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HomeDEFENCEDeterrence: Making China think twice before taking another step forward # 2

Deterrence: Making China think twice before taking another step forward # 2

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deterrence Chinese PLA parade

The start point of giving teeth to military deterrence is to have an unambiguous threat assessment, realistic strategic scenario painting cum wargaming, and well-defined deterrence tools, translating into time-sensitive capability manifestation for the warfighter. As long as we have turbulent and disputed borders and regional rivalry, CHINA will constitute the PRIMARY THREAT, to Indian national security, both for NOW and the FUTURE. Further, in Kautaliya’s own words “Your neighbor is your natural enemy and the neighbor’s neighbor is your friend”. The Chinese seem to have imbibed it and apply it well for collusive strategies, making a two front binary pull a reality. Thus LAC territorial dynamics and “salami slicing” by a belligerent China, could manifest into escalators dynamics, as being witnessed and thus act as a tripwire for a conflict situation. Besides other friction points like competing energy resources, economic decoupling, evolving geostrategic partnerships, and water could add fuel to the fire. While the threat of a conventional war may be low, but limited war remains a possibility. Thus standoffs leading to confrontation and escalating into limited conflict remain a reality.  This is the reality of TODAY and not the future. Thus, without sounding alarmist, pending it as a future scenario, would be at the cost of national security. While China should be engaged diplomatically and politically to minimize conflict situation, the window must be optimized for credible deterrence capability generation.

Thus, the immediate need is to dynamically reorient, reshape, restructure, rebalance forces and have a focused time-sensitive capability development towards Northern Borders, in keeping with the shift and focus of our primary threat. For too long the comfort zone of counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism and associated “number game” has evolved orientations and leadership of the regular army, diverted from operational art nuances of conventional wars, however, limited the conflict may so manifest. Even at the strategic level, while counter-terrorism success makes big news, the fact is the Northern borders rumblings have more serious ramifications for national security and remains the primary task of the defense forces. Further, Army must free itself from the nuances of policing borders which may blunt its cutting edge. Instead, existing border guarding forces like BSF and ITBP need to be empowered with greater capabilities, better accountability, and more responsive command and control structure. The concept of “One Border One Force” often debated merits implementation. Thus reorientation and rebalancing towards the Northern borders are imperative, while positive control on the CI/CT front can be maintained by RR and PMF/CAPF forces, which in any case is their primary task. Certain rebalancing from the western front for operational and strategic flexibility is also desirability.

Simultaneously it must be restated that the utility of force is a factor of deployability, employability, and capability. Thus restructuring and reshaping as subsets of force transformation, to generate lean, agile, versatile, and technology-enabled combined arms modular force remains an exigency. The need for rapid deployment forces modular forces of Brigade and battalion level force, on the lines of planned Integrated Battle Groups, both with offensive and defensive orientation would add teeth to the force capability. These should be suitably located as reserves in addition to the independent integral defense capability for each sector. Ironically, capabilities like a light tank that have been glaring at our face for over a decade got put under the carpet due to status quo mindsets and lack of foresight. There is a need to revisit the Mountain Strike Corps sanctioned earlier but financially not supported. Similarly, our joint force C5ISR capabilities have been spoken more than manifestation. We need to walk the talk NOW as a nation. An effective transformation strategy in our context must tackle the following six issues: the “bigger the better” syndrome, the absence of a strategic culture exemplified by the void of a national security strategy, the sustenance and capabilities voids, the imbalance and lack of reforms in the defense budget, bureaucratic decision-making apathy and risk averseness, and the need to optimize jointness. Thus, to be sustainable it must address all three critical components; transformed military culture transformed the defense planning process and transformed joint service capabilities.

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Indian-Army-T-72 tank on uphill track

Military deterrence is a tool that needs to focus on land, sea, air, space, subsurface, cognitive, and cyber domain.  India is an oceanic power blessed with gifted geography and a coastline dominating the most important SLOCs and thus must optimize the sea power for its security concerns. Over the past few years, India has drawn global attention to the regional influence in the Indian Ocean and its role as a net security provider. Thus, corporative mechanisms with the United States, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, and others particularly in Indo Pacific and the Indian Ocean have also been upgraded. These besides providing strength to the shared security deterrence mechanism provide economic clout and strengthens diplomacy. India also needs to invest in the strategically placed Andaman and Nicobar Islands for oceanic deterrence. Similarly, while India enjoys the air component military advantage over China, it needs to further add teeth to its deterrence capability, both in quantity and quality. The dimensions of space and cyber while finding their feet in the military calculus, also needs a far greater boost, to match future asymmetrical threats from China.

