Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Army Exercise Showcases Growing India-Singapore Defense Collaboration - The Diplomat, April 17, 2019

In this week's column for The Diplomat, I looked at the significance of the recently concluded India-Singapore joint army exercise, called “Bold Kurukshetra 2019. As was noted in these pages earlier this week, India and Singapore have just completed their annual joint army exercise, called “Bold Kurukshetra 2019.” The recent bilateral military exercise is a reflection of the growing strategic proximity between India and Singapore in the face of a series of challenges, including a growing and muscular China.


For the full essay, click here.



Singapore has remained one of India’s major security partners in Southeast Asia. The two countries signed their first Defense Cooperation Agreement in October 2003 and a separate memorandum of understanding on joint army exercises in 2005. The two then signed several more agreements for accelerating the pace of military-to-military relations in 2007 and 2008. These agreements have been reviewed and renewed periodically, maintaining their commitment to developing a habit of cooperation between the two countries’ armed forces.

Given Singapore’s territorial limitations, India has also opened its own military training facilities, such as the air force and artillery firing ranges, to the Singapore Armed Forces. Besides, the Indian and Singapore navies have been engaged in the annual naval exercise series called SIMBEX for more than two decades. In fact, the two countries celebrated the silver jubilee of their naval exercises last year with major displays of “multidimensional drills,” which saw the participation of many different types of ships and aircraft from India and Singapore.

Starting in 2015, the two countries have also held three editions of the Defense Ministers’ Dialogue, the last of which was held in November 2018. The third edition of this Dialogue had both the defense ministers appreciating the conclusion of the Navy Implementing Arrangement Concerning Mutual Coordination, Logistics and Services Support in June 2018. This, along with the Navy Bilateral Agreement signed in November 2017, broadened and deepened India-Singapore bilateral naval cooperation, taking the relationship higher.

They are also manifestations of the broader focus by both sides on maritime security, as evidenced by other developments as well such as a technical agreement on the sharing of white shipping information and advancing coast guard collaboration. Highlighting the significance of maritime security, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had stated during the ASEAN India Commemorative Summit, “We remain committed to work with ASEAN to enhance our practical cooperation in our shared maritime domain.” He said India is particularly interested in pursuing cooperation on disaster risk reduction and management, joint patrols and exercises, and maritime capacity building.

India-Singapore engagements have gotten a lot stronger in recent years. Certainly, Modi has infused more traction into this relationship as part of his strengthened outreach to Southeast Asia with the Act East Policy. And there are upcoming developments that will showcase this as well, including reports that India is planning a new trilateral maritime exercise in the Andaman Sea with Singapore and Thailand later in the year.

The broader convergence of strategic interests between India and Singapore is clearly the driving factor for these engagements. At the Defense Ministers’ Dialogue, both sides have repeatedly emphasized “the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight consistent with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” Further, while reiterating the importance of international law, they have articulated the need to resolve disputes through peaceful means.

On the issue of deepening defense technology collaboration, India and Singapore have a set up a bilateral Defense Technology Steering Committee as well as the India-Singapore Defense Industry Working Group and they are reported to be making good progress. Areas of cooperation include Combat Care and Vehicle Armor.

The growing economic muscle and military posturing by China provides an important rationale for India and Singapore to strengthen their bilateral relations. Irrespective of the results of the current Indian national elections, which are expected in late May, it is likely that India-Singapore ties would deepen and that Singapore will remain an important priority for India’s outreach to Southeast Asia.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

What Did India’s Foreign Secretary Achieve on His Trip to Russia? - The Diplomat, April 12, 2019

In my column for The Diplomat last week, I wrote on the Indian Foreign Secretary's visit to Russia. Recently, India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, the most senior bureaucrat in India’s foreign ministry, completed a visit to Russia. The visit shed light on the ongoing collaboration between the two countries and the opportunities and challenges for the relationship.


For the full essay, click here.



Unsurprisingly, official accounts of the visit focused on areas of collaboration, most of it already ongoing. The Russian embassy release said that the two countries examined “cooperation within the BRICS format, the current issues of the key multilateral export control regimes, including New Delhi’s application for NSG [Nuclear Suppliers Group] membership, other non-proliferation and arms control issues, as well as topical international issues of mutual interest.”

The evolving situation in Afghanistan too was covered by the two leaders. The foreign secretary is reported to have also met Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov for Foreign Office Consultations, where they “reviewed the implementation of the decisions of the 19th Annual Bilateral Summit” between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin in 2018.

The two officials also discussed the upcoming high-level meetings, including India’s participation at the Eastern Economic Forum. Putin has reportedly invited India to participate in the Forum, which is to take place in Vladivostok in September this year.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of External Affairs press release on the visit characterized the meetings as “in-depth and productive, characteristic of the Special & Privileged Strategic Partnership between India and Russia.” The statement added, “The meetings resulted in enhanced mutual convergence and coordination of views on all major regional and international issues in the spirit of long standing and time-tested friendship between India and Russia.”

Despite the ongoing collaboration in these areas, the visit, and the official accounts of it, belie the mixed nature of actual ties. In fact, while India and Russia have had a long and warm relationship historically and Russia remains an important strategic partner (it is one of only two countries India has an annual bilateral summit with, the other being Japan), structural trends are pulling them in different directions.

Part of it has to do with perceptions on both sides. On India’s side, it can at times appear not to acknowledge the reality that Russia needs China far more than it needs India, and that its own diversification of partners in both the economic and security domains can also raise concerns in Moscow and complicate bilateral dealings. On Russia’s side, there is at times not enough of an appreciation for India’s strategic considerations, including its sensitivities toward China, as well as an acknowledgement that some of Moscow’s foreign policy activities can cause headaches in New Delhi.

But developments have also accelerated these perceptions as well. Russia’s adventurism abroad, including in Ukraine, China’s rise and its increasing convergence with Russia as it does so, rising U.S. competition with both Beijing and Moscow as it has gradually warmed to New Delhi, and upped conversation on the Indo-Pacific and the divergent approaches by India and Russia have all contributed to this.

Seen from this perspective, it is arguably even more important to have visits such as the one we saw from Gokhale, in order for both sides to understand each other. But at the same time, it is also critical to distinguish between the rhetoric that comes out of the visits and the reality of the relationship, especially when the gap between the two can seem to be growing wider in some senses.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Keep Our Eyes on the Sky - The Economic Times, 27 March 2019

I wrote an OpEd, "Keep Our Eyes on the Sky," for The Economic Times on the Indian anti-satellite (ASAT) test conducted on March 27. Now that India has a demonstrated ASAT capability, New Delhi's focus must be ever more in strengthening the global space regime.

India became the fourth country to demonstrate an anti-satellite (ASAT) capability by conducting its first test on March 27. This has ensured that New Delhi does not meet the same fate as it did in the nuclear domain, should there be a global initiative that bans ASAT tests in the future.

There was a fear that India might miss the bus again and the three countries that had conducted such tests in the past — the US, Russia and China — could formalise an instrument that would place an effective ban on India from conducting an ASAT in the future. Indian policymakers from across the civilian, scientific and military bureaucracies were mindful of such an eventuality.

Make Space for Me
But now that it has demonstrated such a capability and ensured a seat at the ‘high table’, India should take a leading role to channelise its efforts to avoid weaponisation of outer space. This is to be undertaken both for the internal and external aspects of India’s space security policy.



Reports such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking National Security Adviser Ajit Doval to prepare draft space doctrine could send misleading misperceptions about India’s objectives. This government appears to be taking the same approach as the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government did after the Pokharan-2 nuclear tests in 1998, when it immediately began preparing a draft nuclear doctrine.

