What the Indian military should be doing in COVID times


[Indonesian Navy officers at the jetty in Surabaya to welcome INS Rana, Nov 2018]

Hard for one’s admiration for China’s single-minded drive to at all times advance its strategic interests come rain or shine or the corona virus, to not grow by leaps and bounds. Nothing diverts Beijing and the Chinese military in particular from flexing its muscle, asserting its rights and claims, and seeking to frighten the local opposition to get out of its way in a region it intends to dominate absolutely. Even as that country is fighting the COVID menace successfully — and why not? It created the corona bio-weapon, lost control over it, regained it, mounted an integrated scientific effort to tame it and will likely be the first to patent a vaccine and make oodles of money out of its sales worldwide — the PLA Navy did not forget its mission.

Two new “districts” were announced by Beijing a few days back to administer several rocky outcroppings that are being fashioned into man-made islands with dredged up sand, etc. in the disputed but appropriately named Mischief Reef area which Beijing claims in its entirety. Around the same time and a little to the west, a Chinese survey ship accompanied by an armed Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessel contested a Malaysian ship drilling for valuable seabed minerals within Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Simultaneously, a large Vietnamese boat fishing offshore was rammed by a CCG corvette. But, last week when three US warships (America with a F-35B complement onboard, missile cruiser Bunker Hill, and missile destroyer Barry) in an expeditionary task group (detached from the carrier task force headed by the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which lies anchored mid-Pacific in Guam owing to a coronavirus infected crew) turned up in the South China Sea in what is described as “security and stability operations”. And it exercised with an Australian warship (HMAS Parmatta), prompting Beijing sanctimoniously to urge the US and Australia to please “not disturb the peace” in the region! That’s chutzpah for you!

Beijing has turned such acts of brazen territorial annexation mixed with a wagging of fingers at out-of-area powers daring to register their presence, into high statecraft. These Chinese actions are carried out so smoothly and with an attitude of such utmost conviction and routine-ness, hardly any one notices they are irregular, illegal and contrary to international norms and leave the poor littoral states with nothing to do than protest in vain.

So the militaries of the countries that matter in the Indo-Pacific are not doing nothing, haven’t locked down themselves into inactivity. What about the Indian armed forces though, what are they up to?

The army, admirably, has done well in the anti-COVID-19 fight, putting up all manner of facilities for sequestering corona-infected people, making available its medical staff, etc. As the senior and the largest of the uniformed services, the army, however, has serious problems as regards its personnel. Training courses have been cancelled, the transfers of officers postponed, and to minimize the exposure to the C-virus annual leave-taking has been delayed. Officers nominated to attend the Staff College at Wellington and various higher command courses — stepping stones to promotion, etc. but unable now to do so will be hugely affected, their upward progress and the process suddenly disrupted. The Military Secretary in Army HQrs tasked with the career management of officers will, perhaps, for the first time in the army’s history earn his keep, as he struggles to come up with metrics for promotion that are fair and, importantly, are seen to be fair. The new scheme may end up inadvertently victimizing a few officers or even an entire cohort with the push from below, from the next year’s batch of officers in training courses and so on. This to say, the promotion ladder will become steeper still for these unfortunates.

Then there’s the other problem with the stand-still arrangement in place. Can officers, JCOs, NCOs and jawans in presently forward-based units be kept in place beyond the usual 2-year rotational stints, and can the lower ranks be denied home leave, and with what effect on their morale and the fighting quality of the unit? Further, the army will need to compulsorily isolate everyone returning to forward units from leave for 14-days. This will mean that at any given time all the forward units will be under-strength in terms of the personnel on leave and those held in the wards prior to re-induction and hence unable to serve on the frontline.

Nevertheless, to show it is no slouch at fingering Pakistan — the only and the easiest way it seems to get into the good books of the Narendra Modi government, the army has been busy keeping the western border live, or that’s what Pakistani newspapers report. No period has been as busy as the present, complains Pak army’s DG, ISPR (Inter-Services Public Relations) to its Press in terms of Indian artillery firings, small cross-LoC ops, sniper shootings, etc. The front with China, on the other hand, is ho-hum peaceable with all parties, including China and PLA having a stake in keeping things quiet on the LAC in the north and northeast. This last suits the Indian army well because it lacks the wherewithal, other than for defensive actions including, presumably, pushing-shoving matches a’la Dok La 2017. No chance here of cross-LAC artillery duels, snipers picking off targets of opportunity, and small team incursions to beat up on straying, unsuspecting PLA soldiers.

