Post Covid-19 a Stronger India will need a Stronger Military

Sub Title : India military must remain equal to the challenges of the post Covid era

Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 2 May – Jun 2020

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

Page No. : 12

Category : Military Affairs

: May 31, 2020

The post Corona world will present new realities and challenges. It is imperative that potential adversaries do not see any weakening of our resolve. To this end the Indian military must remain equal to the challenges. This requires an empathetic understanding of the military’s needs by those responsible so that optimum budgetary support is provided

The post Covid world would be a different place. New geopolitical realities will emerge largely because of economic reasons as also because nations are likely to put self-interest above all as they start to reboot. This will bring about a new world order with the balance of power between nations changing as nations rally after the setback and re focus on achieving what they perceive is their rightful place under the sun. India’s resilience will certainly help it come through the crisis. However, India needs to be on guard so that others do not impede its march towards its rightful place in the comity of nations. This warrants that India have a strong military.Therefore, an assessment of balance of power as the core of a new world order needs to be carried out. Within that India’s place in relation to other big powers has to be estimated. Only then can matching of military power with geopolitical compulsions be carried out. It forms the order of this essay.

A New World Order

It is almost certain that a weaker US will emerge from the pandemic, whether it will be inward looking and isolationist or come out fighting to regain its pre-eminence in the world order is uncertain. Trump’s US could be isolationist, but Biden’s may well be more ambitious. Inevitably, either way the US will be in greater confrontation with China.

The Covid 19 pandemic has come in a period where international politics appear in as much ferment as they did in the period after the Great War. A virtual trade war between the world’s two biggest economic powers China and the US, has been in place for some time. A geopolitical struggle for primacy between the US on one hand and China along with Russia on the other has been on for a fair duration and an end to it is unlikely There is a demographic standoff between Islam and other faiths and within Islam itself which has given rise to asymmetric trends. Radical ideologies are rampant and therefore a cause of progressive worry due to their potential manifestation in fresh conflicts. The turbulence caused by global terrorism has ebbed to some extent, but resurgence is always likely as situations in many hotspots continue to simmer below the surface. The desire to acquire nuclear weaponry to possess out of proportion strategic power remains rampant even as various nuclear protocols have temporarily succeeded in preventing fresh proliferation. The world’s fascination with globalization

which commenced in 1990 and led to the prosperity of many weaker states, is witnessing a dilution. The oil industry which fuels much of the world’s manufacturing and enables the stability of many economies has witnessed

a crisis after Russia and Saudi Arabia could not reach agreement on oil output cuts which would dictate pricing, sending oil prices southwards.

Nations hit by the pandemic are essentially managing the situation through a trilateral approach – attempting to find a balance between public health, stabilization of economy and ensuring care in social harmony. In the post Covid 19 world even as the presence of the virus continues to remain virulent international dynamics will probably be something similar. Among major concerns first will be the early development of a vaccine the pursuit of which has begun in earnest apparently through international cooperation. Vaccine denial or provision of vaccine could well become a new norm of international behavior and geopolitical blackmail. Second and of almost equal importance will be the recovery of the international economy, this time possibly beset by competition rather than cooperation. International monetary institutions and economic groupings could struggle hard in the face of greater isolationism. Third is likely to be both jostling for power and international cooperation for geopolitical stability. Both trends are likely to be prevalent as China becomes the focus of big power ire even as it retains many of the essentials which will drive growth. It could develop into a paradox where the world cannot do without China and yet wishes to isolate it. The situation which pans out of this paradox would probably provide perceived opportunities for growth of geopolitical power; a kind of resetting of the world order. The latter will not be easy as a victimized China will be far more unpredictable. With its economy less dented than of its competitors and retaining its manufacturing base and capability it will still possess the ability to spread its influence.