While clarity is required in terms of the future steps, GoI must also appreciate that there are important differences with the 1998 nuclear tests and what followed from that. ASAT capability is not a war-fighting capability and, therefore, plans to operationalise such capability need to be treaded carefully.

In this sense, it is different from the circumstances of 1998. Though nuclear weapons tests were not for war-fighting purposes either, there was a need then to come out with a doctrine to outline India’s deterrent posture and its limited nature. But such operationalisation is not required with the ASAT capability — unless it turns out that others are operationalising their ASAT capabilities too, of which there is no sign yet.

It is reported that India plans to create institutional authority along the lines of the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA), which will deal with issues of actual operationalisation of this capability within India’s military with clear counter-response options appropriated.

One senior official is reported to have said, “We have to lay down the defensive/offensive steps required in case Indian satellites are destroyed or degraded or there is access denial by an adversary through electro-magnetic radiation.”

While this clarity is appreciated, such actions should not lead to more alarm bells ringing. So far, none of the other countries who have acquired such ASAT capability have operationalised such a capability. The fact that space has not become part of overt deterrence calculations for any of the spacefaring powers is an encouraging sign that must be maintained.

Some of the immediate steps that India needs to articulate are, first, what kind of activities in space need to be restricted. This can be done by first producing a backgrounder or policy paper highlighting the importance of outer space for meeting India’s developmental and strategic functions.

This should detail the kind of space environment that must be maintained to ensure that deterrence does not become a reality in outer space and, thereafter, to suggest means and ways to strengthen norms of responsible behaviour. India may be accused of being hypocritical, but India was more of a reluctant ASAT power and has been compelled to act because of the worsening security competition within the space domain.

Not a LEO Toy
But having decided to do an ASAT, it must be recognised that India conducted the test in a responsible and transparent manner. The fact that India decided to do it an altitude of 300 km in low earth orbit (LEO) ensured that its action did not lead to the creation of long-lasting space debris.

Despite a much-reported complaint from Nasa about the Indian test leaving debris that could “pose a risk to the International Space Station” and adding that it was a “terrible, terrible thing”, so far, according to the US Strategic Command’s Joint Force Space Component Command (JFSCC), there are about 250-270 debris pieces that have been generated from the Indian ASAT test — which is more along the lines of the debris created during the US ASAT test in 2008, which was also at a similar altitude.

A second aspect that India needs to emphasise is outlining rules for what is permissible. India has interests in ensuring that outer space is kept clean, safe and secure for future generations to use as well.

It also has interests in strengthening its credentials in global space governance. Until now, New Delhi could not play an active role in this because it did not have that capability that gives it a voice in this arena.

Now that India has successfully demonstrated its ASAT capability, it should play an important role in mitigating problems such as space debris, space traffic management, orbital frequency issues and other issues that are important for ensuring safe and secure access to outer space. India should partner with like-minded countries in initiating these conversations and take them to meaningful international platforms such as Conference on Disarmament, UN First Committee and UN Disarmament Commission.

China takes seriously only the language of power, deterrence! Why India’s A-SAT missile test was a necessity - The Financial Express, March 29, 2019

I wrote a fourth piece on the Indian ASAT test for The Financial Express, looking at the rationale and compulsions for India to actually demonstrate the capability.


After debating for more than a decade, India has now conducted its anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test, pushing itself into an exclusive group of countries that includes the US, Russia and China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made this announcement in a televised address saying that the demonstration of the Indian ASAT capabilities has made it a true space power. Hitting a satellite at an altitude of 300 kms. in the low earth orbit, one must agree that this has been a fairly responsible act on India’s part because this would not create long-lasting space debris, which is a serious problem in space.

For example, the Chinese ASAT test in 2007 created a huge debris problem. The US ASAT test in 2008 was done at an altitude of 275 kms and the debris possibly came down in a few weeks. Thus, India will not come in for major flak on that count. As for the rationale and timing, there could be several factors at play. Clearly, the terrestrial competition with China and the larger geopolitical games underway in Asia have possibly had a determining say in the Indian ASAT decision. China’s growing power and aggressiveness, as well as its disregard for established global norms and rules means that it only understands the language of power and deterrence.

For the full article, click here.



It was China’s 2007 ASAT test that broke a long-standing voluntary moratorium on such tests. Moreover, that test was particularly unfortunate because, as mentioned earlier, it created a huge debris field. Such disregard has become a characteristic of China’s behaviour. It appears that China will only take seriously the language of power and deterrence. Thus, demonstrating an ASAT capability was an absolute strategic necessity to let Beijing and others know that if Indian assets in outer space are attacked, India has the means to retaliate. A second important calculation for India is to not find itself in the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) trap yet again. In the case of the NPT, India’s reluctance to push for a nuclear test in the 1960s left it out of the NPT category of “nuclear weapon state”, and India was unwilling to give up the nuclear option by signing on as as a non-nuclear weapon state. Thus, India found itself outside the entire NPT structure.

Having gone through the “pariah” experience for three decades, India has been particularly mindful of the developments in the global governance area to avoid being caught in a similar trap. There have been a few initiatives on and off in the past decade to regulate activities in outer space and India did not want to be on the wrong side of the wall again. However, neither the International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities proposed originally the European Union nor the current UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) seek to ban ASAT tests but it may have been the apprehension about such initiatives that could have motivated India to demonstrate the ASAT capability now.

There is also nothing that stops the current three countries who have tested ASAT capabilities from framing an NPT-like treaty for outer space denying others the technological capacity to develop such weapons. Moreover, India’s test does not violate any existing norms or rules, as the press note put out by the Ministry of External Affairs points out. India is a signatory to all the major agreements on outer space, including Moon Treaty that has seen very few signatories.

Nevertheless, some criticism and concern from other countries should be expected. China has put out a somewhat cautious statement to suggest that countries should “uphold peace and tranquillity in outer space” whereas Pakistan had a stern response calling upon international community to condemn India’s test. Russia and the US are yet to issue a statement. Countries that have pursued strong disarmament efforts such as Japan, for instance, could be a little uneasy with India’s test.

They could perceive India’s test as triggering fresh prospects for militarisation of outer space, which indeed would be unfortunate. India has little interest in militarization of space, considering how dependent India itself is on outer space for a variety of civilian needs. On the other hand, India also had little choice but to respond to China’s earlier test in order to maintain deterrence and protect India’s assets in outer space. Having done that, New Delhi should redouble its efforts to build a global movement to strengthen the norm of non-militarization of outer space.

India’s Missile Test Spotlights Its Lingering Space Challenges, The Diplomat, March 28, 2019

In this week's Diplomat column, I focused on India's demonstration of the ASAT capability arguing that while a recent test is no doubt historic, New Delhi has much work left to do to address the challenges that remain.


Earlier this week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a televised address to announce that India had conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test from the Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam Island launch complex. Modi went on to tweet that this is a moment of “utmost pride” and an event of “historic impact.”

The test targeted and destroyed one of India’s own satellites operating in low-Earth orbit (LEO). A press release, rather an FAQ issued by the Ministry of External Affairs, claimed that the test was “fully successful” and achieved all mission objectives.

Modi also recalled the precise and complex nature of the exercise, saying “#MissionShakti was a highly complex one, conducted at extremely high speed with remarkable precision. It shows the remarkable dexterity of India’s outstanding scientists and the success of our space programme.”

For the full piece, click here.



