Managing National Defence Post-1962

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Air Marshal M Matheswaran, AVSM, VM, PHD (V), Founder & President, The Peninsula Foundation; Mr V Balamurugan, Director, Combat Vehicles Research and Development Establishment (CVRDE); and Dr Stanly Johny, International Affairs Editor, The Hindu, shared their expert views on the theme. The session was chaired by Mr N Sathiya Moorthy, Convenor, Policy Matters – Chennai.

Air Marshal M Matheswaran:

When we talk of National Defence, 1962 is a milestone. In ‘62, we lost the war. When a nation loses a war, the accountability goes right up to the top leadership. And in history, no leadership has ever been spared by any country when they lose a war. Nehru, the architect of independent India, who set very strong foundations on various important strategic areas was heartbroken in 1962 after the war. He wrote to John F. Kennedy on November 19, one day before the Chinese declared ceasefire, requesting assistance to save India. So ‘62 was a disastrous milestone in the Indian history.

There are many reasons for why it happened. There are a few important quotes from well-known scholars and practitioners. One is Clausewitz, who says, ‘war is politics by other means.’ So political leadership, must be well versed in the issue of war and policy. The other person is a Roman general called Vegetius, who almost 2000 years ago said that ‘if you want peace, prepare for war.’ If you put these two together, your strategy is well built up. If a country goes through achieving its objectives, without fighting a war, then it has actually done its job. That’s what Sun Tzu says: Achieving your objectives without fighting a war is the best way to resolve a conflict or win over your adversaries.

What went wrong in ‘62? If you read Nehru’s Discovery of India, you will very clearly understand that his ambition for India was to be a leader in the international order. India was a young country that was put together in 1947 as a modern nation state and an ancient civilization. Many others including Gandhi said that India has a place at the top on the international road. But that was a paradox. Nehru was also a realist. Therefore, on the advice of Homi Bhabha and the others, he laid the foundations for India’s nuclear and space capability and defence industrial space, along with Krishna Menon, whom we all abuse for much of what went wrong in 62.

Misreading China

There were certain fundamental flaws. They all believed that India will not initiate war with anyone. It doesn’t desire to covet anybody else’s territory. Therefore, they thought that we needed to have minimal capability. They didn’t read Vallabhbhai Patel’s warning. China was declared as PRC on October 1, 1949. Within one month, Xinjiang was occupied and within six months, Tibet was occupied. That was the clear indication. But they didn’t read that. Therefore, the military was not very well prepared and it was ill equipped for the border regions. The political nature didn’t even understand the nuances and difficulties of the border terrain. So when ‘62 happened, we were completely shattered.

We could have still not lost the war if we had used the capabilities of the Indian Air Force that existed at that point of time. With the air power that was available, we would have made a mincemeat out of it. The Chinese withdrew after November 19, simply because the logistics and the winter would not have enabled them to stay there. The Chinese Air Force or the PLA Air Force in the 60s had no reach anywhere into the higher regions of Tibet. We didn’t use our air power, other than for airlifting a few people. These were fundamental strategic mistakes.

Ramping it up

Post-62, we woke up and turned around the way we looked at defence. The first was beefing up the numbers and the weapons in the Indian military. From less than 200,000, today we are 1.1 million in the army alone. The three services put together, we are 1.4 as the third largest military in the world. There was a rapid build-up of military capability in terms of production of equipment and arming the military.

By 1964, Nehru died and Lal Bahadur Shastri who succeeded him as PM was not very well judged by others. Pakistan’s Ayub Khan thought Shastri would be inexperienced. They tested the waters in the Rann of Kutch in April and May and then launched the Operation Gibraltar in ‘65 September. Here was the mettle of a leader, who on the advice of the military, instead of limiting ourselves to J&K, took the battle to the adversary and opened the attacks on the international border. We were a few miles away from Lahore in the latter part of September. But once again, as an excellent strategic decision, we stopped. The Pakistani designs were defeated. They didn’t get anything that they wanted. Military professionals see it as a stalemate. Then followed the Tashkent agreement and Shastri’s death and India decided to get back to the pre-war lines. That, I would say, was a strategic mistake.

