By Natalia Freyton
India is modernizing (1) its defence, for a plethora of reasons, and rightly so. In the current and future contexts, India must focus on one word, to build its economic and defence powerhouse: balance. Indeed, India is caught in crosswinds, which will conspire to make it lose its focus, and make strategic choices difficult.
The Big Picture Perspective Challenge
India has a specific security setting, and addresses unique challenges and perspectives, shared with no other country. Comparing India’s options and choices to those of other countries, and analysing how such choices could be beneficial or detrimental to India, as it gradually builds its own powerhouse, is nonetheless useful. Indeed, it enables the “big picture” perspective, and a better understanding of the interconnections between economy, defence, foreign policy, infrastructure development, and all other matters at hand.
India will need to look abroad for modern military technologies, that much is clear. But here lies one of the first riddles and balance exercises for defence planners, both political and military. Two extremes must be avoided at all costs: single-partner alliances, and multi-partner ones. Drawing military technology, or even purchasing equipment, from one single supplier is a dangerous path, which India has already walked, and slipped on. Having only one defence partner exposes the receiving partner to a precarious situation, in which supplies and interaction can be stopped overnight, due to shortages, crises in the partner country, or embargoes. The unfortunate and domestically-built Dhruv helicopter (2) suffered catastrophic delays to its program, due to its engine being made unavailable by the 1998 embargo (3). The aircraft was meant to be a beacon of Indian military equipment, finally built within its borders, but only revealed the fault lines of the nation’s military industrial apparatus. Moreover, it would de facto place India as a vassal of the supplying country, which could suspend its protection at any given moment and compromise Indian sovereignty. This risk can only be taken with a trusted partner, known to have little or no recourse to this type of pressure, as Russia has always done with India, or France (4) to a certain extent.
On the contrary, multiplying partners excessively will expose India to a quagmire of different norms and incompatibilities which will bleed the defence effort dry. Not to mention that, development costs amounting to a substantial share of price tags, multiple suppliers are as many redundancies. If the “Make in India” effort (5) is successful, then Indian industries can at least have a clear frame of reference for future work, and a leg to stand on. In fact, sparing the Indian industries from such normative labyrinths can be interpreted as one of the biggest goals of the entire “Make in India” endeavour, in the long term.
Developing Defence Industry Strategically
The strategic bearing of the defence industry will be the next challenge. Basing as much of it as possible within India’s borders will necessarily be beneficial to the nation’s economy. Defence contracts are notoriously large and can represent substantial development hopes for entire regions. But there is a pitfall, as this economic choice must not be made at the expense of military performance. Whichever parts which can be built in India should naturally be. However, some technologies are difficult to transfer. Indians must accept that some pieces of equipment will be built in their home countries, lest they bite off more than they can chew, and hamper India’s defence effort. In time, the strategy will come together, and the goal will be achieved.
Likewise, India’s hopes to develop a domestic military industry and even an exporting one must not blur the focus and clarity of mind. India has a specific military setting and therefore specific defence needs. If the economic perspective becomes excessively present in India’s minds, the industry will focus on the profits which can be made by building equipment designed for clients, and not for India. First and foremost, military equipment must be built by India, for India, and in India. Eventually, the “Made in India” and the use of the equipment within the Indian forces will be the selling point for export sales. But this economic perspective, while perfectly valuable, must not take an excessive place within the overall strategy.
Should India use the opportunity of the defence makeover to boost its economy, by choosing to build within its borders? Maybe, but what if better-adapted defence equipment is available on the global defence market? There is a substantial risk that the debate will break down into a myriad of sub-debates, and that the core focus will be lost, under the effect of centrifugal forces. For this risk to be averted, central power must keep a firm grip on the matter and guarantee the straightforwardness of strategic thinking. Only at that expense will India take its true place on the global chessboard, and secure itself long lastingly.