It is not clear when India’s ASAT program started but it is safe to assume that it began after the first successful Chinese ASAT test in January 2007. Going by the statements issued by scientists, ministers, as well as military leaders, it is clear that China’s ASAT was a big factor. The previous government of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the Congress party has indeed taken credit for starting the program. Former Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) officials like Dr. V.K. Saraswat had previously stated that India had developed the technological blocks for an ASAT demonstration but lacked the political will to demonstrate the capability.

Traditionally, India’s space program focused largely on civilian and developmental uses but has increasingly had a national security and strategic focus also. Over the last decade, India has deployed a number of satellites with specific national security roles in surveillance as well as military communication. It launched the first dedicated military satellite for the Indian Navy in 2013. This was the result not just of India’s growing technological capacity but also of the increasing competition in the space arena.

China’s efforts to catch up with the United States in outer space, while understandable, also have a second-order impact on India’s national security. And China’s power in both Asia and particularly in South Asia means that New Delhi could not ignore China’s capabilities, including in outer space. Terrestrial conflict and competition have begun to impact outer space activities too, much as during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

In addition, India has also felt the need to conduct spectacular space operations to demonstrate its capabilities. These help demonstrate India’s achievements and possibly give it a bigger voice in international discussions about managing outer space. Though international management of outer space is beginning to fray, with more players, more challenges, and greater nationalism, this is all the more reason for countries like India to make efforts to re-establish some of the norms and rules of managing outer space.

But developing technological capabilities is only one dimension of the challenges India faces. An equally serious challenge is building the institutional apparatus within the government to use these capabilities in the most effective manner possible. To take just one example, the Indian government established the Integrated Space Cell more than a decade ago, which was a good first step, but the Cell has not been able to perform the kind of integrative functions it was originally meant to.

Similarly, the establishment of a triservice aerospace command has been debated for two decades with no real progress. The idea was first articulated by Air Chief Marshal SK Sareen back in 1998 when he headed the Indian Air Force (IAF). Two decades later, India is getting closer to having a Defense Space Agency but not yet a Command. Many in the IAF leadership have argued that the changing nature of warfare, with greater integration of space capabilities as seen during the U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, should be clear imperatives for India to proceed with institutional changes. Moreover, other countries like China are learning from United States’ operations and reorienting their own space programs.

But India has not progressed much in developing an integrated approach to outer space or creating the institutional architecture to ensure greatest effectiveness and efficiency. This task, in fact, may be harder than just developing technology, which is one reason why this has not kept pace with technological developments.

Another area where New Delhi must change is with regard to its involvement in global space governance. India so far has been quite reluctant to get involved in space governance or in the debates about its future. Having demonstrated its ASAT capability, India should not shy away from playing an active role in ensuring that outer space remains peaceful, without weapons, and developing mechanisms that would curb certain irresponsible actions in outer space. At the very least, India should take the lead in shaping the norms of responsible behavior even if formulating legally binding mechanisms are challenging given that developing consensus among major spacefaring powers has been the biggest challenge in this regard.

Having Tested Its ASAT Capability, India Should Help Shape Global Space Norms - The Wire, March 28, 2019

In a second piece on India's ASAT test, I published a short essay in The Wire. I argued here that now that India has demonstrated its ASAT capability, it should move away from its current position of ambiguity to taking a proactive role in shaping the norms, rules and regulations in this area. Having crossed the rubicon, it can join the conversations along with other established space powers to ensure that space remains weapons-free.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Wednesday that India has conducted an anti-satellite missile test against a live satellite in low earth orbit (LEO). The ASAT test from the Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam Island launch complex lasted for three minutes and was claimed to be “fully successful” and accomplished all the parameters set out for the missions.

Modi also tweeted that this was a proud moment for India and stated that this test is special for two reasons: First, “India is only the 4th country to acquire such a specialised and modern capability,” and second, “The entire effort is indigenous. India stands tall as a space power! It will make India stronger, even more secure and will further peace and harmony.”

Thereafter, the Ministry of External Affairs provided some additional details on the rationale and the timing for the test in the form of FAQs. The document underlined the rationale for India to demonstrate its ASAT capability as a means “to safeguard our space assets”.

For the full essay, click here.



ASAT itself is not a new technology. The US and the Soviet Union had conducted many ASAT tests during the latter years of the Cold War. After a voluntary moratorium that was in place for more than two decades, China conducted its own first successful ASAT test in January 2007.

The Chinese ASAT test was conducted at an altitude of 865 km and resulted in the creation of 3,000-odd pieces of long-lasting space debris. This was followed by the US, which conducted its own ASAT test, bringing down an old satellite in 2008 at an altitude of 275 km, but with very limited debris. India’s test today was at an altitude of 300 km and thus any debris that has been created could burn up in the atmosphere or come down in a few weeks and months. The larger pieces of debris will come down much faster because gravity will act on them more, but even the smaller pieces should down-enter the atmosphere and burn up in a few months’ time.

India’s demonstration of its ASAT capability has obvious implication for national and international security. For instance, though other countries have tested this capability, they are not thought to have actually deployed it. India is also likely to follow the same path and avoid deploying this system. However, this does not take away from the utility of the demonstration itself. This was required in order to avoid some of the mistakes that India had done in other areas, such as the nuclear domain. India refused to test its nuclear capability in the 1960s, thus being left out of the Non Proliferation Treaty’s category of “nuclear weapon state”.

Clearly, India does not want an NPT for space to be developed and then be banned from developing and demonstrating its ASAT capability. Before today’s test, there were only three countries that have demonstrated this capability and the three could easily come up with an international mechanism that would ban additional ASAT tests. India has been mindful of any such efforts to develop political and legally binding agreements addressing the trend towards weaponisation.

The other key question is the rationale for India to do the ASAT test. Since China’s ASAT test in January 2007, India has been concerned about the security of its space assets. Given India’s investment in the outer space domain including the services and ground infrastructure, India has significant material stakes. Therefore, developing certain deterrent capabilities against any ASAT threat is important.

Now that India has demonstrated its ASAT capability, it should move away from its current position of ambiguity to taking a proactive role in shaping the norms, rules and regulations in this area. Having crossed the rubicon, it can join the conversations along with other established space powers to ensure that space remains weapons-free.

There have been a number of efforts in recent years, including the Code of Conduct proposed by the European Union in the early 2010s to the current UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS), which will submit its report soon to the UN General Assembly for further action. India can and should be an active player in these deliberations.

India’s ASAT test: Further steps - ORF March 28, 2019

SO, India finally conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) test on March 27, 2019. And there I was in Geneva for the UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) Meeting on Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). The timing was interesting and strange in many ways. But amidst all the GGE work, I managed to write a few OpEds on the ASAT test, the strategic implications of it and what needs to be done now that it has a demonstrated ASAT capability.


For the ORF, I wrote a piece examining the next steps following the ASAT test. India’s ASAT test is not surprising although the timing of the test is. India started developing its ASAT capabilities in the last decade after the first successful Chinese ASAT test in 2007. It goes without saying that other countries could follow suit and build ASATs. But China made the first move with regard to ASATs and it took India a dozen years to decide whether it wanted to demonstrate this capability or not.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced yesterday that India has conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test, hitting a live satellite at an altitude of 300 kms. This makes India only the fourth country after the US, Russia and China to demonstrate such a capability. The only other country that is thought to have this capability is Israel, although it has not demonstrated it as yet.

India’s ASAT test could raise some questions given that it is likely to be perceived as a path to weaponisation but Modi argued that this was a “defensive” move meant to secure India’s own assets. He said, “Our aim is to maintain peace over war mongering. The space programme’s aim is peace, India’s economic and technological progress.” Highlighting the salience of space to India, Modi asserted, “Today, we are using space and satellites for all sorts of purposes, including agriculture, defence, disaster management, communication, entertainment, weather, navigation, education, medical uses, and other things. In such a situation, the security of these satellites is extremely important.”