Many nations will suffer severe impact on the social make up within. India is a nation which has done well thus far in the management of the pandemic but the unexpected volume of flow of its migrant labour from urban to rural areas is bound to affect its ability to kick start its economy and more importantly its social integration

The regional impact is already beginning to show. West Asia reeling under the unprecedented fall in demand for energy is likely to see tightening of belts with consequent effect on the very large expatriate community which has been instrumental in the phenomenal growth of the region. While energy demand will return it could be some years before we see matching oil prices with anything of the past. The interim is the dangerous period when mass layoffs will lead to more human suffering. The geopolitical impact of such trends cannot easily be predicted India is one of those nations which could suffer the impact. Return of the expatriate community and loss of remittances will hit India very negatively; dilution or loss of the annual 40 billion US$ income is a big negative

Search for a new world order will thus revolve around the balance of power issues from Middle East to South Asia, the Indian Ocean to the Pacific (the so called Indo Pacific), East and South East Asia. It will also be based on geo-economics as nations struggle to restore their economies and aspire to return to pre-pandemic times of progress and relative stability.

Geopolitical Effects on India’s Interests

India as a middle power with aspirations for a larger role in the future cannot escape the effects of the altered geopolitical environment. How is this likely to manifest?

Foremost is the effect on the economy. India can only take a little heart from the fact that it is the not the only nation in a dilemma. GDP growth will see a drastic comedown and thus investible resources will see dilution. The drastic social effect arising from job losses, migration of labour from cities and economic zones could lead to internal security challenges multiplied by the catalytic ill effects of a negative social media. India’s health sector will need much more investment contingent upon how long the pandemic lasts. Fortunately, a good and bountiful harvest in Apr-May has reduced the problem of food reserves and a good monsoon is predicted. It is the kick starting of the economy which will remain a challenge under new social norms, reduced transport resources, aviation and tourism.

All the above will likely liven up the possibility of the predicted reduction in defence expenditure already at an all-time low with the defence budget hovering around 1.5 percent of GDP. Can India afford to further reduce this and yet hope to remain as secure as it felt in pre-pandemic times? The impact of international geopolitics on India’s security interests will provide some answers.

If India’s economy survives the attrition of the pandemic and emerges as one of the potentially better off economies, the situation may well offer it the scope to seize opportunity for stronger imprint in international geopolitics. That desire must of course remain alive in any scenario. Its cooperation will continue to be sought by the US, important Middle Eastern countries and other middle powers but it will need to relook at some of its partnerships. This is in view of a potentially hostile and aggressive China which is smarting under intense international pressure due to its alleged role in the triggering and spread of the virus. India will have to learn to live with Informal Summits with China on one hand and increasingly risky LAC standoffs; it is a Chinese strategy that may endure alongside Pakistan’s efforts to reclaim some role in Kashmir.

India can ill afford to project that temporary dilution in its economic capability has in any way weakened its geopolitical resolve. The domains where this will be on test are likely to be:-

  • The LAC itself. The strategic high India achieved in handling the Doklam standoff gave it an image boost much to China’s chagrin. It is assessed that the 72 day standoff ended early as a face saver for Xi Jinping who did not wish to indicate instability at the borders to the 19th Congress of the Chinese Congress Party. The current standoff in Eastern Ladakh could take a different trajectory if shots are fired in anger across the LAC, this would majorly change the whole gamut of relations. India cannot project military weakness and lack of resolve to China at any cost.
  • Relations with Pakistan are at the lowest point. The events in J&K in 2019 reduced its options. An attempt is underway to revive its stakes. The collaborative steps between China and Pakistan appear evident from what is happening in Gilgit-Baltistan. The decision to construct the Daimer Bhasha Dam at a cost of 14 billion US$ provides China greater stakes in that area. Although the Indian public and leadership have created a sentiment about early return of PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan to India, it is a bone of contention for Pakistan and now increasingly for China with its heavy investment in infrastructure. The issue is likely to elongate as a major irritant.
  • J&K, long the major irritant witnessed decisive Indian actions in the political domain in 2019. However, Pakistan will continue to remain a thorn in the side in spite of its precarious economic situation especially in the post Covid 19 situation.
  • The Indo-centric nature of the subcontinent ensures that affairs of the neighborhood impact India’s security China’s attempts at extending its influence into the Indian Ocean and keeping India’s focus on the Himalayan frontier are played out through various means of contact to curry favour with the governments. The current run of Indo-Nepal relations with the Lipulekha and Kalapani territorial issues instigated at the instance of China indicate that China’s coercion will be in multiple domains including psychological and information warfare.
  • India’s internal security situation in the hinterland which had shown marked improvement could reignite with external support. While India endeavours to follow a multilateral approach in geopolitics it is likely to draw closer to the US and its allies bringing it unwillingly into conflict of interest with China and its future strategic partnerships. In this one of the major swing players is likely to be Russia, traditionally India’s friend, partner and supplier of essential military wherewithal. If Russia draws closer to China in the post Covid environment with the desire to imbalance the US and seek greater opportunity for itself, it will present an awkward choice for India.

