Transforming the Indian Military: Start with a Doctrine

Sub Title : The process and drivers of India’s military transformation

Issues Details : Vol 16 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2023

Author : Col Ashwani Sharma (Retd)

Page No. : 34

Category : Military Affairs

: February 6, 2023

Part – i /iii

Military transformation can be defined as the changes that a nation’s military brings about to achieve specified objectives. Militaries across the globe have been continually changing and evolving. However, rapidly advancing technologies of today and resets in global geopolitics are now underscoring the need for such  transformation as never before. As India  embarks on this journey, we outline the process and drivers of India’s military transformation

Transformation: The Context

Rapid advances in technology during the past few decades have made a deep and lasting impact on war fighting and changed its nature. War fighting is no longer limited to land, air and maritime domains. Information warfare, social and psy wars accompany kinetic actions in the battle space. Unlike 20th-century conflicts, this century’s doctrine, training, and technology exist in three realms: physical, human, and CEMA. Military technology today enables militaries to operate in the human and cyber realms with the same facility as it does in the physical realm.

This makes it imperative for militaries to so transform that they can keep in sync with the changing nature of warfare. Hence, the aim of Military transformation, in the present day context, is to shape the armed forces into an agile, net-centric, knowledge-based force capable of conducting effective joint and combined military operations against potential future adversaries.

Thus Military transformation can be defined as the changes that a nation’s military brings about to achieve specified objectives. There are a number of perspectives through which military transformation may be viewed as there is no standard template for every military. It is influenced by a military’s prevailing state vis-a-vis its future objectives. For example, the military transformation pillars identified by the US military are:

  • strengthening joint operations,
  • exploiting US intelligence advantages,
  • concept development and experimentation,
  • developing transformational capabilities.

For the UK armed forces it is (i) Force structure; (ii) Modernisation and (iii)Training.

Though the need for military transformation in India was felt at the turn of the century especially after the Kargil conflict. Some reforms including an attempt at self-reliance by galvanising the Indian defence industry and reducing dependence on Russia and Eastern Europe for military hardware were ushered in, but the sense of urgency for reforms has increased after the Modi government came to power.  It started with Aatamanirbhar Bharat – a clarion call to ‘Make in India’.  Creation of DMA and appointment of CDS were next in the line of reforms aimed at ushering in jointmanship and efficiency.  Then came Agnipath – a fresh approach to HR with the stated aim of achieving a younger profile, reducing the pension burden and releasing a steady stream of disciplined youth with a nationalistic mindset into the civvy street. Now there is a buzz about rebalancing and downsizing the forces, particularly the army which is looking at improving the ‘tooth to tail ratio’.

Sino-India military confrontations at the LAC and India’s emergence as a regional player has spurred the Indian military apparatus to look at ways to become more efficient even tho’ the resources remain limited.

In India’s case Military transformation could broadly consist of four major pillars:

  • Theatre commands and Force structure,
  • Force modernisation,
  • Training philosophy,
  • Sustainability and logistics.

But where and how does the process begin?  In countries with powerful militaries like the US, China and Russia, the directions always emanate from the very top. National security policy is defined with clear goals for the military by the Head of state/executive. Military goals, capability and capacity are derived from such a strategic direction. Thus, the imperative need for a National Security Strategy laid out by the National Security Apparatus. In India  the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) headed by the Prime Minister (see box) is at the apex of the defence and security establishment and must formulate such a strategy. This should lead to a pragmatic Military Doctrine. Transformation, in turn, must flow out of the warfighting doctrine.

Military Doctrine: The Present Day Dilemma

When the cold war era ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s it was believed that the threat of a conventional war will diminish slowly and will lead to grey zone tactics instead. Come February 2022 and the multipronged offensive in Ukraine changed all of that. It has demonstrated that threats beyond the clandestine soft power approaches in the grey zone remain strong and that nations are prepared to invade and attack. The Ukraine conflict has provided an opportunity for military observers to analyse multiple facets of warfighting.  It has also provided a window into how today’s wars require a level of agility, and rapid innovation and integration that has never been executed at this scale by a nation’s military. This extraordinarily prolonged conflict has proven that Russia’s military doctrine was flawed – their planning for this incursion was not comprehensive; and their command and control capability has been lacking. At the tactical level, it is  to Ukraine forces’ credit to have embedded agile principles into their approach to defending their country. Rapid innovation, inventive tactics, and accelerating the integration of novel ideas and approaches to repel Russia’s military advantage have made a significant difference to how this conflict has developed. This has been most obvious in three areas – technology, training, and doctrine – precisely the pillars of military transformation identified above.

The challenge posed by the current situation is that warfare has evolved faster than the warfighter. Today, a military’s ability to incorporate new technologies with an effective supporting infrastructure is critical to achieving its objectives, whether on the tactical, kinetic contact battlefield or in the realm of non-kinetic statecraft and psychological dominance. The recent events (Syria, Armenia, Ukraine) have alluded to the resurgence of force on force, highly kinetic warfare and the role that technology will play in the outcome.