In fact, the former DRDO chief Dr. VK Saraswat has claimed several times that India is developing the necessary technologies in order to destroy an enemy satellite. In fact, the successful testing of India’s anti-ballistic missile on March 6, 2011 was seen as taking a step closer to India’s development of an ASAT capability.

For the full article, click here.



Many will question the need for India to develop and test such capabilities when it is mired in a number of developmental challenges but the fact is that India is not located in a benign neighbourhood and cannot afford to ignore the new realities within the region and globally within the space domain. Therefore, even though India’s space programme is largely civilian oriented, it has acquired a slightly greater focus on national security concerns. While India still wants to ensure that outer space remains free of weapons and continues as a domain of peace and stability, it is of course not up to New Delhi alone to ensure that. India cannot avoid the increasing militarization of outer space and ignoring this reality will only hurt India’s security interests. Moreover, these developments are taking place at a time when there is a larger power transition within Asia and beyond. India’s difficulties with an aggressive China have also been pushing India down this path.

India has come a long way as far as the ASATs are concerned. From fierce opposition to the US and Soviet ASAT tests in the 1970s and 1980s, India has come to appreciate the strategic utility of these capabilities and demonstrations. While India’s approach to non-proliferation issues and the global regimes has been changing since the early 2000s, a clearer articulation on space began to appear after the Chinese ASAT test in January 2007. The Chinese test was a wake-up call for Indian policymakers who called for breaking down some of the bureaucratic and inter-departmental barriers within the Indian government to better address this threat. Then DRDO Chief Dr. M Natarajan suggested that there must be greater integration between institutions such as Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Similar statements were echoed by former ISRO chiefs like Dr. K Kasturirangan, who said that India has spent huge amount of resources to develop and place assets in space and therefore there is responsibility “to protect them from adversaries.”

India did not have knee-jerk reaction to China’s tests but given the worsening security competition, New Delhi had little choice but to make this decision in the interest of ensuring deterrence. But all sides will lose in such an unbridled competition because all are dependent on space.

Now that India has crossed the rubicon and has a demonstrated ASAT capability, New Delhi must make earnest efforts to help develop rules of the road that will bring about certain restraint in outer space activities. Under the current international political climate, it is unrealistic to assume that the major spacefaring powers will develop a consensus for a global treaty but India must not lose opportunities in making those efforts. At the very least, India must coordinate with all the key players in producing some consensus language about those global governance arrangements that can be taken up in multiple foras including the Conference on Disarmament, UN First Committee, and UN Disarmament Commission.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

India-Indonesia Naval Patrols Highlights Maritime Collaboration - The Diplomat, 22 March 2019

In this week's column for The Diplomat, I looked at the India-Indonesia growing maritime collaboration and some of the recent events are a reminder of efforts by both sides to forge greater cooperation in this realm.


The Indian and Indonesian navies have just begun their 33rd coordinated patrol exercise from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and it will go on until April 4. The exercise includes the Indonesian Naval Ship KRI Sultan Thaha Syaifuddin and Maritime Patrol Aircraft CN-235, along with Indian vessels and aircrafts, with the two militaries undertaking patrolling on their respective sides of the 236 nautical miles long International Maritime Boundary line.

Simultaneously, the Indian Coast Guard ship INS Vijit is undertaking a four-day visit to the Indonesian port of Sabang in a further demonstration of the increasingly close maritime collaboration. India’s growing involvement in Sabang port has been seen over the past year – last July, another Indian naval ship, INS Sumitra, had also visited Sabang.

These developments underscore the close maritime cooperation between the two countries over the past few years, and their widening defense relationship more generally. While the close relationship between the two countries in some senses is not new – they were both champions of the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) in the 1950s for instance – strategic alignment had been far from clear, and the defense aspect of that has only begun to take off more in recent times.

For the full essay, click here.



That should come as no surprise. For one, generally, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has began to pay more strategic attention to Southeast Asia in general and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in particular, and Indonesia is a vital part of that. Last June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had travelled to Indonesia as part of this three-nation trip to Southeast Asia giving a big push to India’s Act East Policy.

For another, as this process has been underway, both countries have interests that are aligned somewhat in terms of addressing the rise of China and making advances in the maritime domain. This comes amid the rising conversation about the Indo-Pacific, with Indonesia hosting a meeting on the subject this week.

As a result, it is no coincidence that we continue to see defense-related and maritime-related developments continue to take shape between India and Indonesia. To take just one example, there has been an agreement signed between the two countries to advance economic engagements between Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Aceh and North Sumatra Province. This agreement envisions joint development of the region to promote cruise and eco-tourism, start air transport linkages by introducing commercial flights between Indonesia and Port Blair, and sea transportation connectivity in the form of RoRo vessel shipping to facilitate trade between the two regions. These have the potential to create a constituency on both sides that could propel the economic aspects of the bilateral relationship.

In another example, in order to push the economic relationship between the two sides, Indonesia just hosted the 2nd India Indonesia Infrastructure Forum (IIIF). The first such Forum between the two sides was held last year with elaborate plans for regional connectivity in terms of economy, infrastructure and energy links. India has also agreed to join hands with Indonesia in developing a deep-sea port in Sabang. The port will clearly give India a bigger foothold in the region while enhancing the maritime links between India and Southeast Asia.

The strategic imperatives as well as new developments at play in the India-Indonesia relationship suggest that we are likely to see the two sides continue to grow closer in the coming years. But at the same time, expectations about this new partnership must be tempered with reality. There are no shortage of challenges as well, including New Delhi’s continued lack of nuanced understanding on how Southeast Asian nations like Indonesia operate as well as India’s own changes in its China policy in the face of complications. These serve as important reminders that even though there are larger strategic interests binding them together, there are also limitations.

Friday, March 15, 2019

China Shows its True Colors by Blocking India’s Terror Blacklist Bid Again - The Diplomat, March 15, 2019

In this week's column for The Diplomat, "China Shows its True Colors by Blocking India’s Terror Blacklist Bid Again", I argue that Beijing’s move, though unsurprising, is not without significance.


Earlier this week, for the fourth time, China has blocked India’s efforts to designate Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist under the United Nations (UN). Beijing’s effort represents just the latest blow to New Delhi’s efforts in this vein. While India has been making global efforts to isolate Pakistan diplomatically, its efforts at placing Azhar under the 1267 Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council has been yet again blocked by China.

To be sure, China’s action should not obscure the fact that the broader support base for India has gone up on this score. This is reflected in the number of co-sponsors of the proposal this time. The current proposal was initiated by France, the UK and the United States and co-sponsored by countries including Germany, Poland, Belgium, Italy, Bangladesh, Maldives, Bhutan, Equatorial Guinea, Japan and Australia.

Nonetheless, Beijing’s response is significant. China justified its action by saying that “our action is to make sure that the committee will have enough time to study the matter so that the relevant sides will have time for dialogue and consultation. Only a solution that is acceptable to all sides could fundamentally provide a chance for a lasting solution to the issue. China is ready to communicate and coordinate with all sides including India to properly handle this issue.”

For the full essay, click here.



India’s official response was disappointed but calm. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), in a statement, said, “The ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee (1267 Sanctions Committee), upon completion of the no-objection period on 13 March 2019, was not able to come to a decision on the proposal for listing Mohammed Masood Azhar Alvi under the UN Sanctions regime, on account of a member placing the proposal on hold. We are disappointed by this outcome. This has prevented action by the international community to designate the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a proscribed and active terrorist organization which has claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack in Jammu and Kashmir on 14 February 2019.”

