Internal resistance to Modi’s ‘atm nirbharta’ plan, and how the defence sector can lead the charge on self-reliance

Light Combat Helicopter Production Hangar of HAL inaugurated by Rajnath  Singh - Sectors - Manufacturing Today India
DefMin Rajnath Singh at the HAL Light Combat Helicopter production line


Foreign control of cyber space, Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned in his Independence Day address, “can be a threat to the social fabric of our country, our economy and can even threaten the development of our nation; we are very well-aware of that. India is very cautious and is planning to take steps to combat these risks.” This was not the first time he had talked about cyberspace and the need for the country to be self-sufficient in related technologies, and to harness its potential for accelerated development and for better governance. While the message may have got across to the people, it apparently has not to the officials manning the government.

     A day earlier on August 14, Niti Ayog chairman Amitabh Kant, who is regarded by many insiders as the PM’s favourite babu barring his Personal Private Secretary PK Mishra, unveiled the ‘Aspirational Districts Programme’ (ADP) for digital connectivity that Modi has touted as the vehicle for faster all-round rural progress. So, what’s the problem? Bypassing the normal tendering process, Niti Ayog picked Oracle Corporation of California to provide the cloud-based database management system and software driving this programme. Why is that important? Because it kept the relevant technology competent Indian companies out of the game, preventing them from competing for a contract that, should the programme be extended nation-wide, will be worth thousands of crores of rupees. Were there competition, an Indian company would likely have won, giving a fillip to, and registering the government’s vote of confidence in, indigenous technology development. It would have put teeth in Modi’s plan for an ‘atm nirbhar Bharat’ (self-reliant India). Instead, the ADP is controversial, labelled by a former official, as “another scam, another excuse” to award a big tech company contract when schemes — e-seva portal, common service centres, etc. — already exist to do the same job as Oracle is commissioned to do. “None of these bureaucrats or Big Tech companies will actually go down to ground level to solve real problems” this official said. “They will just fete each other in airconditioned rooms and make nice presentations.”

     Had Niti Ayog taken the indigenous route on ADP, other ministries would perforce have taken note because the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) notionally responsible for ADP is, perhaps, the most egregious among government agencies in resisting and rejecting indigenous technology. The public sector BSNL signed a contract with Huawei for advancing its 4G network despite clear injunctions from the government not to do so. But then it was taking its cue from its parent — DoT, which had top listed the Chinese Huawei Company in the 5G sweepstakes despite national security concerns. It resiled from its position only after the Swadeshi Jagran Manch approached the Prime Minister. But to prove the point that generalist civil servants are never wrongfooted, the secretary responsible for pushing Huawei was, after retirement, appointed to head an ‘expert’ committee deciding on non-Huawei choices. Predictably, the Committee is inclining towards Nokia of Finland and Ericsson of Sweden as alternative suppliers when various Indian companies have already developed different technology components of an even more advanced telecommunications system, such as photonic transmission, but  are missing a single entity to integrate these various  technologies into a single 5G+/6G system designed and engineered for India by Indians! 

     Or, take the fibre-optic project connecting Chennai with the Andaman and Nicobar island chain. National security was offered as the reason by external affairs minister S Jaishankar to not only shift the contract from the lowest bidder, Huawei, to the Japanese company NEC, but got the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), to finance it. USOF is a little known, separately administered unit within DoT tasked with funding rural telephony and indigenous networks, and known mostly for being, according to a source, “wholly corrupt”. “My question is” writes Smita Purshottam, ex-Indian Foreign Service, who retired as ambassador to Switzerland, “why no such grounds were invoked for domestic ICT networks?” Purshottam is founder and head of SITARA (Science, Indigenous Technology and Advanced Research Accelerator), an organization campaigning for home grown technology in government contracts and having as its members some of the smartest high-tech Indian companies and startups. In a note dated August 15 to SITARA members, she also pointed out how Jaishankar’s own ministry, MEA, has been remiss on the self-reliance front, not giving “any contracts under telecom Lines of Credit (LOCs) to domestic companies”, adding tartly, “I fail to see how a group dedicated to promoting domestic upgradation can get excited about LOCs benefitting only foreign companies [especially when] resources are scarce and the imperative of domestic development [of technology] is greater.”

     And that’s the trouble. The current BJP government may be Modi-centered and top-driven. But Modi cannot be everywhere, monitoring everything. Hence, government agencies and departments, rather than being motivated by the principle of self-reliance (which would have led, for instance, to DoT forging a consortium of Indian private sector firms as 5G+/6G technology integrator), and the MEA offering telecom LOCs to Indian firms, they seek excuses and loopholes to continue importing goods and technologies, manifesting the characteristic Indian craze for “phoren”. It makes nonsense of the Prime Minister’s call for atm-nirbharta. All these instances suggest the PM and the rest of the government are not really on the same page, that Modi decrees something be done in a certain way beneficial to the nation only to have the bureaucrats habituated to doing things another way, carrying on as they have always done.

     Modi’s self-reliance policy to a considerable extent pivots on the success of medium, small, and micro enterprises (MSMEs). I have long advocated the need for the government to incentivize in every way possible the emergence of MSMEs as the Indian version of the German ‘mittelstand’ – a concept France has replicated, as the source of technological innovation in the country. Except, other than lip service the government has done little to encourage and ensure the MSMEs their ease of doing business. Horror stories abound of would-be startups in the MSME sector, after getting initial clearances, having their projects, capital and other resources held up by rapacious, rent and bribe-seeking politicians, police and petty functionaries. Again, it shows a disconnect this time between what Delhi intends and how entrepreneurs and MSMEs are hobbled at the local level where Modi’s writ doesn’t run.

     There, however, is light at the end of the tunnel where military hardware is concerned. I have long maintained that the government should go ‘cold turkey’ on arms imports and simply ban purchases of all armaments. Throwing the Indian defence industry thus into deep water, I argued, is the only way to force it to learn to swim. It is good the Modi government accepted the advice in principle. On August 9, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh released a list of some 101 defence items, each with its own timeline, beyond which their import is banned. It will beneficially shake up the scene. Sixty-nine of these items have a very short time window and cannot be purchased abroad after December this year. In this section are featured major high value systems, including ship-borne cruise missiles, towed 155mm artillery, tactical simulators for various combat arms, missile destroyers, anti-submarine warfare ships, light combat aircraft, light combat helicopters, specialized kinds of shells and ammunition, radars, assault and long range sniper rifles, conventional submarines, electronic warfare systems, self-propelled barges, drones, and machine guns.

     This list may appear ambitious but between the private sector and DPSUs almost all these items are already being produced in the country. The more important and welcome aspect of the new procurement policy is that the escape route for the armed services to import these items by rejecting the indigenous versions as quality-wise deficient is closed. Meaning, the  forces and the relevant combat arms will have to become stakeholders in the indigenous programmes and work with the manufacturers to, if required, improve the product.

     The fly in the ointment is the possibility that the government will succumb to pressure mounted by the labour unions in defence public sector units (DPSUs) to hand over the main manufacturing contracts to them, with private sector firms thrown crumbs as subcontractors. This would be a fiasco. The track record of DPSUs over the last six decades in terms of product quality, and delivery within time and cost constraints is so abysmal, to appoint them principal contractors would, for the Modi government, be like taking an axe to its self-reliance policy. 

     Alternatively, it would make sense, for instance, to assign the Indian Navy’s Project 75i diesel submarine production to Larsen & Toubro – the only private sector company with the production wherewithal and its invaluable role and experience in building nuclear powered submarines, and compare its performance with that of the public sector Mazgaon Docks Ltd, which has struggled with producing the Scorpene submarine – delivering the first unit 12 years late and at almost twice or more of the stipulated cost.

     The government will have to begin to trust the profit-driven private sector which cannot afford to waste time or resources nor to violate contract terms or alienate customers by rolling out sub-standard products as DPSUs routinely do. The IAF, for example, has often had to induct into service new HAL-built Jaguar low-level strike aircraft with leaky fuel lines because the Service has no choice. The Indian government should ensure private sector companies a major role hereafter and force the DPSUs to compete with them. Competition may, in fact, improve DPSUs’ product quality and delivery schedules.

        There is an urgent and large IAF requirement for the Tejas Mk-1A. Even with two assembly lines, HAL cannot produce more than 18 LCAs annually. Getting DRDO-HAL to share  source codes for this aircraft with Mahindra Aerospace and other companies with capability to, at a minimum, have as many as four Tejas production lines outputting some 72 aircraft a year, will enable a whole big aviation industrial ecosphere to spring up of small and big firms designing and producing components, systems, subsystems and ancillaries, employing people in thousands with positive cascading effects on the economy. Mahindra have already been selected by Boeing to manufacture the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet carrier aircraft in the hope the Indian Navy will buy it. What is problematic is the Super Hornet’s conforming with the Rajnath Singh list featuring the LCA, whose navalised variant not too long ago passed the carrier landing and takeoff test and may be ready for induction in the same time frame as Mahindra can get up the India-made F-18. In any case, multiple LCA production lines will result in decreasing unit cost, increasing profits from export orders, and internally generated funds being available for the development of the follow-on indigenous advanced medium combat aircraft.

     LCA then can be in the van of the Modi government’s ‘atma nirbharta’ defence policy, and help it to take wing. Should Modi and Rajnath Singh follow it, they will be remembered for birthing a multi-faceted, world-class Indian defence industry and for generally seeding a high value, high technology sector that will assist India to pull itself up by its bootstraps.

A shortened version published in my Realpolitik column in, August 24, 2020, at

Posted in arms exports, asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, China, civil-military relations, Culture, Cyber & Space, Decision-making, Defence Industry, domestic politics, DRDO, Europe, Geopolitics, geopolitics/geostrategy, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Japan, MEA/foreign policy, Military Acquisitions, Military/military advice, Missiles, Russia, SAARC, society, South Asia, Technology transfer, technology, self-reliance, United States, US., Weapons | 18 Comments

Why Biden-Harris are disastrous for India

Biden, Kamala Harris pose for photo together amid 2020 speculation | TheHill
[Joe Biden and Kamala Harris]

The fun thing about an American presidential elections is its slam bang nature where the candidates of the Republican and Democratic parties and the media, lining up on either side, go at each other, hammer and tongs, in unending and enjoyable bouts of name calling and verbal slug fests that build up to a train wreck with the results Nov 3 providing relief.

The special interest this year relates to Donald Trump seeking reelection in a year when everything that can go wrong has gone wrong or is going wrong in the US, not little because of the actions of the President himself. The economy has plummeted following the pandemic, lives and livelihoods in the millions are lost — at last count over 30 million are out of work and, in the wake of the Minneapolis policeman’s knee on the neck death of a black man, race relations are on the boil and riots and social unrest prevail in many American cities.

The start point was the corona. Beginning in January this year when the first instances of the corona virus were evidenced in that country to now, six months later, when it has killed 165,000 with the death rate rising at the rate of an American succumbing every 80 seconds, Trump has been in absolute denial. He has denied the essential nature of the virus, the global pandemic it has caused, and the manner of its spread. In the face of hard irrefutable contrary data and reality, he has stuck pigheadedly to his line that (1) all’s well, (2) the US is faring better than every other country in the world, (3) testing for the virus is the reason why the numbers of the afflicted are so high, and (4) things like masks, social distancing, and lock downs recommended by medical professionals to contain the spread, are unwanted restraints on the economy and delay the return of normalcy.

