Perhaps, the army has learnt the wrong lessons from its release of the earlier version of its doctrine, “Indian Army Doctrine” (ARTRAC 2004), which not only attracted considerable attention but also substantial criticism. However, the advantage of the transparency that attended the release of the 2004 doctrine, dubbed Cold Start doctrine (CSD), was in the vigorous discussion it generated on the issues of linkage between the subconventional, conventional, and nuclear levels of war (Ladwig 2008). The low-profile release of the second iteration of its doctrine may help the army avoid criticism, but this is at the cost of keeping the significant matters it raises from the benefit of an informed discussion. As it happened in the wake of the CSD release, discussion of the doctrine is useful in terms of enabling feedback for the army on its doctrine and enhancing doctrinal thinking and strategic culture in general (Ladwig and Narang 2017).
One reason for the army’s reticence is perhaps its foreknowledge of the controversial content of the document. Given this, there is greater need to place the content in the public eye. This article first discusses the significant issues covered in the document, and thereafter considers the document in its implications for civil–military relations.
The aspect of particular interest is the army’s putting down in an official document its long-standing view on the collusive two-front threat (Gurung 2018)—the document terms this “multi-front” (Indian Army 2018: 1)—and its view on how this needs to be met. What this spells for civil–military relations is that the “two-front” threat thesis, which has not persuaded the government enough thus far to act accordingly—such as through reflecting the heightened threat in the defence budgets—has been included in the document. This amounts to unilateral agenda-setting and bottom-up dictation on the strategy to tackle it.
This doctrinal articulation of the army may have informal endorsement of its civilian masters; else it is difficult to see how the army can pre-empt the national security strategy review, which procedurally ought to be preceding military doctrines. The national security strategy review, reportedly nearing completion by the National Security Advisor (NSA)-headed newfangled Defence Planning Committee (DPC) (Kartha 2019), has not been released yet. While the placing of the LWD in the open domain suggested a bucking of civil–military relations by the army, the absence of reference to it over the last two months by the military brass itself indicates prudence finally prevailed.
Examining the LWD
The document carries forward two long-known aspects of the army’s doctrinal thinking: CSD and two-front threat. On the CSD, Army Chief General Bipin Rawat has been upfront, acknowledging the doctrine with finality early in his tenure (Unnithan 2017). Ever in the public eye, he had in an earlier media interaction given out the army’s intent to follow up on the joint doctrine, “Joint Doctrine: Indian Armed Forces,” released in April 2017 (IDS 2017), by updating its 2004 document (Peri 2017). Recently, the army has been emphasising the creation of Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs), the bedrock of CSD, in order to operationalise the doctrine. This is the first and most significant of the four high-level studies approved at the last army commanders’ conference (Sen 2018). The IBGs are to be tested in exercises this summer. On the restructuring to follow, the army would presumably be able to prosecute the CSD and defuse the criticism the CSD has received.
The two-front threat has been around since the army’s last closed-door doctrinal review in late 2009 (Ahmed 2010). The review—that in the event did not result in the release of an updated doctrine—was to shift the focus of the army from the western front to China. It rationalised the raising of two defensive divisions in the east and called for the creation of a mountain strike corps. However, the latter was only conceded reluctantly by the previous government and somewhat late in its tenure (Dutta 2018). The current government has also dragged its feet, apparently for financial reasons, resulting in the raising of a mountain strike corps of questionable efficacy and that reportedly was cannibalising the army’s reserves (Economic Times 2018). Given this, the LWD rightly leans towards a posture of defensive deterrence on the Line of Actual Control, based on multi-tiered defensive operations relying on suitable repositioning of reserves and posturing by acclimatised strike formations. In the circumstance of a two-front war, the LWD suggests—without an explicit mention—that the Chinese front be the secondary one, while the western front would be the primary front.
This brings one back to the western front, suggesting an inability of the army transcending Pakistan as its national security fixation. The LWD brings to fore the concept of hybrid war and the attendant “grey zone.” The army chief has been a keen votary of viewing current day conflict as manifestation of hybrid war (Hindustan Times 2018), defined in the LWD as “a blend of conventional and unconventional, with the focus increasingly shifting to multi-domain Warfare varying from non-contact to contact warfare” (Indian Army 2018: 2). Hybrid war according to the LWD is conducted in a “grey zone” (Indian army 2018: 6) involving non-contact domains, such as cyberspace, and plausible deniability by use of proxy fighters.
To the army, the grey zone obtains in Kashmir due to sponsored proxy war and transborder terror incidents. Though the document does not explicitly make a mention of the areas where such proxy war is incident, it can safely be inferred to be Kashmir (Indian Army 2018: 1–2). A resulting conventional conflict could also have hybrid war characteristics, for which the LWD calls on the army to keep its paramilitary—the Rashtriya Rifles and the Assam Rifles—handy once the IBGs have achieved the conflict’s politico-military objectives centred on destruction of Pakistan’s centre of gravity—presumably its military’s strategic reserves—and spatial grab. The IBGs are to create conditions for exploitation, implying flexibility for continuing operations into enemy innards. The LWD’s requirement that IBGs be able to prosecute operations in a nuclear-contaminated environment is the only reference to the nuclear factor. This, despite the IBG’s action—if as described in the LWD—being likely to trigger Pakistani nuclear first use. On this count, the LWD does little to boost confidence that the army is cognisant of the nuclear factor.
