India & America: The Future of a Strategic Partnership

Third Annual Symposium, Center for International Security Studies, Princeton University, Nov 10-12, 2011

Nov 12

1st Session: “Military Challenges and Defense Cooperation”/Bharat Karnad

1)    State and trajectory of India-Pakistan military balance and the India-China military balance

The India-Pakistan military balance is an irrelevance. It has skewed the Indian strategic vision, policy, focus, and military effort resulting in India being over-prepared against the weaker adversary but under-prepared to tangle credibly with the main threat – China.  The India-China military equation matters but the imbalance in capabilities is serious, less because of any paucity of advanced air, land, and sea weapons platforms and systems in the Indian order-of-battle, than because of the lack of physical infrastructure to sustain war-fighting and maximize the effectiveness of modern armaments in Indian employ. The absence of a network of “9-tonner” border roads along the 4,000 km disputed border with China, for example, restricts India to defensive, positional warfare in the mountains along a built-up line of pre-positioned stores and supplies some 60-90 kms behind LAC (Line of Actual Control). Then again, construction of a border road network, after years of neglect, is being carried out with more urgency now. And a number of advanced landing grounds (ALGs) at Beg Oldi, Nyoma, and Thoise, are being refurbished to enable both fighter aircraft and heavy transport planes, such as C-17, to operate off them. But, a constellation of surveillance satellites for 24/7 real-time coverage of land and sea approaches, and of target tracking and guidance capable satellites to home the missiles and airborne and seaborne guided munitions to the desired over-the-horizon and distant impact points, is behind schedule.

More salient is the balance of capabilities in case of a Sino-Pakistani operational link-up, a fairly remote scenario because it assumes India-Pakistan and India-China relations will plummet simultaneously to a point where military hostilities become imminent. Even so, the Indian Army has plans for a two front war. Insufficient forces for offensive warfare to enable fighting on the Tibetan plateau, — with two new offensive-tasked mountain Divisions plus two more Divisions under raising  – means that while the army will fight a holding operation in the north and east with the four new Divisions  beefing up the Indian defensive line manned by the existing 10 Divisions, an offensive war will be waged against Pakistan. To do more than just blunt determined PLA thrusts, a minimum of 9-13 Divisions are needed to prosecute meaningful and sustained offensive actions against China, even as serious dissuasion will be offered the PLA were atomic demolition munitions (ADMs) to be placed along likely avenues of Chinese ingress. ADMs will at once make the defensive tasks less onerous and, more emphatically deter China from a conventional military adventure alone or in cahoots with Pakistan.

In the two-war context, other than the distraction factor, the situation will not advantage Pakistan much, because eight Indian independent armor/mechanized battle groups for initial forays and three strike corps for follow-up actions will still be there for its army to contend with.  A realistic assessment in this situation is that India will likely fight both China and Pakistan to an impasse, with increasingly greater military and national effort being mustered against China to deal with the bigger, more potent, threat.

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The burdens of counter-insurgency on the Indian Army and its impact on its war-fighting role.

The continuous counter-insurgency (CI) operations the Indian Army has been involved in since Independence, first in the seven North-East provinces and, since 1989,  in Jammu& Kashmir (and, in the future, perhaps, against the Maoists in the so-called “red corridor” stretching from Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Jharkand to the Nepal border) is the best thing that could have happened to the Indian land forces. It has resulted in an army, blooded in actual and sustained combat, remaining sharp and in fighting trim, and emerging as second to none in counter-insurgency  and anti-guerilla warfare. This is all to the good. The harsh “live fire” training and experience of fighting mujahideen in the mountains of Kashmir and rebels in the North-East, moreover, has been widely acquired, not by a few specialized units, but by the bulk force, with mainline infantry units rotating through counter-insurgency tasks and led by young officers from all arms (and not exclusively combat arms – infantry, armored/mechanized, artillery). The officers, the intermediate strata of Junior Commissioned officers, and the common soldier, as a consequence, have alike become operationally more versatile across the conflict spectrum and better suited to man the “dual-purpose” Divisions in the “pivot corps” (holding formations) deployed in the west that can be rapidly switched, without need for retraining, etc., to the eastern theater to tackle the Chinese. Despite these obvious benefits, the army top brass nevertheless continue to oppose the deployment of the army to CI and, more generally, “aid-to civil” tasks.

