An Indian Army Perspective on Asian Security


2013-04-23 by Richard Weitz

In a panel at the Army War College, Brigadier General (Retired) Gurmeet Kanwal of India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses discussed six key issues of concern to India’s national security community:

  1. the regional security environment in South Asia,
  2. the great power rivalry in Asia,
  3. the Indian-China strategic equation,
  4. the Indian-U.S. strategic partnership,
  5. managing international instability,
  6. and the future of land power in South Asia.

In General Kanwal’s view, South Asia is the second most dangerous region in the world after the Middle East because of the how the internal problems in Pakistan and Afghanistan affect regional relations.

Both are in danger of becoming failed states. The war in Syria and tensions over Iran further threaten regional stability. These security challenges encourage the external great powers to extend their rivalry into South Asia. The dominant competition is that between China and the United States. Despite their extensive economic ties, the two countries view each other as potential military threats.

Beijing also is wary of Washington’s alliances with Japan and South Korea and sees them, along with U.S. outreach efforts in South Asia, as being part of a containment strategy against China.

Russia has been colluding with China to counter U.S. Influence in Asia but they are not close allies.

Indian navy ships transit the Indian Ocean during a passing exercise in support of Malabar 2012. Malabar is a naval field training exercise to advance multinational maritime relationships and mutual security issues. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class John Grandin) 4/11/12

According to Kanwal, with its expanding security perimeter, Indian policy makers must deal grapple more directly with these great power rivalries in the Asian region.

But India is also becoming a more important international security player due to its increasing role in the global economy and other developments, which are concurrently enlarging the country’s area of security concern to include most of Asia and the Middle East.

India and China are engaged in a protracted competition for influence, markets, and resources.

Their relations are stable on the strategic level but not at the tactical level, due to China’s aggressive probing throughout Asia. Their main source of Sino-Indian tension is that China occupies considerable Indian territory.

China also is encircling India through a “string of pearls” strategy, obtaining access to potential military facilities (not bases) around India in order to contain New Delhi’s rise.

Through Pakistan, China wages a “proxy war” against India. Beijing provides crucial support for Islamabad in its confrontation with India, including military hardware and nuclear weapons assistance. India’s posture vis-à-vis China is defensive. The India-China security competition is increasingly extending to include a maritime as well as a land dimension.

The Indian navy has an edge over China’s fleet in the India Ocean but will lose it in five years if present trends continue.

China’s defense spending is rising fast, whereas India’s is staying constant in real terms.

If this continues, in ten years, China will enjoy qualitative and quantitative military superiority over India.

Kanwal saw the United States as a force for stability in the Indo-Pacific region. He cited President Obama’s statement, during his visit to India in November 2010, that the India-U.S. strategic partnership will serve as the most important force promoting peace and security throughout the world during the 21st century. In Kanwal’s view, the India-U.S. security cooperation has increased at a rate that was unimaginable ten years ago.

The two countries now engage in joint exercises, arms sales, and de facto joint naval patrols (under the guide of joint exercises) of the sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) in the Indian Ocean up to the western mouth of the Malacca Strait.

India will insist that its new arms purchases from the United States and other countries include substantial technology transfers. The United States is gradually easing its restrictions on transferring dual-use technology to India. U.S. Officials are also proposing to develop weapons with India.

But no technology transfer has yet occurred and Indians still have concerns about their access to future technological upgrades and spare parts. Indian policy makers also wonder why the United States continue to supply Pakistan with military equipment that cannot be used for counter-insurgency or anti-terrorism operations.

Even so, U.S.-Indian security cooperation should focus on two low probability but high consequence China-related contingencies that could present serious challenges to both powers–either irresponsible Chinese assertiveness or China’s implosion.

The General believed that we need to build a more comprehensive cooperative mechanism to manage instability better in the Indo-Pacific region.

Despite Beijing’s reluctance, China must be included as a form of reassurance and to reduce strategic uncertainty. Maintaining peace and stability and ensuring unimpeded trade and energy flows requires the cooperation of all the major Asian powers–including the forward deployment of substantial U.S. Armed forces. In response to a regional security threat, India might join a future “coalition of the willing” even without UN Security Council authorization, though New Delhi would prefer it and will remain averse to forming a formal alliance with the United States.

With Washington and other potential coalition partners, India will continue to pursue small-scale joint military exercises that help overcome interoperability and command and control challenges without the formal military alliances that exacerbate regional suspicions.

Kanwal believes that ground forces will remain the dominant arm in South Asia for the foreseeable future. India’s land power capabilities are increasing but there is a lot more that needs to be done. India has acquired robust military intervention capabilities and the armed forces are engaged in the process of formulating a doctrine to give effect to these capabilities.

The Indian Army has designated one infantry division as a rapid reaction division, with an amphibious brigade, an air assault brigade and an infantry brigade. Air assault capabilities are capital intensive and will take five to 10 years to become fully operational. The army also has an independent parachute brigade that can be deployed at short notice.

The Indian Navy acquired the INS Jalashva (USS Trenton) that can carry one infantry battalion with full operational loads and is in the process of acquiring additional landing ships besides old ships in service. Besides long-range fighter-bomber aircraft with air-to-air refueling capability like the SU-30MKI, the Indian Air Force has acquired fairly substantive strategic airlift capabilities, including six C-130 Super Hercules aircraft for the Special Forces. But India needs to establish a joint headquarters for its three armed services.

Indian strategic thinkers also need to understand that the probability of state-on-state conventional conflict is decreasing but the probability of conflict between states and non-state actors is increasing.

These will be characterized by counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations, an environment conducive to Fourth Generation Warfare, and infantry-heavy operations that require small-unit mobility, enhanced protection technologies, Special Forces, drones, and real-time intelligence gathering. They will likely require the Army to coordinate its operations closely with police and paramilitary forces.

Any conflict between India and China as well as India and Pakistan will probably be short-duration conflicts waged for limited objectives such as small areas of territory and to inflict deterrent punishment and destroy the war-waging potential of the adversary.

The application of force levels will be limited to avoid the risk of crossing nuclear red lines, but the forces will use precision-guided munitions extensively to reduce collateral damage and avoid civilian casualties.

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