His solutions for the slumping US economy are bad enough — increasing tariffs, shutting down trade, cutting social welfare benefits for the needy and unemployed and cutting taxes on the wealthy and, for the pandemic, are wackier still even by the vaudeville standard of his presidency. Trump has recommended as antidote that (i) doing nothing and people going about their lives normally will lead to the virus, somehow, magically, “miraculously” “disappearing”, (ii) people ingest hydroxychloroquine — a drug to tackle other maladies (such as malaria) — labelled by Trump as “gift of God” — that appalled doctors warned, far from alleviating danger, would actually do serious harm, and which is where India stepped briefly into the Trumpian circus lights owing to his personal call to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to ship as much of this drug to America as India has stocks of, and to top it all (iii) “inject” detergent — yea, the stuff you clean toilets with — into the human body to “kill the virus”! Sure, it will kill the virus as also the person so treated. He even mused to the Press that exposing the virus to light — somehow introduced inside the bodies of corona-infected patients could be a cure! Even as Trump thus holds forth, his medical advisers sit stony-faced in the press room trying desperately not to chortle in the President’s face — the situation being too serious to even laugh at nonsense.

So, why is the unbearably impulsive and mercurial Trump with a mental disorder, as his niece and professional psychologist, Mary Trump, alleges in her book, better for India than the more mainstream and old world Joe Biden and his part-Indian running mate, Kamala Harris?

(The Tamil brahmin half of the aspirant to US Vice President’s post is what the media here is making much of as if she is some long lost daughter of Chennai who has little else in mind than doing good for that city and India! Ms. Harris’ mother, Shyamala, apparently left for the US to study endocrinology at UC, Berkeley, in the 1960s where she met her husband and Kamala’s father, Donald Harris — a fellow foreign student from Jamaica, now professor of economics at Stanford University. Clearly, Ms. Harris doesn’t lack for intellect or, as she has displayed throughout her career, political moxie compared to her Republican counterpart, the stiff and humourless Mike Pence, who calls his wife “Mother”! The Delhi effect will be for Kamala’s maternal uncle, Dr G. Balachandran, for many years the nonproliferation mainstay at IDSA, to be thrust into the limelight.)

Since late 2018, Trump has more reasonably targeted China for carrying on with unbalanced and unfair trade, for stealing US secrets and intellectual property rights and, most recently, and for deliberately causing a pandemic by allowing what he calls the ‘China virus’ — corona virus by another name, to spread to all over the world from its locus genesis in the city of Wuhan. He has shutdown Chinese investments in the high technology sectors in Silicon valley and elsewhere, stopped the entry of Chinese citizens into the US, threatened to sanction particular members of the Chinese nomenklatura, been more aggressive in showing flag in support of its Asian partners and allies in the East Sea and the South China Sea by deploying US aircraft carrier task groups and smaller naval flotillas on freedom of navigation patrols, transferred a bunch of advanced military hardware to Taiwan, and led a ruckus over Beijing’s move to, in effect, absorb Hong Kong, which is violative of its treaty obligations to the United Kingdom. By thus politically and militarily pressing China, restricting Chinese imports into America, and slowing down its economy, US distracts Beijing and indirectly advantages India.

Trump did all this unilaterally with spur-of-moment decisions — initiatives that the US State Department opposed but could do nothing to stop. From India’s point of view it was an immeasurably good thing to happen because these various streams of Trump’s anti-China policy came together and peaked around the time Beijing had begun annexing Indian territory in eastern Ladakh earlier this summer. The unintended but beneficial consequence for India was that it put the brakes on whatever plans the Xi Jinping-chaired Central Military Commission may have originally tasked the People’s Liberation Army with achieving. Beijing realized that it had opened too many fronts at the same time, and by at least notionally negotiating with the Modi government put off more difficult choices. All the while though, Beijing made it plain that Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar’s June 19 demand for restoration of status quo ante was, well, for the birds, and that it would keep what it has occupied.

Xi’s amor propre required that China respond substantively if not in equally harsh measure to the US, afraid that pushing the Trump Administration too far would permanently damage its interests in the US, which it can’t afford to happen. But there’s a ratcheting up of the action-reaction chain, which again assists India’s cause. However, should Biden-Harris get voted to power — which I predicted will happen come November in a June 4 post (“The end of Trump”), the US will revert to its longstanding policy of mutual accommodation with China that will entail easing the pressure, especially in the contested maritime domain in Asia and vis a vis the Belt and Road Initiative in Central Asia extending to the Gulf and West Asia. That was, after all, what the US’ China policy during the Obama years was when Biden was Vice President. Recall Obama and Xi agreeing on a two-power condominium — G-2 to rule the world? This will not be good for India.

Far worse, the US policy establishment, reviled as the “deep state” by Trump and his appointees, will get the prospective Biden policy back on its nuclear nonproliferation hinge, and resume its focus of the last 45-odd years of getting India to “cap, freeze, rollback” its nuclear weapons programme. Trump, on his part, dismantled the international nuclear order by ending the strategic arms limitation talks (SALT-II) with Russia on the reasonable ground that without China in it such an accord makes little sense, ditching the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty in Europe, and junking the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran — any of which events could have been used by a strong-minded Indian government to initiate nuclear testing to acquire proven and tested high yield thermonuclear weapons. In the event, Modi will be arm-twisted into getting India back on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty track in the disarmament negotiations in Geneva, with the goal of compelling the Indian government to renounce all future nuclear testing — the foundation of the deleterious 2008 civil nuclear cooperation deal with the US that Jaishankar, as Joint Secretary (Americas), had negotiated with Washington.

In parallel, the old US policy of maintaining the power balance in South Asia will be resumed vigorously by Biden. It had wavered a bit during the Trump tenure owing to Modi’s making an impression on the US President that culminated in his grand reception in Delhi in January this year. All that goodwill, if not zeroed out, then the tenor of the bilateral relationship will be recalibrated. What this will mean in practice is that Pakistan will once again be able to rely on both China and the US to actively help it to square off against India. And, of course, the Democratic party and Biden-Harris in particular will be far more inclined to collar India on the Kashmir, human rights abuses, and similar issues.

The slight positives with Biden in will be in two areas: the pressure on India to buy the old and counterproductive Lockheed F-16 combat aircraft dressed up as F-21 that Trump was pushing on Modi, will recede. And the old H1B visa regime much liked by Indian IT firms sending off armies of software techies to America to do jobs at cut rate salaries, and that Modi tried his damndest to convince Trump to go easy on and failed, may return. It will open up the gates for Indian professionals to go more easily to the US, to augment their earnings by getting their spouses to work on the H-4 visa that Trump had closed down, and to try and convert their H1B status to ‘green card’ and permanent residency. Back home. it will consolidate the support of this section of the aspiring Indian middle class behind Modi by the time the 2024 general elections roll around.

On balance, it is obvious India’s interests are better served by the Republican Administration under Trump, which is ideologically and viscerally at odds with Communist China than by the Biden-Harris combo eager to regain the normal as Beijing sees it. All right thinking Indians must hope Trump returns to power even if that mightily screws up the internal situation in that country and roils the American society. But that’s for Americans to worry about.

Posted in asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, China military, Decision-making, Geopolitics, geopolitics/geostrategy, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Iran and West Asia, Islamic countries, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Pakistan military, Russia, russian military, South Asia, Strategic Forces Command, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Tibet, United States, US., Weapons, West Asia | 36 Comments

Genuine indigenization starting, now salute the two heroes

Genuine Indigenisation Starting In Arms Procurement; Two Heroes Deserve A  Salute For It
General Bipin Rawat & Lt Gen Subrata Saha

Consistent pressure to end arms imports from small select quarters (like this blog) has worked. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh this morning announced a negative list of military items that cannot be imported. Each type of goods has been assigned a timeline beyond which imports are banned. This list took some time coming, but is no less welcome for that.

On this list are items that, by and large, are already being produced in the country . This is fascinating because it reveals the range of production capability existing in the country. Even so, of the 69 items with the deadline of December 2020, 29 pertain to navy, 28 to army, and 12 to air force, and include such capital platforms as combat helicopters, light combat aircraft, missile destroyers, floating docks, and all manner of guns and radars. Of the 10 items that have December 2021 as embargo date, 8 relate to army and 2 to navy, including conventional submarines (Project 75i). Four items are listed with December 2022 as deadline, 3 belong to army and one category — ‘E(lectronic) W(arfare) systems” would be relevant to all the three services. Of the 15 types of equipment with the December 2023 date for full indigenization, 7 each are army and air force related, with “long range land attack cruise missile” that both air force and navy will want in their inventories. But this is only the first step.

Another list is to soon follow featuring more high value weapons systems and critical technologies, and the two negative lists together will give a fillip to the indigenous defence industry. While the Modi government’s intention is good and well meaning, considering pretty severe timelines in the published annexure, how are all these pieces of capital military hardware to be actually produced in mass in-country? How are the contracts worth Rs 4 lakh crores in the next 7 years the defence minister has promised to be actualized? Rajnath Singh hopes the private sector will pick up most of the work load. Larsen & Toubro, with prizeless experience in constructing nuclear power submarines and the only private sector firm with the competence and the shipbuilding wherewithal is a shoo in for the next generation of diesel submarines, for example. This is an unusually good fit but, for many reasons, it is an exception.

The reality is that the vast realm of defence public sector units (DPSUs), Ordanance factory Board units, and DRDO labs and research centres, is where the physical and manpower resources are concentrated. But much of this caboodle is a wasteland owing to low labour productivity, indifferent morale, and despicable work ethos. An arrangement to energize this sector with private sector project leadership is the answer. The best model to integrate a national resource base and utilize it is the one I proposed in a paper in 1998 for the Technology subcommittee of the first National Security Advisory Board of which I was member [and featured in my 2015 book ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’].

In brief, this business model envisages dividing up all public sector physical assets along with work forces into two nearly equal defence industrial combines to be led by the two best and most versatile manufacturing sets of companies — Tata and L&T. The Government will continue to own the DPSU/Ordnance Board/DRDO physical facilities and will earn a rent and royalty for each item produced in any of them. Tata and L&T will be free to use their own resources in conjunction with those in the public sector that managerially they control. These two complexes will compete for every procurement contract from the military with the government funding development to the prototype stage. In the runoff between prototypes from both combines for any type of weapon system, etc the item that has less import content by value will be chosen, thereby incentivizing indigenous R&D. This is a viable business model the government should implement. It is specially attractive as it does not involve privatizing any DPSUs, DRDO labs, etc. — a move sure to generate very vocal political opposition.

Further, accelerated production of the Tejas LCA Mk-1A for the IAF, for instance, will require more than the two HAL production lines and necessitate the DRDO sharing the design and source codes for the Tejas LCA with several interested private companies willing to install their own assembly lines. There’ll then be economies of scale all round and enough capacity to not only produce sufficient LCAs for the IAF but also to spawn revenues from exporting this economical 4.5 generation fighter aircraft to a huge market in developing countries, and funds for developing the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft and its variants on the anvil. All this is doable. It needs the strong willed Modi government to realize this self-sustaining business model.

Still, the fact that the government has articulated a negative list suggests it is finally getting through to the military and, importantly, the government that a dependency status in armaments for the country not just stamps India as a second-rate power but robs it of military options. It curbs a certain course of action in a crisis because initiating hostilities at intense pace would lead to Indian forces quickly grinding to a halt mid-operation because the stocks of ammo, spares and ancillaries have run out, and there’s no production capacity in the country to meet the surge demand of critical stuff. Whence the urge on the part of the armed services in a crisis to carefully husband resources and the available war wastage reserve and war stock rather than fight full tilt, when not trying desperately to avoid fighting altogether (as is the case currently in eastern Ladakh) .