Irrespective of what India says publicly, this is proof, yet again, that China is not going to abandon its ironclad relationship with Pakistan. Neither is Beijing going to succumb to pressure from others such as the United States, France, the UK, Russia, and India to change its tack on Pakistan. About an hour before the expiry of the deadline for any member to raise objections, China put in place a “technical hold” meaning that the proposal will be on the hold for the next six months. Member countries can supply information over the next nine months for lifting the hold and Masood Azhar can be listed.

In the past, China has argued that there is “no contradiction” in its policies on terrorism such as in supporting the BRICS declaration against terrorism and its policy to Masood Azhar designation as a global terrorist because the BRICS declaration was addressing terrorist groups and not individuals. And to be sure, there is some logic to Beijing’s position: It is premised on balancing India by supporting Pakistan. Pakistan has remained China’s all-weather ally through more than five decades, and both Islamabad and Beijing worry about and balance against India.

From Pakistan’s perspective, India represents an existential threat. Pakistan’s primary strategic objective since the two nations were born has been to weaken India by any means necessary. For Beijing, India represents one of the few potential challengers to China’s dominance of Asia. Both have been clear and single-minded in their pursuit to weaken and balance India, which has made for one of the most durable and deepest strategic alignments since the 1950s. There is little likelihood that this will end any time soon, a reality that seems lost on India’s foreign policy elite.

It is unlikely that India will respond in any extreme, escalatory manner toward Beijing in the short term. The general elections next month occupy much of the government’s attention. Foreign policy issues are unlikely to play a big part in the campaign except for the ruling BJP chest-thumping on the Balakot strike against Pakistan. Moreover, India’s opposition parties, all to the left of the nationalist BJP, have few foreign policy ideas or critiques that have any traction. Calling Modi “weak” and “scared of Xi”, as Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Congress party has charged, is unlikely to suffice.

On the other hand, there is significant and vocal criticism in the Indian media of the “Wuhan spirit,” and the broader Sino-Indian reset in the aftermath of the Doklam confrontation in 2017. The Hindustan Times, a leading English-language national daily, editorialized that “the Wuhan exercise seems to have failed. Not just Pakistan-backed terrorism, China has not yielded ground on anything else.” Another newspaper has warned that bilateral ties could suffer because New Delhi feels betrayed. This has been matched on social media sites in India such as Twitter where #BoycottChineseProducts and #ChinaBacksTerrorism have been trending. Whether and how this will affect Indian policy towards China after the coming elections remains to be seen.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

China Isn’t Hearing Asia’s Fears About Its Military Buildup - The Diplomat, March 11, 2019

In last week's column for The Diplomat, "China Isn’t Hearing Asia’s Fears About Its Military Buildup," I looked at the 2019 Chinese defence defence expenditure. The response to the country’s new defense budget suggests that Beijing continues to be tone deaf to regional anxieties.



China recently announced a defense budget of 1.19 trillion yuan ($177.61 billion). This represents a slower growth rate in the budget, falling to 7.5 percent as against an 8.1 percent increase in 2018. Nevertheless, there are likely to be predictable expressions of concerns at the size of even the publicly announced budget, considering that it is more than three times as large as India’s, which has the second largest defense budget in Asia.

For the full essay, click here.



China’s military power has expanded dramatically in the last several years. A recent report by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) noted that “since 2014, China has launched more submarines, warships, principal amphibious vessels and auxiliaries than the total number of ships currently serving in the navies of Germany, India, Spain, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.”

Beijing has been closing the gap even with the United States, though the latter still maintains a considerable lead. Where China has been not able to catch up, it has developed certain asymmetric capabilities to compete with the United States. As Andrew Erickson points out, “In many areas, they have weapons systems that only a few other countries possess.” The development of the People’s Liberation Army’s capabilities across all domains has been “impressive” under Xi’s leadership.

Such growth has also led to concerns in the neighborhood. Even countries like South Korea that have generally had good relations with China are beginning to face hostile actions from the Chinese PLA. For more than a year now, there have been repeated violations of the South Korean air defense identification zone (Korea-ADIZ) by the PLA Air Force, the most recent one in late-February.

However, these foreign concerns are falling on deaf ears in China. Headlines like “history proves China’s defense budget growth benefits the world” appear to be more the norm. Officially, Zhang Yesui, spokesperson for the annual session of the 13th National People’s Congress, termed the defense budget hike as “reasonable and appropriate.”

China has continued to reiterate that much of the hike in the defense expenditure goes to meet the salaries and other benefits of the troops, in addition to developing weapon systems, military reforms, and training. It has tried to make the case that China still lags behind a number of countries like the United States and that there are outdated systems and platforms that need to be replaced.

A quick look suggests that China’s defense analysts are largely reiterating the official line. Commenting on the defense budget announcement, Xu Guangyu, a senior consultant with the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, noted that the Chinese military has reached “a normal and stable speed instead of a premature rush.” Chinese analysts also slammed reports that say the Chinese spending in actuality is much bigger than what is announced by the Chinese authorities, saying that “China’s military modernization is meant for self-defense and not threatening other countries. We should not care much about what others say.”

Many Chinese military analysts have also tried to highlight the fact that its defense spending has moved away from a double-digit growth rate since 2016. Chinese military analyst Li Daguang from the National Defense University of the PLA argued that the defense spending of 2018, which was 1.107 trillion yuan, was only 1.3 percent of China’s GDP, a much smaller proportion compared to other countries like the United States and Russia that spend around 4 percent of the GDP on defense. Instead, there are suggestions that as China engages in more international projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, its security concerns will only go up and accordingly, “it must speed up its national defense power to protect the legitimate interests of Chinese people.”

Broader ambitions are also driving China’s defense budgets. Xi Jinping has outlined important goals for China in the next few decades as part of his Chinese Dream. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is all set to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2021, by which time China hopes to have a “moderately well-off society.” The second major centenary goal is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China itself and China hopes to be “a completely developed country” by 2049.

Along with these broad goals, China has specified areas for focus like military drones, space, artificial intelligence, and overall development in the strategic domain. The Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation could see a lot more emphasis in the coming years with higher spending on each of these high-tech and defense arena. But China – and Chinese analysts – should take greater cognizance of the concerns around the region.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

India-Pakistan Crisis Exposes Modi’s Dilemma - The Diplomat, 28 February 2019

In a first, Rajesh (Rajagopalan) and I have a joint article on the India-Pakistan crisis post-Balakot air force strikes and what Modi's options are. In the piece, India-Pakistan Crisis Exposes Modi’s Dilemma, we argue that the decision about whether to escalate or not is much more complex than it appears.


The India-Pakistan confrontation over the terrorist attack on Indian troops in Pulwama does not appear to be easing just yet. After the Indian air strike on a Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist camp in Pakistan, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) retaliated by bombing several “non-military” targets across the Line of Control.

What happened subsequently is a bit hazy, but it appears that at least one Indian MiG-21 fighter was shot down as it chased the PAF fighters away, with the pilot falling into Pakistan’s hands. India has demanded that he be handed over. Paradoxically, this could be a blessing in disguise as it provides an avenue for both sides to deescalate the crisis.

On the other hand, the current situation does put Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the horns of a dilemma. He has incentives both to escalate and climb down, and the stakes for him are the upcoming elections.

For the full post, click here.



