Balancing Power and Principle:

Sub Title : The Indian Military’s own path amidst Global Doctrinal Influences

Issues Details : Vol 18 Issue 2 May – Jun 2024

Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM & BAR (Retd)

Page No. : 56

Category : Military Affairs

: June 5, 2024

Can the Russian and Israeli Armies learn some lessons from the Indian Army ?

Examining the distinct military doctrines of the Indian Armed Forces, this article explores their enduring strategic independence amidst global influences and the evolving nature of modern warfare, highlighting their commitment to minimal collateral and ethical combat practices.

The Indian Army enjoys an excellent relationship with both the Russian Army and the Israeli Army. Russia and Israel have been the sources of most of our military wherewithal in earlier years. We often appreciated their doctrines of warfighting. The Operational Maneuver Group of the Soviet days, or the lightning mobilization and capability to be ruthless in the execution of military tasks by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), have all received due attention at appropriate times. However, the Indian Armed Forces have invariably followed an independent line based on our civilizational make-up and the needs of the government of the day. In these days of Hybrid War where people centricity is high in the conduct of any military operations, we have heard an odd negative remark about the high priority the Indian Army accords to assurance of minimum or no collateral damage, humane approach to people in the conflict zone, and the necessity of minimum force. Yet the Indian Army has been successful beyond measure in the attainment of key objectives whenever launched into operations. It has abided by international humanitarian laws and lived up to the Government’s expectations of low collateral.

This essay is not a negative commentary about the IDF or any other professional military force’s perception of the Indian Armed Forces and their warfighting doctrines. It should be treated as a perception analysis to give alternate arguments to those who look at the Indian concept of balanced application of force, winning hearts and minds and people friendly operations.

I recall the lightning campaign of Jun 1967 when the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) fought on multiple fronts and squarely defeated larger forces in a matter of six days. In 1973 despite being surprised, the IDF fought back; a counter offensive, led by the iconic General Ariel Sharon (later PM), through a two-kilometre gap between two Egyptian Armies astride the Suez Canal in Oct 1973, forced a cease fire when all else seemed to fail. The Israeli military remained at a status where it carved itself a niche position worldwide and came to be recognized for its thorough military professionalism. Given such status and capability, one expected that post the Oct 7 2023 incident involving Hamas initiated atrocities near the Gaza border, there would be swift and surgical retribution, forcing a situation for early release of hostages and setting up of systems never to be surprised again. Unfortunately, more than seven months down the line despite mobilizing 350,000 troops and deploying and firing a host of missiles, rockets and artillery along with drones and armour, right there in the tiny battle space of Gaza, not much has been achieved militarily. In the face of irregulars of the Hamas units who function with no fronts and no rears and despite a virtual scorched earth policy, not much headway has been made. The IDF today seems a pale reflection of its past, defending itself against allegations of major human rights violations and atrocities amounting to what some are calling genocide. Targeting a heavily populated built-up zone which enjoyed the status of a quasi-state, it has withheld humanitarian aid and inflicted over 37000 fatalities on the civilian population.

It’s unfortunate that the terrible atrocities by Hamas are being retaliated through a leaf from the same book.  The question we all ask is about the horrendous conditions of the living and the dead, and the unending tragedy of children caught in the middle of conflict in Gaza. Yet, not a soul is prepared to intervene politically and from a humanitarian angle to help the sick, wounded, old, women and children suffering from a lack of basic human existential facilities. Food, water, shelter and medicine; all are missing in the single-minded purpose of achieving the killing of the last Hamas terrorist.  The past professionalism of the IDF would have revealed to its leadership that campaigns against irregulars do not take such shape. The more non-combatants you kill, maim or displace, the more you stretch this conflict which is definitely not going to end with the first ceasefire.

War is always an immoral act and never justifiable because humans claim cerebral powers to resolve their conflicts, something no other living being can. Yet, wars very often deteriorate to levels far below human dignity and respect. What common people cutting across boundaries, are questioning these days, is the inability of nations at war to follow the rudimentary rules of humanitarianism and desist from the targeting of civilians and particularly the old, the sick, women and children. In both the wars in Ukraine and in Gaza there appears no concern for this. Worse still is the fact that the US, as a champion of human rights and the sole superpower, does not feel the necessity to do more to ensure an end to civilian casualties. NATO does not do that for the war in East Europe either.

Most military professionals in India remain admirers of the IDF, just like I do. However, as Avner Gvaryahu, Director, Breaking the Silence, states – “the idea that the only answer to Palestinian resistance, both violent and nonviolent, is greater — and more indiscriminate — force has shown signs of becoming entrenched in the IDF and in Israeli politics”. I have visited Hebron in the company of members of Breaking the Silence and seen fear writ large on the faces of children and ‘population control measures’ which clearly bore no resemblance to anything human.

