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Watch | What’s Wrong With the Modi Government’s Defence Policy?

Happymon Jacob talks to Pravin Sawhney, the founding editor FORCE magazine, about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s defence policy, the need to understand the real threat from China, the future of warfare and India’s unpreparedness for the same.

Happymon Jacob talks to Pravin Sawhney, the founding editor FORCE magazine, about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s defence policy, the need to understand the real threat from China, the future of warfare and India’s unpreparedness for the same.

The conversation also delves into what is wrong with India’s efforts with RMA (revolution in military affairs), the weakness of the ‘two-front’ war theory and what India must do to balance the spectre of China.

Happymon Jacob: Hello and welcome to the National Security Conversations. Today we will have an assessment of Mr Modi’s defence policy. It is close to four and a half years since the Modi government came to power in New Delhi. Given its hyper-nationalistic credentials, there was a lot of expectation that Mr Modi was going to do a lot better in the field of national security and India’s defence policy. So probably, it would be appropriate for us to ask the question as to how Mr Modi has performed in the field of national security and defence policy.

There has been some momentum in the recent months; Mr Modi has set up what is called a Defence Planning Committee and also very recently, a Strategic Policy Group. Both committees are headed by the country’s national security adviser but the question is, is it too late in the game for these two committees to make any credible and substantive impact on India’s national security and defence policy?

To discuss this and more, I have with me in the studio Mr Pravin Sawhney. Mr Pravin Sawhney is the editor of the Force magazine and is the author of three important books – The Defense Makeover, Operation Parakaram and just last year he published a book Dragon on Our Doorstep. Before joining the Force magazine – before founding the Force magazine – he also worked with the Jane’s International Defence Review. Welcome to the National Security Conversations, Mr Sawhney.

Let me begin with this question that I sort of mentioned earlier on – it’s 4.5 years and given its hyper-nationalist credentials, the BJP government was expected to do a lot more in the national security and national defence scene. Do you think he has performed adequately and lived up to the expectations that people had of Mr Modi?

Pravin Sawhney: My brief answer will be no. In fact, under the Modi government, the national security sharply deteriorated and I’ll give you three reasons for that. My first reason is, that for a government which said that we will be the best in national security as compared to the other governments, they refused to take ownership of defence. Now, this is important, what is ownership of defence? Ownership of defence basically means that the political leadership, i.e. the prime minister himself, should have taken stock of the threats to India. Now why I am saying this is important is because, in 2009, the Indian Army propounded the thinking of a two-front war which was immediately lapped up by the other two services. Based on this thinking is capability building, and on this capability building is where your modernisation money is going. So this is that foundation, if you are thinking is awry, if that foundation is not correct you are actually aimlessly putting money into modernisation, building the capability especially when we do not have a vibrant defence industry.

HJ: You talked about taking ownership of defence. Now people could argue that there is a lot of concentration of national security and defence in the prime minister’s office these days, isn’t that good enough?

PS: No, you see ownership basically means that your defence has to be secured, that our territorial integrity should be secured, period.

HJ: Right, right.

PS: We are one country which has two military lines, one against China and one against Pakistan, so the threats are there. So the point I’m making is, when we are spending about $49 billion every year as our defence budget, it is imperative, it is essential that the government sits down itself and assess the threats and say all right can we take on the China threat by war or we have to employ some other means? Can we take on the Pakistan threat by war or something else has to be done? This is called taking ownership because we are actually putting money in the modernisation.

HJ: Just to go back to the point that you made. So you are basically that there is no big picture understanding of national security and national defence, even under this government? It’s business as usual. Is that what you are saying?

PS: Yes. What I’m saying is that unless you will not very clear about the threats, you can never be clear about what sort of armed forces you should have.

HJ: Just to compare the four and a half years of Mr Narendra Modi with the previous governments of the UPA-I and -II, how do you rate the performance of the Indian government on national security and national defence issues?