Impact on the Military Security Domain

The foregoing analysis leads to some inevitable conclusions. Indian diplomacy will need to be deft and Indian strategic thinking will also require flexibility plus change in orientation. With a stable central government and a strong think tank culture India may have the necessary wherewithal to meet the challenges. It is the domain of military affairs which will need to be focused upon in greater measure, especially since structural changes which have recently been carried out are yet to mature.

The CDS system needs to stabilize early to ensure India is not caught in transition by the emerging geopolitical environment. A jump towards Theatre Commands may not be in our interest unless sufficient war gaming and preparation has not taken place. The rush to change because change is demanded will be an incorrect approach. Political understanding and direction are a must to ensure progressive strengthening. It will also lead to greater political appreciation for optimum budgeting. An India seeking geopolitical opportunity with a readiness to go beyond the ordinary in the pursuance of its interests cannot afford to be weak and whimsical about its military capability.


There is a great demand to reduce human footprint in India’s military because it reduces capital outlay of the defence budget. Optimisation is necessary without going overboard. Capability retention through greater technological footprint is the answer. There is a need for introduction of disruptive technologies and a continued

build-up of other kinetic capability. Indigenous capability being slow there is a need for enduring politico diplomatic relationships with important nations to retain a balance in growth of capability. Russia, France, US and Israel form a very important quartet in the defence supply chain and need to be so handled by India even as it attempts to ramp up indigenous manufacturing through the ‘Make in India’ concept.

More specifically while the Indian Air Force has to continue its efforts towards eventually reaching its target of 42 combat squadrons the Indian Navy cannot be divested of realistic budgeting. Carriers, submarines, naval aviation resources and other combat and logistics vessels have to be on the radar of development. The Malacca dilemma has been driven home into China’s strategic thinking and a strong blue water Indian Navy remains its worst fear. Increased attention to the Indian Navy will also strategically message India’s greater concern to create counter threats in the Indian Ocean and dilute obsession with land borders.

The domain of weakness remains our Information and Psychological Warfare capability. It reveals our inability to correctly assess the focus which both China and Pakistan have been adopting over the years. It is one of the most difficult domains to address as it remains ownerless. A high level body needs to be constituted to give direction and guidance in this all important field. Its purview must extend to different types of threats which impact India.

A corresponding communication strategy would also be required.

While ‘two front’ remains an obsession (rightly so) the additional half front posed by a combination of sub   onventional threats extending to insurgency, terror, communalism, criminal networks and narcotics, is likely to see resurgence. India’s Central Armed Police Forces have progressed well but need to be ready to bear the brunt and relieve the Army to optimize itself in its conventional capability.

The end game is retention and partial enhancement of deterrence in the West and strong dissuasion in the North while working towards creating viable counter threats in the Indian Ocean. This needs empathetic understanding by the political and bureaucratic community so that optimum budgetary support is provided. The military surely appreciates that India can ill afford the luxury of budgets to support its entire needs.