Military Doctrine: Factors

National Security Strategy. The first factor is the National Security Strategy,  the very source from which the doctrine must originate, as mentioned above briefly. Threats and challenges, current and future, at the national, regional and global level must be clearly spelt out in this policy document. Threats must include all domains which can impinge on a nation’s sovereignty including military, economic, internal security, internal strife etc. It should also encompass the nation’s regional obligations where the nation must use its influence to ensure rule based order and assist friendly countries in times of need. Physical, psy and cyber realms must be included in this process of threat assessment.  Militaries would derive their objectives from this document and arrive at the capabilities and capacity needed to address the challenge. The process must remain dynamic and the national goals must undergo periodic revision or when necessitated by circumstances.

Geographical location and Attributes. It constitutes an important aspect in determining operational aspects of the military strategy. It includes the country’s borders and its area of influence where the armed forces may be required to operate. Space and cyber domains which do not have an identifiable physical boundary are added as domains of responsibility where the military must exercise appropriate control. Physical attributes of the terrain as it obtains in the area of operations have a dominating impact on operational plans, particularly in the case of land forces followed by the maritime  and the air arm, in that order. Terrain must be exploited to gain maximum advantage from the natural lay of the land.

Artificial obstacles and infrastructure must be developed to maximise the advantages that terrain offers and enhance the effect as per intended design of operations. There is no standard template here. Areas that must be defended against a possible offensive must have an integrated obstacle plan to impede and disrupt the adversary’s offensive/advance. However, it must facilitate unhindered operational move of own forces. Supportive infrastructure must be developed as per the defensive plan. Where own forces are likely to be on the offensive, obstacles must be limited to what is essential, but the infrastructure must be well developed to suit maximum mobility. Then of course is the middle or the depth zone which ought to be well developed to allow quick movement of reserves. In sum, Infrastructure and obstacles must be developed to support the overall design of battle which flows out of the doctrine for warfighting. It must not be spurred by the fact that the adversary has done so, as he is following ‘his own’ doctrine to dominate the borders. Our actions thus must be in conformity with our own warfighting philosophy. In the maritime domain the naval fleet must extract the most out of the island territories, littoral states, natural defiles created by gulfs and bays and traditional shipping lanes. Maritime assets and the capabilities that come with them should be in line with the maritime doctrine.

Demographic Factor and HR. Demographic dividend is the potential that can result from shifts in a population’s age structure, mainly when the share of the working-age population (18 to 65) is larger than the non-working-age share of the population. It is largely related to the economic component, but is an essential ingredient of policy on defence as availability can have a direct bearing on recruitment philosophy. Employment philosophy (operational) and training the human resource are also closely connected to the demography. Countries with small populations do not have a choice but to resort to compulsorily military training and maintain smaller standing armies even if the operational requirement is greater. Those with larger populations can exercise the option of recruiting as many as they need and can afford. Recruitment and training standards also depend upon the calibre of available HR, which includes physical attributes, educational merit and psychological quotient.

Imparting military training for a short period of time and then releasing such a disciplined pool of HR into the mainstream of society has many positives for the country (see box – Agnipath). In recent years the Indian defence services have undertaken several initiatives to induct women at multiple levels within their ranks which includes opening up combat roles for them. This is in the spirit of empowerment, equal opportunities and career options for all, and selecting the best available HR talent.  But the national security apparatus will do well to remember that in matters military operational readiness and effectiveness is the sole criteria. Armed forces are not charged with the responsibility to generate employment. There is no room for populist or knee jerk actions. The Military doctrine must dictate the HR policies implicitly based on operational requirements which the demographic realities of the nation can support.

Another facet related to demography concerns the populace in the area of operations. Demography, culture and traditions of the area of operations is equally important. A military operating in foreign lands must be taught and educated about the sensibilities of the local population and its emotional response to various measures and situations.

Industrial Capability and Capacity.  The current Ukraine – Russia conflict is an apt case study which amplifies the inescapable need for self-reliance in defence. In an increasingly interdependent (and interconnected) world which is constantly seeking removal of barriers to achieve free trade, having a closed door policy becomes difficult and in some cases economically unviable. At the same time Self-reliance in defence ought to be every country’s just aspiration. Protecting sovereignty is a fundamental right. It is thus a delicate balance wherein you build adequate capability and capacities within your own country particularly in certain areas and technologies which are deemed critical to your military needs. In an increasingly flattening world, 100% indigenous capability is neither possible nor desired. It thus boils down to certain core military technologies, platform integration, engineering capability and the necessary infrastructure which may be ramped up if and when required. Geographical location of military infrastructure is another important consideration which must be dictated by military considerations. How is the Military Doctrine relevant in deciding industrial capabilities and its geographical location? Well, it is all connected – It is the doctrine that must define how military operations are to be conducted – the method defines tactical drills – that defines the technology, the resultant platforms, their specifications and numbers, which in turn guides the R&D and the industry and decides the what, how much, where and when.Deviation from such a cycle, devoid of deliberate direction will invariably lead to wasted effort and resources as a direct consequence of unplanned R&D and opportunistic industrial attempts in penny packets (Emergency procurements must be limited – see box). Industrial and R&D initiatives must be synchronised as part of a deliberate military industrial complex on the basis of a comprehensive military doctrine.