PS: So awful. Why? Number one – the Modi government, right from day one, said that on national security we will be much better than UPA, but they did not come up to the expectation. Number two, they actually put a lot of emphasis on perception management, so the reality is different and what they are trying to put across is something different.

I’ll give you two very brief examples. One is the 2016 surgical strikes – they were never surgical strikes, there were political strikes for a political mission, there was never a military mission – I mean we can discuss this in detail later. The second point is this whole campaign of Make in India in defence is nothing more – it’s a new label given to what was going on earlier and why I am saying this is because two basic game changers for the Make in India campaign, which is for resurrecting the industry of India, would have been – number one if you had provided a level playing field to the private sector as much as you give it to the public sector – that has not happened.

HJ: Right.

PS: Number two, how much of money have you put into R&D? We haven’t put any money into R&D, so basically we are doing exactly what we were doing earlier, which is getting the SKD CKD, you know those knockdown kits and complete kits assembling them here and getting some SMEs inside, so whereas we have created some sort of an employment for people through the SMEs but, that bigger mission of creating an industry – it just remains in limbo. So that is why I’m saying that they have not performed compared to the UPA, because they drummed up but they didn’t deliver.

HJ: Pravin, when you talked about the new threats, let me come to that. I often hear from various defence analysts that we are preparing for the last war – we are not really preparing for the future war, the next war. Is that an accurate statement to make? What are the real new threats on the horizon, and are we adequately prepared for that?

PS: Right. So my response would be we are not preparing for any war. Forget about the last war or the next war, and I will give you four reasons straight for that. Number one, these new threats, what are they? When we see China, according to the 2015 military reforms one of the things that they have done is, they have brought in jointness. Now jointness, at the policy level, jointness, at the war-fighting level and because of the technology that we have the tactical level has become redundant. What is the implication of that? The implication of that is – tactical is the level where battles are fought, where the Indian Army is involved basically after the reforms and once they fructify in 2020, the role of the Indian Army will keep diminishing by the day, because there’ll be no battles. We are looking at the war-fighting. See there are three levels: strategic, operational and tactical. The tactical level is getting eliminated, whereas we are pumping in money creating a manpower and army which actually will never fight in a war.

HJ: Well you do have a tactical situation in Kashmir…

PS: Again, I’m not talking about the peacetime or proxy war. I am talking of a conventional capability. Number two, I’ll tell you a very interesting thing. Under the reforms, they have created what is called the strategic support force.

HJ: The Chinese?

PS: Yes, the Chinese, now this is very important.

HJ: Tell us something more about that.

PS: The strategic support force – basically what they have done is they have put their space assets, their cyber assets, their electronic warfare assets and their psychological warfare assets – they have put everything together. They’ve consolidated for a double mission.

HJ: So this is one step above normal jointness.

PS: No no, it is jointness –  what they have done is all these disparate elements were everywhere. Elements of space, elements of cyber, elements of electronic warfare and elements of psychological warfare – what we call psy-ops. So what they have now done is they have consolidated. So the task of this strategic support force will be support the jointness of the theatres, as well as do independent tasking. Now, what is independent tasking? Independent tasking is cyber espionage, cyber-attacks, space intimidation. Now they are moving into a deniability role in the war. For example, cyber – they do cyber offences – that is deniable, but the message will go to the country which is suffering that look – they mean war. So that is called deniability. So it will be a mix of no contact and deniability, but we don’t seem to be understanding this.