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2)    Indian Air Force’s perception of its role in future conflicts.

IAF is the most schizophrenic of the Indian Armed Services. Despite the “strategic” medium it operates in and its professed doctrine of “aero-space power”, and an advanced aircraft inventory and support wherewithal, it has remained a singularly non-strategic-minded Service, preferring short-legged aircraft to strategic capability. Thus, infamously, in 1971 when it was offered the Tu-22 ‘Backfire’ strategic bomber, it opted for the medium range MiG-23BN instead. Its senior echelon spouts the rhetoric of air power as decisive in modern war – something in vogue since the 1st Gulf War in the 1990s, but, not yet, with any great conviction. Ironically, the record of the USAF in that war has reinforced IAF’s traditional antipathy for ground attack missions in support of land forces while emphasizing air superiority and strike roles. Even with a whole new bunch of sophisticated combat aircraft that are already in the air order-of-battle — 100 each of Mirage 2000 & MiG-29, 250-300 Su-30MKI, and the aircraft that will be inducted in the next decade  -– 126-200 Rafale/Eurofighter MMRCA and 250-300 Su-50 PAK/AF Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), the new Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, recently declared the IAF conceived of no “expeditionary role”, even though the Defence minister AK Antony has approved precisely this role for the Indian military, telling a conference of senior naval brass in mid-October 2011 that the Indian navy was “mandated” to be “net security provider for island nations in the Indian Ocean region”. But in a recent conversation ACM Browne explained to me that it was more rhetorical caution on his part because of what he claims are negative connotations of  the word “expeditionary”, and that the IAF as a “strategic” AF is ready for missions to protect Indian pol-mil and economic interests even in distant locations.

However, in the wake of the security cooperation accord signed recently, especially with Afghanistan and Vietnam, the Indian military may be compelled to think and act strategic. For one, the Ainee base in Tajikistan will now be refurbished and will act the forward post in Central Asia, hosting as much as a squadron of Su-30s. These will also be useful for possible action in case of  Pakistan-China operational military link-up. But IAF is still to obtain a full-fledged strategic habit of mind. Even with a fleet of 6-7 Il-78 MK aerial tankers and another six in the process of being acquired, IAF has still not permanently positioned a consequential force fraction – a minimum of 1-2 squadron(s) of Su-30s plus a tanker — on the Grand Nicobar island airfield, as part of the Integrated Andaman Command, to dissuade the PLAAF Su-27s from Hainan straying too far from home field. Certainly, a couple of Su-30 squadrons will be better employed out in the Andaman Sea than, as presently is the case, deployed on the mainland at the Kalaikunda AFB in West Bengal, and two squadrons earmarked for against Pakistan with the South-Western Air Command. Currently, 3-4 Su-30s pull short, three month, stints on Car Nicobar, except this air base has still to fully recover from the ravages of the tsunami. Rebuilding an upgraded  infrastructure to host a much larger Su-30 fleet is underway.

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3)    The kind of navy India is likely to build and its implications for the Indian Ocean region

By 2030, the Indian naval plans envisage a 150 ship strong navy, with 50 major combatants — aircraft carriers, stealth missile destroyers, and multi-role frigates. With three carriers, each able to carry a mix of around 12-16 combat aircraft (MiG-29K) and multi-role helicopters plus the aircraft in reserve, the Indian naval aviation strength, afloat and on-shore, will total some 150 fixed wing and rotary aircraft, including the existing squadron of navalised Jaguar low level strike aircraft, belonging to IAF, that will be upgraded with new nav/attack systems and missiles. With the entry of five large tankers/replenishment ships, the tanker to capital ship ratio – a metric for judging the ability to carry out blue water missions on sustained basis, will be an acceptable 1:5. It’ll have a substantial expeditionary capability as well with 6 Landing Platform Dock (LPDs) and some eight LSUs (Landing Ship Utility), among other amphibious warfare assets. For sea denial, some 20 diesel submarines will be available and, for the strategic deterrence mission, 6 SSBNs and another 6 SSNs.