The incentives to escalate are clear: if this is where the confrontation ends, India has clearly lost, and the Modi government will be held responsible. Already Indian opposition parties are blaming the government for the situation India finds itself in. Twenty-one of these parties have jointly blamed the government for the “blatant politicization of the sacrifices made by our armed forces by leader of the ruling party”, a clear indication that Modi will be personally targeted if this does not end well for India. With barely a couple of months left for polls in India, it will be difficult for him to spin this as an Indian victory if this is where it ends. Moreover, it strikes at the root of the Modi persona as a strong man, and as a decisive leader.

The other strong incentive for India to escalate is the strategic equation if the crisis ends now. The Balakot strike was designed to demonstrate that India had the upper hand because of its conventional military superiority and that it had the space to escalate if it wanted to. If India had been able to do this successfully, it could have fundamentally changed the India-Pakistan dynamic, because it could have set up a template for future Indian military action. By the same token, an Indian failure does not return the situation to status quo ante, but to a much worse place for India. It would reinforce Pakistan’s deterrence logic, tie India’s hands in future confrontations, and give Pakistan a free hand to continue with its strategy of using terror against India. It would have been better for India to not have launched the Balakot attack at all because India’s conventional deterrence, such as it is, will lie in tatters.

Set against these are two disincentives for escalation, again one political and the other strategic. The political one is that after this taste of the unexpected turns in a test of arms, Modi will have to worry about whether he can trust the Indian military to carry out subsequent actions successfully. Further confrontation carries with it the possibility of retrieving the situation but equally, further risk that the situation could get worse. Though it is reasonably certain that India will come out on top in a long drawn out fight, a long drawn out fight itself would be humiliating for a country that is by many orders larger and more powerful. Modi will find it difficult to go campaigning if India has not won decisively, and the risk of escalation is that there will be no immediate or decisive victory.

A second disincentive for escalation is that India may not have militarily prepared for this confrontation. Doubling down on escalation with a military force that is not ready is a recipe for disaster. The Modi government has only itself to blame, having paid little attention to the military and starved it of funds to the point that it is not certain that it would perform much better if the situation worsens. The unpreparedness provides a good disincentive for further escalation because of the uncertainty.

It is not clear in which direction Modi will push. But beyond this iteration of India-Pakistan confrontation, this should hopefully demonstrate to Indian political leaders that they need to pay greater attention to military and security matters than they have hitherto and make the necessary adjustments before a crisis hits rather than after.

Prince Salman Tour Spotlights Saudi Arabia Variable in India-Pakistan-China Relations - The Diplomat, 28 February 2019

I had not updated my blog for a few days amidst some travel and other commitments. A few days ago, I wrote a piece for the Diplomat on the Saudi Crown Prince's visit to India, looking at the larger dynamics of MBS/ Saudi Arabia in India-Pakistan-China relations. The voyage highlighted Riyadh’s role in the balance of ties between the three states and India’s continued concerns on that front.

Last week, in the midst of India-Pakistan tensions which show few signs of ebbing, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, popularly known as MBS, kicked off a pre-planned regional trip that included stops in India, Pakistan, and China. Though the coincidence in timing was accidental, his voyage nonetheless spotlighted the Saudi factor in India-Pakistan relations.

In a reflection of how sensitive MBS’s trip was, he paid a trip to Pakistan but then, in order to “de-hyphenate” the visit, he returned to Saudi Arabia and traveled back to the region a second time for the India visit before moving on to China. That spotlighted the effort Saudi Arabia continues to make to not unnecessarily alienate either New Delhi or Islamabad.

For the full essay, click here.



More substantively, in terms of the legs of the visit, the Pakistan trip produced little for India to cheer about. The two sides expressed appreciation for efforts made by them in the “war on terrorism” despite Islamabad’s complicity with some terror groups, and there was a reference in the joint statement to “avoiding politicization of UN listing regime” although Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir has come out clarifying that this was not a reference to Masood Azhar, the head of the Jaish-e-Muhammad (the terrorist group that has claimed responsibility for the Pulwama terror attack) that India had been trying to put under this list. In an indication of continued Saudi Arabia-Pakistan ties, the two countries signed deals worth $20 billion which comes in addition to $6 billion loan that Riyadh had given to Islamabad in October 2018, with Saudi Arabia also planning to invest $10 billion in a refinery and petrochemical complex in Gwadar.

The India part of the trip was also hardly a win for New Delhi. MBS’s visit to India, which came nearly three years after Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia when leaders from both countries took a decision to diversify and expand their relationship to include trade, investment and counterterrorism, came under greater scrutiny this time around. For instance, at a more symbolic level, Modi has come under sharp criticism domestically for breaking with protocol and doing his usual bear hug with the Saudi Crown Prince. On a more substantive note, there has also been criticism that Modi did not use the occasion to extract some strong commitment from Saudi Arabia on Pakistan and terrorism. Though he had said that there will be strong reference to countering terrorism, the fact that MBS did not mention Pulwama is seen in India as a big failure.

Of course, the expectation that India could extract certain concessions from Saudi Arabia may seem far-fetched because a leader of the Islamic world like Saudi Arabia will always be in a tight spot in managing relations with both secular India and Islamic Pakistan. There was also a clear effort to forge greater cooperation. As a senior Indian official TS Tirumurti emphasized, for Saudi Arabia, India is one of the eight strategic partners and Riyadh plans to “deepen partnership” with India in the areas of security, trade, investment and culture. During the visit, MBS committed to invest $100 billion over the next few years in areas like energy, refining, petrochemicals, infrastructure, agriculture, and manufacturing, and the two sides also plan to deepen the bilateral defence and security engagements, with a special focus on joint naval exercises between the two militaries.

In sum, New Delhi should be happy with Saudi promises of trade and investment. But from the perspective of the fight against terror or on Indian objective of “isolating Pakistan,” it will be seen rather disappointing. For Saudi Arabia, Pakistan offers important security benefits, including a potential nuclear cover, which India simply cannot match.

After finishing his India visit, the crown prince traveled to China. China is important to Riyadh on its own terms – it is its largest trading partner and MBS sees an opportunity to further his Vision 2030 plan. But the focus was also on what if any additional cooperation both sides would forge during the visit, given that Saudi Arabia is one of Pakistan’s strongest friends and strategic partners.

On this part of the voyage, there were few surprises for India. The trip saw China and Saudi Arabia forge greater economic ties and also reinforce their shared cooperation on counterterrorism, with the international headlines focused on how Riyadh, the center of the Muslim world, seemed to basically sweep aside China’s poor treatment of its own Muslim Uyghurs. There were also references made to China’s interest in Saudi Arabia in terms of its grander designs with respect to the Belt and Road Initiative and the Maritime Silk Road, as a lot of the Chinese trade will go through the Red Sea, bordering Saudi Arabia.

All in all, unfortunately for New Delhi, if anything this leg, as with MBS’s trip more generally, amounted to largely more of the same in terms of both the concerns India has long had and the limits to further altering the Saudi Arabia variable in the India-Pakistan relationship to its advantage.

Friday, February 15, 2019

New Terror Attack Exposes India’s Limited Options - The Diplomat, 15 February 2019

In this week's column for The Diplomat, I wrote on the horrific terrorist attack in Pulwama yesterday and what India's options may be in response to it. In the piece, "New Terror Attack Exposes India’s Limited Options," I argue that despite the severity of the attack and the pressure for action, New Delhi’s choices are much more limited than they may initially appear.


A major terrorist attack in Awantipora area of Pulwama district in south Kashmir has killed dozens of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel, and the casualties are likely to go up. But despite the severity of the attack and growing pressure for action, New Delhi’s choices are much more limited than they may initially appear.