Now the third threat is the interoperability threat. Interoperability basically means the ability of two country’s armed forces to fight together for a common mission. Now what this means is that Pakistan has A amount of assets, because it is an interoperability with the Chinese, it will get additional assets at friendly prices from China. It will get all the spare parts so it can fight a longer war, then we can because we have to get spare parts from all over, we don’t manufacture anything. They’ll get all the weapons from there and more than that, what is not being understood is since 2011, the Chinese military and the Pakistani military have been fighting together in the northern areas. This Gilgit-Baltistan and PoK – this basically means that this is really the area where there is a possibility of some sort of a conventional war, and there you will find their combined strength

Another thing – the Chinese today are competing with the Americans. You know, there is so much literature and nobody seems to be paying attention to that – artificial intelligence in warfare now. Basically look at three areas – look at robotics, look at the autonomy of weapon systems (complete autonomy or semi-autonomy of weapon systems) and look at the machine-human interface. Now, these are the areas where they are going in. Let me simplify that and give you a tangible example. Recently, after we got the S400, the news came that 48 CH force – you know which is the armed drones – will be given to the Pakistanis by the Chinese.

HJ: So let me stop you there. Let me ask you – you’ve talked about jointness, you talked about interoperability, you talked about artificial intelligence and deniability, and no-contact wars. How is India faring on all these counts, in thinking in futuristic terms, about the future of threats? How is it different?

PS: Right, so we are denying the interoperability. If we weren’t denying the interoperability, we would be thinking of revising our two-front war thinking. We are not doing that. You see, now this cyberspace – what I said, the strategic support force – we are at those preliminary embryonic stages of thinking or doing something. You know all this talk about creating a new agency for cyber, creating a node, these are all baby steps. The Chinese are way ahead. You know, I’ll tell you this, here is my bottom line on this subject – you know I keep hearing from people, from analysts, from military people, that there will be no war with China. Of course, there’ll be no war with China, because, given the huge disparity between the capabilities of China and India, the future of war is not warfare, it is military coercion.

HJ: Wait a minute, Praveen, so you are saying that we are nowhere near to the Chinese as far as accommodating the modern threats and modern problems are concerned, but remember how we are only spending about under $50 billion, they have three times more than our expenditure. So is it the problem of the budgetary constraints or is it about thinking along those lines? What is missing?

PS: So let’s take the example of Russia. See, Russia’s defence budget and under Putin, how from the year 2000, when he became the president to today. In 18 years, he has changed everything around in defence so basically what you need is..

HJ: So, not the budgetary?

PS: No, it is. Budgetary is one aspect. You know all this nonsense that goes on – less money or at least first get your thinking correct, first get that correct. What do you want? First get it correct: what is your threat? First get it correct: How will you tackle the threat? Will you tackle it by diplomatic means or will you actually use military force? If you use military force, where will you use military force? I mean these are those big questions which cannot happen without the involvement of the political leadership.

HJ: So one takeaway from what you just said, Praveen, is that you did say that interoperability between the Chinese and the Pakistanis is going to be one reality in the days to come, it’s probably…

PS: It’s already there, yeah it’s already there.

HJ: I have been personally a critique of the recent security agreements that India signed with the United States. So in that context, would you then say that is probably not a bad idea that India and the United States has a certain amount of interoperability in the Indian Ocean region?

PS: So you see, your question can be answered in two parts. Number one, this theory is not a correct theory that because we cannot do much on the land in the Himalayas against China, because on the border legally, militarily, politically we are weaker than China, so let us try and do something in the Indian Ocean. This theory is wrong and why it is wrong is – Doklam proved it. When Doklam happened, nobody came to our rescue. We had to do everything ourselves, so nobody will come.

Now what is happening in the Indian Ocean region? The Indian Ocean region is basically their agenda, about three and a half years back, I had a one-on-one for a full one hour with Admiral Harry Harris, the PAC (US Pacific Command) commander. He gave me an hour, we sat down and discussed. My takeaway from meeting him was one single sentence, which was that, we want India to be the pivot for maritime and naval operations in the Indian Ocean region. Now, what does it mean? It basically means that we have limited assets, we do not have shipbuilding, which in any way matches ups to the Chinese shipbuilding. So in the maritime domain, awareness, which is intelligence collection, reconnaissance, you know these agreements that we signed recently at 2+2 . So they’ll give us a big picture and then they expect us to fight for the protection of the sea lanes/lines of communications which is also in our interest. Of course, it is in our interest, but it is in the collective interest. It is not about us because the American oil goes from there, the Japanese oil goes from there – why should we only be doing that? We should be worrying more about our Achilles’ heel.