Defense Minister AK Antony recently informed the navy that it was “mandated” to be “the net security provider for island nations in the Indian Ocean region.” But whether the navy’s strength of 50 capital ships will be enough  for it simultaneously to be the gendarme keeping peace and order in the Indian Ocean basin, undertake anti-piracy missions, be responsible for coastal security, aggressively contain the fast-growing Chinese Navy to east of Malacca, and protect Indian oil assets in the sea territory claimed by Vietnam and farther afield, is questionable.  It also remains to be seen if the Indian government and the Indian navy will muster the will to establish a near permanent flotilla-sized forward presence based in the Vietnamese port of Nha Trang, where the Indian Navy was recently  accorded rights by Hanoi, with ships rotating out of the Andaman Command and the main Eastern and Western Fleets, and develop the Mauritian island of Agalega as full-fledged naval base to establish Indian naval presence in the western Indian Ocean.

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4)    The trajectory of India’s missile and nuclear programs

The trajectory of the missile program is fine, but absent resumption of open-ended iterative explosive testing of various designs and types of fusion weapon designs, the business end of the thermonuclear armaments will always remain of unproven quality and, the nuclear deterrent will be inherently unreliable. This fact means that India will test again sometime in the future – the only question being “when”. In other words,  India can get a nuclear weapon on to target with fair bit of accuracy at extreme range with the Agni series of ballistic missiles, but without any guarantee that the high yield thermonuclear warheads in the nosecone or as glide bombs dropped by aircraft, will work as they are supposed to. This fact majorly undermines the credibility of the country’s deterrence posture, especially against China with its standard issue warhead of 1 MT yield on the DF-21 Mod 2s, among other missiles, targeted at India.

The Brahmos supersonic cruise missile, along with its air-launched and sea-borne variants – all three able to carry both conventional and nuclear ordnance, will permit considerable operational flexibility. A couple of regiments each are already deployed, per press reports, in the mountains facing Chinese PLA concentrations in Tibet, and opposite Pakistan in the Thar-Cholistan desert sector. With a hypersonic version, which is under development, the Brahmos will be a truly formidable weapon.

The rail-mobile versions of the Agni missile are being limited to the two missile trains already plying, with the preference being accorded, for good reasons, to the Agni IRBMs based in a series of well-stocked tunnel complexes excavated in the Himalayan mountain ranges – an option that renders these missiles virtually invulnerable. An Indian ICBM is into its development stage and will be ready for first test-firing by next year, assuming the Indian government okays it. Many of the Indian missiles are MARV-ed, but the MIRVing technology, while developed many years back, is on the shelf, ready for testing and only awaits the go-ahead from government. An indigenous ballistic missile defense (BMD) system covering the National Capital Region is expected to be operational in a few years time. There have so far been three successful test-firings of the interceptor missiles. A slight rejig of this BMD, and it is transformed into an anti-satellite weapon system.

The first of the Arihant-class SSBNs is undergoing harbor trials, will go to sea trials in 2012, and be inducted into service by 2013 or so. Two more Boats in this class will are under construction. A project for additional three SSBNs of more advanced design is expected to soon follow.

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5)    India’s capacity to project power outside South Asia over next 10-20 years

India, was among only 5 countries in the world, to have power projection capabilities in 1945 with two air-borne Divisions. These Divisions were, however, demobilized – the result of extreme strategic myopia of the army Generals in the early years after Independence – all of them essentially ramped up Brigadiers and senior Colonels, with little experience of strategy-making. But the army is a tested professional force that has been providing substantial peacekeeping forces for the UN – whose mission-roles may be regarded as peaceful-expeditionary. In Congo, Indian army peacekeepers have engaged in successful military operations against regime opponents. Elsewhere, the 108 Infantry Brigade is tasked for amphibious warfare and assigned permanently to the Integrated Andaman Command.  The army has an infantry Division-sized force to spare for out-of-area employment. It may be recalled that in 2003, an Indian army Division almost embarked on the defense of Kirkuk in Iraq at the US Government’s request, but which deployment fell through for whatever reasons. There are also some 10 battalions of Special Forces (SFs) with the army, including three paratroop battalions, that can be used as the cutting edge of an expeditionary or power projection capability requiring on-shore presence, and an additional battalion each with the navy (Marine Commandos) and the Air Force (‘Garud’ SF) for distant operations.

