Expert Speak War Fare
Published on Dec 27, 2019
Political will, which is otherwise scarce in New Delhi, is precisely what Modi demonstrated whether it was Balakot, the Kinetic Direct Ascent Anti-Satellite test or the establishment of a Chief of Defence Staff.
Indian national security and defence in 2019: Modi ticks three boxes

Despite 2019 coming to a close on an unpleasant note particularly with tensions, rancour and violence marking the passage of the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) and the potential implementation of the National Registry for Citizens (NRC), the Modi government ticked several boxes on the defence and national security front. It is imperative to review Modi’ successes and performance in this area representing a decisive break from the past. Also addressed in the ensuing passages is that critics of the Modi government have frequently overstated the importance of their own criticism. Indeed, in some instances upbraiding him and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government for decisions, they were prescribing to the NDA’ predecessor led by Manmohan Singh.

The first of Modi’s successes were air strikes targeting the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terrorist training camp at Balakot in Pakistan. The strikes followed the suicide terrorist attack against a convoy transporting Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel claiming the lives of 50 troops at Pulwama in Kashmir. While the Indian Air Force (IAF) bombardment of the terrorist base marking a critical shift in India’s retaliatory action and represented an upward step on the escalatory ladder, what should not be overlooked is that the suicide attack by the Pulwama bomber was itself an escalatory move by the JeM and its principal sponsors in the Pakistani Army. Hitherto in the long history of bloody conflict in the Kashmir Valley, suicide attacks of the kind witnessed at Pulwama were rare or rather non-existent. Indeed, it is hard to think of an instance involving suicide terrorism in the Valley. There was widespread praise for Modi and adulation for the IAF despite the capture of one of its pilots, who brought down a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) F-16 fighter jet in an aerial dogfight on 27 February 2019 after the IAF’s destruction of the Balakot terror camp. Critics of the air strike questioned the veracity of the air strikes that destroyed the JeM camp calling in to question why Modi even pursued such a ‘radical’ course of action. In addition claiming that the Modi government had no “coherent or consistent strategy to deal with Pakistan and the problem of terrorism.” Although this critique overlooked that neither Atal Bihari Vajpayee nor Manmohan Singh had a consistent and coherent strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan. This evident absence of a coherent strategy is due to the nature of the Pakistan state impelling it to be persistently revisionist and unpredictable, which in turn prevents the pursuit of any consistent or coherent strategy on the part of New Delhi regardless of the nature of the dispensation ruling India.

Both Right of Centre and Left of Centre governments in India have tried to pursue peace with Pakistan producing fruitless results. In fact, one of the inferences Pakistan derived from crisis it precipitated was India’s failure to act with military action, despite a year-long military mobilisation following the December 2001 terrorist strike on the Indian Parliament by the Pakistan based terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), was because India lost nerve, feared escalation and Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent shielded it from Indian retaliation. Manmohan Singh, in November 2008 like his predecessor faced the same dilemma following the terrorist outrage by the LeT against civilian targets in India’s financial capital — Mumbai. Singh chose not to retaliate leaving the Pakistanis to conclude again that India lacked nerve. Following the Pulwama suicide bombing on 14 February 2019, Modi chose not to emulate his predecessors with inaction.

To be sure, Pakistan could repeat its terrorist attacks against, but the air strikes against the JeM camp at Balakot have put the Pakistani military establishment on notice.

Thus, other, yet trenchant Modi government critics grudgingly accepted that the air strikes represented a substantive change in India’s retaliatory posture and brought pressure to bear against Pakistan. These critics also conceded the Balakot air strike would signal to Pakistan that India would escalate through air power if Pakistan carries out major strikes against Indian civilian and military targets regardless of whether the terrorist training camps were actually struck. Indeed, what was ironic, was that some critics who accused Modi of ignoring the escalatory risks and costs of air action made the same prescription, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government under Manmohan Singh that for India: “At the lower end of the options spectrum is the employment of cyber and/or air power in a punitive mode. The use of air/cyber power has advantages over any land-based strategy: it could be swift, more precise, and certainly more amenable to being coordinated with our diplomatic efforts. Compared to any land-based options, the use of air/cyber power will come across as more restrained . The crucial choice here requires a decision to move away from the paradigm focused on capture of territory to a paradigm based on destructive ability. Destructive capability will include air power.” This is precisely what the “punitive” Balakot air strikes of 27 February achieved. To be sure, Pakistan could repeat its terrorist attacks against, but the air strikes against the JeM camp at Balakot have put the Pakistani military establishment on notice.

