Review of Stephen P. Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta: Arming without aiming: India's military modernisation (Brookings, 2010)
ARMS and military equipment transfer from the United States to India is a major backdrop of President Barack Obama’s ongoing visit. It is not that the president himself will sign agreements relating to such acquisitions, but that his visit will lubricate a process that has already begun with India beginning to acquire big-ticket items such as weapons location radars, maritime patrol aircraft and specially configured transport aircraft for the Special Forces.
Waiting on the wings are contracts for ten C-17 heavy lift transports and 145 ultra-light howitzers, and a little further down the assembly line is the deal for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA).
The thrust of this book is how America can help India to help itself. In other words, how America’s participation in India’s military moderenisation needs to be accompanied by the emergence of a shared strategic vision between the two countries. The basic thesis of the book is accurate — India is undertaking military modernisation, but in seems to have a hazy focus as to the purpose and goals of that process.
The writers have diagnosed the problem as India’s historic strategic restraint, though there are some areas where we may quibble with their analyses. It is not clear, for example, whether India’s posture in the 1965 war and in the western sector in 1971 was born out of restraint or the incompetence of its generals. It is true that in 2008 (after the 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai) “the government did not even ask the army to mobilise against Pakistan,” but the reason was that it did ask and while the Air Force and the Navy were prepared for action, the Army said it would be several weeks before it could be ready for operations.
The book provides a set of prescriptions as to how India can be pushed in a manner that it is better aligned to American interests — which, of course, the authors argue, is also in the Indian interest — but its basic conclusion is pessimistic. “We believe that this state of arming without aiming will continue into the future,” the authors say because there seems to be a “collective wisdom” among the politicians that while military modernisation needs to be supported, there was no need to also provide the institutional mechanisms that will aid India to be more strategically assertive.
The authors do not go deep enough in examining why the country’s politicians have a collective distrust of the armed forces. This is manifested by the reluctance of the National Democratic Alliance and the United Progressive Alliance governments to appoint a Chief of Defence Staff who could trigger a significant reform in the management and procurement practices of the armed forces.
Paradoxically, all reports of the parliamentary committees dealing with the armed forces are strongly supportive of their acquisitions and goals. But when it comes to government action, the approach becomes pusillanimous.
The chapter titled ‘The Reluctant Nuclear Power’ has an important discussion on India’s nuclearisation process. Given the peculiarities of the civil-military relations in India, the authors point to the major issues that India confronts in adopting a credible deterrent posture vis-à-vis Pakistan and China. While you can arm without aiming, the process of the development of the nuclear arsenal underway could lead to some rethinking in the political class. This is because once India deploys its nuclear-propelled submarine fitted with ballistic missiles, the government will have to think hard about pre-delegating nuclear weapons launch authority, and mull the issue of keeping the warheads and missiles separately.
Despite the overall thrust of the book, which is on how India can serve American interests — a legitimate theme from the American point of view — the authors have come up with good suggestions. Their recommendation that the US work with India on an initiative to create a nuclear restraint regime in Asia, involving China, Russia, India and Pakistan, is well taken. The unrestrained growth of the Pakistani arsenal points to the need for this. But it is likely to pose a dilemma for any Indian deterrent towards China because we do not have an adequately tested thermonuclear weapon. As Mail Today revealed last year, there are serious doubts about the efficacy of the thermonuclear weapon test in Pokhran in 1998.
The authors have useful suggestions on the manner in which Indian deployments and doctrines can be tweaked to assist Pakistan to “retrain and redirect” the bulk of its forces away from the Indian obsession.
The key insight in the book is its assessment that India will never accept a relationship where it is placed in a subordinate position, and that an American partnership with India, would be akin to its relationship with France which “pursues a ruggedly independent foreign policy with the larger strategic objective of reducing America to ‘normal’ proportions”.
Mail Today November 8, 2010