The finest of them all

1971 was one of the finest executed wars in the military history of the world. We had a political leadership that was extremely savvy. Indira Gandhi was the best leader we could have had at that point of time. She was realistic and ruthless. She had a diplomatic core that advised her quite well. She had an exceptional military leadership—Manekshaw, PC Lal and Chatterjee. We prosecuted a war at the time of our choosing and we created conditions to shape the battlefield the way we wanted to. We also shaped the international system by signing the friendship treaty with the Soviet Union in August and shaping the UN Security Council to our advantage, for the period that we wanted. We had diplomacy, political leadership and military strategy working beautifully in this entire process. This was an exhibition of Indian political leadership rising to the occasion when required.

Without technology, national defence is incomplete. The international order is a ruthless one. When we aspire to be great power, the existing hegemony wants to retain the status quo. They don’t like a rising power and so economic barriers and technology denials will work against you. You will be targeted in a post 1945 nuclear world, if you want to go nuclear. Deterrence was an extremely important requirement.

Going Nuclear

Indira Gandhi’s decision to go nuclear in 1974 was an extremely brave decision. But thereafter, we had weak links. We should have followed it up consistently post-74. But our economic situations and weak technological base did not give enough confidence to the political leadership. Therefore, post-74, though we had a lot of imported military weapons and capability and our military was extremely fit and battle ready, as a nation which wanted to be a rising power, we were weak. That took a long time and we paid a lot of penalty for that.

Post-Indira Gandhi, everyone had a role in our development process, including Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao and Vajpayee. When the Vajpayee government in 1998 went ahead and declared ourselves a nuclear weapon state, the government was ready with multiple strategies. We knew how the existing hegemony would come at us and we dealt with it successfully. This is a fine example of managing the National Defence extremely well. Today, the same people who didn’t want us to go nuclear, have given us exemption from NPT.

Need for critical technologies

What matters in today’s world in defence is control over critical technologies. We hear ‘Make in India’ and ‘Atmanirbhar Bharath’ in a big way. We’ve created a strategy that worked well and achieved our objectives in atomic energy and space. But in the other dimensions of defence technologies and defence industrial base, private sector entry was banned for a long time due to a flawed policy. It was opened up only later, after 2001.

Notwithstanding that, the defence of a nation depends on its economic strength in the 21st Century. Those who dominate world market will be leading the military paths. The Ukraine war is a fight between the US and its allies to retain the economic control of the world. If we want to be a great power, we cannot be second fiddle to anybody. We need to have critical technologies in our control.

The French strategy

That was, in fact, the French strategy. Post-1945, they saw the writing on the wall for the international system that the US would be the world leader and the rest would have to play second fiddle. They were not willing to do that. So arms, military industry and arms exports became an extremely important critical element of French economy. By 1960s, they wanted to export arms to 100 countries and they achieved that. Today, France is capable of making every critical technology within that country. It’s not dependent on anybody. When you create that capability, you can buy from anyone. You can globalize and be interdependent. This is where we missed the opportunity and are trying to correct now. It’s not enough to have slogans but we have to go beyond that.

Focus on four verticals

Military capability or national defence is dependent on the interface between four verticals which are a) the military or the defence; b) the industry; c) research and development and d) the academia. They all should be integrated. Last week, I was in Coimbatore and interacted with the teachers. I was horrified to hear that there are colleges that are dropping disciplines of Physics and Mathematics because students are not opting for it. When a country doesn’t have fundamental sciences taken up by the students, it has a serious problem. This is the main area that we should be addressing in the context of our national defence strategy.

Of course, we are capable of defending ourselves. 1962 can never happen again. We can bring in our local superiority against the Chinese in the areas that they can threaten us. We can sort them out. I consider Pakistan as a nuisance and we know how to deal with them. It’s not easy for China to create a two-fronted sight. But if it creates that, we will have a serious issue because we are not modernizing at the rate that we want to. The Air Force today is at 32 squadrons as against the requirement of 45. These are issues of concern which we need to do address.

