Ground forces dominate Indian military strategy. Since its independence, India has fought five wars along its unsettled northern land borders, and its most vexing security threats today—as illustrated by the ongoing Chinese incursions in the northern region of Ladakh—still loom across those same borders. The Indian Army commands a clear and growing majority of military budget allocations and an even larger share of military personnel. But how does India use its ground forces, and how well do they serve Indian security interests?
This paper argues that the Indian Army—and by extension, Indian defense policy more generally—is dominated by an orthodox offensive doctrine. This is an approach to the use of force that centers on large army formations, operating relatively autonomously from political direction, seeking to impose a punitive cost on the enemy. The punitive cost often takes the form of capturing enemy territory as a bargaining chip, even though India usually pursues strategically defensive war aims to maintain the territorial status quo.
This paper advances four analytic propositions before concluding with recommendations for the Indian Army. First, the orthodox offensive doctrine has been at the center of the Indian military’s wartime experience, organization, and doctrine. It defined India’s strategy during the wars against Pakistan in 1965, 1971, and 1999, and has shaped Indian crisis behavior since. Doctrinal innovations along the way, such as the Cold Start doctrine, have sought to optimize rather than rethink the orthodox offensive doctrine.
Arzan Tarapore is a nonresident fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research. In September 2020 he will join the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University as a research scholar on South Asia
Second, India’s strategic environment has fundamentally changed since it fought its last war in 1999. Nuclear deterrence between India and its rivals, Pakistan and China, has reduced the likelihood of major war but simultaneously increased the salience of military coercion below the threshold of war. The extraordinary modernization of China’s military threatens India not only on their land border, but also in new locales like the Indian Ocean and new domains like space and cyberspace. Advanced military technologies are changing the character of contemporary conflict and levying new demands on the military’s organization, training, and doctrine.
Third, the Indian military has failed to keep pace with these strategic changes. Even though it carries powerful incentives for reform, its mechanisms to drive and implement change are problematic. India lacks a periodic strategic review process, the military services are resistant to change, and the civilian leadership has rarely exercised the will to implement reforms. The new Chief of Defence Staff position has already begun to reshape civil-military relations and should propel other organizational reforms—but there is no evidence yet of the Indian Army rethinking its orthodox offensive doctrine.
Fourth, the stubborn dominance of this doctrine renders the Indian military a less useful tool of national policy. The orthodox offensive doctrine is problematic because, given its powerful adversaries, the Indian Army probably cannot seize significant tracts of land or inflict a decisive defeat on enemy forces. This means India’s cost-imposition strategies are unlikely to deter its rivals from continued subconventional provocations. At the same time, India’s punitive strategies have had the unintended effect of motivating its rivals to pursue more destabilizing and provocative strategies of their own, including Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons and China’s fait accompli land grabs. And the doctrine exacts an opportunity cost, reducing India’s force projection and deterrence capabilities in the Indian Ocean region. The Indian military will continue to lack the resources required for long-overdue modernization as long as the army continues to emphasize its orthodox offensive doctrine.
The dominance of the orthodox offensive doctrine has distorted Indian military strategy, skewing it to fight large conventional wars and leaving it ill-equipped to manage more likely scenarios short of war. In several crises in recent decades, New Delhi has been left with an invidious all-or-nothing choice in the use of military force—either start a major conventional war or abstain from action.
To rebalance Indian military strategy, with more usable military options, this paper offers three recommendations for the Indian Army, which are designed to require relatively modest additional resources and generate minimal resistance among other services or the civilian bureaucracy.
- Consider new theories of victory. To deter and defeat coercion, the Indian Army should consider rebalancing its doctrine with greater use of denial strategies. It should more frequently seek to make coercion and territorial revisionism prohibitively costly or unfeasible for the enemy rather than relying on ex post facto punishment.
- Consider how to be the supporting element of a joint force. Indian forces will increasingly be compelled to deter and fight in multiple domains and different theaters, and the army should therefore consider how to play a productive role in new missions where it supports a main effort elsewhere.
- Consider new niche capabilities. The army can make sizable and qualitatively different contributions to joint combat by developing more robust intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities and by increasing its capacity for long-range precision strike.
Modern India’s military strategy has been dominated by ground forces managing threats on its northern continental periphery. Air power has traditionally been used only as a supporting adjunct to land power, rather than an independent strategic tool; and India has not projected significant maritime force despite a notable history of seafaring and influence across the Indian Ocean region. Historically, there were sound reasons for this emphasis on ground forces. Wedged between two powerful and hostile neighbors, Pakistan and China, independent India fought five land wars along its northern land borders. Its most formative modern episodes were entirely or almost entirely ground-force actions. This includes its most searing defeat against China in 1962 and its most celebrated victory, in East Pakistan in 1971. India’s most immediate security threats today, from cross-border terrorism in the northern territories of Jammu and Kashmir to periodic incursions across its disputed boundary with China, are managed by the army and ground-force paramilitaries. To handle all this, the army attracts an ever-growing share of the military budget and resources. Despite its potential as a hybrid continental-maritime power, India’s security policy is dominated by ground forces.