The Indian Air Force strives hard to offer no provocation to China. Even so there’s the occasional news report of an Indian MiG-29 or Su-30 going down with no clue as to why the fighter plane did so, or what happened. It is always possible with sorties out of Tezpur and other satellite fields launched to familiarize Indian pilots with the mountainous terrain and to get them to operate in some comfort that PLA rockets, guns, missiles slaved to surveillance, tracking and targeting radars have struck Indian combat aircraft. Not, mind you, that IAF has ever acted on this premise and suspicion and responded accordingly. All its vim and venom seems reserved for the western front.

The Indian Navy has reported several cases of corona-hit naval personnel. Social distancing and other measures while being practiced ashore are impractical in the confined spaces of surface combatants and, more so, submarines. COVID apart, the navy can’t lose sight of its operational tasks. At any given time, there is at least one flotilla sailing in the blue water. The trouble is most such short Indian naval deployments are off Aden and in the Gulf region generally, with the seas east of the Malacca, Lumbok and Sunda Straits, by comparison, being ignored even though it is there the navy can do the most strategic good. All the political rhetoric of meeting the Chinese threat head on, preferably collectively, and MILAN and bilateral exercises, such as the November 2018 Op Samudra Shakti with the Indonesian Navy off Surabaya notwithstanding, Indian flotillas showing flag in the South China Sea are a relative rarity. Sure, an exercise was conducted in May 2018 with Vietnam and, under a new cooperation scheme, another a year later in April 2019 in Cam Ranh Bay. But one hopes COVID isn’t the excuse for not having a third such exercise very soon this year.

Mutual unfamiliarity may require more time for preparation and planning of joint exercises. But this fact alone reveals that neither the Indian government nor the Indian Navy have acted with any sense of urgency in investing in close relations, besides the Vietnam and Singapore navies, with the Southeast Asian littoral navies, and linking up with them at the institutional level. In fact, the underway training programmes with Vietnam, such as joint exercises, training submarine crews and inducting the supersonic Brahmos cruise missiles, could be the template for intense naval cooperation with the other Southeast Asian states as well. These could be supplemented by the Malabar exercises (with US, Japanese navies) in the area and joint “sail throughs” in the South China Sea by warships from several countries. Indian, Japanese, American and Philippine ships did this in May 2019.

Brahmos, I have long argued, is the patented Chinese warship killer and the decisive weapon that uniquely will have a power multiplier effect for India when dispersed to friendly Southeast Asian countries in China’s backyard. Because then the entire South China Sea will be become hazardous for China’s most powerful South Sea Fleet as well as its so-called ‘secret’ fleet meant for the Indian Ocean, both headquartered in the Sanya naval base on Hainan Island. This requires the Indian government and naval brass to prioritize, as I have been pleading with the highest in the land for the last 25 years or so, to expeditiously equip all of the littoral and island nation navies with the Brahmos. Indeed, Brahmos-armed Indonesian, Philippine, Malaysian surface combatants and shore batteries along with their Vietnamese counterparts could, between them, compel the much touted Hainan-based fleets to stay locked up in Sanya and, in case they ventured into deeper waters, to carve ’em up.

The value of the Brahmos with Southeast Asian nations is a strategic prong Delhi for incomprehensible reasons has been unconscionably slow to appreciate. The other two prongs are megaton yield thermonuclear forces (discussed at length in my books) and the regularization of the Indian naval presence in the South China Sea with a flotilla formally and permanently deployed in-area with ships and crews rotated out of basing arrangements in Singapore, Cam Ranh Bay, Subic Bay (Philippines) and Sabang (Indonesia) as part of the new geostrategic grouping — the “Modified Quadrilateral” or “Mod Quad” of India, Japan, group of Southeast Asian states, and Australia that India should put together (detailed in my latest book — Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition). Having Indian warships on South China Sea station showing the flag 24/7 365 days, and sporting the fighting attitude that Admiral DK Joshi, when he was CNS, hinted at when he declared that any attempt by the Chinese Navy to do anything untoward will be met with force, will alone convince Beijing not to trifle with India.