The Pulwama terrorist attack is one of the worst in recent years. The death toll is still climbing, but recent reports indicated over 40 people had been killed. In the 2016 attack on an Indian Army base in Uri, 16 personnel had died. The 2001 attack on the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly in Srinagar had killed 38 people. For the CRPF in particular, this is the second worst attack in its history. The last time it suffered such casualties was in Dantewada when Maoists insurgents ambushed and killed 75 CRPF personnel in April 2010.

The CRPF is the largest of the central paramilitary forces that come under the Ministry of Home Affairs. It has been carrying out law and order as well as counterinsurgency duties in Jammu and Kashmir and India’s northeast for several decades. The CRPF is generally less well trained and less well armed than the Indian Army, but it is usually used to bolster local police forces around the country in various contingencies including for counterinsurgency duties.

Reacting to the attack, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “Attack on CRPF personnel in Pulwama is despicable. I strongly condemn this dastardly attack. The sacrifices of our brave security personnel shall not go in vain. The entire nation stands shoulder to shoulder with the families of the brave martyrs.” Union Minister VK Singh responded by saying, “As a soldier and a citizen of India, my blood boils at the spineless and cowardly attacks. 18 brave hearts from the @crpfindia laid down their lives in #Pulwama. I salute their selfless sacrifice & promise that every drop of our soldier’s blood will be avenged. #JaiHind.”

These statements are understandable and fairly routine, and the government will be under great pressure to do something. One reason is the scale of the attack and the open claim of responsibility by Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a Pakistan-based terrorist group. Another reason is that the Modi government claims to be tough on national security matters and its supporters will expect it to act forcefully. Moreover, India’s so-called surgical strikes in 2016 will lead to expectations that India will act this time also. Finally, national elections are due to take place in the next few months which adds domestic political pressure on the government.

For the full article, click here.



On the other hand, India’s options to respond are fairly limited. On the diplomatic side, while we have seen Indian officials speak about isolating Pakistan and some steps may be taken in this direction, they are likely to have little substantive impact considering that the level of diplomatic intercourse with Pakistan is already quite minimal and no major negotiations or talks are underway. While India could downgrade diplomatic relations even further, it is unlikely that it could do very much to assuage the anger in the country.

India could also try to generate diplomatic pressure on Pakistan through its friends in the international community and through multilateral fora such as the United Nations. But these have so far proved of little value and they are unlikely to bear much fruit.

This attack also raises questions about the Modi government’s Wuhan initiative to smooth ties with China. Despite Modi’s efforts to mollify China, there is little indication that Beijing has stopped providing cover to Pakistan, especially on the Masood Azhar issue. In fact, any Indian effort to once again list JeM founder Masood Azhar as a global terrorist is likely to be blocked by China.

India’s military options are equally constrained. If past crises are any indication, it is unlikely that there are any well-planned and prepared contingency options that have been decided in consultation between the political leadership and the Indian military. Thus, any response will have to wait until plans are drawn up, forces prepared, and equipment deployed. This is likely to take time, possibly several weeks.

It is also unclear that the Indian military has sufficient superiority over Pakistani forces to even consider any full-scale military retaliation. The Indian military has been starved of funds in the last several years, with very little capital acquisition and significant weaknesses in critical areas. The Indian Air Force, for example, is down to about 30 squadrons and it will be years before India is able to field the full 42 squadrons that has been sanctioned for the Air Force.

It is also unclear that India will respond with a full-scale conventional assault as envisaged under the Cold Start doctrine. With elections looming, such a venture may be considered too risky. While it is possible that India could conduct a somewhat enhanced version of the 2016 surgical strikes, that may not be seen as sufficient.

The Modi government is thus likely to find itself facing a series of bad choices. But it has only itself to blame for the poor planning and preparation to meet a contingency that was easily predictable. The greatest danger is that under pressure to do something, Delhi will launch a military assault with inadequate forethought that will likely make the situation worse.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Why India’s New Defense Budget Falls Short - The Diplomat, 12 February 2019

For The Diplomat this month, I start with an analysis of the Indian defence budget and highlight that the new budget does little to advance the very objectives the country has outlined for itself.


On February 1, India’s acting Finance Minister Piyush Goyal (presented the Indian interim budget for 2019-20. Unsurprisingly for an election year, there was a big focus on agriculture and social sectors, and the defense allocation was certainly not the highlight.

Specifically, Goyal, in his speech said, “Our Defence Budget will be crossing 3,00,000 crore rupees [INR 3 trillion or about $42 billion] for the first time in 2019-20. For securing our borders and to maintain preparedness of the highest order, if necessary, additional funds would be provided.”

Newspaper headlines highlighted the fact that the defense budget had crossed the INR 3 trillion mark. But the key question is if this is sufficient against the backdrop of growing security challenges and the life-cycle driven military modernization that Indian military forces urgently require.

In fact, the defense allocation in real terms has gone down if one were to look at the rate of inflation and foreign exchange depreciation over the last year. Commenting on the defense budget, Air Marshal Nirdosh Tyagi, a former Deputy Chief of Air Staff, said, “Last defence budget had increase of just about 7.7 percent over the previous year. Inflation and rupee depreciation more than neutralized this. Thus, no increase in real terms.” Other commentators also echoed this general sentiment that Indian defense budget has stagnated.

For the full essay, click here.



With major plans for defense modernization on the anvil, the current defense allocation is far too meager to make any meaningful progress. In fact, in the last few years, each Indian defense budget has been criticized as being the lowest budget allocation since the 1962 war with China. Indian defense spending in the pre-1962 phase was about 1.5 percent of GDP annually, going up only as a consequence of the disastrous border war with China in late 1962 and the rebuilding of the Indian military that took place subsequently. It peaked at over 4 percent of GDP in the mid-1980s, according to the World Bank (based on SIPRI data), declining since then.

The government has made a total allocation for defense of INR 4.31 trillion which is slightly over 6.35 percent of the revised estimates for 2018-19. The total Ministry of Defense (MoD) budget includes all allocations to the Ministry of Defense, revenue allocations to the three services, Defense R&D Organization (DRDO) and Ordnance Factories and capital allocations to these entities and also defense pensions. Thus, the actual allocation for the defense forces is only INR 3.01 trillion, of which only a third (INR 1.03 trillion) is allocated for capital expenditure, which goes into modernization of the military.

Analysts have provided further break down of the budget in terms of the modernization funds available to army, navy and air force which shows that the resource crunch will continue to be a major problem for all the services. Most of the 6.3 percent hike in the defense budget actually goes to meet the salary and pension requirements, thus making the allocation for modernization a lot smaller than even the previous year. A quick look at the modernization budget shows that Air Force has got the largest share at INR 363.7 billion followed by Army and the Navy at about INR 220 billion.

Why does the continuing almost-stagnant defense allocation create anxieties? This year’s defense allocation is despite the Parliament Committee Report of 2018 which highlighted the serious deficiencies faced by the Indian military. India’s Vice Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Sarath Chand had last year made a case for increasing the budget, telling a parliamentary panel that the budget “has dashed our hopes”. He pointed to the possibility of a two-front war and to the continuing threats that India faced, saying India did not have sufficient funds for emergency necessary purchases, and the army did not have sufficient war reserves to fight a high-intensity war for more than ten days. He is not likely to be pleased with this year’s budget either.

More recently, the Indian Army has released its Land Warfare doctrine which clearly emphasizes a two-front threat scenario (China-Pakistan) for which the Indian Army has to be prepared against, signifying a shift from the single-threat scenario, which was the predominant thinking until a decade ago. Similarly, last year the Indian Air Force (IAF) conducted the Gagan Shakti exercises reportedly with a two-front war scenario.

