Period: Apr – Jun 2020


India’s military planning will be severely challenged by the inevitable and adverse economic impact of COVID 19. It also exacerbates the long term and unresolved problem of competing demands for military modernisation being overwhelmed by inadequacies of financial resources. The silver lining in the situation is the recent creation of the CDS and the Department of Military Affairs (DMA). This is so because there is now greater institutional singularity in the form of the CDS being both a head of department in the MoD and the Permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (PC-COSC). The heavy lifting required to confront a worsening geopolitical situation with far less resources falls squarely on the shoulders of the newly established CDS. Fortunately, military leaders are naturally disposed to deal with crises and surely the matter must already be the topical issue behind the closed doors of the South Block. For certainly, with a huge dip in defence finances, the military should think, think, think and start with exertions in the intellectual ballroom of defence planning where stepping up and dealing with uncertainty is the form and the style.

The Intellectual Challenge

The main objective of intellectual exertions must be directed at evolving a military strategy that reconciles the available means with the demands of political ends. It must result in prioritisation and shelving of modernisation plans. Normatively, this process should be preceded by the issuance of political guidance delineating the political objectives that military planning must seek to achieve. The crystallising of political objectives must be done through an interaction between the civil and military leaders. But such an interaction can only be beneficial after the military has done its homework regarding the types of wars it should be prepared to fight which falls in the strategic domain but is also juxtaposed by exploring the operational issue of how should it fight? This conflated meta-question demands a Joint Services examination that should now become easier because of the CDS wearing two hats- one at the level of the MoD and the other at the Joint Services level.

Types of War

The traditional approach while seeking an answer to the meta-query would be to be prepared for the full range of contingencies that could encompass conventional, irregular and nuclear wars. Though this approach could still provide the guidance framework there is a need to review the linkages between the types of war and the political objectives.

Conventional war capability is the lynchpin of military effectiveness that is also fungible for irregular and nuclear wars. Notably, being a nuclear power and also confronting mainly nuclear adversaries in China and Pakistan, the utility of conventional capabilities is curtailed by the nuclear factor. The traditional notion of victory through the defeat of military forces and thereby the imposition of political will in decisive battles are no longer relevant. Instead the utilisation of force is limited by achievable political objectives. The deterrence role of conventional military power is politically the most significant and political objectives to be achieved if deterrence fails is arbitrated by issues at stake, and the risks political leaders are willing to take. This notion if applied to the Indian context could reveal to defence planners the type of military instruments that must be developed. The key concept is that defence planning must connect the instruments of military power to utility that is translated in political terms.

Concept Application

China: The perspective of military threats must relate to plausible political objectives of China. On the Northern borders, the most likely political objective could be the political embarrassment of India through seizure of disputed territory. The scale of this seizure could vary from Salami slicing to significant areas, like Tawang. Understandably, there can be several variations to China’s military exertions but it is unlikely that China would attempt to cross the Himalayas with a significant military force because despite technological progress, the Himalayas remain a formidable military obstacle that poses humungous logistic challenges to sustain any large force across it. Any large force that is stretched across the Himalayas would be logistically challenged and militarily vulnerable. This applies to both the countries.

In strategic terms, what should be evident is that India must develop the capacity to defend its northern borders in a manner that deters China from utilising limited military force that may bite but might not swallow. This evidently calls for an operational capability that is based on infantry and is supported by long range fire power that can also interdict its long line of communications. Infantry, artillery, missiles and air power must anchor such capability and where feasible pre-located within the holding Corps for speedy application.

The prevailing idea of raising a Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) to deter China does not lend itself to support the concept of political utility, for it can neither deter China from small scale actions nor can it be operationally applied as a whole to defend or seize territory. That would be so, due to terrain bottlenecks and would actually require three Strike Corps to be an effective deterrent[1]. Increase in brigade sized formations supported by fire power and nested in the holding corps would have much better political utility[2]. Dismantling the MSC and restructuring can result in substantial reduction in manpower and finances[3] but also would simultaneously improve military effectiveness against China. Savings in manpower and financial resources will however be possible only if additional resources required are sourced from the Pakistan front and not through additional accretion. This aspect is explained while examining the application of the concept to Pakistan.

The major potential of deterring China however lies in the maritime domain where the gift of geography provides India with the capability to control the Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) of the Indian Ocean. Developing India as a maritime power with a significant naval capacity should be axiomatic to defence planning. It is also the form of power that has maximum utility both in peace and war. In peace, it can provide security in keeping the SLOCs open and in war it can control them. China will certainly develop bases in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) but India’s geographic position gives it a significant advantage which can be achieved only if we choose to exploit it by developing naval capability. More importantly, strategic thinking must not become prey to this phase of national economic downturn, for even in conditions of severe financial crunch naval capabilities maybe delayed but not jettisoned for it takes the longest time to develop and even if it is the costliest to maintain.

Pakistan: The threat from Pakistan is primarily based on the instrument of terrorism and in an extreme case through a limited conventional offensive in collusion with China. India’s continental military instrument as presently structured with its offensive capability anchored in the three Strike Corps[4] that is poised to capture of territory which it is presumed will be used as the bargaining chip to prevent Pakistan from using terrorism as a tool of foreign policy. This is indeed questionable, as there is no guarantee that even if we capture large chunks of Pakistan’s territory and use it for a bargain, they will keep their word. Prudence will also indicate the costs of capturing large territory of a jihadised state. Also, considering the nuclear factor, the notion of capture of large chunks of territory and substantial destruction of the Armed Forces are military illusions that cannot pass the military and political smell tests. Military realities need to shape the political objectives and are confined to shallow land thrusts. However, the major operational thrust must rest on destruction through fire power especially the long-range fire power of artillery, missiles and air power. The power to cause pain must be the focus of defence preparedness, even though Pakistan will strike back as it will continue to exercise its free will. But this is the structural situation that the nuclear cloud has begotten – force exchange is contained geographically and in scope and the exchange itself is simply another round that is part of a permanent state of confrontation. In essence, there has to be shift of operational doctrine to destructive capability from capture of territory.

The doctrinal shift provides an opportunity to rebalance military power from the West to the North. For it is ironic, that even though China poses a bigger threat, India’s military capability is overly weighted towards the West and worse it is structured such that it has limited politically applicability. The dissolution of the MSC and restructuring of the Strike Corps in the West should facilitate rebalancing from the West to North. It provides a pathway inter alia, to deal with the necessity to cut manpower due to financial crunch and yet emerge militarily more effective on both fronts.


The utility of military force must be measured against the matrix of achievable political objectives. A global economic recession makes conflict more likely not less. India’s military instrument must be shaped to meet the challenge not merely by resorting to across the board budgetary cuts but through evolving a strategic approach that is focused on the political utility of application of force and which must guide prioritisation and shelving. The politico-military connection has remained a weak link in India. However, the CDS provides hope and the nation will be better served if military planning is better aligned to political objectives that are shaped by economic and military realities.

End note

[1] The border is more than 3000 kms and lateral movement is inhabited by terrain and poor infrastructure for transportation.

[2] This is already being implemented and should make the MSC irrelevant.

[3] The CCS sanctioned the MSC in 2013 involving additional manpower of nearly 90000 and including infrastructure costs, required one lakh crore. Its raising is ongoing though stalled due to budgetary constraints.

[4] There is an ongoing move of creating Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) based on Brigade/Division. The Strike Corps however retain its operational role of destruction of adversaries land forces and capture of territory.

Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd)


Source: The article first appeared on the website of the United Services Institution of India.