More specifically, as this paper shows, India’s military strategy has been dominated by an orthodox offensive doctrine—a method of using force that favors large formations tasked with punitive incursions into enemy territory. This doctrine is orthodox in its preference for large combined-arms army formations, usually operating with minimal coordination with other services and relatively autonomously from its political masters. It is offensive in its military aims of imposing a punitive cost on the enemy––usually in the form of capturing territory for the purposes of gaining leverage in postwar negotiations––even if it is usually deployed in the service of a strategically defensive policy of maintaining the territorial status quo. And it is a doctrine in that it represents an enduring set of principles governing the Indian Army’s use of force, regardless of the scarcity of public doctrinal publications.
This paper argues that the stubborn dominance of the orthodox offensive doctrine, even in the face of drastic changes in India’s strategic environment, renders the military a less useful tool of national policy. In the two decades since India fought its last war in and around the district of Kargil in 1999, three major strategic trends have fundamentally changed India’s security environment: nuclear deterrence has made major conventional war unlikely; China’s military power and assertiveness now pose an unprecedented threat; and radical new technologies have redefined the military state of the art. India’s security policy has not kept pace. Given the balance of military power on India’s northern borders, India cannot decisively defeat either Pakistan or China on the battlefield. Without the ability to impose such unacceptable costs, India’s doctrine will not deter its rivals, which both have significant resolve to bear the costs of conflict. The continued pursuit of large, offensive military options also raises the risk that its enemies will rely on escalatory—even nuclear—responses. And because the doctrine demands a force structure of large ground-holding formations, it pulls scarce resources away from modernization and regional force projection—a problem made especially acute as the Indian government makes tough economic choices amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The remainder of this paper is divided into five parts. First, it surveys the history of India’s military strategy, showing its reliance on ground forces and the orthodox offensive doctrine. Second, it outlines the three major strategic changes that have upended India’s security environment in the twenty-first century. Third, it analyzes the reasons why India’s strategy and doctrine have failed to adapt. Fourth, the paper argues that India’s military is less useful in this new environment. Finally, the paper concludes with some recommendations for the Indian Army.
India’s Use of the Orthodox Offensive Doctrine
Modern India’s security has been challenged from its beginning—and from the beginning, ground forces have been central to India’s military response. In particular, the Indian Army’s use of force in conventional conflicts has been governed by the orthodox offensive doctrine. The doctrine’s theory of victory relies on the logic of deterrence by punishment––that India’s threat of a prohibitively costly retaliation will convince its enemy to refrain from aggression. This orthodox offensive doctrine was practiced through several successive conflicts, institutionalized through organizational reforms and professional military education, and codified in official publications, including the latest Land Warfare Doctrine, released in 2018.1 Since the army is by far the largest and best-resourced service, at the forefront of every war and current-day plans, this doctrine has taken on even larger proportions as the de facto national military strategy of India.
The orthodox offensive doctrine took center stage by the mid-1960s, propelled by two formative experiences that taught the Indian military the limits of the British Raj’s frontier defense doctrine.2 The first Kashmir war, in 1947–48, was a light-infantry conflict to gain control of the disputed territory.3 India quickly seized control of Srinagar and the Kashmir Valley, with most fighting thereafter occurring in the surrounding mountainous terrain. This reduced the scope for using combined arms, let alone other services. Air power did, however, play a vital—if not decisive—role in the war, when India used an air assault on Srinagar airport to launch its initial deployment into Kashmir. This allowed Indian forces to seize the initiative, establish and reinforce their military presence in the vital valley before Pakistan could, and resupply its lead forces. Without that initial use of air power, India would not have been able to make its timely intervention or sustain its operations in Kashmir. The bulk of the subsequent inconclusive fighting was done by India’s newly inherited ground forces. They secured ground lines of communication through Jammu to sustain the fight in the following months and pressed out of the valley to fight for control in the mountains until a ceasefire suspended hostilities.
Whereas India’s first conflict ended in stalemate, its second, against China in 1962, ended in a bruising defeat that casts a pall over Indian military thinking to this day.4Fighting to repel Chinese incursions on a broad front, the Indian Army once again was forced to engage in grueling infantry combat in high mountains. Indian doctrine, hardly deviating from the time of the Raj, dictated that its forces would be arrayed to defend the country in depth, stretching enemy lines before mounting a counteroffensive. The outer perimeter comprised small “penny packets” that were not mutually reinforcing and lacked the ability to plug losses or exploit gains, so China could make decisive shallow incursions with ineffectual Indian resistance.5 For Indian defenders, the parlous state of Indian roads up the steep escarpments made resupply tortuously slow and inefficient and greatly reduced the availability of artillery support. India used its air force for resupply but refrained from using air power to conduct offensive operations against Chinese forces, for fear of an unwanted escalation. Combat remained firmly fixed on the use of ground forces. The war was short, but India sustained a devastating loss, prompting major postwar changes in the Indian Army. In quick order, India committed fully to the orthodox offensive doctrine, almost doubling the size of its army in less than a decade and giving it virtually complete autonomy from political oversight over operational matters.
