So You Want to Be an Indian Armed Forces Expert?

June 23, 2015

Peter Mattis’ explanation of what one should read to be an expert on China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) made me wonder: What might a similar list look like for India-watchers? Western interest in India’s armed forces is considerably slighter, largely because India looms far smaller in U.S. strategic thinking and is viewed as a potential partner rather than probable military adversary. But there’s a large and growing volume of writing on Indian military affairs, almost all of it in English, with cutting-edge books or articles appearing every month. So where should one begin?

Each service has its own doctrine and/or strategy — most recently the army in 2004, the navy in 2009 (remarkably, it is not available online), and the air force in 2012 (the official link is — perhaps aptly — perpetually broken, but you can get it here) — but these are of limited use, not least because they’re not written in close coordination with other services or with a coherent national military strategy in mind. So most analyses depend on secondary texts, occasional statements by serving officers, and writing by retirees.

Background and civil-military relations

Two important background works remain Stephen Cohen’s The Indian Army: Its Contributions to the Development of a Nation (the most recent edition was published in 2001) and Stephen Peter Rosen’s Societies and Military Power: India and its Armies. Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta also wrote Arming Without Aiming (2012), a basic primer on various problems with India’s military modernization.

On civil-military relations, you could do no better than to read Yale professor Steven Wilkinson’s brand new book Army and Nation (see my review essay in Survival). Other excellent works include Srinath Raghavan’s short essay in Seminar and journal articles in the Journal of Strategic Studies (2009) and India Review (2012), Anit Mukherjee’s own Seminar essays (2009 and 2014) and his invaluable report (2011) for the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), as well as Sunil Dasgupta’s data-rich essay on paramilitary forces in the edited volume Coercion and Governance (2001).

Army

On the Indian army, must-read articles include Walter Ladwig’s important account (2007) of the Indian army’s much misunderstood limited war doctrine, and his more recent argument in the Journal of Strategic Studies (2015) that India’s conventional military advantage over Pakistan has been greatly overstated, which built on Chris Clary’s own analysis of South Asia’s military balance in an edited volume for the Stimson Center, Deterrence Stability and Escalation Control in South Asia.

There aren’t an awful lot of book-length treatments on India’s army. There’s nothing that serves the role that Science of Military Strategy does with respect to the PLA, for instance. Two recent essay collections are Rajesh Basrur and Bharath Gopalaswamy’s India’s Military Modernization: Strategic Technologies and Weapons Systems (2015) and its predecessor Challenges and Prospects (2014). Indian Army: Vision 2020 (1998) is a general overview of modernization challenges by Gurmeet Kanwal, prolific retired brigadier, and India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (2014), by a retired colonel, traces Indian army doctrine since the 1970s. General Lal’s Transformation of the Indian Armed Forces: 2025 (2012) is decent overview. Peter Lavoy’s edited volume on the Kargil War, Asymmetric Warfare in South Asia (2009) has a good chapter by John H. Gill on Indian military operations. None of this writing will give you a comprehensive order of battle, but it provides a reasonable introduction to the various challenges facing the army.

There is also a large body of writing on Indian counterinsurgency, including Vivek Chadha’s Low Intensity Conflicts in India (2005), Rajesh Rajagopalan’s Fighting Like a Guerrilla (2008), the edited volumes Treading on Hallowed Ground (2008) and India and Counterinsurgency (2009), Sanjib Baruah’s Beyond Counterinsurgency, and Scott Gates and Kaushik Roy’s Unconventional Warfare in South Asia (both 2014). This is particularly important in light of the bloody ambush of 18 Indian soldiers in the northeast earlier this month, and the special forces raid into Myanmar that followed.

Navy

The Indian navy is deservedly receiving increasing attention. Harsh Pant’s edited volume The Rise of the Indian Navy (2012) has some valuable essays in it, especially Ladwig’s careful parsing of the fleet. James Holmes, Andrew Winner, and Toshi Yoshihara’s Indian Naval Strategy in the Twenty-first Century (2009) is a very useful single-volume survey. Ladwig’s “India and Military Power Projection” (2010) is an article-length stock-take of capabilities, though much has changed in the last five years. Of the recent crop of writing, Iskander Rehman has written a wide-ranging report for Carnegie on naval nuclear dynamics in the Indian Ocean, and a shorter piece for The National Interest on weaknesses in Indian anti-submarine warfare, both excellent. Frank O’Donnell and Yogesh Joshi have also written for Survival on India’s SSBN force.

Air Force

The Indian air force isn’t as well studied as the navy, but there are a few very good pieces. In 2011, the prolific Ashley Tellis wrote a detailed report for Carnegie on India’s bid for a multi-role combat aircraft — since settled in favor of the Dassault Rafale — with plenty of technical details to chew over. Also for Carnegie, Ben Lambeth’s Airpower at 18,000’ (2012) is a valuable account of the role that airpower played during Kargil, with important lessons for how it might be employed in the future. More recently, George Perkovich and Toby Dalton look at India’s ability to conduct airstrikes against Pakistan in the Washington Quarterly (2015). Abhijit Iyer-Mitra’s forthcoming Carnegie monograph on technology, airpower, and escalation will also be worth reading.

Otherwise, essays in the Indian Defence Review, such as those by Air Marshal BK Pandey, and books published by the Centre for Airpower Studies (CAPS), offer useful perspectives on IAF thinking. Most book-length treatments are primarily histories, such as Air Vice Marshal AK Tiwary’s Indian Air Force in Wars (2013), while others, like Indian Air Force in India’s National Defence 2032 (2014), look to the future.

Nuclear

The literature is richest in the nuclear domain. On India’s nuclear forces, the key history is George Perkovich’s India’s Nuclear Bomb (1998). Ashley Tellis’ mammoth India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture (2001) contains still-useful technical details, but a recent Brookings-published book by retired Vice Admiral Verghese Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces (2012), is the best up-to-date survey. Vipin Narang’s Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era (2014) has an important chapter on India’s nuclear posture.

For shorter reads, see Narang’s provocative essay in the Washington Quarterly (2013) on five myths about India’s nuclear posture, Gaurav Kampani’s concise overview in Strategic Asia 2013-14, and Hans Kristensen’s warning (2013) that India is surpassing minimum deterrence. The former head of India’s Strategic Forces Command (SFC) and present director of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), B.S. Nagal, has written a series of pieces for India’s Force magazine (in June and October 2014, unfortunately pay-walled), with some radical arguments. Another former SFC commander, Vijay Shankar, has also written and spoken on this subject. Bharat Karnad’s idiosyncratic India’s Nuclear Policy (2008) is worth a look, as is Rajesh Basrur’s Minimum Deterrence and India’s Nuclear Security (2006) and Scott Sagan’s chapter on the evolution of India’s nuclear doctrine, in his own edited volume Inside Nuclear South Asia (2009).

For more detail, the Stimson Center in Washington has published extremely useful edited volumes on South Asian nuclear issues. See Deterrence Instability & Nuclear Weapons in South Asia (2015) and the similarly titled Deterrence Stability and Escalation Control in South Asia (2013). The Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) has also released reports based on Track II workshops, including a revealing summary of its crisis simulations (2013) and a collection of essays (2014), of which one of the most thought-provoking is Chris Clary on command and control. On missiles, Frank O’Donnell and Harsh Pant have written for Asian Survey (2014) on the evolution of India’s long-range Agni V, and on space issues Bharath Gopalaswamy is your man. Finally, the International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP) at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore also does especially technically informed research, such as its book Evolution of Solid Propellant Rockets in India (2014).

Other sources

More generally, it’s worth looking at Indian defense magazines and websites like ForceVayu AerospaceIndian Defence Review, the military portal Bharat RakshakIndia StrategicSP’s Naval Forces, and Indian Military Review (some pay-walled). Some of the best sources of timely information are the blogs by Indian defense journalists, including Ajai Shukla’s trenchant Broadsword, Shiv Aroor’s LiveFist, and Nitin Gokhale’s NewsWarrior — all of whom are also on Twitter. See also Jottings, a website that collates the military-related news in the Indian press.

The major Indian think tanks have one or more of their own specialized journals. These include CLAWS Journal, CAPS’ Air Power Journal, and the National Maritime Foundation’s Maritime Affairs (all three affiliated to the relevant service arm), as well as the United Services Institute’s USI Journal and IDSA’s Journal of Defence Studies. The periodical Seminar occasionally publishes special issues focused on defense, which always include exceptional writers — albeit with short pieces. Finally, India’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), a constitutionally mandated body, releases reports which often touch on military subjects — the latest covering the army’s grave ammunition shortages, and others on subjects like India’s indigenous Light Combat Aircraft or tank production.

Formal study of India’s military isn’t at the same stage of maturity as that of the PLA. The most useful Indian sources — which vary greatly in quality — tend to be a small cluster of retired officers rather than scholars with academic training, and much of the Western literature still needs to be grounded in better military understanding. Western military research institutes — parts of RAND, the NDU, the Army War College — that dominate Peter Mattis’ reading list aren’t as interested in India, and Indian research institutes don’t yet have the capacity. But a wave of insightful and important articles and books, many by young scholars, is laying a solid foundation on which to build.

There remain important gaps to plug: How do Indian elites think about specific technologies, such as ballistic missile defense or the role of cruise missiles in wartime? How has the IAF’s thinking about airpower evolved over the past decade, and what lessons have they learnt from recent Western campaigns? How does India see the future structure and strategy of its mountain strike corps? Is India fixing its broken procurement system, or papering over the problems with slogans and big-ticket purchases? How does the Indian navy plan to organize and deploy its future carrier groups in a region where anti-access platforms may be spreading? Have Indian civil-military relations really come under “unprecedented stress?” As international interest in India grows, hopefully these and other topics will be given the attention they deserve.

 

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, and a PhD Candidate in the Department of Government, Harvard University.

 

Photo credit: Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod, U.S. Army