Economics and Military Doctrine. There is a dichotomy here. Military preparedness should not be compromised by economics, yet a pragmatic military doctrine must be based on realistic appraisal of resources of which financial muscle is an important constituent. Defence budgets will be limited and invariably fall short – it’s a given for almost all militaries. Two important inferences thus: (i)  Military doctrine must be based on a realistic appraisal of available resources and not on a list of desirables; (ii) in order to extract the most out of the available money, the doctrine should eliminate all leakages and non-essential expenses. Every penny spent should contribute towards operational readiness as set out in the doctrine.

Caveat: Ceremonials and certain activities related to military pomp and show are integral to maintaining a motivated military.

Heritage and Traditions. An understated aspect of military doctrine. Military analysts and historians will readily agree that every military is different and performs in a peculiar manner. Some are ruthless, some are fanatical and some suffer from an indifferent air of arrogance. Some are very traditional in their ways and some are simply religious armies. Then there are some which are characterised by frequent revolts and mutinies. Indian military has its own ethos – Dharmayudhha and its tenets are deeply ingrained in the psyche of Indian soldiers. There’s an honour code that the Indian military follows. Many call it an emotional army which is happily ready to follow orders irrespective of the danger to life and limb. It relies a lot on leadership, abundant unit pride and of course ‘Naam’, ‘Namak’, ‘Nishaan’. Soldiers have always occupied a special, honourable place in the Indian society. The method of warfighting must always be based on the value system that the military enjoys.

Integration of Paramilitary and CAPFs.  Dual operational control along the IB/LAC/LoC and turf wars are a ready recipe for disaster in operations. Recent military reforms in India are aimed at Jointmanship, ‘Combined Arms Operations’ and ‘All of nation’ wars. A massive exercise is underway to integrate additional domains like Space, Cyber, Information Ops etc with the traditional domains – Land, Maritime and Air. It is not rocket science thus that the role of Paramilitary forces and CAPFs should also be spelt out clearly in order to bolster the defensive capability, particularly in the border states and areas which may face internal security issues. The armed forces’ design of battle must include utilisation of added assets in the form of these forces which can free up regular troops for offensive tasks. Such an effort will avoid duplication of resources and effort, integrate the muscle power and increase efficiency exponentially. Theatre commanders must harness the resources, ensure efficiency in employment and exploit their strength to the maximum.

Effective Doctrine: Prescriptive or Adaptable?

Innovations are happening in parallel while we speak of defining the Military doctrine which is essentially based on proven technologies, tactical drills and time tested operational manoeuvres. Military hardware is acquired on the basis of past performance on the battlefield, troops are trained to exploit the technology and hone tactical drills.

But since the turn of the century, rapid emergence of technology has changed the way we fight. The last century began with positional warfare, switched to manoeuvre warfare in merely two decades, got refined to Air-land battle concept, and  finally NCW came into effect with the advent of IoT and modern electronics.

We now talk about the 6th generation warfare which primarily refers to stand off warfare utilising remotely operated platforms and precision munitions. Add to this concurrent engagement in 4th Gen (decentralised actions), and 5th Gen (non-kinetic actions) and we have a dynamic situation in the TBA. Traditional methods are unable to cope with such upheavals  There are numerous examples of  departure from established military doctrine with great success.  Overly prescriptive doctrine can readily turn into dogma; and whilst no military should be forced into shortcuts, the Ukraine conflict is demonstrating what can be done when forced to adapt. Military Change and Risk Management handbooks must be rewritten as applicable.

Ukraine’s response to Russia’s invasion has involved civilian support, advanced technology from overseas and novel training methods – all designed to accelerate successful effects. But it is the shift in mindset, away from the protracted procurement, integration and training programmes so typical of most militaries today, in favour of a more iterative approach to ‘combat innovation’ that has had the greatest impact. Against the might of the Russian military, Ukrainian forces have been able to slow Russia’s progression, expose their tactical deficiencies, and even win back certain parts.

In conclusion, it will be right to state  that whilst having the right tools is important, having the agility and innovativeness to try new things in different ways, adopt and use them at the relevant pace is what generates unexpected, powerful outcomes and success.