In 1965, war returned to Kashmir.7 For the first time, the Indian Army had the resource and terrain advantages to more faithfully execute its orthodox offensive doctrine. Pakistan’s initial bid to seize control of the divided territory used irregular forces, and India’s initial response was accordingly a security force and light-infantry effort. After Pakistan escalated the conflict with a combined-arms conventional attack in Jammu, India responded with a massive counterattack in Punjab. In terrain navigable by tanks, India deployed large, corps-sized formations featuring armor and artillery. According to Indian plans, this attack should have yielded massive penetrating firepower and maneuver to seize Pakistani territory and destroy its offensive forces. Despite this, most major maneuvers stalled within a week, and the two sides fell into a grinding tactical stalemate. India’s conventional offensive operations were stuck. India did use its air force in strike and close air support roles, but notwithstanding some high-profile engagements early in the war, air power’s impact was tactically marginal at best and strategically irrelevant. Despite the stalemate, this orthodox offensive doctrine would continue to dominate the Indian Army’s plans from 1965 to the present.
The pinnacle of India’s warfighting experience came in 1971, when India’s decisive victory split its archrival, Pakistan, in two, creating the new independent state of Bangladesh.8 India launched its massive invasion of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) after months of deliberate planning, mobilization, and shaping operations. The army’s operations displayed a virtuosity of combined-arms maneuver, including multiple deep penetrating attacks using highly mobile infantry, armor and artillery support, and a storied airborne drop. Aside from that airborne operation, a small heliborne river crossing, and some limited close air support, the Indian race to Dacca (now Dhaka) was again a ground force effort. The 1971 war also featured a naval dimension—although it amounted to a gallant sideshow with no impact on the outcome of the conflict. At no time before or since 1971 has India wielded its conventional military power so effectively: it used ground forces not only to achieve an operational decision but also to fundamentally reorder its strategic position against its primary competitor, Pakistan.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Indian Army became heavily engaged in multiple irregular conflicts. This included an expeditionary counterinsurgency in Sri Lanka in which—despite the irregular setting—the army persisted with tactics that were dominated by mass and firepower rather than more sophisticated unconventional warfare operations.9 The Indian army and paramilitaries also fought domestically in a decades-long Naxalite insurgency, in tribal insurgencies in the northeast, against the Khalistani Sikh separatist movement, and in a high-intensity Kashmir insurgency. In all these theaters, India’s defining strategic actions were large, manpower-intensive, ground force operations.
While the Indian Army labored with these irregular conflicts, it was also experimenting with a major push toward mechanization. Led by reform-minded former chiefs of army staff Krishna Rao and K. Sundarji, the Indian Army raised new mechanized infantry units equipped with armored personnel carriers and organized into fast-moving Reorganized Army Plains Infantry Divisions (RAPIDs). India’s three Strike Corps were assigned the wartime task of penetrating deep into Pakistan—that is, not only to capture borderlands but also to threaten key population centers and lines of communication. Sundarji’s reforms were inspired by the U.S. military’s maneuverist doctrine of AirLand Battle, which sought to take rapid offensive action deep into the enemy’s rear areas, to disrupt and paralyze the enemy force.10 For the Indian Army, these reforms were intended to increase the lethality and effectiveness of large conventional forces, enabling them to strike deep into enemy territory.11 In other words, by focusing on theater-level plans independent of the political context, and deep offensive action, they were designed to optimize—not rethink—the orthodox offensive doctrine. Sundarji sought to test the new capabilities in a massive multicorps combined-arms exercise on India’s western land border. The exercise, known as Brasstacks, triggered a months-long crisis that raised the specter of a major war.12 As the Brasstacks war scare showed, however, the army’s traditional autonomy from its political leaders—reinforced by a newer emphasis on the “operational level of war”—could also have strategic effects unintended and undesired by the political leadership.13
The last conventional war over Kashmir, in Kargil in 1999, was another failed bid by Pakistan to create a fait accompli by seizing land across the Line of Control.14 In this war, fought just one year after India and Pakistan had become declared nuclear powers, both sides sought to undertake limited ground action while controlling escalation. India famously deployed fighter aircraft in a close air support role, with the stipulation that they not cross the Line of Control. But their role was a marginal enabling function. Air support was hampered by an inability to target precision weapons—until the problem was partially rectified during the war—and a failure of army and air force staff to share campaign and targeting plans.15 The bulk of the fighting, occurring in the high mountains, was done by infantry that had reinforced Indian positions on the front. The Indian Army also raised readiness levels and forward deployed some formations elsewhere along the Line of Control and the international border, in preparation for escalation by either India or Pakistan. Indian troops fought doggedly to reclaim occupied territory, peak by peak, although ultimately the war was decided by U.S. diplomatic intervention compelling Pakistan to withdraw its forces.