“Surgical strikes”, probably the most abused term of 2016, are now the new norm. The Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces 2017 , released in April, has formally embedded them as a part of sub-conventional operations — meaning that from now on, they are among a range of options at the military’s disposal to respond to terrorist attacks.
The more interesting aspect in the second such joint doctrine since 2006 is that the scope of “surgical strikes” has been left open. There is no mention of their employment being within the country or beyond its borders — the ambiguity is intended to send a message in the neighbourhood.
Larger message lost
In this context, it is important to note that the surgical strikes in September 2016 on terror camps along the Line of Control, though much maligned due to political chest-thumping draped in the camouflage of nationalism, did achieve some far-reaching strategic objectives. They were never meant to put an end to terrorism but reversed a discourse which began in 1998 that India was out of conventional options in its quiver in the face of continued cross-border terrorism after the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests. Unfortunately, this bigger message was lost in the noise.
Further, while acknowledging that the possibility of a “conventional war under a nuclear over-hang” recedes with attendant “political and international compulsions”, the doctrine notes that training of ‘‘Special Operations Division’’ for execution of precision tasks needs no reiteration. Factoring in the escalation potential of a conflict due to such actions, it states: “The possibility of sub-conventional escalating to a conventional level would be dependent on multiple influences, principally: politically-determined conflict claims; strategic conjuncture; operational circumstance; international pressures and military readiness.”
The doctrine also reiterates the basic tenets of the Indian nuclear doctrine, no-first use (NFU) and credible deterrence, contrary to recent calls to revise the NFU and speculation in the West that India would resort to a first strike.
It adds that conflict will be determined or prevented through a process of credible deterrence, coercive diplomacy and conclusively by punitive destruction, disruption and constraint in a nuclear environment across the Spectrum of Conflict.
Flowing from the broader objective is the statement that Special Forces units will be “tasked to develop area specialisation in their intended operational theatres” to achieve an optimum effect.
The various objectives open up an entire gamut of capability addition and process optimisation for the Indian military to be able to enforce it. Achieving these broad objectives requires seamless synergy between the three services, a far cry in the present circumstances.
Interestingly some of the biggest policy decisions have been stuck endlessly — appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), formation of cyber, space and Special Forces commands and carving out inter-service theatre commands. After some initial push from the Government, the enthusiasm has gone cold.
The doctrine also declares: “Undertaking ‘Integrated Theatre Battle’ with an operationally adaptable force, to ensure decisive victory in a network centric environment… in varied geographical domains, will be the guiding philosophy for evolution of force application and war fighting strategies.” In this context, how the doctrine will be put into effect will be worth watching given that the 15 year Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan is nowhere near being achieved by any of the three services.
Another important pronouncement under the “National Military Objectives” is: “Enable required degree of self-sufficiency in defence equipment and technology through indigenization to achieve desired degree of technological independence by 2035.”
This probably presents the biggest challenge of all given the fledgling state of the domestic defence-industrial complex. While a grand pronouncement was made under the “Make in India” initiative , it has essentially remained an exercise in doling out billions of dollars to foreign companies.
The doctrine is a bold announcement, but without the necessary elements in place, it will remain just another document like the policy formulations enunciated earlier. Or worse, it will be relegated to being another political slogan for popular resonance rather than send out a message of intent beyond Indian borders and shores.
Corrections and clarifications: The article has been edited for a factual error