HJ: You also mentioned earlier about the absence of jointness in the Indian Armed Forces. In fact, the Chinese certainly have much more – the Pakistanis probably have a lot more jointness than the Indians have. We do have the IDSA headquarters, but on the on the jointness front, how is India faring?

PS: So see, jointness is an operational term. Integrated defence headquarters is an administrative headquarters, nothing to do with it. So we are talking of operations. Now when we are talking of operations, how can there be genuine jointness when the two-three forces have not even come to a consensus on the common threat? All three services have their own threat perception.

HJ: Right.

PS: All the three have not come on a common doctrine.

HJ: Right.

PS: Air Chief General Bipin Rawat says…

HJ: They have a joint training doctrine now?

PS: No, no joint doctrine. I mean the very fundamental thing he’s on record saying, Bipin Rawat, that the army will be the lead in the operations…

HJ: That’s correct.

PS: …whereas any sensible person will tell you the Air Force has to be in the lead. So you see all this talk of interoperability – they’ll give you all stray examples, you know small-small things, we are doing this. The truth of the matter is it’s a military operation. Get your common threats, get your common doctrine, then please talk of jointness.

HJ: You did mention about the non-contact warfare. What is the concept of non-contact warfare, how is China gearing up for it and is India prepared for it?

PS: So non-contact warfare basically is… you know after the 1991 Gulf War, we had this revolution of military affairs. One country that paid special attention to that was China. From 1990 onwards, they put in a lot of effort, a lot of money in R&D; and today they have a humongous amount of precision standoff weapons. They have a humongous capability in the new domains, three new domains of war. Today there are six domains of war – land, air, sea, space, cyber, electronic warfare – they have humongous capabilities. So when you have these sort of capabilities, why exactly will they come into a battle with you and get their soldiers killed?

Non-contact war is that a war where the soldiers do not fight and spill blood; there is no meat grinding. They have the capability, we simply don’t have it. We still believe that you see… Doklam, again I have to come back to an example where the army chief and other generals are saying we could have taken them all in Doklam, because we are in a superior position. Of course, you are tactically, but the point of the matter is are they fools to get their soldiers into those positions? They have so many other means. Non-contact war means to intimidate you, to do military coercion.

HJ: Let me understand that. You are saying that according to the Indian government and many analysts in India the argument was that we ensure that the Chinese do not continue to do what they were doing in Doklam. So it was it was basically a no-win situation for either side. That is the narrative that we have in India. Do you have a different narrative?

PS: I do not believe in this narrative at all and here is the reason for that. The Indian narrative is that north-eastern states are important for us. We cannot have them coming in this funnel down in the Chumbi Valley, especially on this Gymboree range from where they can see and direct fire. You see, now, this is the tactics of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Nobody is doing this today. I mean, why they did what they did is a different reason altogether.

HJ: What is the subtext?

PS: They never had an intention. You see, to my mind, given their technology and military capabilities, to actually fight a war with you in Chumbi Valley because that is what they call a battle. We saw Doklam as a battle, they saw it as a war. Now war is a collection of battles, which is why they won and we lost. Why they won – because it is our prime minister who travelled to Wuhan to seek peace. Xi Jinping didn’t come here, he didn’t seek an appointment. Not only did our prime minister go to Wuhan to seek peace, if you notice in the in the joint statement at Wuhan, it was said strategic military restraint. That was the key thing, and then he immediately travelled to Sochi, to meet up with President Putin knowing fully well he’s one guy perhaps Xi will listen to. So you see when you mistake a battle for war, that means there is something fundamentally wrong in the political thinking and then the military thinking.

HJ: you’re saying that after Doklam the Indian side requested for an appointment with President Xi Jinping, and then thereafter went and met Mr Putin. What was the reason? What, where was the pressure coming from? There was no obvious pressure clearly, so there’s something else that you have in mins. Tell us.

PS: So the pressure was, the military pressure because immediately after Doklam in that winter 2016-2017, they did a massive build-up. You know, air build-up land we all know if you come back

HJ: It has come back there

PS: Everything has come back. So what was the pressure? The pressure was military coercion because the political leadership does not understand the use of military power and foreign policy, the worry was about a crisis escalating. They simply do not understand the escalation ladder, which is not the case with China because Xi Jinping heads the CMC – the Central Military Commission. You see, so the pressure was military coercion. So this is what I keep saying. I have a heard our diplomats say that this border has been peaceful for so many years

HJ: Not a shot has been fired.

PS: Of course, it has been peaceful. Why – because all transgression are one-sided. It has been peaceful. I mean why would…

HJ: So China has been transgressing?

PS: Absolutely. We have not even gone to the patrolling limits. This is the truth of the ground. Now, you tell me, why will they fire a shot? What is the aim of war? The aim of war is that when your negotiations break down, you go to war to get the defeated party on to the negotiation table to get what you want. That is the aim of war. That is why you go to war. Now, what was the need for the Chinese to fire a shot, you tell me, when they have been transgressing at will, when politically, militarily, diplomatically they have been strong on the border. Legally, they are strong on the border. I mean all the wrong treaties that we have signed. I mean I have given in details in this book, Dragon on our Doorstep.

HJ: So you’re basically making two points. One, earlier on, you said, well now you are saying, that the Chinese have been doing it, have been at it for a very long time. There has been precious little that has been done by the Indian side. On the other hand, you’re also saying that more battalions or more brigades or more men on the ground may not necessarily help so where is the solution, what is the solution?

PS: So the point, is that why we are putting more, first of all, more men on the ground? Because, the last agreement where we did, you know in 2013 when we did the agreement, which was that if a patrol is able to come in off either side it will not be followed. Basically, what it means is that if the Chinese are able to get anywhere in that two thousand square kilometres, which they say is our is our disputed border with India, if they come inside even let’s say two kilometres, we cannot throw them out. So we have to stop them, which is why we need more manpower. They’ve got..

HJ: So you’re saying that we need to have more manpower on the ground.

PS: For the banner drill to stop them I mean they are doing policing duties.

HJ: What else can be done? Apart from having more men on the ground?

PS: So, therefore, what can be done is and this is my basic argument – understand military power, understand threats. Based on your threat, with the allocations that you have, with the money that you can put, please build up your defence industry, please put money in your R&D. Don’t bluff, please bring genuine reforms, which must start at the political level with identifying what the threats are. Again, I am repeating, and how to tackle them. Please do all these exercises. Don’t do halfway shoddy things, they will never work with a power like China.

HJ: So tactical measures will not help, you need to have strategic measures.

PS: You got it.

HJ: All right, let’s come to the question of CPEC. You mentioned CPEC earlier on. It has been in news a great deal. Pakistanis are being upbeat about it and CPEC has been focused, on say for example, for geo-economic reasons. Is there any geo-strategic rationale behind CPEC at all and what are the implications of that for India?

PS: Right. So there is both a geopolitical reason and there is also a military reason. You know, first of all, whenever the belt and Road initiative moves anywhere, I mean this CPEC is a flagship of the belt and road initiative. Basically where they go, their asset interests, their people have to be protected – the Chinese, because Chinese are putting their assets and their workers are there. It has to be protected.

HJ: Especially in Pakistan?

PS: Anywhere, anywhere. It is not Pakistan.

HJ: So they will have their troops in various parts of the world?

