India's Military

15 November 2009

Quick! Which military is the third-largest in the world? Answer: India, with some 1.4 million people actively serving in its armed forces. Included in the Indian military are the Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, Border Security Force, Paramilitary Forces, Strategic Nuclear Command, and the Indian Space Program.

“The army, the largest standing volunteer army in the world, numbers over one million personnel and fields three dozen divisions with over 3,700 tanks,” says Dr. S. Chandrasekharan. He is Director of the South Asia Analysis Group; an India-based think tank that deals with strategic issues.

“The navy, the world’s fifth largest, is well-armed – operating an aircraft carrier, over 40 surface combatants, and 16 submarines. India’s Air Force, the world’s fourth largest, has over 600 combat aircraft and more than 500 transports and helicopters,” Chandrasekharan continues. “India has a nuclear stockpile that may include between 100 and 120 nuclear weapons, with a variety of delivery systems.”

India has a long, glorious military ­history. Since independence in 1947, India’s armed forces have fought in numerous ­conflicts; primarily against neighbouring Pakistan. The 1947 war between them was over the Indian border state of Kashmir, which is cheek-and-jowl with Pakistan. Kashmir was a ’princely state’ with a primarily Muslim population, but its Hindu Majaraja joined Kashmir to India with public support. The 1947 war resulted in Pakistan capturing two-fifths of Kashmir.

A second Indo-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir occurred in 1965. The short war ended in a stalemate, with each side having captured some of the other’s territory. The captured lands were eventually evacuated. The 1948 ceasefire line now divides each side’s area of control. Today, Kashmir remains a flashpoint between the two countries, with armed conflict erupting on many occasions. The most serious of this eruptions was the 1999 Kargil conflict.

Pakistan’s willingness to take on India in 1965 was partially motivated by the latter’s defeat during the Indo-China War in 1962. After Independence, India inherited two areas of British-occupied Tibetan land along the India-Chinese border. Indian forces then took over more land, bringing them up to the McMahon Line; the 1914 border negotiated between the British Empire and Tibet in the Simla Accord.

“The Indian government believed that, as successor state after the withdrawal of British colonial rule, it has the right to ­control up to the McMahon Line,” says Ravinder Pal Singh, Former Project Leader at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “The Chinese did not sign the Simla Accord recognizing the McMahon Line since they did not control Tibet in the early 1900s.” The resulting 1962 war saw the Chinese successfully push Indian forces back to China’s version of the border. Having done this, the Chinese declared a ceasefire and the conflict effectively ended.

In 1971, India’s military fortunes changed for the better. The third major conflict with Pakistan resulted in that country’s resounding defeat, and the transformation of East Pakistan into the independent state of Bangladesh. Although relations between India and Bangladesh have had their ups and downs, the separation of this region from Pakistan’s control has improved India’s defensive position.

India’s Military Today
The modern Indian armed forces is the most sophisticated and capable military ever fielded by this country of one billion people. The Indian Air Force flies MiG-21, MiG-27, MiG-29, Mirage-2000, SEPECAT Jaguar and Sukhoi Su-30MKI aircraft; and is using Indian-made HAL Dhruv helicopters (as are other arms of the Indian military). The Indian Navy has more than 155 ships and its own aircraft carrier; the INS Viraat, which is the refitted and renamed Royal Navy ship HMS Hermes. And the Indian Army uses domestically-made Arjun MBT tanks, plus Russian-made T-72s and T-90s.

Strategic Threats
Pakistan remains India’s most visible defensive concern and constant threat. The chief weapon used against India is extremist-led terrorism originating from Pakistan; such as the 2008 Mumbai attacks which claimed 173 lives. “Pakistan’s military threat is ­primarily in the shape of its military supporting infiltration of armed groups in Kashmir and clandestine training of terrorist groups in Pakistani Punjab,” notes Ravinder Pal Singh. “There is a growing threat of terrorist infiltration from across the border from Pakistan.

Despite this threat, “Major conventional war with Pakistan remains a low probability/high consequence scenario,” says Dr. Chandrasekharan; the ‘high consequence’ being the use of nuclear arms by both sides. “It seems that terrorist attacks in India over the past several years have sought to provoke India into attacking Pakistan,” he notes. In light of the devastation both countries would suffer due to a nuclear exchange, “It is a move that India has wisely avoided.”

There is room for discussion on which nation constitutes India’s biggest threat. “India’s chief areas of concern are China, Pakistan and Kashmir, in that order,” says Singh.

“Pakistan remains the primary threat against which India’s military is measured, but China is never too far in the background,” says Dr. Chandrasek­haran. “This is why India is developing significant new power projection capabilities intended to insure that the Indian Ocean remains Indian.”

In addition, the Indian Air Force has refurbished and is now deployed at Ayni Military Base in Tajikistan, across the border from China. This marks the first time in recent memory that India has established a base outside its borders. It is worth noting that this base is also on the other side of Pakistan, giving India a different direction to strike its longtime rival.       

