Understanding Strategic Threats to India

[On parade, the Chinese Dong Feng (East Wind)-41 ICBM, with 8-10 MIRVed thermonuclear warheads]

This interview for Def-Talks, conducted by Aadi Achint, is a sort of “stream of consciousness’ session where I range far and wide, but with the aim of counterpoising the official views and the opinions of just about all the members of the media/Press commentariat who do little more than embroider the government line of the day. It may be accessed below.

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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31 Responses to Understanding Strategic Threats to India

  1. Gopal says:

    At the end of the day everything boils down to the economy. Where is the money to spend on defense? Great Powers are all industrialised nations and unless India industrialises she won’t become a major country.
    That is how China has done it.

  2. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    Government sector in India is characterized by lethargy, corruption and over staffing.

    Private sector faces loads of bureaucratic hurdles in starting any manufacturing unit furthermore once they commence operations multiple government agencies knock at their doors expecting regular payments.

    Aforesaid factors have resulted in Indian businessmen sourcing products in bulk from China to sell in the Indian retail market.

    We have to accept the sad fact that India has missed the bus for effective industrialization. No government can do anything to rectify the situation.

    The present status quo suits both politicians as well as bureaucrats.

    Check all shipments coming from China. They all are heavily over invoiced. Customs authorities receive handsome ‘under the table’ payments from Indian importers plus the party in power gets hefty political donations.

    Who will bell the cat?

  3. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    Criticising the United States of America, Russia and China, the RSS chief said those nations became powerful and wanted to rule over the world while India seeks to give the sense of religion and spirituality to the world.

    An excerpt from the following;


    Who in the world is asking for your useless advice?

    A land mass comprising of hundreds of kingdoms, which wasn’t capable of defending itself during past centuries from invaders and colonialism doesn’t has any authority to preach sermons to others.

    Keep pleading infront of China to restore status quo ante forever and blow your own trumpet of religion and spirituality to the Chinese. They don’t give a damn to the likes of you and your self proclaimed ‘Vishvguru’

  4. Sankar says:

    @Professor Karnad:
    Could you please give us your assessment on the following report:

    In particular, on the observation made below the photo in the link:
    “An Indian Air Force Hercules military transport plane prepares to land at an airbase in Leh, the joint capital of the union territory of Ladakh bordering China, on September 8, 2020. – China on September 8 said its troops were forced to take “countermeasures” after Indian soldiers crossed their tense Himalayan border and opened fire. The relationship between the two nuclear-armed neighbours has deteriorated since a clash in the Ladakh region on June 15 in which 20 Indian troops were killed.”

    As I understand, IAF is taking part in the massive Air Exrcise in Northern Australia going on in present days organized by the USAF where all NATO Air Forces are also participants. I have also come across the military news the the USAF and IAF are planning a joint exercise up in the Himalayas – is that true? Is there a link wth India voting against Russia in UNSC some days ago?

    • As regards Indian participation in the Aussie Air Ex, all that are deployed are a couple of Su-30MKIs an air refueller, and a C-17 carrying stores, etc., leaving most of the IAF free to tackle threat nearer home.

      • Sankar says:

        But what about the sratement in the article made by the Chinese “… after Indian soldiers crossed their tense Himalayan border and opened fire.” ? I guess, it is the Galwan clash referred to here – did the jawans really fired on the PLA then as reported?

      • It is the standard Chinese position that any clash/hostility that occurs is because Indian troops crossed over (the expanding Chinese claimline).

  5. Amit says:


    I didn’t go through this entire video because most of your comments have been made in your other columns. However, one thing I wanted to point out was your comment about the US not doing anything to defend Taiwan. You make a passionate argument about this without providing a rationale, or rather by focusing on the wrong rationale.

    The US has a lot to lose by letting Taiwan fall into Chinese hands – ADVANCED SEMICONDUCTOR TECHNOLOGY. The Taiwanese are far superior to Intel when it comes to logic chips. Until this situation is true, the US will not let Taiwan into Chinese hands. A similar situation is true with S. Korea.

    There is also the secondary issue of loss of influence in East Asia and the hit to its global power image, but I can imagine the US backing off if it had the most advanced chip tech. So your comment would carry more weight if Intel was still the leading chip maker in the world. Given where things stand however, it is highly unlikely the US will not defend Taiwan from overt Chinese aggression.