It is somewhat surprising that a nationalist government that prides itself on a muscular foreign policy devotes so little for defense. While the current budget may be dictated by the impending elections and the need for providing sops to various domestic groups, that does not explain the consistently lower defense budget for several years. This also has an impact on India’s strategic options: India’s much softer approach to China over the last year may very well be dictated by the realization that New Delhi simply does not have the military capacity to do anything else.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Pakistan’s Nasr Missile: ‘Cold Water’ Over India’s ‘Cold Start’? - 31 January 2019

In this week's column for The Diplomat, Pakistan’s Nasr Missile: ‘Cold Water’ Over India’s ‘Cold Start’?, I wrote on the broader significance of broader significance of Pakistan's Nasr missile. Pakistan has claimed that it successfully conducted a "training launch" of Nasr, a short-range surface-to-surface ballistic missile, last week. In addition to the statement, a video was released that showed four of these missiles being launched in a salvo.

According to the statement, which was put out by Pakistan’s Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR) office, the test was conducted to beef up the operational efficiency of Army Strategic Forces Command as well as to validate the technical parameters of the missile. The statement noted that the missile has the ability for “in-flight maneuverability” and claimed that it has given a boost to Pakistan’s “full spectrum deterrence.”

There is little doubt that the Nasr is directly focused on complicating India’s nuclear doctrine and the Indian Army’s efforts to create a space below the nuclear threshold for conventional operations through the “Cold Start” doctrine.

For the full essay, click here.



The Indian doctrine came about as a result of not having an effective response in the wake of the December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament. India recognized that Pakistan’s nuclear status prevents it from conducting deep thrusts into Pakistan’s territory because it could lead to Islamabad responding with a nuclear attack.

Cold Start is designed to nevertheless use India’s conventional superiority to punish Pakistan by conducting a large number of shallow attacks into Pakistani territory. The hope is that the shallowness of such an attack will prevent Pakistan from finding a justifiable cause for using its nuclear weapons, while the width and number of attacks will both prevent Pakistan from being able to defend itself and allow India to capture some territory to force Pakistan to be amenable to Indian political demands, such as stopping Pakistani support for the insurgency in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Pakistan wants to prevent such Indian plans by suggesting that it will respond with nuclear weapons to even limited-distance thrusts as envisaged under Cold Start. After a previous test launch of the Nasr missile in 2017, Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa is reported to have said that the “Nasr has put cold water on Cold Start.”

Pakistan started developing the Nasr in the mid-2000s and the first report about the missile came out after a test firing on April 19, 2011. The missile, capable of carrying a sub-kilo ton nuclear warhead, is a derivative of the WS-2 Weishi Rockets system developed by China’s Sichuan Aerospace Corporation.

Though the missile is likely to carry a small tactical nuclear warhead, analysts argue that “it is intended to serve the dual purpose of demonstrating Pakistan’s determination to protect its vital national interests; and to provoke international intervention to stop India.” Some Pakistani analysts are of the view that the Nasr TNWs can restrain India from carrying out “massive retaliation,” a principle enshrined in India’s nuclear doctrine and is “a cost-effective way [due to Pakistan’s resource constraints] to alleviate the rapidly growing conventional asymmetries between India and Pakistan and to counter the threat of limited war.” Pakistan feels that Nasr is also less provocative because it is not intended to be used on Indian territory but on Indian troops who are already deep inside Pakistan’s territory.

While there are still questions about whether Pakistan has managed to actually build warheads sufficiently small to fit on top of the Nasr missile, the United States has remained concerned about the heightened risk of a nuclear conflict with India with the introduction of the TNWs. Such weapons have to be forward deployed, and control of these weapons need to be delegated to lower levels of command, which increases probability of these weapons being used without being authorized by the central command. There is also an increased risk of these weapons even being stolen. Nevertheless, for Rawalpindi, the Nasr has probably performed its deterrence task by seriously complicating Indian war plans and nuclear strategy.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Where Would India Fit in a Missile Defense Partnership in the Indo-Pacific? - 24 January 2019

In this week's column for The Diplomat, I examined India's evolving missile defense choices and partnerships. This was done in the backdrop of the US Missile Defense Review (MDR) which identified as a partner in the Indo-Pacific. In this piece, "Where Would India Fit in a Missile Defense Partnership in the Indo-Pacific?," I analyse as to how India was compelled to appreciate the utility of missile defense to what the different options for India are, whether it should be an indigenous system or something that is developed in partnership with other countries such as the US.


Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump announced the 2019 Missile Defense Review (MDR), outlining the rapidly evolving threats and the U.S. measures and capabilities that are required to protect the homeland, bases abroad and U.S. allies and partners around the world. The document, the latest among a series of strategy documents released under the Trump administration, bears noting in terms of what it means for India and the wider Indo-Pacific.

The Indo-Pacific factors significantly in the MDR. There is a mention of threats such as North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China, the advancements in missile defense and anti-satellite (ASAT) advancements in a few countries that could negatively impact the United States, and references to the importance of working with U.S. allies and partners including Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India.

The references to these like-minded states in particular bears noting. Both Japan and South Korea are already working with the United States in developing their respective missile defense shields which are also “increasingly interoperable” with U.S. systems. Australia also plays an important role in strengthening the regional missile defense cooperation through a trilateral engagement with the United States and Japan. Where does India fit into this emerging missile defense partnership in the Indo-Pacific?

For the full essay, click here.



India is no stranger to this conversation: It has been trying to manage growing missile threats in its neighborhood for about two decades now. China-Pakistan collaboration in this regard has been a significant driver in pushing New Delhi in developing certain limited missile defense capabilities. In the early 1990s, proliferation of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles such as the M-9 and M-11 from China to Pakistan pushed India to explore missile defense options. India had learned to live with China’s inventory of long-range missiles, but Pakistan was always a more prominent and unpredictable rival for India, and thus India has felt compelled to respond with greater swiftness.

India’s missile defense options included both indigenously developing missile defense technology as well as procuring it from the outside. At the time, this effort represented a major shift in India’s policy on missile defenses: India had vociferously criticized the U.S. “Star Wars” missile defense programs of the 1980s. A changing missile threat perception along with a strategic reorientation toward the U.S. enabled these policy shifts in India.

In recognition of this fact, the MDR makes a pointed reference to the “advanced and diverse range of ballistic and cruise missile capabilities in South Asia.” The review further notes that this is a potential area of cooperation between India and the United States especially given the convergence of strategic interests between the two sides and sees this as “a natural outgrowth of India’s status as a Major Defense Partner and key element of our Indo-Pacific Strategy.”

There is certainly some indication of a greater weight being placed on India in Washington’s calculations about how it deals with U.S. alliances and partnerships in the region. To take just one example, the United States had, just a few months ago, granted India a “Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 (STA-1)” status, that was previously given only to Japan and South Korea in Asia. But in reality, though India has a growing interest in missile defenses, whether it will be able to partner with the United States is open to question.

For instance, interestingly, this comes in the backdrop of India’s decision to buy the Russian S-400 air defense system for $5 billion. The Indian decision to proceed with the S-400 systems is indicative of the scale of the missile threats in India’s neighborhood. But it also means it is unclear whether India will look to the United States for BMD systems: a U.S. and Russian defense system could be complicated in terms of interoperability, though some analysts argue that it is a sensible option to have different radars and different encryption systems to deal with an array of threats.

Another problem is that India’s DRDO is already developing its own two-tiered BMD system. In addition, at the lower end, India is purchasing the U.S.-Norwegian NASAMS-2 system, as well as the Indo-Israel MRSAM (a land version of the Barak-8 naval system). Given all this, whether or not there is space for further operational cooperation with the United States within the Indian ballistic missile defense architecture remains to be seen.