ARMING WITHOUT AIMING
India’s military modernisation
Stephen P Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta
India: Viking/Penguin, 2010
223 pages; Rs 499
The title of a book usually comes to the authors somewhere along the process of writing it. After reading the delightfully named Arming without Aiming, though, I cannot help suspecting that the title was born first and then a book written around it. Disappointingly, the authors, both well-reputed commentators on South Asian security, have done a little more than arrange morsels of information — many of them from questionable news reports in the Indian media — to buttress their thesis that New Delhi’s growing defence expenditure serves no clear military-strategic objectives.
Messrs Cohen and Dasgupta are correct, if not original, in pointing out that “India’s modernisation has lacked political direction and has suffered from weak prospective planning, individual service-centric doctrines, and a disconnect between strategic objectives and the pursuit of new technology." But the fundamental illogic in the authors’ thesis — a blemish that spreads its stain across the book — is the unquestioning assumption that these drawbacks stem from India’s strategic restraint.
Due mention is made of the benefits that have flowed from Indian restraint, especially the absence of global alarm over India’s military rearmament. But Arming without Aiming is coloured by a western approach towards the exercise of power. Restraint, the authors argue, is something that New Delhi will have to “break out of” in order to “assume its place as a great power”. A benign power, they assume, is disadvantaged in organising its levers of coercive force and, therefore, hamstrung as a great power.
The book begins well, presenting itself as a slim, pleasing hardback, even if the tiny typeset has been tailored for the strategist’s superior vision. The authors’ strong academic capabilities come through in the preface, in a short but interesting exploration of the earlier literature on why India has not been more focused in developing its military power. The authors also explore the historical roots of Indian restraint, including Nehru’s hiring of British scientist P M S Blackett as a defence adviser and Nehru’s acceptance of his advice that military spending remain below 2 per cent of GDP.
The authors remain on firm ground while using historical examples to illustrate India’s restraint: the pre-1962 period of low defence spending; the 1971 decision to limit war aims to the liberation of Bangladesh; and the 1974 decision to go no further down the nuclear path than a “peaceful nuclear experiment”. But they go badly wrong in arguing that India’s invariable failure at being assertive — in the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict; in occupying the Siachen Glacier; during Exercise Brass Tacks; and in the Sri Lanka conflict — reinforced India’s inherent restraint. Influential policy-makers in New Delhi perceive at least two of those operations, Siachen and Brass Tacks, as successful examples of coercive diplomacy. How then would they reinforce restraint?
Incorrect conclusions like this stem from the authors’ US-based perspective, and from Cohen’s long years as a Pakistan expert. Siachen, they argue — using the same logic as the Pakistan Army — is a failure because “initial Indian success has since proved to be a steady drain on Indian military resources”. The Indian military mindset, however, does not evaluate Siachen in logistical terms. For New Delhi, Siachen is a symbol of will and a continually successful feat of arms; Rawalpindi sees it as a debacle, something to be quickly wiped off the slate, and has consistently sought a mutual withdrawal from Siachen.
Besides the absence of local nuance, Arming without Aiming is marred by a string of factual errors that undermine its credibility with the reader. Misleadingly characterising the ill-conceived intervention in Sri Lanka as “India’s Vietnam”, the book asserts that more Indian soldiers died in Sri Lanka than in any other post-Independence war. In fact, the casualty count in Sri Lanka was barely one-third the count of India’s full-scale wars (Sri Lanka: 1,157 dead, 3,009 wounded; 1971 war: 3,843 dead, 9,851 wounded).
In a similar fashion, the book mixes up T-90 tanks with the T-72; it claims that India’s defence spending reached 5 per cent of GDP in the 1980s (it never went near that figure); and states that there are five contenders in the ongoing multi-role fighter tender (there are six). But these errors are fleabites compared to the authors’ argument that India’s low GDP per capita prevents it from devoting sufficient resources to defence! Even a novice in defence economics knows that the absolute GDP, rather than the per capita figure, governs what a country can allocate to defence. Luxembourg, with a per capita GDP of $105,350 (World Bank, 2009) can hardly claim the ability to spend more on defence than India, with our meagre figure of $1134 per capita.
The book’s heavy reliance on information from the Indian media, traditionally hostile to the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO), has generated an indiscriminate condemnation of indigenous research efforts. Much of this is outdated at the time of publishing, having been superseded by structural reform within the DRDO and by the turnaround success of major projects like the Arjun tank and the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme.
Despite its drawbacks, Arming without Aiming is worth reading as an interrogation of the central crises in India’s military system. The authors correctly highlight that the directionless expansion of India’s military structures, and the acquisition of expensive weaponry, has not been accompanied by the political leadership that is needed to reconcile competing interests and allocate resources in a coherent manner. As a result, India’s strategic choices remain far more limited than they need to.