Manoj Joshi, an informed commentator on military affairs, has in his latest volley taken a crack at a Ministry of Defence claim that the armed forces "are fully prepared, battle-worthy and capable to counter any challenges at very short notice". The statement in question was MoD's response to a news item based on leaked information about a presentation made by the army to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence.
In its presentation, the army had voiced concerns about shortages in several key areas - 71 per cent in armour, 17 per cent in combat helicopters, 62 per cent in mechanised infantry and 52 per cent in artillery. Joshi opines that, "Even these figures don't tell the whole truth. They do not tell us, for example, that India only has 300 T-90 main battle tanks and that the 2000-strong T-72 fleet is yet to be modernised to fight at night ... it appears that what the army will achieve by 2027 is not a modern army circa 2027, but [instead it will] achieve the targets that it had set nearly 10 years ago."
The Army's readiness - or more correctly, the lack of it - would appear alarming, particularly if it is related to the requirements of the prevalent 'Cold Start' doctrine. This doctrine attempts to undercut the impunity enjoyed by Pakistan due to the proximity of its military formations to the border and its nuclear card. The idea is to have the capability for speedy launch of an attack in battle groups that would confound Pakistan's nuclear calculus. This would not only deter Pakistan from expanding the proxy war, but the military threat would force Pakistan to also roll back its terror infrastructure.
The doctrine can be seen as an attempt by the military to furnish the political leadership with an option for responding to the strategic problem of proxy war posed by Pakistan. As can be seen from recent history, political leaders have been selective in using the military option. Both during Operation Parakram and post 26/11, India refrained from using even the mildest military option. Also, it limited its military response to its own side of the Line of Control at Kargil. Going back to the 1990s and further back to Zia-ul Haq's provocations, a restrained approach to Pakistani adventurism has been the preferred yardstick at the political level.
Of course the military should be prepared for conflict. However, whether to engage in such conflict (and if so, how) is a decision for the civilian leadership. On this score, the military and the political leadership in India are not on the same page. The military's self-given program requires a higher level of capability and a political resolve and intention to use it than the civilian heads appear willing to support.
In case the higher capability were made available, then the temptation to use that capability would surely be greater.
It is arguable that the military has arbitrarily settled on a higher degree of offensive deterrence, bordering on compellence (i.e. forcing the other side to behave in a particular way). This stronger posture apparently does not have explicit government sanction. This is the military's answer to keeping conventional strength relevant to the strategic problem posed by Pakistan and into the nuclear era. The government on the other hand would be content instead to remain with defensive deterrence of the pre-Cold Start period, since it is more mindful of the possible implications and consequences of nuclearisation of offensive deterrence and compellence.
The impact of nuclearisation has been such that the military's traditional sphere can no longer be considered solely its own. The military may prefer a higher level of readiness, especially for conventional operations, but the politicians will be alert to the implications of even non-nuclear action on the nuclear aspect. Therefore, the figures on readiness need not necessarily be taken as alarming. The government it seems would prefer non-military means, such as diplomacy and intelligence, instead. These have worked to an extent in restricting Pakistani strategic space over the past half decade.
Military means also need to be seen in context of the state of the opponent. Pakistan is in considerable disarray. Its army is engaged on its western border. Even through it tries to upscale its conventional forces through diversion of US funds meant for operations against the Taliban, the equation is in India's favour, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Second, India's grand strategy calls for a sustained period of growth. It cannot be distracted by a conflict, howsoever localised or limited.
Third, its military preparedness is being undertaken with a long term eye on China. This explains developments and procurements of missiles, submarines, air craft carriers and multi role fighters. Whether these are sufficient to deal with future challenges from the Chinese or not, they would obviously help India militarily out-class Pakistan.
Lastly, in case the higher capability - to the extent the Army wants and Manoj Joshi seems to support - were made available, then the temptation to use that capability would surely be greater. At junctures such as 26/11, when resort to lower levels of military force such as through surgical strikes was thinkable, the very existence of the capability would weigh in favour of such action. Therefore, not having the capability for compellence is not such a bad thing after all. Even if hypothetically, resorting to it would have proved counter-productive in any case. Since it cannot be guaranteed that the conflict would not escalate, there is no reason to risk it in light of India's higher order aims and grand strategy. Therefore, India is better of without it.
Then, why is the bother? Cynically but not entirely inaccurately, it can be said that, firstly, there are arms lobbies at work knowing India has an expanding defence budget. Secondly, there are the inevitable turf wars within the military in which each arm and service would like a piece of the action and budget. Thirdly, there is a civil war on between the bureaucrats and the military over turf in South Block, in which reports of readiness shortfalls that can be blamed on the ministry can serve as ammunition for the military. In this particular case, the trigger could well be the recent corruption charges of members of the top brass.
But more pertinently, there is a case for political direction of the military. It would be much better for the government to debate and indicate which posture it prefers - defensive deterrence, offensive deterrence or compellence - so that the military could work towards this, rather than define its scope on its own, as it currently does.