Slouching Tiger, Springing Dragon
A defeated nation draws succor from acts of isolated and individual valour in a battlefield, an ill-equipped army revels in the vain glory of fighting against all odds, myopic strategists deride the enemy for employing cunning and deceit in retrospection of a lost initiative, under willed politicians lament wars as acts of unilateral but avoidable bloodshed. This phenomenon of contextual war narrative can be well seen in Indian military history. In Indian history books, the wars of 1948, 1965 and 1971 find prominent mention with glowing adjectives on the superiority of Indian armed forces. The 1962 Sino-Indian war though is often accorded a much thinner description replete with causations with respect to the Chinese betrayal of the Panchsheel, the backstabbing on part of the Chinese political leadership and the brutality of the PLA.
While Indira Gandhi earns glowing tributes as the Iron Lady who fought a decisive battle and humiliated archenemy Pakistan, JL Nehru gets away as a naïve sugar sweet school boy who was bullied to defeat by a conniving China. In victory we find Gen. JJ Singh lording over a visibly shaken AAK Niazi but in defeat we read how the brave Indian soldier fought the Chinese huns without even the basic combat gear. And lest we assume that such lack of candour in describing defeat is rational dispensation of war literature, the colossal reverses faced by the IPKF are almost unequivocally written in an invisible ink.
Those of you interested in the history of World War II would have read about the Maginot Line. For the uninitiated, the Maginot Line was a series of fortifications along the French – German border overlooking the German Rhineland. Emerging from the trench warfare strategy of World War I, promulgated by the French defence minister André Maginot and advocated by the much celebrated Marshall Pétain, the inter war French military doctrine hinged around the Maginot fortresses. For that age, these state of the art trenches with underground connectivity and heavy guns were reason for justified complacency. But there was one problem. While the French stay rooted in the outdated concepts of trench warfare, the Germans galloped ahead with Panzer tanks and a powerful Luftwaffe.
The Maginot advocates had long held that the routes through the northern French – Belgian border was naturally protected by the Ardennes, the narrow roads and mountain terrain a natural defence against enemy troops. When war came calling though, the Germans rolled in to mainland France through these same narrow roads with their light tanks and artillery. The Maginot Line for all its grandeur remained a mute spectator to France’s ruin that was to follow. The lesson from this anecdote is that nations adopting a defensive doctrine cannot afford to build armaments complimenting war strategies of yesteryears. To be effective in defence, one needs counter measures against the weapons and tactic the enemy is going to employ not what it had employed in the last war.
India is going through a similar doctrinal decay that the French went through between the two wars. There is the all too obvious leftist dominance on policy matters, the heightened pacifism among the intellectuals, the absent government and a total paralysis when it comes to decisions for bolstering national defence. The long held Nehruvian defensive military policy is totally institutionalized with not even a single dissenting voice to be heard. All this is fine if the nation has the capability to defend itself in the event of a full scale war. But our Pakistan obsessed military strategists have almost ruled out the possibility of a full scale war allowing space only for border skirmishes in their what-if models. This has increasingly gained acceptance since we have not had to fight a conventional war for a long time. The population in the age group below forty has no memory or experience of a war proper. Most of us would probably not even know what a conventional war would be like if it were to happen.
Unlike Indian strategists though, the military mandarins of other countries do not indulge in the hare brained practice of relegating conventional wars to obscurity. Case in point, when the Chinese tested the DF-21D anti-ship missile, the American think tanks followed the progresses closely and started discussing counter measures for it. The DF-21D poses a new age threat to the aircraft carrier based war strategy of the USA. It has both range and accuracy to sink US aircraft carriers in mid sea thus thwarting what has been USAs upper hand in offshore wars. No country in today’s world can match the USA in terms of count or potency when it comes to aircraft carriers thereby fuelling the over dependence of the USA on this war machine.
China with all its resources cannot get to a level where it gains numerical superiority over the USA to win a carrier vs. carrier war. But with a weapon like the DF-21D, China can deny USA the operational advantage. But the USA is not looking at this development with mere curiosity. There is a concerted effort now for developing tactical missile defence for aircraft carriers and battleships within the US Navy. Their old tactic of Aegis ship based missile defence of aircraft carriers is giving way to a new strategy of having one set of defenders seeking out low altitude Cruise missiles while the other protecting from Ballistic missiles of the DF-21D kind.
In India we see no such progressive thinking. Over the years we have lived by the dogma of having to fight wars only on the borders against an infantry. This over reliance on enemy action stems from past aggressions and present pretended flare ups. While it is nobody’s case that border skirmishes will not occupy a large space in our war manuals, it will be foolhardy to believe that fighting localised, small scale and small arm wars should be the solitary mandate of the Indian armed forces. We have to account for a full scale war scenario somewhere in our military conscience for the sake of balanced reason and rationale.