Applying Indian Doctrine and Execution Methods

I was a part of Operation Pawan (Sri Lanka, 1987-90) where the Indian Army was involved in an expeditionary counter militant/terrorist campaign. I was often involved in hits and misses in operational contacts with LTTE militants at the sub tactical level, especially in the urban built-up environment of Jaffna city and its outskirts. That is very usual in such operations; every operation does not end in a resounding success, as the intelligence may be inaccurate or the contact could start even when the adversaries are at some distance and one has little control over such situations. A particular senior officer was most unhappy about my few botched operations and ascribed it to lack of professionalism on my part. He stated quite openly that my refusal to fire when there was a possibility of civilian casualties did not reflect high professional capability and flexibility. In his opinion, civilian casualties were a part of the collateral and we should not be concerned about that. Mercifully I never agreed with his perception about conduct of such operations, and retained my equanimity and the reputation of my unit but almost at the cost of my career. The Indian Army had an unwritten military doctrine for such situations.  It may have suffered heavy casualties at the beginning of the Jaffna campaign and many times thereafter. Urban, near conventional warfare in which it got involved, was not its forte. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) were a surprise for us, as were snipers from rooftops and militants merging into crowds which backed them. Yet, we never ever consciously disregarded the rules of war, despite the fact that units suffered casualties of both officers and men and it took almost 16 days to initially capture Jaffna. We targeted the LTTE, its cadres and its infrastructure. Units which participated there held their heads high and came away with many lessons learnt although allegations in the media against their high handedness were rife; no one ever accepted that internationally, such was the reputation of our troops.

Russian Operations in Ukraine

The Russian Army has been involved in Ukraine for almost 27 months. After failing to take the capital Kiev it has concentrated on the Donbas region where its targets have been cities and urban villages. With 6 million people displaced, 8 million who have fled the country as refugees and an indeterminate number of civilian casualties, there is little as far as war ethics are concerned.  The UN recorded over 700 civilian casualties across Ukraine in April 2024, including 129 deaths, a significant increase from March.  Food insecurity is on the rise and humanitarian assistance is a major challenge. It is yet acceptable that economic blockades are a part of warfare but deliberately targeted civilian casualties are unethical. The war is between two formed armies with a sprinkling of irregulars.

IDF Operations in Gaza

By fighting in Gaza with the strategy it has adopted, the IDF is actually embarrassing its biggest supporter, the US. President Biden is forced to grudgingly extend support at the cost of the political capital he loses in the other menacing confrontation – Trump versus Biden. Most of the world perceives that a change of Israeli leadership may afford it to adopt a different strategy; one which will get the release of the hostages and allow breathing space for talks. A solution here, however, remains more elusive than ever before.

Gaza is about a formed army versus irregulars. Here, a 2.5 million population is reeling under offensive operations by a force of at least 300,000. It remains a moot point whether a warning to the civilian population to vacate a city or a region, and its consequent refusal under duress or not, is legitimate reason for the commencement of an operation with no limitations and terms of reference. Almost 37,000 civilians have died in Gaza since 7 Oct 2023, all targets of artillery, missile fire or simply the collateral of many engagements that Hamas has been involved in. In India, our military community has great respect for the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and its ruthless approach to warfare. In discussions with rank and file of the IDF, Israeli servicemen often decry the Indian military concept of non-acceptance of collateral or the thought process of balance between hard and soft power in a counter terrorism environment, alongside the idea of the population being the ‘centre of gravity’. Both campaigns, Ukraine and Gaza, are not people centric although there is an element of hybridity in both. For the Russian Army, territorial gains are important but ‘beyond the threshold’ quantum of civilian casualties is a factor too it has to consider, given the criticism it faces. With Israel inflicting heavy civilian casualties in the conduct of clearance operations in Gaza, the US and NATO are unable to take a strong stand against Russian actions. Israel’s political stance on heavy Palestinian civilian casualties continues to ignore the same in the hope that capitulation will shortly take place. Most professional military minds observing the war find it difficult to fathom how Hamas retains the capability to fire missiles and rockets from within Gaza after the degree of attrition suffered and the presence of such a large number of Israeli troops.

The Takeaway

I ascribe my ability to understand counter militant/terrorist operations, even at the operational and strategic level, to the patience and forbearance I acquired in Operation Pawan and thereafter the self-control and self-discipline we followed in J&K, and even in Punjab where the Indian Army was briefly deployed. The relative peace one finds in J&K today is a reflection of the people friendly policies that the Indian Army followed. It goes to the extent that Pakistan and the separatists would find it a severe challenge to trigger another round of sponsored proxy war in J&K primarily because of lack of people’s support. That is the lesson which professional armies around the world must learn by studying various campaigns and operations involving the Indian Army.