PS: Exactly. So, one of the reasons for 2015 military reform, was that the role of the PLA had expanded to protecting the assets of the Belt and Road Initiative. You see, now specific to Pakistan, the other problem which nobody seems to be realising is that there are, if not thousands, hundreds of Chinese workers there in Pakistan, today, working on this CPEC. How can we go to war when this CPEC, first of all, will be made, after that, it will be maintained then the commercial angle will come in, you see. So the Chinese will always be there, now in Pakistan. Now, think of a war and the Air Force saying that alright, we will go in and do a deep strike. Now, imagine you kill 100 or 150 Chinese in the strike. You’re actually inviting trouble on the other front. It’s simple. So basically, the presence the military aspect is the presence of the Chinese in large numbers in Pakistan has actually made the role for nuclear weapons of Pakistan outdated. They have no role because there is no way that we can do a war. There is only a small corridor, where the war can be fought and that very small corridor, as I said is the northern border, facing which is POK and Gilgit-Baltistan and that is exactly where since 2011, they have been doing joint training.

HJ: So you’re saying that we have very little military option vis-à-vis Pakistan. Let’s take the example of the 2016 surgical strikes. You mentioned in one of your answers, that it was not a military strike it was a political strike. But the way it has been played out, we are now celebrating the surgical strikes day etc. Has the surgical strike of 2016 improved India’s security situation vis-à-vis Pakistan?

PS: Okay, so it has worsened it further on two counts. Number one, because the way we did these strikes, we immediately informed Pakistan, which was supposed to be covert operations, we told them we are not doing anything further. The message that the Pakistanis got was that these guys do not have the political will for escalation. One of the key determinants, there are four key determines for any country’s military power. What are those four? The four are the technology of a country, the economic power of a country, the military power of the country and the political will. What is this political will? Political will is that the political leadership understands the escalation ladder. So, the Modi government actually conveyed to them that we are incapable of escalating. Number two..

HJ: But escalation would have happened only if the Pakistanis acknowledged and retaliated after the strike

PS: There was no need to acknowledge because we never did any military operation. Why? Because, first of all, surgical strikes are done by the Air Force, the raid is done by the army. This was not a raid because raid is against legitimate targets which is the Pakistan army and not the terrorists and the third thing the army can do or the army can do the second thing, is a hot pursuit. Hot pursuit basically means, somebody is coming and you follow him. Nobody came and we never followed. So as Jaishankar pointed out, he was the foreign secretary..

HJ: Shallow operations

PS: These were targeted counter-terror operations. Now, if you start calling counter-terror operations as surgical strikes and you actually announce the next morning. You see, General Ranbir Singh, he announced the next morning that Pakistan has been informed and this mission is over.

HJ: I understood that part

PS: Those guys will actually be thinking, that you are incapable of doing, I mean tactically we fail, politically, we failed.

HJ: So this was a bluff and it will stop at that they would not do any..

PS: So we bluffed, and they are enjoying now. They’ll reap the harvest and they are reaping the harvest, because if you see the graph of, you know, the infiltration, everything has gone up exactly.

HJ: The violence has increased. My last question to you and that is about, you talked about, the need for defence modernization in the country in order to, sort of, offset the Chinese challenge etc. But it seems these severe budgetary constraints that we have, are probably going to create such impediments, huge implements in terms of defence modernization. Let’s take the example of the defence budget. The overall ratio of revenue to capital expenditure is 65% to 35%. Where are we going to do defence modernization with this kind of money, even though you’re spending 49 billion dollars?

PS: Right. So the answer is very simple. What General Bipin Rawat is trying to do in the Army is not reforms, it’s internal management. What we need is reforms, based on the actual threats and what we need now, if you will do that, you will realise that we have to drastically cut down the army as I pointed out to you. The battles are over with China. You have to put your effort in the operational level of war fighting, which is you have to get these standoff capabilities, you have to put money there. The war has changed, this is what I am trying to put across. You see, so budgets are always finite. I gave you the example of Russia. Budgets will always be finite.

HJ: Its what you do with that.

PS: The point is are you using it judiciously? The answer is no.

HJ: Praveen, wonderful talking to you!

PS: Thank you!