    On the one hand you say that the US is a meta threat in that it wants no challenger (true statement), yet you abandon this logic when it comes to its loss of influence in East Asia. Not going to happen, not without a fight.

    • The point I have been stressing is US unreliability (in extenso in my book – Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet). The semi-conductor loss, etc is not going to happen because of Taiwan’s scorched earth policy — they’ll blow up everything of value before the facilities fall into Chinese hands.

      • Amit says:


        I simply do not buy your argument about US unreliability in the case of Taiwan. I would point you to a recent conversation between Neil Feguson and Lt. Gen. HR McMaster in a Hoover Institution debate on Taiwan as a pointer.

        I’m also reading a book by Elbridge Colby who led the 2018 National Defence strategy under Trump (which has received high praise in US defence circles). The current chapter I’m on exactly addresses the issue of credibility. I will have more to say on this later, but if Taiwan follows a scorched earth policy on semiconductors then the US has a lot to lose by a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. It will absolutely try to deter an invasion. And Gen. Mcmaster’s comments indicate such a hypothesis would be right.

        Your regular comments denigrating the US on its reliability subverts an offshore balancer strategy for the US that you purportedly support. That is contradictory language. While any coalition or alliance partner will have questions about US reliability, you have to look at all this from US strategic interests to gain a reliable perspective on what outcome might prevail.

      • Always prudent to pay attention to what the US or any other friendly power does (as per historical record), not what it says!

  6. Kunal Singh says:

    Sir,What’s the significance of Farkhor airbase.

  7. Ayush says:

    Dr karnad, I would like to point out something which you and other defense analysts in this country have completely missed.
    The Indian military brass is trying to completely replicate Russia’s model of long range precision weapons.To be honest, prior to the UKR war,I had personally considered the Russian military as a paragon for optimal utilization of otherwise very limited resources.

    Make no mistAke, the Russians can still win in UKR if they decide to shoot some 30-40 odd US spy satellites and destroy those critical munitions depots just across the polish border alongside the strategic bridges across the dnieper river.The devastating impact western artillery has had on the Russians is purely because of the real time targeting intel provided to them by US satellites.

    Coming to india, our pralay missile is directly inspired from iskander-m.The Brahmos has been extended to the 500 km and this version is the standard issue for The tri-services.This is very similar to the 9m728 “islander-k”. Cruise missile.Another Brahmos with the range of 800km (at par with latest Chinese SRBM) was tested in January.This is also strikingly similar to the “onyx-m” missile of the RU Navy.What’s more is that our soon to be tested 1500km range LRLACM will have a terminal supersonic phase which is quite alike to the famed kalibr missile.Add to this our investment in S-400 and ASAT weapons.

    In the short term, our topmost priority should to successfully test the K5 missile ASAP(before next summer).IMO the Chinese will be most dangerous next summer after Xi gets his third term.A 6000 km range MIRVed SLBM-ICBM remains the final word in deterrence.

  8. Kunal Singh says:

    Sir, I’m a right wing type and observing many non-liberal analysts on some issues, like why r they opposing ideas like strategic autonomy and discarding it completely.

  9. Amit says:


    Wrt to some of your other comments in the video…agree that the western nations in the P5 are also a meta threat. And that is the reason India played the Russia card against the US on Ukraine (quite well IMO). It is also the reason that India is not going gung ho against China. However, I do not agree with your assessment that India is an insignificant player on the global arena anymore. The likes of Kissinger, several commentators in US think tanks, Europe, Russia etc. have acknowledged this. So your statement may have been true when you wrote your book, but not anymore. There is a reluctance to use hard power by India, but even that is changing.

    Even your comment about acting to upset the global order needs to be considered carefully. While I agree with you on conducting thermo nuclear tests and breaking the NPT, not every such act of defiance has led to success. The latest misadventure by Russia is a prime example of this, even though Russia has been preparing for such actions for 15 years. It’s not guaranteed to succeed. So timing is important in such matters and with the economic shocks India has received, it may not be the best time to act. As a security strategist you need to consider this in your commentary.

    In terms of US reliability, the US moved their strategic bombers to Diego Garcia after the Galwan crisis, and shared intel with India. They readily leased the MQ9 to the Indian navy and provided cold weather clothing They recently conducted joint military exercises in the Himalayas along the LAC – these are not just plain talks. These are actions meant to deter. So I still don’t buy your reliability point which you loudly proclaim every time you talk about the US.

