BUT THE SHINE ELUDES (November-2005)
Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
It is a new dawn for the Indian Navy and the Air Force. Their enthusiasm and optimism is almost palpable. Since the 26 December 2004 Tsunami tragedy, where the two defence services won accolades from many nations including the United States for expedient relief and humanitarian work outside the country in Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia, the mood is upbeat; and for a special reason. The government, for the first time, is overtly supporting the concept of strategic reach that is a hallmark of major and rising powers that have the will, capacity, and capability (military) to influence events beyond their geographic borders. As a nation rises in national strength, its area of interest and influence pushes itself outside its territorial limits in a manner that faraway smaller countries become dependent and deferential towards the rising power and consequently feel obliged to take its geo-political and strategic opinion into account for policy-making.
Of course, the Indian government and the defence services are not saying all this when they talk of strategic reach. What they are saying is that India’s smaller neighbours and friends in the region could and should have confidence in its military to assist them when required. Ironically, India remained uncertain about its geo-political status, till sundry American scholars and senior government officials started talking about India’s rise in the region (the US, of course has its own national interest in doing so).
Following the December 26 Tsunami disaster, the US’ admiration for the commendable work done by the Indian Navy and the Air Force prompted Indian Navy and the Air Force prompted India to have a new respect for its military. Certain quarters within the government felt that the military should complement diplomacy more open ly to support India’s quest for strategic reach in the region. With this in mind, while addressing the annual combined military commander’s conference in New Delhi on 20 October, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that: The Indian Navy must expand its capability to protect these sea lanes (Indian Ocean Region). We must ensure workable alliances with like-minded countries for the security of our sea lanes, for our commercial and energy security. ‘He added that ‘the balance of power in international relations is more sophisticated than during the Cold War era. We must learn to deal with this new reality and plan our long-term security based on a proper appreciation of of these evolving trends.’
Given India’s growing economy, information technology prowess, and a large hard-working English-speaking, educated middle class, India’s rise is inevitable. The only issue that will make a marked difference is whether the political leadership is preparing India with a requisite policy, a political will, and formal organisations for a graceful rise. After all, alongside China, India is the only country that can make a big difference in Asia, which will be the global focus in the century. China and India are two such nations that are attempting strategic reach in Asia but with a stark difference. China, which embarked on its four-modernisation plan to develop national strength in 1979, has been working methodically and furtively since the end of the Cod /war to enhance strategic reach. To assuage the apprehensions of both the global powers and small nations in Asia. China has explained its growing strategic reach options under two heads: the policy or strategic level where the government should spell out a security policy needed for strategic reach: and the operational level where the military as the visible instrument of state policy will be required to demonstrate strategic reach, when needed.
Unfortunately, the policy level remains uncertain and ambiguous for four reasons: One, a successful security policy must first both ensure that India’s home-base is secure and neighbouring countries respect India before Delhi attempts credible strategic reach. This is not so. As a continental nation, India is hemmed in by disputed borders on both fronts; Pakistan on the western side and China on the eastern side. Pakistan remains an immediate military threat while China, which is building infra-structure at a breathtaking pace in Tibet, which can only be used against India when needed, has shown little interest to settle its border dispute with India. (India and Bhutan are the only two countries with which China has land border disputes). This is not all. There is an ever growing internal instability ranging from insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir and the North Eastern states, to an expanding Naxal problem in central and southern Indian states and the menace of porous borders with unfriendly neighbours like Nepal and Bangladesh. Two as a state with nuclear weapons, India’s two adversaries with nuclear weapons are unimpressed by India’s nuclear deterrence. Worse, India’s political leadership itself is unsure about its nuclear deterrence capability that explains why India hesitated twice to go to war with Pakistan during Operation Parakram, the 10-month long military stand-off with Pakistan in 2002. As part of its non-proliferation strategy, the US, since India’s 1998 series of nuclear tests, has stymied India’s nuclear weaponisation programme, and is now determined that India spells out its minimum nuclear deterrence to permanently cap its fissile material. It is another matter that the Indian military believes that against Pakistan there is a credible window of opportunity for a conventional war below the nuclear threshold level. Three, there is government policy on what is expected of the military regarding strategic reach. For example, the air force and the navy were asked if they could provide certain numbers of aircraft and ships for relief and humanitarian work outside the country in Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Indonesia after the Tsunami disaster. Being professional organisations, the two services more than met the expectations which resulted in many nations including the US congratulating India on its feat. In the absence of a government policy, this has raised many difficult questions within the military leadership. For instance, considering India’s growing security interests, the military could well be asked one day by the political leadership to protect India’s increasing assets and interests outside the country. This implies that the military in any case must develop certain capabilities to meet such uncertainties. And four, if the government is indeed serious about strategic reach, it must ideally have a single military advisor, the Chief of Defence Staff, who will help to formulate and fine-tune the nation’s security strategy befitting of a rising power. In the present dispensation, the service chiefs are outside the security policy-making loop, and are invited to attend the Cabinet Committee on Security headed by the Prime Minister on as required basis only. Moreover, the service chiefs are double-hatters; they are the top-most operational commander of their respective service as well as chief of staff meant to do planning for their service. Once a CDS is appointed, the service chiefs can concentrate wholly as operational commanders to fight a war with assets in hand. Planning for strategic reach will then be the task of the CDS.
