Debate on whether Indian armed forces need a continental land defence strategy or a sea-based maritime strategy has gained currency in recent years, but there is yet a clear answer to emerge.
India’s ability to wage war has been under scrutiny after the publication of a Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) of India report published in 2013. The report states that the Indian Army has ammunition reserves to only fight a full-fledged war for only 20 days. Also in the limelight is the much touted Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) which has now been trimmed down to fifty percent of its envisaged size. Given the limitation of resources that the Indian armed forces have to contend with, should it focus on a continental land defence strategy or a sea-based maritime strategy? The National Security Programme of the Observer Research Foundation organised a workshop on 2 May to discuss the mix of strategies and capabilities India must employ to meet the challenges that it confronts.
Rear Admiral Raja Menon during his exposition pointed out the importance of the Indian Ocean and the African littoral to China’s growing economy. Chinese dependence on ship borne energy resources are an indicator military interest in the Indian Ocean. It has been confronted by what it refers to as the ‘Malacca Dilemma’, where it fears an aggressor power interdicting the crucial maritime trade route that passes through the Malacca Straits. The People Liberations Army Navy’s increased forays and presence into the region opens up the possibility of a sea based threat from China. India currently has a geographic advantage in the region, with the Chinese Navy having to traverse long distances to reach the Indian Ocean. Its advantages of geography also ensure it has an asymmetric force deployment advantage. Raja Menon argued that to maintain this asymmetric force advantage, India should focus its limited defence resources in bolstering its maritime security.
It was noted during the deliberations that India was severely outmatched by China along the border. India’s lack of investment in border infrastructure has resulted in an inability to move troops laterally was a major disadvantage in comparison to the People Liberation Army’s (PLA) ability to amass over thirty divisions. It was also observed that PLA forces in Tibet are equipped to wage war for a period of around fifty days without re-supply, making any attempt by the Indian Navy to affect PLA logistics in Tibet by interdicting maritime trade routes in the Indian Ocean an untenable plan.
India has a number of flashpoints with China along its land boundary compared to the Indian Ocean. The possibility of Pakistan creating an additional front in the eventuality of conflict with China cannot be ruled out according to General Vinod Bhatia. He went on to add that the lack of infrastructure in the mountains bordering China can only be compensated by pre-deployed troops requiring an increase in available manpower. The MSC was an important step in India’s efforts to plug the gaps and create a conventional deterrence, but a downsized MSC will not be up to the task.
Visiting Fellow at ORF, Dr. S. Paul Kapur pointed out that mounting credible conventional defences in multiple domains requires considerable manpower and resources. India is constrained by the resources it has. The lack of effective institutional frameworks like North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Asia makes it difficult for India to share its defence burden. In the light of these difficulties, India can leverage its nuclear weapons to maintain status quo.
Discussants covered a number of key issues plaguing the Indian defence forces during the question and answer session. The issues discussed ranged from faulty procurement practices, policy paralysis, conflict thresholds and interoperability of Indian forces. It was also noted that with only a seventeen percent of the allotted defence budget, the Indian Navy was not in any position to provide India with a strategic trump card against the Chinese. The presence of nuclear weapons however leaves very little strategic space for full-fledged conventional conflict.
Dr. Manoj Joshi brought the workshop to a close highlighting the need for political direction in matters of national security and the need for the adoption of asymmetric strategies. Increasing cooperation in defence would be key to address strategic deficiencies. Defence forces cannot be blamed or expected to effectively execute operational directives of the Defence Minister without adequate resources. There exists a dire need for the formulation of a national security strategy.
(This report is prepared by Pushan Das, Research Assistant, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)