Moreover, only with the above described three-pronged trishul in hand will India and Modi’s “Mamallapuram spirit” (ex-his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in December 2019) acquire potency. The rest is so much gas that Delhi usually vents and is of little account.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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36 Responses to What the Indian military should be doing in COVID times

  1. PRASAD says:

    Mr. karnad did you watch or read what David icke says about the Coronavirus conspiracy? Its available in London real (youtube has removed it) where he elaborates the 5g coronavirus connection and so on. China, a fascist technocracy is a hardly a model for India to follow. It is really shocking what Chinese regime nd western elite are upto these days.I would love to know your opinion on this.


    Another wonderful article by Mr. karnad. Sir I completely understand your lamentations. In my belief it is India’s hangover from 1971 war. I believe India has become completely complacent because of our victory over Pakistan in that war. Our world had been fixated with that. Apart from a handful of military veterans most of our military generals still are living in awe with that event and they seem to have forgotten that half a century has passed since then. (Our poor performances in Kargill and Balakot as well as our failure to control the insurgency in Kashmir are just small manifestations of this particular mindset.) Until and unless we receive a big defeat in military or political sphere (something equivalent to losing Bangladesh for Pakistan or the US losing Iran in the Islamic revolution) we are unlikely to wake up from our slumber.

    I would love your feedback on my analysis.

  3. Rohit Itadkar says:

    Did we really transferred Brahmos to Vietnam? I know there was news about it couple of years ago but was never confirmed. Also, Philippines navy is slated to get Brahmos later this year.

  4. V.Ganesh says:

    Why doesn’t the IAF cock a snook at China by conducting flights over Lop Nor like we once did with Pakistan by flying the MiG-25 Foxbat. I know once we told the Chinese to back off otherwise we’d bomb Lop Nor. I don’t understand why the Indian Armed Forces are reluctant to take on China. The majority of Indian and Chinese military hardware is of Soviet/Russian origin and in Chinese case unlicensed copies of Soviet/Russian hardware like the PLAAF’s J-series jets.

    • That’s news to me that we ever threatened China with Lop Nor bombing.

      • V.Ganesh says:

        I think I read about it in Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark’s book. It’d be good. Bomb Lop Nor. Let the Chinese suffer from the nuclear radiation fallout for occupying Tibet and know that India is not to be messed with.

    • V.Ganesh says:

      Do you think we’ve an edge over China because like them we use Soviet/Russian-origin military hardware and knowing the enemy is like almost half the war won?

      • Except China has vastly improved on its ex-Russian armaments while India is where it’s always been — marching in place (with license manufacture galore).

  5. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Hi Bharat Sir….Sir do you think that govt has done the right thing in curbing some defence budget which will definitely impact the modernisation of forces?? I agree that pandemic has drastically impacted the economy, but govt should have maintained a balance b/w defence and economic recovery. Hence curbing defence budget doesn’t sound good.
    What do you say in this regard sir??

    Also, what should be India’s strategy against Chinese use of bio weapon? Should India also retaliate with same weapon against China??

  6. devraj says:

    Sir. America crushed Japan after the Pearl Harbour attack. 50000 Americans have been killed due to China’s coronavirus. Why does the US not crush China?

  7. Bharat kumar says:

    Our kalpakkam fast breeder reactor soon to achieve criticality…. Showing modi govt keen to complete bhana 3 stage programme and would that mean no more imports of american and French nuclear reactors???

  8. ARINDAM BORA says:

    Sir, what do you think is the rationale behind the aggressive Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea? I mean by claiming the entire SCS as it’s maritime territory China has opened up multiple fronts with the distinct possibility of all of these fronts coalescing into an informal alliance against China. In the SCS dispute the Chinese have antagonized Vietnam, Phillipines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan (which China claims is a runaway province) and also made possible for the US to increase it’s involvement in the power politics of the region further. China also has maritime territorial disputes with South Korea and Japan.

    However if one would care to look at it from a different angle, this outward thrusting strategy of the PRC backed by it’s naval expansion has put all its adversaries on the backfoot. China for all intent and purpose has succeeded in extending it’s control over the SCS, apart from the odd US Freedom of Navigation (FoN) operation. Chinese claims over the SCS, it’s construction of islands and it’s military coercion against the ASEAN countries as well impingement over there sovereign maritime borders have over time come to be seen as the ‘new normal’. I am afraid that aside form some mild condemnation and statement about FoN, the international community might over time internalize the status quo created by these unilateral actions of the Chinese. The economic dependence of the ASEAN and East Asian countries on China too gives Beijing further leverage over them. While the fallout from any conflict-like situation will impact both sides, the Chinese economy by dint of it’s sheer size will be able to absorb such pressure, but the same cannot be said about the other parties. They might also be reluctant to confront China because they are not confident of US military support.