If we look at the past acquisitions of war machines, India seems to be preparing itself for a World War II battle. This would be a brilliant strategy if we were also spending effort in building gigantic time machines that would teleport both us and the attacking country to circa 1940 where we can fight and win the war with our fancy weapons. We derive great self-satisfaction in the fact that our tanks outnumber those of our nemesis Pakistan, that we have more air squadrons than Pakistan and that we now have an ultra modern aircraft carrier that was built during the 80s. While these assets are necessary components in the war machine, they accord us zero strategic advantage for these are all weapons of an armed force that reacts to a situation. If defence is the stated goal, the idea should be as much to deny the enemy use of its weapons as to suitable reaction when such denial cannot be achieved.
The war of this century is not going to be fought by the infantries. It would be a war of missiles, of stealth aircrafts, of military satellites in connectivity denial roles. Any defence strategy should evolve around these factors. Let us consider the case of stealth aircrafts. India is purportedly working in collaboration with the Russians in developing a fifth generation stealth aircraft (FGFA) which though in flight in Russia is nowhere close to even being tested for Indian Air Force. China on the other hand is already flying the J-20s with possible induction as early as 2017. India eyes 2022 as a target for inducting the FGFA but if past experiences are considered, it sounds highly unlikely. On top of that, the J-20 is an indigenous product of China. If and when the FGFA is inducted, it will still remain a Russian made aircraft that would be difficult to be mass produced on an Indian factory floor. This throws us back atleast a decade in attaining operational parity with the Chinese.
Besides all this, having your own stealth fighter is no guarantee of safety from the enemy’s stealth fighter. Stealth fighters are not meant for one to one dogfights anyway. So, instead of investing in a prestige enhancer project like the FGFA, it behoves on the Indian military planners to work on counter measures against stealth fighters. For example, once a stealth aircraft is detected, efficient Mach 2.5+ interceptors are going to be needed to neutralize the threat. IAF does not have any single role interceptors till date, multi role fighters being its mainstay. This is a strategic depth which no one seems to be in a particular hurry to fill. Anti-satellite programs, Space denial weapons, long wavelength radars, passive detection systems, Bodyguard systems emitting duplicate laser strobes for laser guided weapons – all these are being actively worked upon by countries that are serious about the threat of stealth weapons. If at all India is doing anything on these fields none have come to public knowledge.
Same goes with missiles. Indian media takes great amount of pleasure in reporting the successful test launches of the DRDO made missiles, longer the claimed range greater the joy. This however fails to give the country any strategic advantage because of its stated stand of no first use of nuclear weapons and no aggression policy. Missiles are essentially offensive weapons but if one is not to strike pre-emptively, they serve a very limited purpose of retaliatory attacks. Also, India comes fairly and squarely under the Chinese-Pakistani missile strike range thereby making missile defence rather than offence more significant to her. One may argue that even India can strike at China and Pakistan with its IRBMs but almost guaranteedly such strikes will always be in response.
Thus, the best India can boast of is, you take one swipe at me, I take one swipe at you; hardly the recipe to win a war. Rather than looking at increasing the missile stockpile, it would probably be worth its while to create a missile defence network that could thwart any incoming missiles. China pays extraordinary importance to its missile arsenal. It has a separate unit called the Second Artillery whose sole raison d’ etre is to maintain and operate missiles. The lethality of the Chinese missiles is far enhanced by the inflight adjustments that can be performed and the manoeuvrable warheads they employ. Whether or not Indian missiles have such capabilities is a different issue; does India have the technology to interdict such a missile and nullify it is a more pertinent question.
India with its defensive – pacifist outlook has more reasons to invest in war technologies than a nation with an offensive agenda. Pacifism does not mean denuding the nation of its military abilities. Rather it bears heavily on being prepared for countering aggression from its enemies with better technologies and smarter weapons. The Indian establishment’s backward looking policies and extraordinary unwillingness in increasing defence spending is a worrying phenomenon. The mind boggling lethargy in defence procurement is downright anti-national. No less worrying is the fact that the military think tank is failing to provide a futuristic outlook in the war manuals.
Over indulgence in attaining numerical parity or superiority in terms of weapon count is only allowing India’s enemies to dictate any future conflict on their terms. If India must win a war starting from a defensive position she must have technology to run a war on her own terms. Otherwise, the history of France in World War II is what awaits her. Marshall Pétain had put the blame of France’s defeat on the pacifism of the leftists who ran France’s politics in the interwar period. India has much to learn from that. It is a much argued opinion in India that with half(?) her population below poverty line she should not invest in futuristic research. This issue got a fresh lease of life after the recent launch of the Mars orbiter. The proponents of such arguments fail to see the financial burden the country incurs by being an importer state of military hardware. Also, to argue that social upliftment and military research are mutually exclusive is an exercise in denial of the duties of a modern nation state.
India must decide how she wants to write her future war narratives. Will it be stories of absolute dominance where her forces annihilated the enemy with absolute majesty or will it be emotional eulogies of singular jawans who fought a losing battle against an enemy with outdated weapons and outsmarted tactic?
China’s Air Force Enters The 21st Century – Allen, Krumel, Pollack- RAND, 1995