Mr V Balamurugan, Director-CVRDE:

R&D is one of the pillars of critical technology. CVRDE is the Combined Vehicle Research and Development Establishment. Post-1962, we went for licensed production of Vijayanta tank at Avadi. Prior to that, there was no R&D lab at Avadi. We found a unit from Ahmednagar and then subsequently it was made as a detachment and set up as a full-fledged lab. In the summer of 1975, it was redesignated as Combat Vehicle Research and Development Establishment.

In CVRDE, Atmanirbhar is not just a word. It is being implemented practically. Between 1975 and now, Arjun Main Battle Tank (AMBT) –Mark I has been developed for the armed forces, inducted and operationalization done. Recently, we got the order for 118 tanks of the next higher version of the AMBT-Mark I alpha. These are likely to be inducted, starting somewhere in mid of 2024. Apart from the Arjun story, we have also developed the Arjun variants. DRDO has made major contributions in the various domains.  

We have also made ARRV—Armoured Recovery and Repair Vehicle. This has got the capability of recovering and repairing the Arjun Tank when it gets bogged down in the battlefield. Based on the core competency in CVRDE in different domains, we also ventured into the LCA: Light Combat Aircraft. In that, CVRDE developed the design for aircraft mounted, auxiliary gearbox.

Getting our bearings right

The bearings in the LCA were imported. We took the pain of developing the indigenous bearings of the aircraft through a vendor in Gujarat. Though bearing is a small element, considering the speed in which it operates and the quality requirements, it took almost four to five years to develop it. It has been successfully introduced and will be undergoing bulk production. Now we have more requests from air force to develop bearings which have become obsolete or difficult to source.

Coming back to the tank technology, we have been importing to the extent of 62% in Mark I, mainly the engine, transmission, gun control system, Gunner’s Main Sight and so on. But in the last two to three years, we launched the indigenisation program by which the engine is developed with the partnership of BEML and transmission developed with the partnership of L&T. Within the next two to three years, the entire tank systems and technologies will be from within the country. With Atmanirbhar Bharat, the lifecycle support will be much better and easier to upgrade of the systems.

In DRDO, we have the eight clusters working in different domains. Basically for example, we have the ACE cluster from which the Pinaka multi barrel rocket system has been launched. We have the ATAX developed by our Pune-based lab. It has a 48 kilometre artillery range, which no other country has achieved. We have composite bridges which the army can use to cross. The Hyderabad lab is working on missiles – Agni V and BrahMos. We have an air defence system made by DRDO. ASAT developed in 2019 is a remarkable development by DRDO. It is able to accurately aim and hit a satellite at lower orbit, travelling at 300 km kilometre per second.

Helping a pandemic-hit nation

During Covid, we made a lot of contributions to the country. We made ventilators which were not available then. It helped the army also. We made medical oxygen plants using the technology developed by DRDO on the lines of the oxygen generating system in the aircraft. Netra AWACS developed by DRDO is being used effectively now for the country’s defence preparedness. We are also developing torpedoes, sensors and sonar for tri-services, basically the Navy.

DRDO has 52 labs. Each one is working in its domain. Parachutes are being developed from which a heavy base can be dropped. It can also be used for the Gaganyaan mission. DRDO also launched a lab called DYSL cell. They have been asked to develop core technology areas like quantum computing. So the defence preparedness of the country has been enabled by DRDO in a much better way.

Aligning with defence needs

We now have a practice of having the DcPP—Development cum Production Partner, wherein we take the industries on board. The defence production capability of the industries will be enhanced through hand-holding by DRDO. The government encourages design and R&D by private industries. The defence PSUs and DRDO are supporting them.

So between 1962 and now, the HVF at Avadi started production of Vijayanta tanks and CVRDE has gone into a bigger role of making the various tanks indigenously. After Doklam, CVRDE is developing a light weight tank of 25 tonnes with amphibious capability, meeting the requirements of the army for high altitudes. It will be air-transportable and give other benefits. We’ll be rolling out a prototype in April 2023 successfully. Thus we are also dynamically aligning with the requirements of defence.