A surge industrial capacity is the factor that enables more advanced countries with large defence industrial bases to fight long duration wars to a decision. It is illustrative of the problem the country has always faced, which no Indian government has sought to resolve, that in a military crisis almost the first thing the defence minister and ministry teams do is rush off to foreign supplier countries to make panic purchases of ammo, spares, and to make up the shortfall in weapons, and platforms, and end up paying a hefty premium for the goods so acquired. Rajnath Singh’s recent trip to Moscow to buy an assortment of military supplies, including Su-30MKIs and MiG-29s, underlines the point.

But surge production capacity comes on the coattails of an industry geared to meet the country’s military needs. If, however, the armed services are stuck in a rut, preferring imported goods and are, not just reluctant to acquire a stake in indigenous efforts by not committing institutionally to such weapons projects and programmes, but actively conspire to make life difficult for Indian manufacturers, then Modi’s atm nirbhar Bharat-plan is doomed.

The military’s outlook on indigenous armaments has been slow to change but is now changing because of a few nationalist-minded senior military officers driving the procurement dynamic from within the armed services.

Two officers in particular have played a stellar role in this process. General Bipin Rawat as army chief championed indigenization in the army — the senior, the largest and most influential service, and now as Chief of Defence Staff, is staying with the arms self-sufficiency mantra. But the real and substantive transformation of the army milieu was instituted by Lt General Subrata Saha, who retired as Deputy Chief of the Army Staff (Planning and Systems) in April 2017. It was during his tenure in Army HQ that the groundwork was laid for the involvement of Indian private sector companies in meeting the army’s materiel requirements. He removed procedural and bureaucratic roadblocks and established protocols and approaches that Indian companies, for a change, found conducive. Saha’s initiative, in one sense, eventuated in Rajnath’s negative list, and India is finally and belatedly setting out on the road to self-reliance in arms.

This is a heartening development. Three Cheers for Generals Saha and Rawat!! Their positive roles need to be recognized.

But Saha and Rawat notwithstanding, the deep down antipathy to indigenously produced military equipments is still rife in the military. The three armed services are differentially tuned to the ‘atm nirbharta’ drive. The navy is deemed by industry-wallahs to be the “friendliest” to private sector industry and indigenous goods, perhaps, because until recently its warship directorate was the only weapons platforms design agency in the Indian military. The army, thanks to Saha and Rawat, is now ramping up in this direction. The Indian Air Force, in contrast to its sister services, is the laggard, still has its “head in the sky” as an industry leader tellingly put it and, far from coming down to earth, the IAF brass is on an unwarranted high from the entry of the Rafale, and continues to swear by foreign aircraft. Given the current thinking of the government, Air HQ better get its head in the right place and give up the ghost of additional Rafales and the like, and invest fully in the Tejas, its variants, and the AMCA, instead.

The army is now on the right side of indigenization but even with Saha’s endeavours residual bad attitude remains. Here’s an example of how the army succeeded in frustrating an Indian company from proving that its product was qualitatively better than the foreign item the army procurement officials had set their sights on. An Indian company had produced an air defence radar that it claimed would more speedily and effectively spot a target with smaller radar cross section (RCS) at a longer range than the foreign favourite the army officers were tilting towards. Instead of flying its helicopters and aircraft against this radar to test its performance, which was their job, the army officers demanded the company do all this on its own, and otherwise thought up every ruse and put up every hurdle in the book and some to deny this company the opportunity to prove the high quality radar it had developed at its own cost was better than the imported maal!

In the early 2000s, the army, even more notoriously, had sidelined an army project headed by a bright army signals officer (Colonel KPM Das) which had within two years produced a cheap, tech innovation — a handheld device with a fluid screen — SATHI (Situational Awareness to be Handled by Infantry) based on the Bangalore-developed ‘simputer’. The simputer (or simple computer) project if the Indian government had pursued with vigour would have resulted in children in the remotest villages becoming computer literate by now for relatively small investment by the HR Ministry. The simputer was combined by the Das team with other off-the-shelf technologies to come up with SATHI. This device was able to fuse information from various sensors and sources and able literally to see round the corner, enabling infantry jawans — with mobile telephone handling skills — to avoid ambushes and friendly fire incidents. It was hailed as a revolution and a boon by troops in the field, especially those engaged in counter-insurgency ops. This project died, not owing to lack of funds, but because not a single senior Lieutenant General rank officer lined up to “take ownership” of it, and to shepherd its development through to operational induction.

Having discarded a successful in-house project that produced such a stellar product, the army may soon be in the market for just such an item. The foreign vendor in turn will likely put together the same technologies the Das-led team had done 15 years back, and sell it to the army at many times the price of SATHI! (For those interested in reading more about this case, it is detailed in my book — Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), pages 321-323.) An exasperated Col. Das up and retired from service, only to be picked up by Cisco Systems as its Vice President!

The SATHI episode encapsulates India’s tragedy. And the limits of the government’s good intentions if the armed services are not fully on board.

Posted in arms exports, asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific, Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, China military, civil-military relations, Culture, Decision-making, Defence Industry, domestic politics, DRDO, Europe, Geopolitics, geopolitics/geostrategy, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Navy, Military Acquisitions, Military/military advice, Missiles, Relations with Russia, Russia, SAARC, South Asia | 18 Comments

India’s nervous Nelly policy in Ladakh (augmented)

Need to find fair and reasonable solution, says Chinese envoy amid  India-China talks post-Galwan clash, India News News |
The two sides on contested ground

The Modi government’s approach to tackling an obstreperous China, like that adopted in the Vajpayee interregnum and by the Manmohan Singh regime, is frighteningly stupid. If both the PM and his cohort and the Army brass in Leh and at HQrs seem stoutly resistant to good sense and learning from the vast accumulated experience this country has of dealing with Beijing, then President Xi Jinping would be a fool not to exploit the situation to the hilt. He is not and China has.

The result is a significant loss of territory in eastern Ladakh, including on the Pangong Tso and conceding all land beyond the Y-junction bottleneck on the Depsang Plains without a fight. It spells strategic disaster for India reflecting less an imbalance of forces and military wherewithal than Modi’s shocking lack of political will.

The disposition on the ground is as follows: Pursuant to whatever understanding was reached — and it isn’t at all clear what was agreed upon by Lt Gen Harinder Singh, GOC, XIV Corps in his confabulations with Maj Gen Liu Lin, deputy commander, ‘South Tibet District’ — in the fourth round of the corps commanders’ meet in Chishul-Moldo, Indian troops retreated pell-mell to their long established post on the shore side of the Finger 2 hilly abutment on the Pangong Lake even as the PLA pulled back their presence only a slight distance to the line Finger 5, a pullback nullified by the Chinese remaining atop the ridge on Finger 4. Elsewhere, in the Depsang Plains the PLA is entrenched on the Y-junction bottle neck, preventing Indian patrols from reaching not just Patrol Point (PP) 14 but, as Kapil Sibal, the Congress Party spokesman charged correctly on June 27, also PPs 10, 11, 11A, 12 and 13. Liu, it is obvious, refused to entertain any talk of the PLA vacating the Y-junction (assuming Harinder brought up the issue at all in their 4th meeting).

Seeing that the Indian government and military would rather run than stand and fight, the Chinese called a fifth meeting to press home their advantage. Harinder was presented with a demand for further “mutual and equal” withdrawal by the two sides from the currently-held positions on the Pangong. Meaning, that India should get out of Finger 2 while the PLA, given its idea of equal, gets down from the ridge above Finger 4? That apparently is the limit of what the PLA is prepared to accept, if the previous experience is any guide. Whereupon, the vanguard of the appeaser brigade — the China Study Group — the worm, finally turned.

It held a stop sign to the China decreeing, in effect, thus far and no farther, instructing Harinder to inform Liu that this new Chinese formula was unacceptable. CSG then reiterated, at least for the media, the Modi dispensation’s objective of restoring the status quo ante first enunciated by minister S. Jaishankar on June 17. Except, it’s way too late because an awful lot of territory has already been lost to China that CSG, Modi, and the army are responsible for.

This leads to the Question: Was Harinder ordered by the CSG/Modi PMO to accept the schemata for military “disengagement” whose details were not spelled out, leaving it to to the two sides to decide whatever the hell was decided by the firm of Messrs Harinder and Liu? How otherwise to explain what came next — the Indian troops drawing all the way back to Finger 2 — skipping Finger 3 altogether — even as the PLA remained stuck on Ginger 4 top?

Was the hurry to withdraw several kilometers westward along the shoreline of the lake mandated by the PM/CSG, or was it Harinder’s call? One can see why GOC, XIV Corps calculated thusly: An already built-up facility exists at Finger 2 and is available for Indian troops to inhabit; hence, it makes sense for the Indian jawans to pull back a longer distance than a smaller one to Finger 3, which would necessitate construction crews to put up some kind of roofed facility on a new spot for the troops to spend the cold nights in.

This option avoided the possibility of the new camp construction activity triggering an adverse Chinese response. If this is how and why that decision was made then it backfired. Because all it did was consolidate China’s hold on the Pangong and convince Beijing to become both more rigid in its negotiating style and to enlarge their ask of India.

The more serious and strategic danger, however, is from the PLA blocking Indian troops from proceeding to all the PPs northwest of the Y-junction occupied by it — some 18 kms inside Indian territory. How deep does an armed penetration by the Chinese PLA have to be before the Modi government and army — in this case HQrs XIV Corps — decide, it is a provocation requiring a military riposte? Apparently, 18 kms doesn’t make the cut. Would the PLA occupying the town of Burtse — just 7 kms away on the DSDBO Road leading to Daulat Beg Oldi, be a trigger? Not sure. Because Prime Minister Modi has yet to publicly call out Beijing — three months into the confrontation, for its brazen large-sized land grab.

What’s involved is not some small parcel of barren, high altitude, real estate where a few PLA stragglers have planted their flag. But a full-scale Chinese military operation to realize the twin aims of establishing a second prong of the pincer closing in on the DSDBO highway, the first prong is in place via the Galwan corridor, and to absorb that entire part of Ladakh in the manner the PLA did the Aksai Chin, albeit more secretly, in the 1950s.

The characteristically smooth and inflexible Chinese ambassador in Delhi Sun Weidong in a webinar hosted last week by the Institute for Chinese Studies in his presentation and in answers to questions prefaced all references to the Indian territory China has occupied with the phrase “As is clear” to assert Chinese troops were on Chinese territory and in all cases that it was the Indian troops who had violated the Line of Actual Control! This is the process by which Beijing legitimates its territorial claims — occupy Indian territory and validate its legal status as Chinese land by pointing to the attempts by Indian forces trying recover lost ground! It is a successful tactic that Delhi has not so far forcibly opposed, and given the trend, won’t in the future.

Should the PLA advance unopposed to the vicinity of Burtse, Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) along with its Advanced Landing Ground, will come within range of Chinese artillery. PLA rocket systems will then be in a position to crater the landing strip at will, rendering resupply of DBO by air and forward operations by IAF combat aircraft ex-DBO in crisis, impossible. Additionally, with the PLA so near to DBO, the military logistics system linking Leh to DBO and Siachen, will be permanently compromised — exposed to Chinese firepower. Simultaneously, India’s ability to use the DSDBO Road to interdict traffic on the Xinjiang Highway and at its junction with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor on the Karakorum Pass, will be hugely weakened.