    A permanent Indian naval presence west of the Malacca; what benefit would it provide us with? We can transfer the Brahmos missile but beyond that there’s not much we can do. It’s not like at this moment we are in a position to confront the PLAN in that region. The PLAN is at a disadvantage when it comes to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) but post 1962 the Chinese have established such psychological ascendancy over the Indian psyche that even with their extremely limited deployment (8 to 10 vessels) capability in the IOR they can dare to intrude into India’s EEC, dock at the Colombo Port (although a second such request was not granted by Sri Lanka), train with Pakistan in the Arabian Sea etc. The hydrographic survey of the seabed points towards a sinister design. To put it bluntly, they know India is afraid of confronting them, can at best adopt a defensive position and the Indian establishment is slow and it’s acumen not as sharp as the Chinese when it comes strategic issues. If the strategy is to carry out an encirclement of China in it’s own backyard, it will require all the regional powers to be onboard. At this moment the ASEAN is beholden to China much more than they are to India.

    We can attempt to pressurize China in the SCS but they gave far greater means and political will to pressurize us through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, border incursions and also on international forums on issues like Jammu, Kashmir & Ladakh and to be honest it does so regularly. I understand there is a need for an assertive Indian response instead of perenially being on the defensive and remaining off-balance, but the problem is the real, acute disparity in terms of hard power between the two countries.

  9. ARINDAM BORA says:

    The air launched version of the Brahmos integrated with the Su 30MKI weights 2.5 tonnes. At present the Su 30MKI can carry only such missile. Brahms Aerospace is working in developing the Brahmos NG, which would weigh around 1.5 tonnes thereby enabling multiple missile to be carried onboard the Sukhoi as well as by the MiG 29 and Tejas. Along with the NG version an air-to-air launched variant is also under development. For that however they would need to decrease the weight of the Brahmos to around 500 kg or even further if it is to integrated into single engine fighters like the LCA or MK2 MWF.

    Work on the hypersonic capable 500+ km range Brahmos-II is also being done if reports in the media are to be believed. However there are no clear timelines and I don’t think that currently DRDO has the capability to develop it without Russian assistance. The Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV) project is still in it’s early stages and if it matures technologies from that project such as materials capable of withstanding the heat and stress of hypersonic flight, thermal coatings etc. can be utilised in the Brahmos project. For the propellent however it seems Russian assistance would be indispensable.

    • The smaller, lighter, Brahmos NG (new generation) in the works for a while now will be the ideal fit for Tejas.

      • ARINDAM BORA says:

        Yes Sir, the NG variant would be integrated on the Tejas (MK1A) or the MWF. However since they are unlike the Sukhois single engine fighters they can at best (my guess) carry 2 Brahmos NG and the aircraft being configured for integration of the Brahmos means they won’t be a part of IAF’s air combat fleet.
        The focus at present does seem to be on the development of the NG more than on the Brahmos-II.

        Sir, is it true that Russia is not enthusiastic about the joint development of the hypersonic variant even at a time when they themselves are working on multiple hypersonic systems like the Tsirkon/Zircon, air-launched Kinzhal and Avangarad glide vehicle. India had also earlier funded the development of the KS-172 Novator long range air-to-air missile. Is it operational with the IAF, sir?
        N.B.- Apologies for any typos that might have crept into the comment. Writing from a mobile often leads to those.

      • Russia’s reluctance is because of the weakening bilateral strategic links, which can be corrected if Delhi again equipoised India’s relations with the US and Russia.

      • ARINDAM BORA says:

        Yes Sir, the Brahmos NG would be integrated on the Tejas and the Medium Weight Fighter (MWF). However since they are single engine fighters they can at best carry two Brahmos NG. Also the integration of the Brahmos on the fighter means that those fighters have been designated specific strike roles and won’t be a part of IAF’s air combat fleet. The air-to-air variant it seems is still very much work in progress.

        Sir, is it true that the Russians are not willing to collaborate on the development of the Brahmos II hypersonic cruise missile even they themselves are developing multiple such systems. The Tsirkon/Zircon, Kinzhal air-launched missile and Avangarad hypersonic glide vehicle. India as far as I know does not have the hypersonic wind tunnel testing facilities required for development work of hypersonic systems. Did we utilize the facilities of any other country (probably Russia) for the development of the Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV) which was tested in mid 2019?
        Is the KS-172 whose development was funded by India operational with the IAF?