Dr Stanly Johnny, The Hindu:

Much has been written about the 1962 War. Over the last 60 years, India and China have evolved a great deal. China is now the world’s second largest economy. They have built the world’s largest navy. They are a big military power, which is almost on the brink of triggering another Cold War with the United States, which remains the world’s most important military and economic power.

India is now the world’s fifth largest economy. We are a nuclear power, unlike in 1962. India has also evolved. It has become a much bigger, stronger and confident economic and military power. It is expected to play a major role in the Indo-Pacific region in the coming years and decades. Both India and China are nuclear powers. But despite the evolution of the status of both countries, the friction points on the border still stay. We saw that in the Galwan clashes. Just a couple of weeks ago, there was another incident which appeared in the media reports, after which the defence minister talked about it in the Parliament.

The three phases of India-China relations

What went wrong in 1962? The clashes started in 1959 in Lanzhou, and other parts of the Himalayan border, which eventually led to an open war in 1962. We are still debating what triggered the Galwan clashes. In my sense, China has historically looked at India, through the prism of its own rivalry with great powers. There could be different phases in China’s relationship with India—from 1949 to 1962; from 1962 to the end of the Cold War; and in the post-Cold War period, as Vijay Gokhale, India’s former Foreign Secretary, recently wrote in the Carnegie paper.

In the 1949 to ‘62 period, China wanted India to stay neutral. It appealed to India’s relationship with the developing world. But in the post-‘62 period, China’s relationship with the Soviet Union was collapsing on one side, and on the other side, China was warming up to the Americans in the 1960s and the 1970s. China would establish some kind of a quasi-partnership or alliance with the United States. India was moving closer to the Soviet side in the 1970s. So China’s focus was to draw India from the Soviet Union.

China was also exploiting India’s foreign policy challenges by building stronger ties with Pakistan. In the post-Cold War period, engagement started in late 1980s, with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China. We saw a period of engagement, tranquillity and also an inclination on both sides to address the border question. There was also a period of economic engagement and trade.

India as a counter weight

But in these three phases, China looked at India through that prism of great power rivalry. Initially, in the 1949 to 1962 period, China was obsessed with the United States, then with the Soviet Union and then in the post-Cold War period, China sees the United States as its number one geopolitical rival. China looks at India as a potential counterweight to its own regional ambitions. China wants to stop India from becoming an ally of the United States.

China is perhaps using limited, low-level coercion as a deterrent tactic. The message to New Delhi is that if you are moving completely to the American side, if you are going to become a pillar in the in the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy, don’t forget that you have an unsettled, undemarcated and undefined Himalayan border, running to thousands of kilometres long with us. China expects low levels of geopolitical setback for this strategy and they don’t think India will become more aggressive in its response to Chinese coercion. In their cost benefit or risk assessment, it could create issues in its relationship with India and tensions would rise, but at the same time, they don’t expect this to explode into a full-fledged conflict between India and China.

Building long-term capability

How is India going to address this challenge? India has to emphasize the bilaterality of its relationship with China. To effect a change in China’s approach towards India or to look at India as a regional power, India has to build its capacities. India has already evolved a great deal, but when you do a comparison with China, there is asymmetry in terms of hard power—it may be economic or military power. The focus has to be on a long-term strategy of building India’s own capacities where our defence preparedness, internal cohesion and the resilience of our democratic institutions will come. Democracy is one natural advantage India has vis-à-vis China.

The Chinese did the same thing. From 1949 to mid-1950s, China was a Soviet ally. They were communist brothers. But despite this ideological brotherhood, in the 1970s, China moved towards the United States, hosting President Nixon and Henry Kissinger. They broke away from the Soviet Union and became a quasi-ally of the United States, which Mao called the imperial power. With the United States, they wanted to contain the Soviet Union, which they identified as their primary challenge. From the 1970s, until recently, China was very much focused on building and strengthening this relationship with the United States, irrespective of its ideological convictions. Only now, after attaining the military and economic confidence under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese are directly challenging the United States. This is what the Chinese model is.

But compared to India, the United States does not share a Himalayan border with China. This is one of the major challenges India will have to face. India is a huge nation with a peninsular coast on the one side and a large population. Our economy keeps growing and we have the natural potential to become a regional power. The border problem is an immediate challenge, which we have to address. At the same time, we need to have a grand strategy to transform India.