Such are the stakes that led me to first propose a limited war to get the PLA out of all the places it has ingressed in. Clearing the Chinese roadblock at the Y-junction has to be military priority. The Indian Army, if it is not to entirely soil its reputation, better begin planning and preparing for it without regard to cost. One hopes the COAS, General MM Naravane, and Lt Gen Harinder will together forcefully make the case to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and the government for a sustained military operation to accomplish this specific aim, and also to evict the PLA from the Galwan Valley, and to push the Chinese military presence back eastward of Finger 8 to capture enough territory on the Chinese side to use as bargaining card.

Throughout this depressing episode, the Modi regime, advised by CSG, and the army have consistently misread China’s aims and intentions. They assumed wrongly that what was happening in Ladakh was the usual military to-ing and fro-ing on an indistinct border, nothing that could not be settled at the negotiating table. Instead, it has turned out to be what I said in my first post (May 25) on the subject once the PLA’s aggression became public, that the Chinese occupation of Indian territory is permanent. I moreover stated that Delhi’s inaction was tantamount to India’s accepting the loss of its territory. I feared “that anytime the PLA aggressively stakes its interest in a piece of contested territory, Indian army and government all but readily concede it. So, the likely future is for a slow territorial aggrandizement by China — an exercise in which the Indian army and government are and will, in equal parts, be complicit” in the main because they have accepted Beijing’s framing of the issue as PLA acting on its perception of an undelineated LAC, even if it results in the Chinese expropriation of Indian land. It turns out I was right, and CSG and the Indian government wrong.

Further, the CSG and the Modi dispensation still believe, despite all that’s occurred, that talking with the Chinese is still the way to resolve the issues related to the disputed border and to handling the flare ups. If the Corps commander level talks don’t work — as they haven’t — there’s the forum of the Special Representatives to tap. Except, Ajit Doval has had less than no success against a stonewalling Wang Yi, who serenely brushes off the Indian NSA’s protestations, while holding out the vague promise of something working out. All it has done is stoke Doval and Modi’s hope that Xi will be in an amenable mood and sometime in the future permit a durable solution to be negotiated at this forum, and strengthened Beijing’s view of them as a couple of strategic nitwits. They need to be disabused. The only time the Special Representatives forum will, in fact, be successful is when China gets Delhi to formalize the latter’s acceptance of all Indian territory under Chinese occupation, as falling within the Chinese claim line.

Even so this is the false hope that apparently motivated the PMO to order the Defence Ministry to yank a document it had uploaded to its website in early May honestly stating that “Chinese aggression has been increasing along the LAC and more particularly in Galwan valley since 5th May, 2020. The Chinese side transgressed in the area of Kugrang Nala, Gogra and north bank of Pangong Tso lake on 17-18 May, 2020.” It ended by saying “The situation in Eastern Ladakh arising from unilateral aggression by China continues to be sensitive and requiring close monitoring and prompt action based on evolving situation.” There, of course, has been no action, prompt or otherwise. The deletion of the document from the website cannot be explained except in terms of the desire of the PM, PMO and MEA that nothing be done to, in the least, upset Beijing and that any reference to “Chinese aggression” be excised from the public record.

This speaks about Modi’s unfathomable awe and fear of China and why there has not been even a squeak out of his government regarding Beijing’s clampdown on Hong Kong, or about threats against Taiwan, and serious provocations offered the Southeast Asian littoral and offshore states in the South China Sea at a time when China routinely slaps India around diplomatically. To wit, Beijing’s egregious wagging of finger on the anniversary of the Article 370 abrogation on Aug 5.

Does any of this make sense?

Then again, there really is no way out of the hole the Modi government and army have dug for themselves by being reactive, rather than proactive and attentive to satellite intel, when it comes to the LAC, except to go to limited war. Modi rode out the swell of public opinion demanding forceful military response after the deaths in the PLA ambush of the 16 Bihar personnel on June 15 — the very day on which my post recommended a limited war to claw back the territory China has annexed — by saying little, doing nothing.

Public memory being short, Modi can sit out the public’s disillusionment with his China policy and, as in the past, do zero in the expectation of some political dividend — what it can be is hard to see. But if his peaceful attitude gets him egg on his face, Indian territory stays lost to China, and if the opposition keeps up a drumbeat of withering criticism, he may have no alternative to ordering military action to restore the status quo ante by recovering Fingers 4 to 8 on the Pangong Tso, clearing the Galwan of the residual PLA presence and, especially, removing the Chinese blockade at the Y-junction on the Depsang Plains. But then the cost of recovering lost territory will be so much steeper. Such are the wages of feeble minds favouring procrastination and doing zilch rather than going in for prompt action.

As regards the limited war imperative too, I will be proved right. But just in case Modi girds up his loins and initiates a justified military operation, China may need to be deterred from escalating the conventional military proceedings. This will require the PM to deploy those Agnis that are canisterized to the Ladakh theatre, Agni-5s to launch positions in the northeast to reach the farthest Chinese targets, and the Arihant SSBN on active deterrence patrolling in the Bay of Bengal.

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Better off with a Mod Quad

Nimitz Strike Group Participates in Cooperative Exercises with Indian Navy  - Naval News
Nimitz carrier task group in a Passex July 20 with Indian Navy warships

The US secretary of state Michael Pompeo publicly regretted President Richard Nixon’s 1972 policy of cultivating China that the US followed ever since as a grave strategic error. Far from liberalizing the Communist state as was hoped, allowing China concessional terms of trade, unhindered access to the American market, and transfer of advanced technology to modernize its military and manufacturing industry, helped it to emerge in the second decade of the 21st Century as an aggressive  authoritarian state,  a mercantilist powerhouse and military rival which can only be handled, he contended in a July 23 speech in California,  by ‘a new alliance of democracies’.

As if on cue, India’s “weathercock strategists” — a delectable phrase coined by Jawed Naqvi, the Delhi correspondent of the Pakistani newspaper Dawn — began chiming in, about how with a slightly modified moniker this ‘coalition of democracies’ would serve India’s purpose. It is, however, a line External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar indicated the Modi government is a little chary of. He told a web audience at the ‘Mindmine Summit’ last week that while the ‘era of great caution and …greater dependence on multilateralism…is behind us”, the consequence of the US ‘repositioning’ itself and of the American security ‘umbrella’ becoming ‘smaller, less thick’ is that it has ‘allowed other countries to play more autonomous roles’.

Apparently, he sees India as a ‘middle power’ in such a role; the confusion and lack of clarity is about just how autonomously the Modi government wants the country to act, in Jaishankar’s words, in ‘a multipolar world with strong bipolar characteristics.’ The problem is, based on its record, reflexively siding with the US seems to be its default position that has alienated old friends (Russia, Iran) and ill-served the national interest. 

The issue is this: Can any ‘alliance’ or ‘coalition’ of democracies be conceived or imagined without India in it? Absolutely not. So, there’s no real policy premium or material profit in joining a group mooted by the US which, as the dominant power, will decide the norms for intra-coalition affairs and dictate the rules of engagement with non-democratic adversaries of its choice. But there’s every incentive for India in this situation to remain in its own orbit, pursue its goals unimpaired by America’s do’s and don’ts, and leverage its participation for a price in such coalitions as promote its cause and keep away from moves detrimental to its interests.

Given that India’s perception of the China threat is more in line with those of the nations on the latter’s periphery, it makes more sense to alight on a security scheme organic to the extended region. Such as a Modified Quadrilateral or Mod Quad of India, Japan, a cell of Southeast Asian nations, and Australia in which the US, as the extra-territorial power balancer in the Indo-Pacific, can opt in or opt out. This is better than sticking with the Quadrilateral involving America, where its readiness for military confrontation is in inverse proportion to China’s growing military prowess.

The Mod Quad would allow India the latitude, for instance, independently to arm Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia with strategic weapons, and to otherwise operate jointly with Japan, Australia, and the regional states with the most stakes in it, to curb China’s hegemonic tendencies. 

The oceanic expanse separating China and the US, and the contiguous disputed land borders and narrow seas separating China and the Mod Quad members make for quite different security dynamics. As evidence of the distinct sets of interests and motivations at work, consider the clash in eastern Ladakh. The US has done precious little to help. 

The deployment of two aircraft carrier task groups in the Philippine Sea pertained to the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait but was misrepresented by the Indian media as a gesture of support. And the Passing Exercise in the Andaman Sea with a couple of Indian warships by one of the carrier groups returning to its Bahrain base, was of no great value.


Published as Up-Front column in India Today, Issue dated August 10, 2020, at

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Much ado about Rafale

IAF Rafale jets get mid-air refueling at 30,000 feet; check pics
[Incoming IAF Rafales refueling mid-journey]

Many combat aircraft — new to the air force — have entered service over the years. But I doubt whether the IAF has experienced any warplane being accorded the kind of hyperbolised welcome the five Rafales (2 two seat trainers, 3 single seaters) are getting. This small Rafale complement is flying in today from Merignac, France, to the IAF’s 1 Air Wing’s home base at Ambala. Trumpeted as a “game changer” — among the more restrained phrases for it being flung around alike by bemedalled Air Marshals, reporters who went up joy-riding on this plane only to return to earth singing its hosannas, and television news show hosts, makes one wonder if this aircraft can fly with the weight of so much exaggeration!

Predictably, the CAS who decided on converting the No. 17 squadron he commanded featuring the old warhorse, MiG-21 bis, to Rafales, Air Chief Marshal (Retd) BS Dhanoa took the lead in going overboard when talking up this aircraft to the Press. ( It appears that the IAF believes it has crossed some kind of threshold: A pre-Rafale IAF was in no position to handle the Chinese threat emanating from the Tibetan Plateau, post-Rafale induction the Chinese won’t be able to deal with the IAF! This is a lot of poppycock, of course.

It has long been known that the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has a large inventory of mostly dated aircraft, and even the more modern ones in it — the J-10s (derived from the Lavi design and technology bought whole from Israel in the 1980s after the US pressured Tel Aviv to terminate this programme) and the J-20 air superiority fighter — a knock-off of the American J-35 Lightning-II cobbled together from designs and systems technologies purloined by cyber means from Lockheed and other sub-contractors working on that project, will be burdened by the same problem any aircraft taking off in the thin air from the high altitude Tibetan bases would face: Balancing the mix of fuel and the ordnance load, because one is at the expense of the other.

Or, put another way, a combat aircraft ex-Hotan and ex-Lhasa, can either have range or carry many weapons, it cannot do both. IAF planes taking off from the plains just across the Himalayan hump, on the other hand, are not so disadvantaged. Whence the concentration of Chinese short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs and MRBMs) in Tibet and the probability of the Chengdu combat zone command, on initiation of war, deciding to take out Indian air bases hosting IAF attack aircraft, with SRBM/MRBM strikes.

It is a danger Dhanoa did not address for the good reason that IAF has no credible plan for preemptively neutralizing these Chinese missiles. Instead, he hinted at the suppression of Chinese air defences role for the Rafales. Except, this mission can as easily and, perhaps, more effectively be performed by low flying Jaguars with the super-agile Su-30 MKIs providing protective cover.