The Balancing Act
Next in line, is the challenge between private initiatives and public leadership. Both sources of momentum have their value in building sovereignty but must be carefully calibrated. Private businesses have the potential of sharp and speedy innovation, and can manage complex programs in a much finer way than any public entity ever could. For this reason, many countries have handed over defence production to the private sector, to varying extents. However, leaving defence innovation and production entirely to private sectors can lead to the multiplication of research endeavours, and thus squandered resources. It can also lead to an embarrassing flurry of technological one-upmanship, to the private sector’s delight, and at the expense of armed forces’ efficiency. On the other hand, leaving defence entirely in the hands of the public sector means slower programs, less innovation and weaker production potential. The best balance seems to be entrusting the public sector (strategists, planners and officers) with defining needs, coordinating programs and controlling the outcome, and leaving the rest (R&D, design and production) to private companies. For that, a closely-knit defence ecosystem must be patiently built, so that all parties may converse and interact freely and productively. It must orchestrate a flexible, pragmatic and strategically-oriented stance, so as to give birth to the most relevant solutions. The ecosystem must be state-driven (in the sense that the government must oversee, energize and steer, but never hamper), defence-oriented and immune to political re-shuffles.
Bearing in mind that even the most loyal partners will always pursue their own interests first, an array of industrial partnerships must be designed, to balance out the influences which partners will apply. The core focus of the Indian defence ecosystem must remain the sovereignty of India, and not the industrial satisfaction of partners.
Future Ready with Multiple Balances
Should India concentrate on simply defending its borders? Perhaps, but this would provide China with an open freeway to its ambition to dominate all of Asia (6), at India’s unacceptable expense, in view of its eventual stand-off with the US. This would not only compromise India’s ambitions and interests, but even its security.
The last balance which must be achieved is between present threats and future challenges. Indians have two hot borders, with China (7) and Pakistan (8), and these two threats must naturally be addressed firmly, so as to maintain regional balance and the defence of Indian territorial integrity.
However, focusing excessively on these two threats would be a fatal strategic mistake. If India concentrates excessively on homeland defence, it will lose sight of the bigger challenge: Its place on the continent and in the entire Indo-Pacific area. Failing to develop naval and air potential, only to focus on land border defence, will leave an open field to strategic competitors to develop their own domination in the region.
Here lies the notion of economy of force, in the central power’s need to rule between each sector’ allocations, in the deployment of troops, and between a strategic power projection far from the Indian subcontinent, both aerial and naval, and an operative projection on and around Indian borders, which would mobilize mainly air-land forces. In the long run, this implies certain choices in terms of choosing military elites, and in their training and education: from a Western standpoint, the mental and moral framework of an expeditionary force officer differs from those who guard the homeland.
Another balance must be found in the choice of military alliances and cooperation treaties, to address the main challenges of neighbouring rivals, finding the fine balance between a game of go and a game of chess. India must not let its most powerful allies drag it into provocations, which would serve not India’s interests, but those of the allies – such as the UK or the US, to name just a few innocent examples.
Therefore, the need for balance is great, mentally, morally and intellectually, for political and military elites, if foreign threats and Indian ambitions are to be addressed on all counts. India must be equipped with infrastructures and working methods which both heed the cardinal notions of anticipation and interdisciplinarity. Simply put, with this balance, the future defence ecosystem will rise, as a force capable of long-term strategic thinking and inter-sector coordination. In this context, the decision of PM Modi to create the permanent position (9) of Chief of Defence Staff is a wise and promising one. This high-ranking officer (10) is simultaneously an adviser to the government, and a decision-maker on capacity development rulings, and a budget allocator for all services; as such he embodies the notion of balance which is at the core of India’s hopes. His best chances of success lie in his having the command structure and processes which will enable him to form decisions and project forward thinking, or at least shed light on strategic situations. In the long run, a reflection must be carried out, regarding the creation of an inter-services body, able to design, plan and steer actions on an operational or strategic level – a task which cannot be given to specific services or armies, due to their centrifugal trend.
Multiple balances must be achieved in this house of cards: between civilians and soldiers, between theoretical planning and practical application, between foreign inspiration and domestic perspectives, between private and public sectors, and many others still. Only this eagle-eye view, and not the individual and mono-lens perspectives of separate actors can achieve true Indian sovereignty. Here lies the true added value and the critical role of a genuine strategizing State.
– The writer is a defence and security industry consultant having varied experience working with medium and large companies majorly in European market. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda