What the Indian Military Won’t Learn from the War in Ukraine
Much has been written about India’s diplomatic response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And military analysts worldwide are working to draw lessons from the first multi-domain conventional war between “modern” forces in decades. Yet amidst all this, the Indian military establishment itself does not seem appropriately concerned with drawing its own lessons from the war.
To date, India has focused on managing the fallout from Western sanctions and securing the serviceability of its Russian-origin platforms. The war has boosted India’s efforts to indigenize its defense industry and created opportunities for Western countries to enhance their strategic engagement with New Delhi. However, it has yet to influence Indian military thinking more broadly. It appears that pressing challenges and the limits of existing institutions will prevent India from reforming its forces in response.
The Indian military is going through a period of considerable churn, making it harder to assimilate lessons from the Russo-Ukrainian war. Its foremost challenge is the rise of Chinese military power. Until recently, this was somewhat of an abstract concern. However, the Chinese military’s 2020 incursions in the Ladakh region have made this much more pressing. For diplomatic and domestic political purposes, these incursions were initially downplayed by the Indian government, but with the death of 20 Indian soldiers the issue gained national attention nonetheless. Amidst a tense stand-off along the disputed border, India has banned Chinese technological companies and the Indian president characterized Chinese actions in unusually blunt terms as an “expansionist move.” There have been 15 rounds of military-to-military border talks and, despite some disengagements, significant military assets are still deployed along the border. These deployments have further constrained India’s diplomatic position vis-à-vis Ukraine, as a significant proportion of its weapons platforms come from Russia.
At the same time, there is considerable excitement and, to a certain extent, confusion as the Indian military is undertaking its most consequential post-independence transformation yet. This effort was triggered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s somewhat surprising decision in August 2019 to establish the position of chief of defense, empowered with an explicit mandate to create joint theater commands. This set off an ongoing debate surrounding the position’s powers vis-à-vis the service chiefs, as well as the organizational structure of the proposed theater command and its relations with existing service formations. Some of these reform initiatives will take time, while in the meantime the Indian military had to deal with three strategic shocks. First, the Chinese incursions in Ladakh halted plans for theaterization of the army’s Northern Command, out of fears that organizational restructuring could lead to force imbalances. Second, the fall of Kabul has created new uncertainties, particularly in regard to the insurgency in Kashmir. Finally, the tragic death of the country’s first chief of defense, Gen. Bipin Rawat, in a December 2021 helicopter accident has also slowed the pace of reforms. Inexplicably, the government has yet to appoint a replacement, giving rise to questions about its commitment to reforms. Thus, despite much initial promise and acclaim, the outcome of the defense reforms process is far from certain. Needless to say, this makes it harder for the military to focus on a war taking place a continent away.
Dependence on Russian Equipment
The war has also generated more pressing difficulties. The Indian military is currently focused on maintaining its Russian-made equipment in the face of supply shortages and Western sanctions. Within weeks of the war, the government postponed its showpiece Defense Expo, ostensibly due to “logistics problems being experienced by participants.” The Indian Air Force pulled out of previously planned multilateral air exercises in the United Kingdom and, more significantly, postponed its showpiece large-scale triennial air exercise involving around 150 aircraft, “due to the developing situation.” This occurred amidst reports that the air force was curtailing exercises and sorties to preserve the life of its airframes. And these precautions extend beyond Russian-origin platforms. In the first few months after the outbreak of the war, the military reportedly also curtailed flights of its American-made Chinook helicopters. That such orders were passed reflects not only the military’s uneasiness about potential Western sanctions but also their fears about Washington’s reliability.
India’s dependence on Russian weapons is also reflected in its careful diplomatic response to the war. One independent analysis suggests that Russian-origin platforms constitute almost “85 percent of major Indian weapons systems,” although Indian officials argue it is more likely to be between 60 to 70 percent. Differences in methodology and interpretation of indigenous production may explain the varying numbers, but they nonetheless reveal a high level of dependency. With the imposition of Western sanctions and mounting Russian hardware losses, there are growing fears of a slowdown of certain weapon programs. For instance, there are reports of anticipated delays in the production of T-90 tanks and AK-203 assault rifles, the provision of aircraft upgrades, and the supply of spares for submarines and helicopters. In April, the Indian government also cancelled the planned acquisition of 48 Mi-17 helicopters, although it rejected the accusation that this reflected Western pressure by claiming the decision was “taken much before the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.” Similarly, in May India halted negotiations with Russia to acquire 10 Kamov Ka-31 airborne early-warning helicopters “due to concerns over Moscow’s ability to execute orders as well as issues related to payment transfers.” All of these developments indicate not only India’s growing concern with the availability and reliability of Russian equipment, but also, in light of sanctions on electronic goods like computer chips, its continued quality.
What’s more, even before the current conflict India’s weapons acquisitions were already held hostage to the complex dynamics of the bitter marriage, now surely a divorce, between the Ukrainian and Russian defense industries. The defense industry in Ukraine was built during the time of the Soviet Union and, upon its dissolution, continued to share a somewhat symbiotic relationship with that in Russia. As a result, India depended upon both countries to obtain spare parts for its legacy platforms, and even when making new acquisitions. After Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, India felt the adverse impact of this co-dependency and sought out creative solutions, while continuing its engagements with both countries. As recently as last year, the biggest exhibitor at the Aero India show was Ukraine, which had big plans to increase defense cooperation with New Delhi. As a result, the war has delayed, for the foreseeable future, the planned upgrade of India’s An-32 military transport aircraft and acquisition of Talwar-class frigates, which are built in Russia but powered by Ukrainian gas turbine engines.