Referring to the aircraft in Indian and Chinese air force inventories, he dismissed the danger posed by the J-20 saying the Rafale and the Su-30s will be able to counter it, if they can first avoid the surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems which, he claimed, constitutes the main “Chinese Air Threat”. What Dhanoa did not say is that both the IAF and the PLAAF will be operationally hampered by the small numbers of Rafales and J-20s available to the two air forces. However, while IAF will have to make do with just 36 Rafales — there’s too much controversy attending on the Rafale transaction for the government to risk an additional buy, the PLAAF currently boasting some 50-odd J-20s, will keep enlarging its J-20 fleet. It is a force imbalance that cannot be rectified even if the Indian government approves the purchase of another 90 Rafales as Vayu Bhavan desires (to bring the medium multi-role combat aircraft complement to planned strength) because the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation can keep rolling out the J-20s at will at progressively lower unit cost.

He then extolled “the advanced terrain following weapons and level II of Digital Terrain Elevation Data’ system onboard the Rafale, which he says will be particularly effective in the high altitude desert lacking tree cover for near zero-error kills. But it is a platform attribute that is also sported, it turns out, by the Su-30MKI with weapons that can be slaved to its terrain following radar in low altitude flight profile. 

It is not my case that the avionics on the Rafale and the weapons it carries (air-to-ground Scalp missile, air-to-air Meteor missile, and Hammer (Highly Agile and Manoeuvrable Munition Extended Range) for precision A2G targeting are not qualitatively superior to their Russian counterparts that the IAF uses. Rather, that the price differential between the French and the Russian ordnance is so great it is not matched by proportionate performance upgrade and, hence, that it makes no sense for the IAF not to massively augment its Su-30 fleet for the cost of a truckload of Meteors, for example! In exchange ratio terms, therefore, the value of numerous Su-30s made by HAL, Nashik, ensuring that a good part of the procurement cost remains in the country, for invariably far fewer Rafales bought at humungous cost, is really no contest. It does not help Rafale’s case that its all up cost is three times Su-30’s! Further, the Sukhoi by all accounts is the finest fighter-bomber now flying barring the supremely maneuverable MiG-29 (tipping the hat here to retired Air Marshal Harish Masand — the 29’s biggest promoter). And upgraded to the ‘super Sukhoi’ configuration the Su-30 will be well nigh unbeatable.

For all these reasons, the Modi government in the face of the border crisis in eastern Ladakh, has gone in for a speed buy of the more economical Su-30MKIs and MiG-29s!

I am reprising here the sort of arguments I made in my books and other writings for more Su-30s as alternative to the impossibly high-priced and hence fewer Rafales, in the lead up to Modi’s French deal in April 2015. They had found favour with the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar before he was shipped back to Goa.

Dhanoa then got round to the business of slamming Chinese aircraft and technology with the Pakistan Air Force, especially the JF-17 Thunder that flew combat air patrol for the F-16s retaliating for IAF’s Balakot strike, as an inferior product. Except, he did not factor in the more sophisticated Block 3 stealth version of this aircraft that China will soon be transferring to Pakistan and begin filling PAF squadrons. Then Dhanoa threw in a non sequiter. Why, he asked, “does Pakistan use Swedish early air warning platforms up north and keep Chinese AWACS in the south? Why is Pakistan mounting European radar (Selex Gallelio) and Turkish targeting pod” on the JF-17? The answer is quite evident.” The riposte to this would be that Pakistan did as he says for the same reasons that India has equipped its Russian aircraft, starting with the MiG-21, with Israeli avionics and French, British, and Swedish components, systems and sub-systems — to secure a hybrid weapons platform that in its totality promises a bigger bang for the buck!

That Dhanoa has overstated Rafale’s virtues is not a surprise. Service chiefs in retirement are often more voluble and unrestrained in their views than when in service.

Even so, the point made by many IAF officers to the Press that Chinese combat aircraft and related technologies cannot compare with like Western or even Russian items, is not much of a revelation. But when IAF officers begin dissing the Chinese for “reverse engineering Russian equipment” they fail to acknowledge just how far China has gone in becoming near self-sufficient in armaments using these means that they revile when the Indian military has essentially remained third-rate because it is satisfied with surviving, hand-to-mouth, on imported arms.

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Will Modi go to war with China? — Two-part Interview

Rediff News published a two-part interview (taken 8-10 days earlier) on July 20, 2020 and July 22, 2020

‘By not even acknowledging China’s occupation of Indian territory Modi signalled to Beijing that he was not prepared to use forceful means to vacate the Chinese occupation, and that his government was reconciled to this loss of territory and accepted the fait accompli engineered by the PLA.’

[Modi interacts with Indian soldiers during his visit to Ladakh, July 3, 2020]

National security expert Bharat Karnad is Emeritus Professor in national security studies at the Centre for Policy Research. A prolific author, his most recent book is Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition. He helped draft India’s nuclear policy and authored India’s Nuclear Policy and Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security. He was one of the first security experts to have issued several warnings about the Chinese incursion and occupation of Indian territory in eastern Ladakh.

“Considering how much Prime Minister Modi has invested in his personal relations with Xi, the impression cannot be allowed to go out that the whole India-China relations edifice was built on shifting sand,” Professor Karnad tells Contributor Rashme Sehgal. The first of a two-part interview:


Senior government sources claim Prime Minister Modi is upset with General Bipin Rawat on how the chief of defence staff incorrectly advised him on how to handle the Ladakh crisis.

I am not sure how General Rawat can be faulted for the ‘do little, do nothing provocative’ advice rendered by him to the prime minister. After all, it is natural for military advice givers to tack to the leanings of the PM. And Modi has in various summits and meetings with Xi Jinping shown a distinct tendency to accommodate Beijing.

Modi was also reportedly upset with Leh-based 14 Corps Commander Lieutenant General Harinder Singh for the PLA’s deep incursions in eastern Ladakh.

One may hold the Leh Corps commander and the army brass responsible for the deep PLA penetrations into Indian territory, but the PMO cannot be absolved of the responsibility either. It is hard to imagine that the Defence Image Processing and Analysis Centre, controlled by the army-run Defence Intelligence Agency, was not passing on the series of high-resolution satellite photographs detailing the PLA intrusions and build-up in Indian territory since the late summer of 2019 to army headquarters and the PMO.

There is a view among defence experts that the Modi government is making misleading claims about the extent of disengagement along the LAC/
Why should the government be doing this given that today there is satellite imagery to corroborate what is happening on the ground?

That’s the point I made several weeks ago in my blog. Any misleading statements emanating from the government can be confirmed or belied by commercially available satellite imagery. Hence, it is politically foolhardy to lie to the people.

[Indian Army vehicles in Leh, July 15, 2020.]

There are reports that the PLA has refused to withdraw from the Hot Springs area and from Gogra. Is that correct? Even in Galwan, the buffer zone is being created in Indian territory.

I am not sure about this. Gogra and the Hot Springs areas are where the two governments supposedly agreed to establish ‘buffer zones’. My problem with the buffer zone concept is precisely that they encompass territory claimed by India and the ‘no man’s land’ separating the two sides and, therefore, compromise India’s claims on the LAC. And it leaves this belt of land vulnerable to permanent Chinese absorption.

But newspapers and TV channels are reporting what they are being told by army sources who also qualify this information by stating that the army is spouting the line given to them by the national security adviser’s office.
What are your views on this.

Of course, the NSA is in the business of micromanaging the public perceptions of the unfolding events in eastern Ladakh.

Considering how much Prime Minister Modi has invested in his personal relations with Xi, the impression cannot be allowed to go out that the whole India-China relations edifice was built on shifting sand.

[An Indian Air Force Apache helicopter flying over the mountains in Ladakh, July 15, 2020]

Commercial satellite imagery reportedly shows the LAC has shifted 12 to 15 kms in Depsang, 1 km in Galwan, 2 to 4 kms in Gogra and 8 kms in Pangong Lake.
This would be by far the largest loss of territory to China since the 1962 war.
Is this observation correct?

I have been warning since the beginning about the quite considerable loss of territory. I estimate that China’s policy of what I have called incremental annexation has resulted in the loss of some 1,300 sq kms of Indian territory in the new millennium.

Should the buck not stop with NSA Ajit Doval?

Well, yes, because he is supposed to ingest all intel, field reports, military briefings, analyses and recommendations from the China Study Group, et al, and alight on policy options for the PM.

You have said repeatedly that Indian intelligence knew about the Chinese build up for the last one year. More specifically, intelligence had told the army about Chinese movements in the LAC area, but the army took this to be normal spring time activity. Would you say this has been an operational lapse by the army?

As I have already said, there’s no excuse for XIV Corps Headquarters in Leh or army headquarters in Delhi and for the army misreading imagery intelligence transmitted to the Defence Intelligence Agency by DIPAC.

Is it correct to say that the government had considered the possibility of replacing the Northern Army commander and the corps commander but decided against it.

I don’t know about this specific case. But there’s no reason why a corps commander the government judges to be incompetent cannot be replaced mid-operations. In fact, such replacement should be routinised.

In your June 23 blog you highlight how Article 6 of the 1996 Agreement with China permits the attacked to use infantry weapons in defence. Why were they not used by Lieutenant Colonel Babu and his men when attacked by the Chinese?

The Article 6 provision was first mentioned by former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General H S Panag. And hence I argued Babu should have gone prepared on his sortie for a rumble (confrontation with the PLA). Article 6 permits use of side-arms if attacked by the other party.

[Modi with Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist party of China, at their second informal summit in Mahabalipuram, October 11, 2019]

What signal did Modi’s June 17 statement not mentioning Chinese occupation send to the world and more especially to the Chinese?

By not even acknowledging China’s occupation of Indian territory Modi signalled Beijing that:

1. He was not prepared to use forceful means to vacate the Chinese occupation;

2. His government was reconciled to this loss of territory and accepted the fait accompli engineered by the PLA.

Your June 23 blog suggests the Chinese had anticipated that Modi would not fight.
You used the expression ‘Modi’s inaction in the face of provocation’.
On what basis was this assumption based.

On the basis of Modi’s personal relations with Xi and warmer ties with China that he has ballyhooed over the year.

Why were the heights on the eastern shore of the Shyok River facing the Daulat Bed Oldi/Karakoram-Depsang road not secured ten years ago?

This, I have said, is the Indian Army’s biggest blunder. The heights on the eastern bank of the Shyok River should have been secured as soon as the alignment of the DSDBO road was fixed. It was an elementary precaution to protect a strategic infrastructure asset it did not take.


Part-II, July 22, 2020

‘Limited war is the only option with China’

‘The PLA will not voluntarily withdraw from Indian territory.’

[Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane, Northern Army commander Lieutenant General Yogesh Kumar Joshi, and other officers at a forward base in Ladakh.]

“War is apparently not the preferred mode of action for a peacetime army with leadership that, other than counter insurgency operations, has not experienced real war,” Dr Karnad tells Contributor Rashme Sehgal in the concluding segment of a two-part interview.

You say a limited war is the only option for India. What prevents the government from taking this step? Is our army diffident about taking on the Chinese army?
Or does our political leadership want to avoid a confrontation?

Limited war is the only option because the PLA will not voluntarily withdraw from the Indian territory it is ensconced in. But war is apparently not the preferred mode of action for a peacetime army with leadership that, other than counter insurgency operations, has not experienced real war.

Your blog alleges that Prime Minister Modi wants to cut some kind of deal with the Chinese. What are you alluding to?

How else to interpret Modi’s reticence in calling out Xi’s China for its calculated policy of territorial aggrandisement?

