Commentary | With Strings Attached

India should understand the long-term implications of its military relationship with the US before making any major commitments

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

Having signed the four basic US military foundational agreements necessary for interoperability, the Narendra Modi government will now be taking India’s military relationship with the United States several notches higher. If things move at the government’s pace, India will soon be a de facto US ally without any clarity on how it will enhance our defence against the combined China-Pakistan threat. Or how it would help establish geopolitical equilibrium with China.

When the US defence secretary Lloyd Austin came to India (19-21 March) after his visits to Japan and South Korea (US allies in Asia), on the table for discussion was the US’ Multi Domain Operations (MDO) warfighting concept. That this was in the offing was indicated by the Army Chief, General M.M. Naravane during his February 24 address at a webinar organised by the Vivekanand International Foundation ( According to Gen. Naravane, MDO are the future of war for which the Indian Army is preparing.

While the Army Chief’s sudden switch to MDO from Network-Centric Operations (NCO) may have come as a surprise to many, the National Security Advisor (NSA), and by extension the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), had been working the ropes to get under the broader and more definitive US security umbrella. I believe that the NSA’s office was acquainted with the idea of MDO during the Ladakh crisis, when in desperation the government was looking at all options to counter China. These included seeking non-traditional (by Indian thinking) means as well. Some start-ups, familiar with some technologies, have been working with the NSA’s office on developing an Indian concept of MDO. This was the reason the Modi government rushed to sign Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) even when it was unclear if Trump administration would return to power.

The Biden administration is determined to do more than incorporate allies and partners (India) into its MDO warfighting concept. Even before the US’ Indo-Pacific commander (INDOPACOM), Admiral Philip Davidson, recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Chinese military aggression towards Taiwan and India could manifest ‘in fact in the next six years’, the White House had asked the Pentagon to do a Task Force review on how to meet the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) challenge in Asia. Senior US officials including the Joint Chiefs Chairman, General Mark Miller have gone public in suggesting what steps needed to be taken to stem the US military downslide.

Defence minister Rajnath Singh and US Defence Secretary Lloyd James Austin III at Vigyan Bhawan

The suggested steps by the US military officers are meant to address two major issues: How to meet PLA’s Anti Access and Area Denial (A2AD) challenge, and how to strengthen US military’s conventional deterrence by MDO. The A2AD is the US military term for what the PLA calls its counter-intervention strategy comprising its long and medium range ballistic missiles, hypersonic and supersonic cruise missiles, early warning and long-range radars, integrated air and missile defence system, long range reconnaissance satellites and aircraft, cyber, electronic, and counter space capabilities. The counter-invention strategy or A2AD weapons are meant to disallow US military access to its bases, and to deny force operational freedom of action once there.

At the heart of this strategy is China’s systems destruction warfare exemplified by its awesome projective-centric (missiles) warfare and ability to destroy US’ networks which connect its kill chain. The latter, also called the Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (OODA) loop, is a three-part process consisting of understanding the situation, deciding on the course of action at the command-and-control operating centres, and ordering the appropriate shooter (missiles, guns, laser guided bombs, laser weapons, cyber weapons, jamming, counter space weapons) to destroy the targets.

The US military officers say that the A2AD challenge is huge and would require three actions to meet it. First, the US should increase its missiles production rapidly. The Trump administration had withdrawn from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in 2019 since it disallowed the US to build conventional land-based missiles over 500km range. Since China was not part of this treaty, it could unabashedly test and operationalise ballistic missiles in large numbers unmatched by any nation.

The second action relates to the challenge of PLA’s long ranges and accurate missiles, especially when they would soon be enabled by Artificial Intelligence (AI) embedded in them. These ‘intelligent’ missiles, called Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAWs) would be able to operate independently. They would be able to accomplish given tasks by themselves and would not require software networking communication with the human controller. Incidentally, this network which connects the missile to the control station is its most vulnerable part. It can be destroyed by the adversary—in China’s case, by the US—thereby blinding the missile.

The answer to this problem, the US military says, is to abandon its limited and permanent Asian bases with high density of troops in places like Japan, South Korea, and Guam. Established after World War II, these would be easy targets for the PLA missiles. Instead, the US should seek diffused bases, at many places, where the troops could be on a rotational basis. It is argued that dispersed and expeditionary US troops across the INDOPACOM would be less easy target and provide better conventional deterrence. Looking for such bases amongst partners in the region would have been a high priority for the US defence secretary Lloyd when he met India’s NSA.

Would the Modi government, which has gone out of its way to seek US security, refuse its request for rotational troops on Indian soil?

The third action that US military intends to take is to permanently position US army led Multi Domain Task Force (MDTF) closer to Chinese A2AD firewall to potentially penetrate it before the major attack is mounted by the US forces arriving from rotational bases. MDTF would comprise long-range US missiles and cyber capabilities (under the US army cyber command) meant to destroy PLA missiles.

Interestingly, at the aforementioned webinar, General Navarane spoke about the need to address PLA’s ‘grey zone capabilities short of war’ by the framework of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) under him. The ‘grey zone’ referred to PLA’s capabilities in the virtual domains of cyber, space, and electronic (electromagnetic spectrum) warfare. According to the army chief, India’s defence cyber agency under the CDS and army’s demonstrated swarm drone capability on the Army Day on January 15 would be able to hit the A2AD bubble.

Since this is wishful thinking, would India ask the visiting defence secretary to help raise India-specific MDTF with capabilities procured from the US? After all, the PLA has raised a smaller version of its A2AD firewall it has for Taiwan (distance between Taiwan and mainland China is 110 miles) across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India. The presence of US military experts close to the LAC could make China review its India strategy, leading perhaps to an escalation neither wants.

Defence secretary Lloyd would have discussed India’s involvement in the US’ MDO warfighting concept with Ajit Doval, with perhaps the CDS in attendance. The MDO involves virtual networking of long-range fires, electronic, space and cyber warfare capabilities with the physical war domains of land, air, sea, and information operations. It would have MDO command-and-control or operating centres where information from all listed entities/weapon systems from all domains would come at a central place for decision-making to close the kill chain faster than the enemy.

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