Critique of the LWD
The absence of reference to the nuclear factor replicates the error of the Joint Doctrine. Both doctrines assiduously separate the conventional level from the nuclear level, believing that the nuclear level relating to strategic deterrence will be managed by their civilian masters in conflict. The LWD appears to assume that nuclear deterrence would work and, in the case of deterrence failure, the army would rely on its ability for “fighting dirty” under conditions of a nuclear battlefield. This leaves the doctrinal space on the nuclear level to the civilian masters. The army needs to think through in greater detail the nuclear environment its operations may well trigger, and the manner of conduct of the resulting operations in a nuclear environment. These need to be included in a future LWD that would also reflect on the currently absent discussion on the nuclear level.
Continuing operations would likely have an escalatory effect. If in the Indian scheme the nuclear dimension is kept confidential, it nevertheless needs engaging with the conventional–nuclear interface and find written expression for doctrinal guidance. Doctrinal thinking, both at the conventional level and nuclear level, deals only with the opening phases of war and introduction of nuclear weapons into a conflict, respectively. There is a need for doctrinal thinking to also engage with what happens after: How are war aims affected in a war gone nuclear? How do conventional operations impact escalation? How can de-escalation be brought about? And, how is conflict termination made feasible? The doctrines mostly dwell on how to get into conflict, but much less on the arguably more important part: how to exit a conflict. A holistic nuclear doctrine would require expansion from its current-day focus on deterrence and employment of nuclear weapons in conflict, to include conflict containment, de-escalation, and termination. Any conventional-level implications need inclusion in a comprehensive LWD. Else, what is there to distinguish an LWD written in the nuclear age?
It is not known as to whether any thinking on the conventional–nuclear interface has been done internally. This has perhaps been done by the army’s civilian masters, explaining India’s reluctance for military resort in face of considerable provocation, such as the Parliament terror attack and the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks (Lamont 2013). This restraint is likely continuing. Consider Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parameters for the surgical strikes. He had required that the troops involved return without casualty irrespective of whether their strikes are successful or otherwise (NDTV 2019a). In case of any future consideration of the military options, there is little in the LWD that would make the political head favour a military option.
The good news is that this implies continuing of strategic restraint. Nevertheless, as explained in a recent book on the Line of Control (LoC), which brought out escalatory possibilities, “autonomous military factors” stemming from institutional culture and the conflict environment on the LoC could in a period of media-fanned nationalism eventuate in an outbreak of conventional conflict (Jacob 2019: 171–254).
The LWD’s persistence in denial of the nuclear factor is attributable less as a shortcoming to the army, but more so to national security minders. Absent the promised national security strategic guidance till the fag end of this government, that prides itself on being more mindful of national security than its predecessors, the army has little choice but to reiterate what the military can best do. It is apparent that the DPC has not quite filled in the shoes of the chief of defence staff equivalent position that continues to be vacant, even though the three services have put aside their differences and written to the government asking for the Naresh Chandra Committee recommendation that a permanent chairperson for the chiefs of staff committee be created (Peri 2018). What this suggests is that there is little difference in terms of national security management distinguishing this government, a point necessary to bring out in light of the great lengths it goes to building just such an image through perception management, including through relatively “innocuous” practices such as the recent hit film, Uri, that shows the character of the NSA assaying a warlord role.
The government is apparently continuing—if reluctantly—with India’s long-standing policy of strategic restraint, but is unable to own up to this owing to a cultivated image for the opposite. The Prime Minister dashing off to Wuhan to mend fences with the Chinese after the 73-day Doklam stand-off between the two militaries, and the declining defence budgets of late are suggestive of this. By this yardstick, the LWD appears in consonance with the government’s restrained posture on China in calling for a defensive posture on that front. On the contrary, on the Pakistan front, the government has take a relatively hard line. The LWD reflects this hard line. By including the militancy in Kashmir into the grey zone of hybrid warfare and outlining the manner CSD is to be operationalised as a possible circumstance-dictated response, it makes the conventional response option enticing for the government.
An enlightened speculation needs hazarding here. The LWD’s seeming alignment with the government’s view—mellow on China and tough on Pakistan—makes it appear as a conduit for the government’s placing of its preferred strategic doctrine in the open domain; a case of the national security establishment firing from the army’s shoulders. In so far as the “collusive” threat—described as the “greatest danger”—figuring in the LWD, the government can afford to overlook it as a small price to pay since the threat is unlikely to materialise. This reticence on the strategic review, which allows greater doctrinal space to the military, amounts to shirking on part of the government. Even if the government at the fag end of its tenure puts together the national security review, it would only reduce the important exercise to yet another election gimmick.
Escalatory possibilities, apprehended here, imply that the government needs to include conflict resolution strategies in addressing areas of contention with neighbours and in internal security matters. Its strategies must not remain limited to mere conflict management and hedging against escalation through confidence building, lest in crisis the confidence in the military instrument and its choice as the instrument of response is shown up as lacking in judgment. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister’s electoral bugle call that the back of terrorism will be broken (Tribune 2019), would leave India with little option but to follow through with military action when confronted with provocation such as in the recent terror attack with a car-laden improvised explosive device in Pulwama in Kashmir (NDTV 2019b). The LWD does not provide the necessary confidence that we can have non-escalatory options in such cases. The next government must dig India out of the hole it has got into by putting out a strategic review that is cognisant of the nuclear dimension that can provide a worthwhile starting point for military doctrine-making, both joint and service specific.
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