    No one wants a war with China – either with India or with the US. It’s just not going to be helpful to humanity. But solid acts of deterrence are required and the US is India’s only partner that can credibly provide that. Not Vietnam, not Japan, not BRIS and not the ASEAN countries. I agree with the offshore balancer role for the US, but your other criticisms of the US make me question what you really mean by it.

    As an offshore balancer, the US has a CENTRAL role in Asian security, not PERIPHERAL. Even India cannot provide meaningful security in the East and South China seas without powerful partners 20 years from now (and this region is strategically important to India). And though Japan could be such a partner, its military is not up to the mark yet. The US has to be the main player, as there is no one else that can provide the military heft to deter China. You should stop being overly critical of the US and instead highlight what Asian players can do without circumventing the US.

    • At the heart of our thinking is an assumption that some big power or the other will come to India’s rescue. Disabuse yourself of that notion. No one will. That’s the bottomline. The country better prepare to fight for itself on its own.

      • Amit says:

        India cannot fight China on its own for the next 15 years. It is trying to get into that shape but it will take at least 15 years given current trajectories of China and India. In the meanwhile, india has to seek partners. It would be foolish to go it alone.

      • So what? We still have only ourselves.

    • Sahil says:

      I think its for short term measures only he advocates thermonuclear testing ,ADM and nuclear arming states in china’s periphery especially Vietnam. That will buy us time to build ourself militarily and economically instead of using creeper mentality of relying on United States during civid crisis how US developed cold feet they will look after their interest we have seen it vis a vis Russia or Iran .Its just a matter of when the goi will be pushed to brink to take such hard decision seems they have a lot of patience to tolerate a bully by branding it with fancy terms like strategic restraint popularized by china experts

    • Jabar Das says:

      Only when invest firms and companies (e.g., Pension funds, J. P Morgan Chase, Tesla etc.) from USA move all their assets out of China and ban all Chinese goods will USA be considered reliable. Also, USA has to bring India to the table when negotiating anything with China. USA cannot play both sides and have secret-private deals behind the backs of others. USA cannot be doing business with one and providing token weapons to another.

  10. Sankar says:

    @Professor Karnads:

    This presentation brings in mind the Sino-Vietnam war after the fall of Pol Pot regime (1970s?) due to the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia which was strongly opposed by Henry Kissinger in the US backing up China. China repeatedly issued warnings to Vietnam, that it will be “taught a lesson” unless it abided by the Chinese dictates and Vietnam paid no heed to the warning. In the event, PLA struck and penetrated deep inside Vietnam. I guess, Vietnam resorted to sabotaging the PLA ingress. Eventually, PLA had to withdraw but with blazing guns anouncing something along the line of mission accomplished. However, by international news it was a disastrous failure of Chine to take on Vietnam. I recall reading somewhere General Sundarji’s statement in the context, that “a lesson was learned” by China in that war.

    Could you please give us your view on that war – was PLA taught a lesson really?

    • Absolutely. The lesson being don’t tangle with Vietnam.

      • Amit says:


        Vietnam defeated France and the US, both external powers who fought under constraints (threat of Soviet and Chinese involvement). In 1979 they defeated a pretty weak China. The China of today is very different. Just guts and glory won’t cut it.

        It is for for this reason (external power), the US thinks it cannot go it alone in deterring China. It is also for this reason India cannot go alone in deterring China (and I’m assuming India has interests in East Asia; they might just able to handle China in India’s backyard). Or with Vietnam or Japan alone (not powerful enough).

        India could try to nuclear arm Vietnam, but Unlike Pakistan which gleefully accepted Chinese help, Vietnam will do a double take before accepting such help from India. Enmity between Vietnam and China is not like between Pakistan and India. Look at how hesitant they seem to be even to buy Brahmos. Another reason China could nuclear arm Pakistan was that the US was tacitly supporting this, under the no regional S. Asian hegemon policy.

  11. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    An often heard unofficial adage in the SEALs holds that, “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.”

    During BUD/S, he said, the “enemy” to be outfoxed is the course itself.

    “No one can do everything the instructors ask, so you have to learn how to cheat to get through,” he said. “Everyone knows it happens. The point is to learn how to not get caught.”

