Why the Indian Military’s Joint Doctrine Fails to Inspire

An Indian Army T-90 tank.
Image Credit: Wikimedia CommonsSpeaking at a seminar last September, Indian Army chief Bipin Rawat asserted that future wars would be fought on land, ‘and therefore the primacy of the Army must be maintained.’

Rawat’s stridency may have been influenced by his venue- he was speaking at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies- an autonomous think tank that comes under the army’s Directorate General of Perspective Planning. But Rawat’s words also seemed in line with the Joint Doctrine Indian Armed Forces (JDIAF) released five months earlier, in April.

That the JDIAF is army-centric was clear from even a cursory reading. But a paper released earlier this month argues that the JDIAF’s flaws run deeper.

The paper, titled ‘India’s Joint Doctrine: A Lost Opportunity’ comes from Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF), and is the result of both a careful parsing of the JDIAF, and an effort to connect it to the broader body of strategic literature. The paper’s authors are Abhijnan Rej, a fellow with ORF, and Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the UK’s Royal United Services Institute.

First and most obviously, Rej and Joshi point that the JDIAF takes an ‘overwhelmingly continental view of external threats,’ one that is at odds with earlier doctrines published by the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force.

Despite the focus on land warfare, the doctrine concedes that large-scale conventional options against Pakistan are few because of the escalation risks. Instead, the JDIAF ‘seeks to systematise’ cross-border actions like 2016’s much-hyped ‘surgical strikes’. This conclusion is buttressed by recent events. On December 25, five Indian Army soldiers reportedly crossed the Line of Control and killed four Pakistan troops as part of a small punitive raid. And earlier this month, Rawat argued that such butcher-and-bolt tactics were effective because they targeted the Pakistan Army itself, and not the disposable cannon fodder it sends across the Line of Control. (Of course, by the army’s own reckoning, these raids have not yet reduced violence on the LoC, though Rawat would surely ask us to be patient.)

Rej and Joshi find some limited evidence in the JDIAF for the army’s ‘Cold Start’ doctrine, which calls for a rapid and shallow incursion into Pakistani territory by the Indian Army. But making Cold Start work will require an Indian Air Force that is willing to devote major resources to close air support (CAS). Here the authors see ‘continued tensions between the Army’s priority on CAS tailored to the needs of ground forces and the IAF’s wider vision of theatre-wide influence.’

There’s another strange wrinkle in the JDIAF. Rej and Joshi convincingly argue that a great deal of the JDIAF’s ideas about joint army-air force operations comes from  America’s Airland Battle doctrine from the 1980s. This is indeed a strange choice when you’re crafting a doctrine for limited war. The Airland Battle concept was the product of many things: The end of the draft in the US, the coming of precision-guided munitions, and a desire to reduce the role of battlefield nuclear weapons. What it was not was a doctrine for limited conflict. Airland Battle was all about blunting a massive Soviet thrust into Western Europe, not making a snap territorial grab to extract a few concessions.

The JDIAF also brings up India’s nuclear deterrent, but Rej and Joshi argue it raises more questions than it answers, particularly about command and control. For one, the authors say, it appears to indicate a reduced role for the Political Council in nuclear decision-making with greater authority invested in the person of the Prime Minister. (The composition of the Political Council remains a closely guarded secret, but probably includes all members of the Cabinet Committee on Security.) With no other public communication from the government on this issue, the reasons for such a shift remain a mystery.

Second, the JDIAF has heightened confusion about India’s nuclear posture and the intended size of its arsenal. Rej and Joshi note that an earlier version of the doctrine described India’s goal as maintaining ‘credible deterrence’. This was changed in a later draft to ‘credible minimum deterrence,’ which is the formulation India has used for two decades. The authors conclude that the absence of ‘minimum’ in the older draft was an oversight- an instance of sloppiness ‘with potentially serious consequences in terms of shaping adversaries’ perceptions of India’s nuclear arsenal.’

Three, the authors point out that the document states that the tri-service Strategic Forces Command (SFC) ‘controls all of India’s nuclear warheads and delivery systems’. This statement, if true, is at variance with the widely held belief that much of India’s nuclear arsenal is de-mated, with different authorities controlling warheads and delivery systems. This in turn prompts Rej and Joshi to wonder if delivery systems like submarines and aircrafts also now come under SFC and not under their respective services (It would be extraordinary if they do).

Finally, the joint doctrine says far too little about force projection, according to the authors. This again appears to be the result of the document’s army-centric approach. By its very nature, force projection requires the navy and air force. While both those services have been enthusiastic in the past about developing such capabilities, these aspirations are ‘weakly reflected’ in the JDIAF, Rej and Joshi write. Also, in keeping with its inward-looking tone, the doctrine only touches upon low intensity conflict in its domestic context and is silent about jointly operating with other militaries overseas.

Rej and Joshi conclude that the JDIAF fails to move the armed forces towards ‘true jointness’ and only highlights the reality of inter-service rivalry in the face of serious strategic challenges.

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