Over the last few months, the Indian defense establishment has taken stock, anticipating delays, sorting through complex financial arrangements (mainly by exploring the rupee-ruble trade), and securing spares and maintenance support. The Russo-Ukrainian war and the Indian military’s struggle to ensure that its Russian platforms remain operational has added an urgency to indigenization efforts. The speed and extent of Western sanctions, especially financial and technological, have spurred greater interest in attaining “technological autonomy.”
As a result, one of the biggest effects of the war is to reinforce support for the government’s Aatmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) initiative. Under this campaign, unveiled in 2020, the Modi government seeks to encourage domestic manufacturing and reduce dependency on foreign goods. In the defense realm, the government has taken several steps to facilitate this process. First, it is encouraging the private sector to play a larger role, under the assumption that such competition will lead to capability accretion, innovation, and technological absorption. Second, it is taking steps to better organize the moribund state-owned defense industry. Most prominently, it has reorganized ordnance factories and is pushing for more public-private partnerships. Third, the government has placed 310 defense items, ranging from lightweight tanks and torpedoes to artillery guns and other complex systems, on the “positive indigenization list,” meaning that they will no longer be imported. Fourth, the government has eased and encouraged exports of different kinds of weapon systems, leading India’s defense exports to grow almost six-fold over the last five years.
India’s desire to reduce its reliance on Russian platforms is also an opportunity for western powers to overcome some of the longstanding challenges to closer cooperation with New Delhi. Previously, Western powers, especially the United States, have been reluctant to share technology. As Aditi Malhotra observed in an excellent brief on the effects of the war in Ukraine, “the West is unlikely to provide India with the advanced defense technologies that Russia readily offers.” Indeed, despite all the brouhaha over the U.S.-Indian relationship, “the two countries do not have a single project that they can claim symbolizes the depth of their defense relationship.” The fault is partly structural, as the U.S. defense industry has very few (if any) preexisting models for co-producing weapon platforms.
To effectively partner with India in creating its next generation of weapons platforms, Western partners will have to convince New Delhi that these partnerships will be reliable and lasting. Fortunately, the Russo-Ukrainian war is leading to an acknowledgement by some in the West that deepening defense and technology ties with India is critical to their vision of a future world order. Yet whether policymakers in India and the West can realize a common vision remains to be seen. While some Western powers, like France, have gone further than others, engaging with India will still require a leap of faith.
Lessons Not Learned
Like most militaries, India’s has no dedicated institution either at the joint headquarters or in the services with a mandate to study operational lessons from “other people’s wars.” For that reason, there is no office dedicated to and appropriately staffed for analyzing such wars. Despite this, the government gave explicit orders to the Indian military “to study the Russian offensive into Ukraine and draw tactical lessons.” But it is unclear who has been tasked to do so and whether they will have access to adequate data to draw appropriate lessons. This is exacerbated by the ongoing and unexplained lack of a chief of defense. As a result, the joint staff does not carry as much institutional weight as it should, making it difficult to undertake objective analysis of the war free from service-specific prisms. To be sure, the service headquarters and lower formations must be carrying out individual studies at various levels, but they have limited situational awareness, institutional independence, and ability to influence policy. Indeed, it would not be surprising if stories later emerge about how each of the services drew their own institutionally preferred “lessons” from this war.
Nonetheless, Indian military analysts have been busy. They have largely discussed what is widely known about this war — the relevance of force in international relations, the return of conventional wars, the importance of logistics and theater commands for conducting operations, the dangers of relying on a conscript army, and the salience of drones. In addition, others have written on the importance of Starlink systems and of dominating the electromagnetic spectrum. Missing, however, is a detailed discussion of what this means for the Indian military’s current institutional structures or operating environment. To find that one would have to read the idiosyncratic Lt. Gen. H. S. Panag — never one to pull punches — who in a must-read article argues that the Indian military is “tailored for the wars of a bygone era,” and does not “have the technological military capability to defeat Pakistan or avoid a military embarrassment by China.” He then goes on to caution against the potential short-term drawbacks of relying on indigenization in a country with low domestic manufacturing capabilities.
In spite of these warnings, there is no evidence that the Indian military has undertaken any substantive changes to incorporate emerging technologies in warfare. This should be the primary focus for senior military officers as they think through the broader lessons of the war in Ukraine. Based on publicly available sources, there is also little indication that the war will lead to any significant changes in India’s military structures, doctrines, or training. On the contrary, to reduce its inflated manpower costs the Indian military has introduced a controversial, widely criticized “tour of duty” recruitment scheme — amounting to a quasi-conscript military. This has led to widespread public protests and is an all-consuming issue for senior defense officials. For them, as a result, the war in Ukraine must seem like a distant afterthought.
Militaries all over the world are closely observing the war in Ukraine, but some have proven prone to hubris — concluding that they have little to learn because they are different. It is tempting for foreign observers to attribute the failures of the Russian military to its lack of professionalism rather than the increased difficulty of waging modern war. In the short term, the Indian military is focused on managing the immediate disruption caused by the current conflict. In the medium to long term, it is focusing on indigenization, including exploring opportunities to partner with Western countries. Professionally, however, there are few indications that the military is embarking on defense reforms that draw on the lessons of the war. Unfortunately, that might require a bigger crisis somewhere closer to home.
Anit Mukherjee is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Image: Indian Air Force