      • ARINDAM BORA says:

        Hasn’t such a repositioning already taken place especially since 2018? Despite all the efforts of both governments, arms trade is still the defining element of the bilateral relationship. With the S400 deal, Grigorovich class frigates deal, T90 deal, Igla-deal and many others in the pipeline Russia has again emerged as the largest arms supplier to India with daylight between it and other suppliers.
        India’s pursuing of closer ties with the US is it’s sovereign decision. Why does Russia needs to be so jittery about it? I mean Indo-US ties in no way impacts Russia adversely except for maybe in arms sales regarding which India has taken concrete steps to assure the Russians.
        This is in contrast to Russo-Chinese relationship especially in the area of arms sales and weapons technology transfer which has a direct bearing on India’s national security. Russia is also cognizant of India’s sensitivity regarding the illegal CPEC but still their foreign minister Lavrov openly criticizes India’s decision to boycott the BRI and in the 2020 Raisina Dialogue voiced his clear opposition to the Indo-Pacific and Quad on the grounds that they are directed at China.
        I am well aware of your view regarding an alliance with the US and this Indo-Pacific concept from your numerous videos on YouTube. I am not contesting them. What I am saying is that it is India’s sovereign decision and no way does it harm Russia except for maybe it’s power game with the US (Indian US policy cannot be subject to it’s ties to Russia) and Russian pride.

  10. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Hi Bharat sir, nowadays some news is emerging that India won’t increase the range of Agni 5 missile and instead will just boost its capacity so that its friends don’t raise questions. Who are these so called ‘friends’. Is it Uncle Sam or other westerners also??

    • Yup. Have detailed this in my book ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’.

      • PRATIK KUMAR says:

        Yeah, that’s true sir. I have read these books completely (Why India is not a great power, and Staggering Forward) so just wanted to get my thoughts confirmed on this (Agni 5 issue). Anyway thanks for confirming my thoughts sir…

  11. V.Ganesh says:

    Instead of buying the Boeing F-15EX which is the latest version of the Boeing F-15 Strike Eagle, why is the IAF buying MiG-29 from Russia to meet the shortfall of fighter jets? Wouldn’t it make sense to buy a latest fighter jet like the Boeing F-15 EX? Will Modi buy the F-15 EX along with the Lockheed Martin F-21?

    • Forget about this or that aircraft., where’s the money?

      • V.Ganesh says:

        If India doesn’t have money, then, can’t it buy US military hardware like the F-15EX, F/A-18E/F and F-21 and others using US military aid just like Israel buys US military hardware using US military aid?

      • Oh, please! Do think of what will happen to India’s status and standing that is already fatally compromised.

      • V.Ganesh says:

        If we don’t have money, then we can’t tell the IAF the same and sit idle. If due to lack of money and get US military aid to buy US military hardware like the Boeing F-15EX, Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets for the Indian Navy and the Lockheed Martin F-21, isn’t that something better than nothing instead of watch the IAF’s fighter jet strength deplete and see China and Pakistan continue buying military hardware from Russia?

      • India is not about to discard Russian aircraft, etc for American hardware, Pakistan has miniscule resources, and China will not be able to afford too big an augmentation with its econ growth rate declining (in real terms).

      • ARINDAM BORA says:

        The budget crunch has become a real obstacle to modernization of the armed forces. That and the delays in procurement. I mean the project for a modern Tactical Communication System (TCS) was kickstarted way back in 1996. Twenty-four years on, the Army still does not have a modern radio communication system. Itis stuck with the legacy Army Radio Engineering Network (AREN) which does not have frequency hopping capability and lacks high grade encryption as well. Modern software-defined, encrypted, frequency hopping radio sets are few and far between in the Army.
        Same goes for the Battlefield Management System (BMS) as well after being pursued for almost one and a half decade, it had been cancelled in 2018 owing to budgetary constraints. The SATHI hand-held computer Geographical Information System (GIS) too was canceled in 2008. We can go on and on (MMRCA, P75I, Landing Platform Dock, MANPADS ). The FICV project despite General Naravane’s statement seems to be in a limbo as is the FRCV project.
        I am baffled by such appaling state of our defence preparedness, lack of long-term planning and the lackadaisical approach of the Army and the MOD. Does the PMO or the CCS not take notice of such failings and loopholes in our system, sir?

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