Because of the above shortcomings, the political, bureaucratic and the thinking community close to the government is in a quandary. While words like ‘strategic reach’ and a ‘rising power’ are studiously avoided, benign expression like a responsible power are much in vogue. However, the establishment misses no opportunity to demonstrate credentials of a ‘rising power’ for example, it politely declined help from the international community both during the Tsunami and the 8 October 2005 earthquake that hit Jammu and Kashmir. Instead, India sent one IL-76 aircraft with 25 tons of relief material to Pakistan for earthquake victims in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, and subsequently offered US$25 million aid through UN agencies. In addition, three relief camps have been set up along the Line of Control on the Indian side for the homeless Kashmiris of PoK. This is not all. Pakistan was also offered Indian military helicopters with pilots for relief work, which Pakistan declined. Probably the most bizarre gesture was the sending of one IL-76 aircraft with relief material and a cheque of US$5 million to the US when he Katrina hurricane hit the most powerful nation.
The moot point, however, that has ben overlooked by Indian is that no nation becomes a major power piggybacking on others. The US, with its deep vested interests, is likely to reduce India, what is certain is that the Indian military is determined to acquire capabilities for strategic reach. This is the good news.
For example, the Indian Navy has traditionally indulged in soft-peddled naval diplomacy as ships move freely in international waters without violating international laws. What has changed things dramatically is the growing US’ interest in the Indian Navy and the Indian Ocean Region after the Cold War. It is, therefore, little coincidence that the Indian maritime doctrine published in April 2004 spoke about the are from the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca as a legitimate area of political, economic and military interest; President APJ Abdul Kalam in his 15 August 2005 address to the nation focussed on energy security, which is seen as increasingly dependent on maritime security; Prime Minister Manmohan Singh singled out the navy during the recent combined commanders conference to acquire strategic reach capabilities; and the lone aircraft carrier Viraat along with guided missile ships and tankers made its maiden presence felt in Southeast Asia in July 2005, with the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Arun Prakash making a quick appearance whose significance did not go unnoticed. The Indian Navy is today exercising with 18 different navies, big and small. A new directorate of Foreign Cooperation and Transformation under a two-star admiral has been set up at naval headquarters to interact with the ministries of defence and external affairs to clear naval matters with friendly nations. All this is a far cry from the decades of Eighties and Nineties when the chief of naval staff during his customary media interaction on the eve of the Navy Day would emphasise the need for focus on the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and few through it made news. Two events have changed things: importance of the IOR and the growing Chinese Navy as a component of its strategic reach. It does not need a genius to conclude that there will be three prominent navies in the IOR; the US, Chinese and Indian, and that each will vie for space and influence in the region. It is certainly in India’s interest that its navy interact closely with the US Navy to ensure that the space available to the Chinses Navy in the IOR is constricted. Given its strategic location, the Indian Navy is naturally poised for a major role in the region. The naval leadership is fully conscious of its growing importance.
And so is the Indian Air Force that until December 1994 called itself a tactical air force. Close on heels of the signing of SU-30 aircraft contract with Russia, the then chief of air staff, Air Chief Marshal S.K. Kaul issued the first doctrine of the IAF in October 1995. Classified as restricted, the highpoint of the doctrine was the upgrading of offensive operations. In air force parlance, Counter Air Operations were accorded high operational priority and Close Air Support was re-named Battlefield Air Strike (BAS), Moreover, a clear distinction was made between Battlefield Air Interdiction from BAS. It was evident that to successfully conduct these offensive operations, the IAF would require force multipliers such as AWACS, mid-air refuelling, better electronic warfare and command, control computers communications intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities, and eventually an aerospace command. Indeed the single lesion of the 1967 Arab-Israel war had had a deep impact on the IAF: the need to destroy the enemy aircraft on the ground itself. The new IAF doctrine was a turning point where senior IAF officers argued the need for air operations before the land battle would be joined, something that was anathema to the Indian Army. It took a decade of hard argumentative work for the two services to resolve most operational differences despite differing perspectives to war. This was possible for two reasons: partly because of the realisation that the nuclear weapons factor between India and Pakistan will restrict a conventional war in time and space. The other reason may have been the personal equations between the three present service chiefs; Adm. Arun Prakash and Gen. J.J Singh went to the same school in Jammu, and Adm. Prakash and ACM S.P Tyagi fought together in the 1971 war. Whatever the reasons, even as an acceptable joint services doctrine prepared by the Integrated Defence Headquarters looks like a reality, the need for a Chief of Defence Staff for comprehensive jointness amongst services cannot be overemphasised.
The IAF, which was already thinking of strategic reach, was given a massive fillip by the government’s realisation of India as a rising power. To be fair to the IAF, it has been routinely called in aid t civil authority. Moreover, after the Tsunami relief where the IAF made a recognised contribution, there is a perfect case for the IAF seeking additional lift capabilities, both rotary and fixed wing aircraft. Between the IAF and the Indian Navy, they require platforms for lift of a respectable rapid deployment force size. Therefore, the IAF has an onerous task commensurate with the inherent flexibility in the service t both prepare for a conventional war which will essentially be an air-land battle, and to seek strategic reach capabilities.
Unlike the air force and the navy whose force levels are structured around weapon platforms that are expensive with long gestation periods needed for indigenisation, the army’s case is different as they are the soldiers on the ground. While traditionally this has a definitive connotation as occupation forces, in the present context of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) this may not be so. India with nearly 7,000 army troops operating under the United Nations flag is the third largest contributors to the world body. Beside, the soldiers have the reputation of being experienced, fair and achievers. In fact, the contribution of the army to UN peacekeeping missions has been used by India to strengthen its case for the permanent membership of the UN Security Council. At present, the army is exercising with many foreign armies where the theme is anti-terrorist operations needed for peacemaking operations. While any army chief will shy away from speaking about strategic reach, his compulsions lie else-where. Unlike the air force and the navy that are preparing for war, the army is already fighting a war and is also heavily committed in disaster management activities. Case in point is the October 8 earthquake in Jammu and Kashmir. Given the non-existing state administration in the border areas of the state, it is the army that is providing succour to the helpless people.