The second major accomplishment of the Modi government was the decision to carry out the Kinetic Direct Ascent Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test on 27 March 2019. This again represented a substantial shift in that it marked a clear move to acquire space weapons. As was the case with the Balakot air strikes, both internal and external critics were quick to pounce on the government’s decision to conduct the ASAT test. For domestic critics of the Modi government, the latter’ decision to strike an Indian satellite using Kinetic Energy Weapon (KEW) so close on the heels of national elections, the motive was purely for electoral gains. Since India, internal critics alleged, already possessed a latent kinetic ASAT capability, which could be conducted at short notice, there were no exigent reasons for testing the KEW. Maintaining ambiguity was more important than actually testing. This was precisely what was said about India’s nuclear policy prior to the 1998 nuclear tests since India already possessed all the latent scientific and technological accoutrements to test, why did it actually test. This quaint critique again misses the point, the decision to test and confirm an actual capability is why it is as important, as it bequeaths certainty and confidence to apex level decision-makers, particularly in the face of a KEW capability in China’s space military inventory. As the late and former Indian Army Chief General K. Sundarji, wrote in the context of doctrine, but his dictum would apply equally to capabilities, once incisively observed, “The doctrine of uncertainty or ambiguity is intended to keep your potential adversaries unsure of the situation. It certainly does not mean keeping your own policymakers unsure.” Foreign critics of the Modi government went so far as to claim since China possesses a wide menu of non-kinetic capabilities to threaten and destroy Indian space assets where was the need for India a test a KEW. Again, this criticism sidestepped why the Peoples of Republic of China (PRC) tested a KEW in 2007 regardless of whether the United States of America, The Russian Federation or remotely India possessed non-kinetic means and why Beijing has carried out non-destructive KEW tests against “empty points” in space in subsequent years giving the PRC the ability to strike satellite targets in high earth orbit. More significantly, critics overlook “asymmetric” and “offensive” retaliatory benefits a KEW brings against the PRC, which ironically some domestic critics of the Balakot air strikes, if not in the form of a KEW capability, of the Modi dispensation prescribed to the previous Congress-led UPA government. As this author captured in separate analysis published in April 2017 and November 2019, a KEW represents an asymmetric and offensive capability.

India for the first time in its history has separate CDS in addition to the three service chiefs.

The final success of the Modi government is the announcement of a Chief Defence Staff (CDS) from the ramparts of the Red Fort during his Independence Day address on 15 August this year. This decision came as a pleasant surprise to sceptics, critics and supporters of the government. Yet devil was in the details. Very recently, consistent with his I-Day address Modi established a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), which also comes with the creation of a Department of Military Affairs (DoMA). More time may be needed to evaluate the effectiveness and the extent of the authority and power vested in the CDS. Yet it is a substantial move as experts on integrated defence planning, joint operations and the CDS’ importance in managing inter-service tensions and rivalries, which supporters for the creation of a CDS note is bold. India for the first time in its history has separate CDS in addition to the three service chiefs.

The distinguishing feature of Modi as opposed to predecessors is his visible decisiveness. After all, as the B.S. Dhanoa the Chief of Air Staff during the Balakot air strikes and recently retired observed, “The government and political will was very clear to tell the Jaish-e-Mohammad and Pakistani establishment  that such attacks would come at a cost and no matter where you are, be it PoK or Pakistan, we will get you and that is the message of Balakot.”

Political will, which is otherwise scarce in New Delhi, is precisely what Modi demonstrated whether it was Balakot, the KEW test or the establishment of a CDS. His decisiveness stemmed in all these cases from his readiness to run risks. That apart, all the three decisions he made will set a precedent for his successors. Nevertheless, even if they do not emulate him, these three crucial decisions will bring some benefits to his successors and the country as a whole. The KEW test and the creation of a CDS will be among his more enduring legacies.

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Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...

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