“India is concerned about growing ­Chinese military strength in South East Tibet; particularly the regions of Thagla Ridge on India’s Arunachal State in the North East border,” says Singh. “This is why some additional air force units have been deployed in the North East state of Assam. Unfortunately, countering Chinese power lies in the domain of strategic force buildup, where India’s defence budget is restrained by its socio-economic needs.”

While some in India are concerned about the disputed territories along the Northeast border with China, and others worry about Chinese encirclement via ­Pakistan and Myanmar, Dr. Chandease­kharan believes “one thing is certain: over time, China will increasingly field power projection forces that could encroach on the Indian Ocean generally. And China’s nuclear forces continue to drive those of India.”

To offset China’s growing power, India has been moving closer to the United States after decades of close ties with Russia and the former Soviet Union. “The radical change came about first in the Clinton administration when the US backed India’s claim that Pakistan had committed aggression at Kargil, then by the US-India nuclear agreement, which the Obama folks have accepted,” says Dr. Stephen P. Cohen, Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.

Improving Indo-U.S. relations were reinforced on 20 July 2009, when U.S. ­Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed a US-India defense pact in New Delhi. Under the deal, India will let Washington monitor any weapons technology it purchases from the U.S., to ensure that the technology is being used as promised and not being offered to third parties. Since India is in the market for 126 multi-role fighters, U.S. firms such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing would love a chance to bid on any Indian RFPs.

“Since I arrived here, people have asked me, ‘Can you pledge to maintain the positive U.S.-India relations that President Clinton and President Bush worked to build?’” said Secretary Clinton during a joint news conference with Indian Minister of External Affairs S.M. Krishna. “And I tell them that I can pledge more than that,” Clinton added. “We will work not just to maintain our good relationship, but to broaden and deepen it.” To underline this statement, Clinton then said, “As a sign of the importance of this relationship to the United States, I was pleased to extend an invitation earlier today to Prime Minister Singh from President Obama, inviting Prime Minister Singh to Washington on November 24th for the first state visit of our new Administration.”

Pakistan remains an acute “strategic problem” with India, and the present Indian leadership is “trying to figure out how to bring about a transformation of the strategic outlook of that country, so that India can rise to match the much larger and comprehensive challenge from China,” Dr. Cohen concludes. “It needs to work with the U.S. and other states to do this.”

Internal Challenges
Besides facing a panoply of threats, the Indian military has many internal challenges to wrestle with. “For the army, the challenges include modernizing a force that has its roots back in the 18th century, and also taking on two very different tasks: countering domestic insurgencies, and tackling a nuclear-armed Pakistan,” says Dr.Cohen. “For the navy, lack of equipment ,and the importance of making a choice between surface and submarine forces. They can’t afford a fleet of carriers (they want two) and a nuclear navy with missiles – further, they don’t have the technology in-country to do either.”

“Overall, India’s military suffers from very weak interservice cooperation (jointness), lack of informed political leadership on strategic matters, and in the case of some of the services, huge backlog of equipment modernization,” Dr. Cohen adds. “Money goes unspent each year because the procurement process doesn’t work well, and India can’t make the most modern weapons.”

“Probably the biggest challenge for the Indian military is the continuing weakness of the domestic arms industry,” adds Dr. Chandrasekharan. “Apart from nuclear weapons, the domestic industry has a mixed record of producing weapons the military wants, with the result that most of India’s weapons are of foreign design, if not manufacture.” Ironically, foreign-made arms do not necessarily meet India’s needs, because they are often “expensive labor-saving weapons that are not relevant to India’s low cost labor force.”

For his part, Dr. Stephen Cohen wonders if India’s nukes are actually all they are cracked up to be. “There is reason to doubt that the nuclear program is as advertised; that it includes thermonuclear weapons that work,” he says. “The claims for success have been recently challenged by a leading Indian scientist and others.”

Finally, the Indian government has yet to determine its military’s overall mission. “Each service has a different set of priorities,” says Dr. Cohen. “There is no overarching Indian strategic doctrine that sets out the hierarchy of threats and proper responses.” Worse yet, “the civilians have zero clue what they want the military to do in wartime and how to use it to deter ­Pakistani provocations like Bombay 2008,” says Ravi Rikhye, editor of the Indian military intelligence web site www.Orbat.com and its recent publication, Concise World Armies 2009. “Should there be a people’s revolt in Pakistan, India hasn’t decided how to react.” The Indian government is similarly unsure how to aid the Americans in Afghanistan, he adds. In contrast, “On China they are clear: India will control the Indian Ocean and not China.”  
The Big Picture
As a military power, “India faces an extremely diverse set of threats, across the spectrum from terrorists to nuclear forces,” says Dr. Chandrasekharan. This is an apt summary of the Indian military’s workload, and one that underlines just how multi-faceted India’s military capabilities have to be. Although the Indian armed forces have made substantial progress in facing these threats, much more has to be done to keep Pakistan and China in check.

James Careless is a freelance writer.
© FrontLine Defence 2009