Do you see any kind of political fallout of these developments within the country?

It depends on what the Opposition parties want to make of it, and how successfully they are able to convey to the masses the fact of Modi’s capitulation to China.

Several army sources believe the PLA and the Pakistan army will move in unison and are likely to attack India in the coming months.
What is the likelihood of such a move?

Zero possibility. The Pakistan army is too professional and pragmatic to get into a situation that could redound to its disbenefit.

With China supplying submarines and other naval equipment to the Pakistan navy, will this accelerate tensions further?

China as the primary supplier of military hardware to Pakistan is not a new development and will not aggravate the existing India-Pakistan or Sino-Indian tensions.

While Modi hesitates to take on China, he showed no hesitation in taking on Pakistan after Balakot.

The smaller, weaker, Pakistan is easier to belabour. Besides, being tough with Pakistan has domestic political dividends in that the Hindu-Muslim tensions at home are externalised in India-Pakistan relations.

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An Alternate Agenda: Time for Disruptive Foreign and National Security Policies

The NSA To Beat All NSAs Thus Far... | Outlook India Magazine
Trimurti — Modi, Doval and Jaishankar]

In the run up to the 2019 general elections, the Centre for Policy Research published a compendium of essays by its faculty members — ‘Policy Challenges 2019-2024: Charting a New Course for India and Navigating Policy Challenges in the 21st Century’ for limited circulation and uploaded it to its website. It is available at These essays offered an alternative policy template for the incoming government to consider. I did not post my essay (with end notes) in this compilation on this blog ere now.

A year later and in the context of China’s annexationist policy on the disputed border and India’s continuing failure to deal with China, this piece has gained even more weight, methinks. It may be interesting for those of you eager to delve deeper into the subject, to compare and contrast my views with those of Shyam Saran, ex-Foreign Secretary, and honorary professor at CPR (also available at the above URL), which reflect the Establishment thinking.

Reproduced below is that piece.

Several mega-trends are visible in international affairs on the cusp of the third decade of the 21st century. After a trillion dollars spent on the 18-year old war with the Taliban in Afghanistan following a similar amount expended in Iraq and Syria, the US is drained of its wealth, stamina and will for military confrontations of any kind. A reactive and retreating America under President Donald Trump, besides generating unprecedented levels of uncertainty and anxiety, has accentuated the conditions of unusual flux in the international system.

Second, with the old certainties gone, traditional alliances (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), trading regimes (Trans-Pacific Partnership), schemes of regional peace (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), and technology and supplier cartels (Missile Technology Control Regime, Nuclear Suppliers Group, et al.) are all alike in disarray; their concerns are now matters of contestation with China staking claim to the pole position vacated by the US.

And finally, these developments are compelling major countries to try to protect themselves the best they can by handling things on their own, in coalition with other similarly encumbered nations, and by exploring new security/military cooperation agreements. There is particular urgency in Asia to blunt China’s hegemonic ambitions and preclude its domination from taking root.

State of Play

Unfortunately India finds itself on the wrong side of these trends in the main. This is because it has, in the new millennium, accelerated its efforts to join the very same nonproliferation regimes and cartels that had victimized it all along. Worse, by sidling up to the US and virtually outsourcing its strategic security to Washington, India’s historical role as prime balancer in the international balance-of-power set-up – courtesy its hoary policies of nonalignment and its latter-day avatar, strategic autonomy – has been imperiled. This is at a time when doubts about the US commitment to other countries’ security have increased along with the apprehensions of allies and friends. With security made a transactional commodity by the Trump administration, treaty alliances have been weakened, unsettling West European and Far Eastern states traditionally close to the US. [1]

India’s trend-bucking policy, in the event, will only cement the growing perceptions of the country as unable to perceive its own best interests and to act on them. Its downgrade, as a result of its more recent strategies, to the status of a subordinate state and subsidiary ‘strategic partner’ of the US means that India will have restricted
strategic choices. Its foreign and military policies will therefore lose the freedom and latitude for diplomatic manoeuvre that they have always enjoyed.

Thus, the 2008 civilian nuclear deal, for all practical purposes, signed away India’s sovereign right to resume underground testing and froze its nuclear arsenal at the sub-thermonuclear technology level (as the 1998 fusion test was a dud). Agreeing to the
Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement – the so-called ‘foundational accords’ – will, respectively, (i) permit the US to stage its military forces out of Indian bases and embroil India in its wars in the extended region, and (ii) to penetrate the most secret Indian communications grid, including the nuclear command and control network. The Indian government’s eagerness to cement the partnership is astonishing considering the trust deficit evident in a long history of duplicitous US behaviour and policies. [2]

By clinging to a feckless and demanding US, India’s profile as a fiercely independent state has taken a beating, distanced the country from old friends such as Russia (which is pivotal to balancing China and the US) and Iran (central to India’s geostrategic concerns in the Gulf, Afghanistan and Central Asia), lost the nation its diplomatic elan, and has seriously hurt vital national interests.

Placating China is the other imprudent theme that Indian foreign policy has latched on to. It has mollycoddled its most dangerous adversary and comprehensively capable rival in Asia with giveaways – such as non-use of the Tibet and Taiwan cards, refraining
from nuclear missile-arming states on China’s periphery as a tit-for-tat measure for Beijing’s missile-arming of Pakistan, giving the Chinese manufacturing sector unhindered access to the Indian market through a massively unfair and unbalanced bilateral trade regime, etc. On the other hand, it has treated Pakistan, a weak flanking country, as a full-bore security threat when, realistically, it is only a military nuisance. This strategy is at the core of India’s external troubles. It has practically incentivized Beijing to desist from peaceful resolution of the border dispute. It has also undermined India’s credibility and credentials as ‘security provider’ to and strategic partner of a host of Asian littoral and offshore states fearful of an ambitious and aggressive China, as well as complicated the country’s attempts at obtaining a tier of friendly nations around it as buffer.

A topsy-turvy threat perception has also meant a lopsided Indian military geared to handle Pakistan but incapable of defending well against China, even less of taking the fight to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on land, air and distant seas; it is also laughably unprepared for future warfare featuring cyber pre-emption, remotely controlled armed drone swarms, robotic weapons systems managed by Artificial Intelligence, space-based weapons platforms, and clean micro-thermonuclear bombs.

In the context, moreover, of a recessive foreign policy and a military that seems unable to wean itself away from imported armaments, it is almost as if the Indian government
and armed services have given up on national security. This bewildering state of affairs is in urgent need of drastic overhaul and repair.

Geopolitical Vision and Strategy

Strong nations in the modern era have transitioned into great powers not only through expansive national visions, but also, more significantly, by pursuing policies disruptive of the prevailing order and multilateral regimes they had no hand in creating. India in the 21st century, on the other hand, seems content with the existing international system, measuring its foreign policy success in terms of entry gained or denied in
congeries of international power (UN Security Council) and trade and technology cartels (Nuclear Suppliers Group, Missile Technology Control Regime, etc.). In other words, it covets a place at the high table on terms set by other countries. It is not a mistake made by China or the US (or, to go back in history, Elizabethan England,
Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union and now Vladimir Putin’s Russia). The Indian government is hampered by its mistaken belief that upholding the current regional and international correlation of forces and mechanisms of order, and stressing its soft ‘civilizational’ power, will make the country great. India with its many infirmities is in no position to undertake system disruption by itself. [3]

For India to rise as the premier Asian challenger to China and as the other economic-political-military power node in the continent in the shortest possible time – which should be the legitimate national aim and vision – requires a subtle but telling approach. It needs a doublepronged strategy. One prong should stress absolutely
reciprocal positions and policies. Thus, Beijing’s insistence on ‘One China, two systems’ should be met with a ‘One India’ concept. So, the non-acceptance by Beijing of all of Jammu and Kashmir (including the Pakistan-occupied portion) as inalienably Indian
territory should lead to formal recognition of and relations with Taiwan; it should also spark off New Delhi’s world-wide advocacy of a free Tibet and a free East Turkestan, and of campaigns against ‘cultural genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Tibet and Xinjiang. [4] And China’s nuclear missile arming of Pakistan should, even if belatedly, trigger India’s transferring strategic missiles to the states adjoining China on land and sea to ensure that, like India, China too is permanently strategically discomfited.

Hamstringing China should also involve metameasures to carve out separate, loose and specifically anti-China security coalitions from the two important groups India is part of. BRICS (Brazil-RussiaIndia-China-South Africa) is an entity dominated economically and trade-wise by China. This is something that arouses wariness in the other three
countries, which can be mobilized to form a smaller, informal, security-cooperation-minded coalition, BRIS (Brazil-Russia-India-South Africa). It will assist in hedging Beijing’s military options and affect China’s economic expansiveness. Likewise, the
US’s importance to international security has to be whittled away. The Quadrilateral (US-Japan-IndiaAustralia) proposed by Japan’s Shinzo Abe to contain China in the Indo-Pacific is problematic owing to the centrality accorded the capricious US. India could
propose a different set-up – a modified Quadrilateral or ‘Mod Quad’ with India, Japan, Australia and the leading littoral and offshore states of South East Asia, resisting China’s over-lordship and disputing its claims in the South China Sea, with a cooperative
Taiwan accorded, to start with, observer status.

This would at once define the strategic geopolitical face-off between ‘rimland Asia’ and a hegemonic ‘heartland’ China, and reduce the uncertainty attending on America’s security role (given that the US and China, owing to their close economic and trading links, are inseparable). Mod Quad will clarify the strategic calculi of member states, while encouraging the US to contribute militarily to the extent it wants to at any time but as an outside party.[5] BRIS and Mod Quad are extremely practicable geopolitical solutions to share the cost, divide the danger, and generate synergy from the wide-spectrum capabilities, singly and together, of the member states in these two collectives. At the same time, they would stretch China’s economic and military resources and minimize the consequences of ambiguity attending on the US role. These new arrangements adhere to the time-tested principle of vision shaping strategy but
geography driving it, which makes for cohesion and sense of purpose. BRIS and Mod Quad will enable their member states to be less inhibited in cooperating with each other to deal with the overarching security threat posed by China, but without the intimidating presence of the US (which, typically, pursues its own interests at the expense of any coalition it is a part of). They will instill in the Indian government’s external outlook an outcomes-oriented, competitive bent. It may result, for instance, in getting the east-west Ganga-Mekong connectivity project – as a rival to China’s north-south Belt & Road Initiative – off the ground. [6]

But BRIS and Mod Quad leave Pakistan out of the reckoning. Pakistan is strong enough to be a spoiler and, in cahoots with China, pose a substantial problem. More than 70 years of tension and conflict with India haven’t helped. For a lasting solution it is essential to break up the Pakistan-China nexus. The military palliative for terrorist provocations – air and land strikes – will only drive Islamabad deeper into China’s camp. A Kashmir solution roughly along the lines negotiated with General Pervez Musharraf in 2007 that Prime Minister Imran Khan has said Pakistan will accept, is a reasonable end state to work towards.[7] But India can lubricate such an offer with policies to co-opt Pakistan (along with India’s other subcontinental neighbours)
economically, by means of trade on concessional terms, and easy credit and access to the Indian market for manufactures and produce. This will obtain the goal
of unitary economic space in the subcontinent and lay the foundations for a pacified South Asia – the first step in India’s long overdue achievement of great power.