Q&A Session

When do you expect India to reach a level where we can compete with China?

Air Marshal Matheswaran: We must have a clear national strategy, like France, which I discussed. In critical areas, we have no option but to create capabilities irrespective of what the cost is. Those capabilities don’t come overnight. It has to be addressed in education, R&D, industrial investment, and, of course, users’ inputs. Our investments in R&D have been abysmally low. But we are now moving up. If we go past 3.5% of GDP in R&D investment, it would give us a significant leap forward to address some of those issues. We need to have a good roadmap. If you study China, they bought as much equipment from Russia as we have done, if not more. They monitored every weapon system that they took from Russia, reverse engineered and produced better ones of their own. Have we done that? That’s the question.

If China were to attack us tomorrow, will there be hundreds of battle tanks coming across the border? What kind of battle will be happening?

Air Marshal Matheswaran: War is always complex. It is ultimately all about politics. It’s a political objective that defines ultimately how a war will be fought. It will also depend on the capabilities. You need to retain the dominance of the narrative in the context of the war. As Stanly pointed out, I don’t see a major war coming between China and India. Neither is China foolish nor is India adventurous. Both are civilizational states. They have tremendous political maturity. The needling by China is to keep us under pressure. We need to grow out of that and put them on the defensive and then it can be sorted out.

What is the status of our defence exports?

Balamurugan: We are already an exporter to the South Asia and recently to Arabian countries. We are trying to push a lot of things forward. In another three to five years, we’ll be having our own technologies in many defence areas. Regarding critical and pioneering technologies, we will develop them in another 5 to 7 years’ time and then we can export them to others.

In India, we seem to lack civil-military integration. This is one of the things China achieved after Deng Xiaoping took over power. When will India achieve a civil-military integration?

Air Marshal Matheswaran: Every citizen must have an inbuilt passion to contribute to national defence. We should have started with compulsory military service. As we are a huge population, the challenges are many but we could have found a solution for that. In the US, those who come into critical areas of governance—be it bureaucracy or the political leadership- should have military service. This was practiced in more than 250 years of its history. Of course, now things changed after Obama came. But internally, there is a lot of debate going on there.

It was mentioned that India has 32 squadrons as against the requirement of 45. Can the requirement come down if we have high quality and expensive aircrafts?

Air Marshal Matheswaran: It doesn’t work that way. The required number has its own importance. Given the environment in which we live in, given the large threats, we have to keep our powder dry and that needs a certain minimum optimal size of military forces. 45 has been arrived at, based on that calculation. Technology will keep leaping forward. Despite that, those numbers are absolutely necessary.

How will you rate the nation’s defence preparedness?

Air Marshal Matheswaran: We are capable of handling the threats that are there around us. But why do you want to be always under pressure and tension? Remember, victory is winning without war. So we must create a deterrent capability.

When we take up indigenization, there is a common mindset that imported equipment is always superior. How do you handle this?

Balamurugan: When we develop indigenously, we have to meet very strict international standards. For example, when we develop an armoured fighting vehicle engine, there is a qualification cycle called NATO cycle. It has to run for 400 hours without any problem. Same is the case with transmission. It has to perform flawlessly and meet the international standards. We have to qualify the equipments to that kind of testing.

One more advantage we have is the harsh Indian weather and climate conditions and temperature profile. We develop to 60 to 70 degrees hardening, so that they will work comfortably in India. There is no compromise on qualification and therefore, it is much better when the defence equipment comes from India. If we talk about missiles, they are not available for imports. We have developed all kinds of missiles such as surface to air and air to air, including the Brahmos.  

How do you view the foreign policy followed by the present government?

Stanly: In the first five years of this government, there were challenges as well as engagement. In the neighbourhood, India faced a number of challenges. We faced resistance in several neighbouring countries, which have had traditionally and historically good relationship with India. In its second term, the government has tried to fix some of those issues and has built again with Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. India took a very positive position in helping the Sri Lankan people during their economic crisis.