics agreements with countries with blue-water capabilities. So much so that it could be utilized in the future for power projection actions in pursuit of national interests.
India’s strategic culture is changing towards using calibrated force in achieving political objectives and the posture of the armed forces have played a major role in this change. India’s increasingly important role in the global and regional arena has been made possible by the use of armed forces, both in operations and diplomacy. The sustenance of this culture requires that the armed forces be much more closely involved in the national security decision-making apparatus. There are some lacunae but they can be managed and handled with the correct intent and perspective.
Lt Col Akshat Upadhyay
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BharatShakti.in)