Such actions should, however, be preceded by several unilateral and risk-averse military initiatives (outlined later) to establish India’s peaceful bonafides and to denature the Indian threat that Pakistan perceives. Simultaneously, prioritizing strategic and expeditionary military capabilities against China and for distant operations jointly with friendly states in the Indian Ocean Region and in Southeast Asia will secure India’s extended security perimeter.

National Security Policy Priorities

Lack of money has never been the hitch. Rather, the problem has been and continues to be the misuse of financial resources by the three armed services with their faulty expenditure priorities. Intent on equipping and sustaining inappropriate force structures geared to the lesser threat, they have squandered the colonial
legacy of expeditionary and ‘out of area operations’. Consequently, they have shrunk greatly in stature even as they have increased in size.[8] Persisting with thinking
of Pakistan as the main threat long after it credibly ceased to be one post the 1971 war has resulted in an Indian military able to fight only short-range, short-duration, small and inconclusive wars. Indeed, so geared to territorial defence and tactical warfare are the Indian armed services that they have paid scant attention to strategic objectives and to the means of realizing them.

The political leadership, for its part, has shown marked lack of interest, and failure to articulate a national vision and to outline a game plan and strategy. It has chosen the easy way of relying on the armed services professionally to do the right thing by proffering the right advice – which they haven’t. Breaking the Pakistan-China nexus is an imperative. It requires the Indian government to first seed a conducive political milieu by making certain safe unilateral military moves. What the Pakistan Army most fears is India’s three Strike Corps; if this ‘threat’ is denatured, a milieu with enormous peaceful potential can be created. Considering the nuclear overhang and zero probability of the Indian government ever ordering a war of annihilation – which is the only time when these armoured and mechanized formations will fight full tilt – three corps are way in excess of need. They can be reconstituted and the resources shifted to form a single composite corps adequate for any conceivable Pakistan contingency. The rest of the heavily armoured units can be converted to airborne cavalry, and to light tanks with engines optimized for high-altitude conditions; three offensive mountain corps can thereby be equipped to take the fight to the PLA on the Tibetan Plateau.

The nuclear backdrop can likewise be changed for the better by India removing its short-range nuclear missiles from forward deployment on the western border and perhaps even getting rid of them altogether, because hinterland-based missiles can reach Pakistani targets with ease. These two moves made without demanding matching responses will cost India little in terms of security, establish a modicum of trust,
persuade Pakistan of India’s goodwill, and confirm China as the Indian military’s primary concern. It will hasten normalcy in bilateral relations.

Tackling China at a time when it is widening the gap with India in all respects necessitates India using the playbook the Chinese successfully used against the
US, that Pakistan has used against India, and North Korea against America, when facing an adversary with a marked conventional military edge. It means revising the nuclear doctrine to emphasise Nuclear First Use (NFU) and deploying weapons to make this stance credible. Emplacing atomic demolition munitions in Himalayan passes to deter PLA units ingressing in strength across the disputed border is one tripwire. Another is
to declare that any forceful Chinese military action that crosses a certain undefined threshold may automatically trigger the firing of canisterised medium- and longrange Agni missiles, now capable of launch-on-launch and launch-on warning. Additionally, the large numbers of Chinese missiles positioned in Tibet should be seen as the third nuclear tripwire. As there is no technology to reliably detect and determine the nature of incoming warheads, any missile PLA fires will reasonably have to be assumed to be nuclear-warheaded. Such a posture leaning towards action will create precisely the kind of uncertainty about the Indian reaction and response that will bolster its deterrent stance.[9]

Exorbitantly priced aircraft carriers are unaffordable and, in the age of hypersonic and supersonic missiles, a military liability. The Indian naval budget should instead
prioritize nuclear-powered ballistic missile-firing and attack submarines, and a surface fleet of multipurpose frigates. The Indian Air Force needs to radically cut the diversity of combat aircraft in its inventory, rationalize its force structure and streamline its logistics set-up. This will be facilitated by limiting the fleet to just three types of aircraft – the multi-role Su-30MKI upgraded to ‘super Sukhoi’ configuration in the strike and air
superiority role and progressively enhanced versions of the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft for air defence, the follow-on Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft for longer reach and bigger punch, and lease-buying 1-2 squadrons of Tu-160M2 ‘Blackjack’ strategic bomber from Russia as the manned, recallable, vector in the country’s nuclear triad.

Politically, the most difficult policy decision for the government will be to resume nuclear testing. This is absolutely necessary to obtain tested and proven thermonuclear weapons of different power-to-yield ratios. India has got by with a suspect thermonuclear arsenal for 20 years. It is time India’s strategic deterrent acquired credibility.



  1. An unreliable US, in fact, so concerns its NATO allies that the French defence minister Florence Parly in Washington asked a little plaintively,
    ‘What Europeans are worried about is this: Will the U.S. commitment [to NATO] be perennial? Should we assume that it will go on as was
    the case in the past 70 years?’ See ‘French defense chief questions US commitment to NATO’, AFP, RadioFreeEurope, Radio Liberty, 18 March
  2. Bharat Karnad, Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet) (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015), 187-219.
  3. For a detailed analysis of its various infirmities that preclude India’s becoming a great power anytime soon, see Karnad, Why India Is Not a
    Great Power (Yet).
  4. China sees itself as the main protector of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Visiting Islamabad during the Pulwama crisis, the
    foreign minister Wang Yi declared: ‘No matter how things change in the world and the region, China will firmly support Pakistan upholding its independence and territorial integrity and dignity.’ See Sutirtho Patranobis, ‘China firmly with Pakistan, says Beijing as Islamabad
    raises Kashmir in top talks’, Hindustan Times, 19 March 2019,
  5. Bharat Karnad, ‘India’s Weak Geopolitics and What To Do About It’, in Bharat Karnad, ed., Future Imperilled: India’s Security in the 1990s and
    Beyond (New Delhi: Viking, 1994), 19-20.
  6. Bharat Karnad, Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition (New Delhi: Penguin-Viking, 2018), ch. 4.
  7. Imtiaz Ahmad, ‘2-3 solutions available to Kashmir issues, says Pak PM Imran Khan’, Hindustan Times, 4 December 2018,
  8. Karnad, Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), ch. 5.
  9. Bharat Karnad, ‘Shifting the Nuclear Security Focus to China’, in Lieutenant General A.K. Singh and Lieutenant General B.S. Nagal, eds.,
    India’s Military Strategy in the 21st Century (New Delhi: Centre for Land Warfare Studies and KW Publishers, 2019); Karnad, Staggering Forward,
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Don’t miss this opportunity, Modiji, warn China of military action and execute it!

PM Modi takes Xi Jinping on a guided tour of Mamallapuram ...
Modi and Xi at Mamallapuram

China has risen to be a great power in part because its leaders have had the knack for never missing an opportunity to exploit a situation or kick an adversary when he’s down. For instance, Mao leveraged the support Nikita Khrushchev sought from China in his Kremlin power struggle with Georgy Malenkov, immediate successor to Stalin, and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov in the mid-1950s, for Russian transfer of nuclear weapons and missile technologies. And, always inclined from early in his reign to show up the “cocky” Nehru, Mao chose exactly the time when John F Kennedy blockaded Cuba for a showdown with Khrushchev over Russian missiles there in October 1962 to attack India.

It is the sort of ruthlessness and single-minded pursuit of power Indian leaders can apparently summon only against their political rivals at home. In the external sphere, they are ‘bheegi billees’ — timid and cautious, ready to take the counsel of fear. And it is fear and risk aversion that the China Study Group’s advice to Indian governments usually reeks of. CSG is the main shaper of the government’s China policy. In the present circumstances, its urging the Modi government to have the GOC, XIV Corps, continue parlaying with the Chinese sector commander, carry on with the buffer zone-concept that has compromized India’s territorial claims in eastern Ladakh, and otherwise seek refuge in interminable exchanges with the Chinese at various official levels, is not getting India anywhere, but who cares.

Consider the context China unexpectedly finds itself in. The US and the West are pretty much hanging up on Beijing on the trade and technology fronts. The Chinese economy is slumping. The corona pandemic, the new Chinese security law imposed on Hong Kong and President Trump’s desire to economically and security-wise scapegoat China for his re-election purposes, has led to America orchestrating an international campaign against China as the irresponsible spreader of the corona virus, ending Hong Kong’s special trading privileges, threatening economic sanctions, terminating Chinese investments in cutting edge technology companies in the US, and denying visas to Chinese citizens. Further, the US and the UK governments have banned the Chinese tech giant Huawei from the American and the British 5G telecommunications markets — a move that India too has wisely subscribed to, deployed two American aircraft carrier groups in the Philippine Sea — a proverbial stone’s throw away from the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, accelerated deliveries of advanced armaments to Japan and Taiwan, and asked its allies and friends to vote against a seat for China on the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, which the US Assistant Secretary of State State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell likened to “hiring an arsonist to help run the fire department.”

Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang called in the U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad “to warn the U.S. sternly that any bullying and unfairness imposed on China by the U.S. will meet resolute counterattack from China, and the U.S. attempt to obstruct China’s development”, he added, unconvincingly, “is doomed to failure.”

One hopes, the Modi government has enough sense to vote with like-minded countries to prevent China from occupying a seat on the Sea Tribunal.

But to get to the more urgent point: With China rattled and besieged on all fronts and stretched militarily in the east and the west, it is in no position to engage in all out hostilities in Ladakh. Now is therefore the time, an opportune one, for Delhi to trash all the ridiculous understandings to-date, end talks at all levels, and to announce a time limit of two-three weeks, starting now, for the PLA to get the hell out of Indian territory. And, in this regard, to issue a clear and public warning to Beijing, and so communicate it to the world so that international pressure can be mobilized, that the Indian armed forces will undertake limited military operations using all conventional means at their disposal to vacate every last square inch of Chinese troops come what may, and at whatever cost. The PLA has to unconditionally and voluntarily restore the status quo ante that foreign minister Jaishankar has already formally demanded, or be forced to do so. The Modi regime should follow up with the facilitation of high paced preparations by the Indian military for war backed, as I have suggested in earlier posts, by moving Agni missiles to the theatre and ordering the Arihant SSBN on patrol to loiter in its launch area just in case and, at the end of the 2-3 week deadline, to initiate without ado the promised military actions. The international community will sympathize with India and press Beijing to get out and keep out of Indian Ladakh.

The Indian government has so routinely messed up on historic opportunities to make strategic good, it will be no surprise if Narendra Modi too fails to be decisive, and stays with his ridiculous public stance that China is not in occupation of any Indian territory, and hence that there is no problem of territorial aggrandizement that needs to be addressed. The CSG members will cluck in satisfaction that they have done well.

Except, Modi needs to be reminded that it was a private American company, Maxar, that first released commercially available satellite imagery showing deep PLA penetrations into Indian Ladakh, detailing the infrastructure buildup — intelligence that Indian satellites had long ago picked up and conveyed to the Indian government. The real scandal, in the event, is that Modi did nothing with this information and, ostrich like, stuck his neck in the sand, implicitly denying that his good and great friend Xi Jinping did anything wrong.

Not sure how Modi will live down this episode, but that’s his personal outlook. That India has had its territory so brazenly annexed without China suffering any cost whatsoever, will mean such intrusive adventures will be repeated every summer by the PLA. And Beijing will rely on the Indian PM to ex post-facto legitimate the LAC being thus steadily pushed India-wards.

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A defriended Iran in China’s camp; and Delhi has no tipping point.