The Indian navy now has some four large tankers/provisions ships (and one in the pipeline), substantially increasing the reach of its major surface combatants — the aircraft carriers – the aging Vikrant alongside Vikramaditya (ex-Gorshkov) joining service in 2012, and stealth multi-role missile frigates and missile destroyers, increasingly with CODOG propulsion, totaling some 50 capital ships by 2030 and a fleet of maritime reconnaissance and strike aircraft – Il-76s and 4 P-8Is (with another four on order).

The range and mission sustainability and the punch of the IAF’s combat aircraft fleet – Mirage 2000, Su-30, MMRCA, FGFA, will be increased considerably with the augmentation of its aerial tanker fleet from the present six aircraft to 18 by the end of this decade, and the addition of some 14-15 AWACS in all, including 4-5 of the limited capability being developed using the Brazilian Embraer platform.

Indeed, with the Indian government, apparently, sanctioning an expeditionary policy, the three Services can be expected quickly to follow up by fleshing out plans for joint expeditionary and distant missions in the arc Simonstown-Singapore, with possibly a forward naval and air presence in the South China Sea at Nha Trang, Vietnam (where Hanoi has recently accorded Indian Navy basing rights) and in Agalega. All these capabilities combined with the sizeable amphibious warfare clout that’s being obtained and the navy’s extant fleet of 16 corvettes bristling with SSMs, will enable India impressively to project power, particularly in the Indian Ocean littoral.

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6)    The prospects for Indo-US cooperation in defense matters, e.g., naval, intelligence, weapons systems development and procurement

If the criteria for judging the degree, depth and scale of Indo-US strategic cooperation is narrowly legalistic, with cooperation judged in terms of whether or not India signs, CISMOA (Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum Agreement), BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperative Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation) and LSA (Logistics Support Agreement), then the prospects are bleak because India is unlikely, anytime soon, to sign these agreements – much as these may be desirable  from the military efficacy point of view –something readily acknowledged, especially by senior Air Force and Naval officers. The main concerns about LSA, for instance, is the need to designate ports and bases where the US would set up its logistical infrastructure, which, as MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) sees it, raises issues of sovereignty, and about CISMOA that it involves establishing backward linkages to the heart of the secure Indian Services’communications systems and networks. Given a fundamental mistrust about the US and the fear that such linkages will permit the US to penetrate and potentially disrupt and subvert the intra and inter Service communications setup and the military’s communications with the Ministry of Defense and other agencies of the Government of India,  involving extremely sensitive information, data, etc, it is something that sits ill with the requirements of national security. Thus, a “strategic partnership” with the United States, based on the signing of such accords, is a politically hot-button issue and even a BJP-led NDA coalition regime, were it to return to power in 2014, will be loath to expend scarce political capital on overcoming political opposition to it.

The prospects, therefore, are for the two countries to carry on as they have done since the First Gulf War. American aircraft will continue to refuel at Indian air fields, US naval ships to berth and replenish freely at Indian ports, and US armed services regularly to exercise with their Indian counterparts, along the way building up mutual respect, trust and confidence, but without any of this activity creating much of a political stir. While popular support in India for changing the status quo may be lacking, there’s enough support for Delhi to continue with its ad hoc policy of military cooperation and collaboration with the US. In other words, there’s already a “strategic partnership” and the US desire to formalize and give it legal form may only create political discomfort and disruption in Delhi without fetching any positive results.

Joint Indo-US R&D in weapons systems, if properly planned and pursued by the two countries, has the potential for gaining America tremendous goodwill, approval and support for vastly improved bilateral relations and military cooperation, and who knows, even for signing CISMOA, LSA, etc. Russia is still benefitting from its Cold War-era role as the main supplier to the Indian military of advanced equipment (whatever the cost, quality, and spares-servicing support problems Indian user Services may have ended up experiencing).