    A few excerpts from the following;


  12. Ayush says:

    Dr karnad,
    big news!IAF chief has just denied that we are in talks for the lease of (junk) Tu-160M2.He pointed out exactly what I said.It’s a museum worthy 1960s era airframe,lacks stealth and defenses of any kind or even EW. Moreover,you need to provide a large number of fighters as escorts.An ABSOLUTELY useless piece of junk to be brutally honest.
    And as a sidenote,your love of bombers reminds me of infamous war criminal USAF Chief Gen. Curtis Lemay’s quote,”flying fighters is fun, flying bombers is important”.Also, the argument that you provide that “bombers are recallable” is exactly what Gen. Lemay used to say.Bombers and manned aircraft in general are rapidly becoming obsolete.

    • But did you hear what he said (at the USI Lecture yesterday) about how IAF’d take on distant targets? “Non-kinetic means”! What was he talking about? Beats me.

      Moreover, not sure why the CAS downplays the Tu-160, knowing the advanced ‘White Swan’ version that India’d lease has designed out its original structural and stealth weaknesses. If you saw my exchange, I could have pressed him on this issue. But have learnt over the years that the more you do so publicly, the more the egos of the chiefs of staff get engaged to the detriment of the Service doing the right thing by the country.

      • Ayush says:

        I read “long range weapons” from a brief summary of the seminar.I am obviously not so idle to watch the whole seminar.I have got college and stuff.Although do agree that hurting the egos of the chiefs is counterproductive.I think we must leave that job aside to the PLA!It’s farcical that the PMO has to literally shove down indigenous weapons one by one….and reforms down their obstinate throats.And moreover, how these people will penetrate PLAs very formidable A2/D2 firewall as discussed in the seminar is a mystery which only these chieftains know., this when we opted useless Rafael’s and SA-21s over F-35.The Tu-160m2 “upgrades” you are talking about only have the basic “RAM” stealth coating, the airframe remains unchanged.Even HAL has figured out those kind of coating which the Tejas Mk2 is supposedly receiving.As per IAF sources that I am aware of ,they were absolutely appalled at the quality of manufacture of the Su-57s.Even those jets had a farcical RCS of 0.1-1m^2 on paper.Although thanks to their excellent manufacturing, their actual RCS was far higher.

  13. Amit says:


    On the issue of meta threats that you point out, things are changing too. While the US’ prime strategic interest is to prevent the rise of regional hegemons, their primary clash is with China and not India, even if you consider India’s rise in the future. US past policy was to prevent the rise of a hegemon in S. Asia. However, with the rapid rise of China, that policy has been abandoned. The US now supports India as a military counterweight to China. So the meta threat from the US has reduced. But Indian security analysts are stuck in the old ways of thinking.

    Additionally, if you look at current US strategic interests, they are well aligned with India on China, and the Persian Gulf. On Iran they diverge somewhat, but that’s of secondary interest to them compared to China (Iranian nuclear weapons is a big deal, but it is so for India as well).

    If you look at the future and assume that India becomes a regional hegemon in S. Asia, even then Indian and US interests won’t be misaligned as both are for freedom of navigation, free trade and democratic freedom. So I can’t imagine the US and India clashing over the oil straits even if India becomes the regional hegemon here. Even if China disappears as a hegemonic threat! There could be differences of opinion, but not completely polar positions.

    India and the US are not aligned on how to handle Russia. However, US strategists under Trump have talked about how Russia and the US need to collaborate against China. It is my view that this is a strong policy undercurrent in current US strategic circles, and the cold warriors are winning today. Under Trump there was a genuine attempt to change this. So it will be interesting to see if US policy towards Russia changes if Republicans come to power in the future.

    As for meta threats from the other P5 powers, the only one that matters is China. France and Britain are secondary powers who will come in line with India as India rises and Russia is becoming less and less significant. The Security council itself is becoming less and less relevant. The great power balance in the future will be between the US, China and India, as long as India continues its economic growth. I expect that to happen, however messy it might be.

  14. Prabal Rakshit says:

    Prof. Karnad,
    Totally unrelated.. but is it true that there were Income Tax Raids on the CPR office in New Delhi? Just hoping this was routine and nothing more. Have always loved reading analysts like Prof Chellaney and yourself, and I sincerely hope that some sensitive decision making feathers have not been ruffled 🙂

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