[Jask, located at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, would give the Chinese a strategic vantage point on the waters through which much of the world’s oil transits.Credit…Orbital Horizon/Gallo Images, via Getty Images]

Some 2-3 years back or so, I received an emailed letter from a Joint Secretary in MEA asking for what I thought India’s foreign policy priorities should be. It was perhaps a form letter sent out to others as well. I thought it was a bit late in the day for the Modi regime to ask for policy recommendations four years into its first term, and to me signaled an official acknowledgement that the earlier priorities — whatever they were — hadn’t worked. Nevertheless, I dutifully wrote back listing them with thumbnail justifications for each of them.

The list repeated the priorities I had, incidentally, put on a paper and handed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in November 2014 the only time he had called me in for “consultation”. I was part of an odd assortment of analysts, MEA beat reporters, a television channel’s “strategic affairs expert”, an owner-cum-editor-in-chief, and such like. Each of us had 5-minutes and then were treated to the PM’s ideas about this and that but mainly his achievements in Gujarat. There were no official note-takers, no follow-up, and the whole thing was a waste of time.

In contrast was the session I had (along with one or two other analysts) with Dr. Manmohan Singh over breakfast in mid-September 2004 on the eve of his first visit to the US to attend the UN General Assembly meeting. It was a proper and meaty discussion with lot of exchanges and the prime minister asking questions. On the PM’s side of the table were arrayed, among others, the NSA, Mani Dixit, and his Personal Private Secretary, TKA Nair (ex-IAS, Punjab cadre), both busily taking notes. I remember urging the PM to speak to President George W. Bush when they met on the sidelines in Hotel Astoria in New York about the need for a fairer, more equitable, nuclear order, failing to realize which, to say, India would feel free to test again and do whatever else was necessary to beef up its nuclear security. I also suggested he reinforce this message to the US government by repeating it publicly while in that city.

Gratifyingly, Singh told Bush what I had suggested, and repeated these points in a speech delivered a day later at an NRI function on Long Island. Perhaps, alarmed by what Bush heard, Washington got to work and, in conjunction with the usual suspects at this end, quickly turned Manmohan Singh. By the time the PM next visited the US in July 2005 he had committed to the strategically disastrous civilian nuclear cooperation deal that furthered the US nuclear nonproliferation goals by, for all intents and purposes, prohibiting the resumption of nuclear tests by India. The deal was negotiated by the then Joint Secretary (Americas) in MEA — one Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. The relentless criticism by a few of us about the prospective deal during the time it was being negotiated in 2005-2008 was used by Jaishankar — so he let it be known — to temper the ask by the US negotiators. (Just how merciless and on-point the criticism was may be gauged from reading the op-eds and other writings in that period by the four of us — Drs PK Iyengar, former chairman Atomic Energy Commission, AN Prasad, former director BARC and head of the plutonium reprocessing unit, and A Gopalakrishnan, ex-chairman, Atomic Regulatory Commission, and myself compiled in a 2009 book ‘Strategic Sellout: Indo-American Nuclear Deal’). Considering Jaishankar gave away the store in the most one-sided deal imaginable, one wonders what he thinks he got from the Americans. And, of course, I wasn’t called for consultation by Manmohan Singh again.

To revert to the session with Modi at 7, Race Course Road, given the time constraints I only argued the importance of the country using its hard power strategically. And in the paper given to the PM, I listed what his foreign and military policy priorities should be, reprising in bullet points some of the themes featured in my writings and books, particularly ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’ published a year later in 2015. The priorities included restarting open-ended nuclear testing, treating China as primary threat, using the Taiwan and Tibet cards and equating Tibet and Kashmir as leverage against Beijing, nuclear missile arming Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations as a belated coercive counter to China’s deliberate transfer of nuclear weapons and missiles to Pakistan, and accelerated development of Indian air and naval bases in the Indian Ocean and points east (Northern Mozambique, North & South Agalega Islands in Mauritius, Trincomalee in Sri Lanka, Seychelles, the former RAF base on Gan Island in the Maldives, Na Thrang ion the central Vietnamese coast, etc) and particularly of relations with Iran as India’s strategic linchpin pivoting on the Chahbahar port.

Six years into his tenure and a year into his second term as prime minister, Modi has flapped around endlessly on terrorism and Pakistan, supplicated the Trump Administration on the H1B visa issue in the process encouraging Indian IT talent to be siphoned off to the US, signed the ‘foundational accords’, and tried to win some goodwill by buying high-value US military hardware, only to be rebuffed by Washington. The H1B visa was closed and there is little else to show for Modi’s hug and bumble diplomatic efforts. And he has tried to cultivate the Chinese supremo Xi Jinping with worse results. India got kneecapped in Ladakh. Modi is obviously a glutton for punishment because he is still pursuing a conciliatory China policy propelled by his own, strangely pacific, instincts where China is concerned backed by his MEA minion S. Jaishankar’s wrong advice.

It is clear the Indian government historically has had no clue about how to deal with China, and the Modi regime is as befuddled, relying as all previous regimes have done on the China Study Group/Circle to give policy direction. The CSG comprises a changing bunch of usually bumptious and blundering mandarin-speaking Sinophiles from MEA, intelligence agencies, and the military who are strategic dupes — latter day versions of Richard Condon’s ‘Manchurian candidates’ beavering away to advance Chinese interests. Modi has, however, compounded his and CSG’s mistakes of going overboard with China with his equally feckless policy of alienating almost all nations in South Asia and in the extended region, especially Iran. The result is a collision of policy streams that is sinking the Indian national interest with China emerging as the short and long term tactical and strategic beneficiary. It is almost as if Delhi had been taking dictation from Beijing!

Iran, the supposed linchpin of India’s Afghanistan and Central Asia policy, feels so defriended by India, so isolated, and so threatened by the US, it has not only economically signed on with China but has agreed to be its stalking horse in the Gulf. In 2008, the then head of the Iranian Navy Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari remarked at the opening of the naval base at Bandar-e-Jask that Iran was “creating a new defense front in the region, thinking of a non-regional enemy.” Doubtless, the non-regional enemy was America. Iran has now alighted on a military partnership with China to neutralize it.

Soon to be finalized is Tehran’s 25-year agreement that New York Times reports, will in furtherance of the Belt & Road Initiative result in China investing $400 billion in Iranian infrastructure, including the development of free-trade zones in Maku in northwestern Iran, Abadan at the confluence of the Shatt al-Arab river and the Persian Gulf, and on Queshm, a Gulf island; the build-up of that country’s 5G telecommunications network, and help to create Iran’s own Global Positioning System and even an Iranian version of the cyber Chinese Great Wall to control domestic cyber space and to keep the US and Western countries from waging cyber offensives.

In exchange, an energy starved China will be permitted to daily offtake 8.5 million barrels of oil — the minimum necessary output for Iran to remain a viable oil producer and, more significantly, to use the Iranian base at Bandar-e-Jask for its naval operations. Considering the location of Jask on the Hormuz Strait at the mouth of the Gulf, the Iranian and Chinese navies between them will be able to dominate maritime traffic to and from the Gulf and pose no end of trouble for the US 5th Fleet out of Bahrain. It may compel the US to speedily relocate its forces in the region to Duqm on the coast of Oman, being developed as a modern US military base, as a more secure berthing for its warships and army and air force contingents onshore. The current Iran Navy chief Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi’s exulting to Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, in the wake of a recent trilateral Iranian-Russian-Chinese naval exercise that “the era of American invasions in the region is over” will have added weight once the Sino-Iranian deal is signed and PLAN deploys its ships at Bandar-e-Jask.

The presence of the Chinese Navy in Jask will be still more problematic for India. Perhaps, one of the reasons Beijing chose it for naval positioning was because it was bothered by the prospect of the Indian Navy active ex-Chahbahar 76 nautical miles up the coast on Gwadar’s flank. With Jask, 157 nautical miles to the west of Chahbahar, in hand, and combined with its base in Djibouti, PLAN will be able to shut the Indian Navy out of the Gulf, or at least to force it to remain inactive and to practice extreme caution with regard to Gwadar. This is a beautiful Chinese strategic counter-move.

The situation is far worse for India because Delhi, under US pressure, has decelerated its project to develop Chahbahar. So while India has committed $500 million to it the absence of any real buildup may result in Tehran asking India to vacate Chahbahar altogether. That would be a tragedy beyond comprehension for India’s strategic interests in the larger region. Nevertheless, it is a real possibility because with Delhi failing to firm up comprehensive economic links with Iran in the last decade when it desperately needed friends and counted on India to come through by signing up for long term oil supply, etc and because Delhi began tacking ever more fully to the American wind that may cease at any time, the Rouhani regime in Tehran apparently feels it has no incentive to be nice to India. So to add to India’s mounting foreign policy problems, Modi has now, in effect, gone and lost Iran to China.

But there seems to be no relief anywhere else, certainly not in eastern Ladakh where, like the government, the Indian army too appears more eager to jaw-jaw with the Chinese than to prepare to fight the PLA if the Chinese refuse to withdraw completely from the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control in Pangong Tso and the Depsang areas, leave alone occupy the heights on the eastern bank of the Shyok River on the Galwan to protect the DSDBO Road. The PLA, moreover, is so well ensconced on the lake and at these two sites, the military level meetings — the 4th round is ongoing as I write this and, like the previous rounds, will also be infructuous — are meant to reach a dead end. These are exercises to test India’s military tipping point.

In this context, the Xi government seems to be almost daring Prime Minister Modi to order military action to evict the Chinese military from Indian land but is confident the Indian PM won’t do so. Xi, for his own reasons, is probably itching to find out what the PLA is capable of because if India can be easily cowed as the evidence shows it can be, intimidating lesser states in Southeast Asia and on the South China Sea will be easier game, even with US aircraft carriers in the vicinity. In this context, the speed with which the Indian army has adhered to the vague disengagement protocol suggests it is pretty slack and unwilling to force the issue on the ground.

Pangong Tso, the Galwan and the Depsang are far away from Delhi and the PLA’s dawdling on Indian territory would be enough provocation for a tough-minded Indian army chief and theatre commander to say enough is enough and initiate rapid and forceful actions to kick the PLA out of these areas and even annex some Chinese claimed land. Alas, India has long lacked such army chiefs and theatre commanders who will force Delhi’s hand by starting hard and sustained action to deflate China’s military pretensions and strategic designs. It would do India’s reputation a lot of good. Except, the Indian armed services give every indication of doing nothing, chancing nothing, in the hope things will somehow work out, but they won’t unless it is to advantage China.

Indeed, the Modi government seems so frightened of Xi’s China, it couldn’t even muster the courage to slam Beijing at the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva July 2 for illegally absorbing Hong Kong. This forum, by the way, is routinely used by Beijing to bash India on Kashmir. Instead the Indian Special Representative Rajiv Chander on Delhi’s instructions mumbled this: “Given the large Indian community that makes Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China it’s home, India has been keeping a close watch on recent developments. We have heard several statements expressing concerns about these developments. We hope the relevant parties will take into account these views and address them properly, seriously and objectively.” He didn’t even name China! And some of us expect the Indian government and army to forcefully kick the Chinese out of Indian Ladakh?

The truth is the Indian government seems to have no backbone, no point where its humiliation tips over into anger and use of force against China. Even indirectly threatening China by nuclear missile arming Vietnam — the only country to induce respect and wariness in Beijing, is an option tremulous and weak-minded Indian governments in the last 35 years, including the present one run by Modi, have eschewed. India thus enjoys a special status with Asian states who once looked upon it as ‘security provider’ — as a country beneath contempt.

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