A more relevant recent example is the manner in which Israel has rapidly climbed up the charts as a reliable source of military hardware and advanced technologies. Its willingness, moreover, unstintingly to transfer even the most sophisticated military technology and to join in sensitive Indian projects has won for Israel quite considerable respect and trust in India. Indeed, so successful has this trend been, Israeli defense sector Companies are now actively exploring avenues of cross-investment and equity sharing arrangements, involving the Indian defense industry, both public sector and private sector. Such linkages have rapidly consolidated Israel’s military political-military presence and influence, especially in Indian military circles and inside the government. And within the Indian society, the positive impression created by Israel  (also by its outreach programs, such as familiarizing Indian agriculturists with hydroponic farming and transferring relevant technology, etc.) has rendered  the “Indian Muslim” factor in Indian domestic politics, that previously held a veto on relations with Israel, irrelevant and beyond the pale of political criticism. And, no small point this, defense trade with India has generated enormous profits for the Israeli defense industry.

For the United States, the Israeli model of building a close military-industrial relationship without much drum-beating, may be worth exploring and  emulating. And now, with the Indian government finally and belatedly recognizing that for the Indian defense industry to survive, the Indian private sector will have to be majorly involved, this may be the right time for major American defense firms to put down roots by linking up with reputed Indian corporations stepping into the defense industrial sector.

7)    Important factors in the short-listing and selection of the MMRCA

Briefly, the context: For the US Companies in the fray – Lockheed and Boeing, selling India F-16 or F-18 was never all that crucially important a deal, it was ultimately a secondary market concern. For Dassault and EADS, on the other hand, the Indian sale virtually will decide whether France can anymore afford to produce combat aircraft, and whether the European consortium’s first and last foray into the combat aircraft business will be remotely profitable. With so much riding on the sale, it was natural that France and the Europeans would put out more, sweeten the deal in ways the US suppliers and US government simply cannot or wouldn’t. It essentially means India is in a position to extract a lot more, per the Indian offsets policy, even in technology areas unrelated to the aircraft in question. The recent offer of the Joint Strike Fighter to IAF, has not changed this situation.

With the criterion, moreover, being the level of combat aircraft technology offered, the US Companies stumbled at the very first hurdle. The US handicapped itself by offering upgraded versions of essentially late Sixties weapons platforms that, in design terms, are at the end of their tether. Even with the JSF F-35 in the fray, there’s unlikely to be a rethink of the MMRCA shortlist both because it will delay the acquisitions process and because there’s no guarantee cutting edge technologies, like the Block 3 systems software, will be included in the package the US nor that these will be transferred to India in toto, including the source codes. This is in contrast to the French and the European consortium that are prepared to hold nothing back.

Rafale has the edge because it already has the ground attack role configured into the aircraft with its on-board AESA radar. The Eurofighter is slightly handicapped by the fact that it was originally designed for continental air defense, with the ground attack role being an after-thought. Reason why EADS is still working on an AESA radar and expects to rely on Indian monies to finance its full development. Moreover, time delay and performance uncertainty concerning the Typhoon AESA radar favors Rafale.

In other respects, there’s parity. EADS partner, BAE Systems, has promised India its Taurus turbofan cruise missile as part of the Eurofighter package. The French have allowed India to choose any missile now in its inventory or under development to outfit the Indian Rafale. Dassault will also likely match the EADS scheme of establishing R&D centers in India and use it to source new combat aircraft and avionics technologies for the EADS Eurofighter and other underway programs. But where France will likely win out is that it can offer cooperation in other strategic areas, that EADS is in no position to provide.

Throughout the MMRCA selection process, the Indian government took care to pacify the US and Russia for losing out in the MMRCA sweepstakes by purchasing six C-17s (with six more in the process of being ordered) and the C-130Js, and agreeing, in effect, to subsidize the full development of the Russian Su-50 PAK/AF FGFA.

This entry was posted in Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Navy, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East, Strategic Relations with the US & West. Bookmark the permalink.

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