The defense budget a key enabler and an indicator of the demonstrated will of the government to achieve the desired ends inevitably end up as the prime villain. Given the pragmatic but limited nature of the defense budget, reducing revenue expenses and increasing capital availability poses the biggest hurdle. Besides the need for a budgetary rebalancing of revenue and capital heads, the sub-optimal allocation of resources particularly for modernization and sustenance are impinging upon the national security calculus. Ironically, the defense budget can never be enough, yet it must never be so insufficient too. The defense budget based on GDP’s revised estimate for 2019-20; is at an all-time dip of 1.44 % of GDP other than pensions (for FY 2020-21) and lower than the comparative figure before the 1962 conflict. The requirement is for incremental enhancement to meet the requirement of 2.5 to 3% of the GDP. Defense budgetary reforms must thus be pursued in right earnest, complementing the military transformation effort. A non-lapsable and dedicated modernization budget, despite its constitutional challenges, needs to fructify. An embargo must also be placed against fund transfer from the defense budget to other heads, which at times becomes a norm for populistic budgeting. Besides, a special surge of budgetary allocation to address hollowness and infrastructure needs to be instituted. Failure to do so must be accompanied by the accountability and responsibility of the decision-makers or tuning down the mandate laid down in the Raksha Mantri Operational Directive. In the meanwhile, the defense forces need a de-novo modernization outlook for fund optimization, based on threat cum capability generation approach and priorities based on value, vulnerability, and risk analysis. The risk of fighting the next war with the technologies, tools, and mindsets of the last war needs caution. Besides, a nation must harness its defense industrial base to address its security concerns and focus on self-reliance in defense. Indeed, culturally we react only under crisis. Repeated knee jerk emergency procurements of the shelf from abroad, after every crisis, is a sign of myopic planning and unattended hollowness, which should not have existed and thus counterproductive. In particular investments in Defence R&D and evolving an integrated defense ecosystem are essential. Last but not the least is the human resource development, the greatest asset,  particularly the higher military leadership at operational and strategic level needs remolding of mindsets and professional orientation to the emerging threats on our Northern Borders.


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Definition of deterrence from the Dictionary of Modern Strategy and Tactics by Michael Keane is “The prevention or inhibition of action brought about by fear of the consequences. Deterrence is a state of mind brought about by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction. It assumes and requires rational decision-makers.” A successful deterrence policy must thus be considered not only through the military lens, but also in political, economic, foreign policy, diplomacy, and informational terms. The prevention of crises of wars is not the only aim of deterrence. Thus, the Chinese three warfare strategy (media, psychological and legal warfare) to weaken its adversaries in regions constituting what it perceives to be its ‘core interests’, needs to be tackled by nonmilitary dimensions of deterrence as well. Besides, defending states must be able to resist the political and economic pressures of a belligerent adversary. If the armed conflict is avoided at the price of diplomatic, political, or economic concessions to the demands of the potential adversary under the threat of war, then it cannot be claimed that deterrence has succeeded.

China’s rise over the past two decades has sought to alter the landscape of global politics and strategic stability. China’s rise and assertive international posturing concerning territorial disputes both on land and at sea thus need to be deterred at two levels; global level and regional level. At the global level, the focus must be encouraging China’s integration into the rules-based global order, while deterring it from misadventures through an integrated security architecture. Such a collective security mechanism would also act as a deterrence, making the cost of Himalayan rumbling politically and economically untenable.  At the regional level, India can ill afford to lose its dwindling ‘Strategic Space’ in the neighborhood. Chinese growing influence and investments in the immediate neighborhood will in turn adversely impact the security calculus. India needs to leverage Dragon’s contradictions and fault lines to its advantage and show greater compassion to its neighbors and their aspirations. India must thus endeavor to improve its geopolitical linkages like SAARC, ASEAN, and QUAD, etc, and harness deterrence based on multilateral and bilateral strategic mechanisms, both for economic development and security concerns.

On the economic deterrence front, a powerful, vibrant and resilient economy is a potent deterrent. India thus needs to remain focused on economic revival and resilience as an important tool of deterrence. Economic sanctions, isolation, and decoupling, the world over are seen as tools of coercion, to change the behavior of a state. Thus, while a strong economy as China has created global dependencies, it has its vulnerabilities of global decoupling. A collective global effort towards economic decoupling and reducing dependencies will act as a deterrence to its confrontational behavior. A term sometimes referred to as economic warfare. India has done well to ban the Chinese apps even if it is symbolic, yet a part of strong strategic messaging. Much more needs to be done to tame the Dragon.

 However, the present context of COVID impacted the economic downturn,  also poses security vulnerabilities to India that can be, and in the instant case was exploited by the Chinese. Thus, the myth that blinds India’s security policy thinking, that domestic economic development can largely be a substitute for security policy stands exposed. Economic recovery is only possible if the most critical pillar of national security, in terms of a strong military is in place.

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Additionally, in the non-military front, cyberspace is another emerging arena to apply deterrence and demonstrate strong signaling. Cyber operations are fundamentally different from other platforms of kinetic means of destruction, in that they can be leveraged by a wide range of national actors including organized teams with network engineering and cybersecurity capabilities. A recent example where a large swath of Indian network traffic was commandeered through intrusive cyber protocols to another country before being processed is a case in point. India has the largest pool of young talent educated in the tools and applications of cyber-operations; remember that defense and offense are two sides of the same capability coin in cyberspace with a broad spectrum of cyber capabilities; signaling can be right from a simple point penetration of a network to an infrastructure systemic attack. The implications are clear- cyber deterrence must form part of the strategic arsenal of a country as gifted with raw cyber talent; it requires mustering of technology leadership within the strategic community and operating in harmony within the overall deterrence paradigm. Because India must secure its networks against all potential adversaries with all manifest capabilities, cyber deterrence must complement the military forms of deterrence. India must have the capability and intent to signal that hostile acts in cyberspace would be followed up unreservedly through all other necessary means- diplomatic, military, and economic, to defend the nation.

Lastly, deterrence is also a critical factor of the political dispensation of the nation and its leadership’s disposition to take strong decisive actions. A powerful, decisive, and nationalistic leadership with majority support thus can strengthen the deterrence architecture and impacts the cognitive domain of the adversary. However, when two such leaders clash, while both may exhibit credibility, yet the one with greater commitment, who does not succumb to pressures, succeeds.


China presents a multifaceted challenge to India “Today”. Relations with China while being managed from competition to cooperation, have all the potential to flare up to a future confrontation leading to conflict. While dealing with China has always remained one of India’s biggest foreign policy challenges, today the asymmetry in economic and military capabilities between the two Asian giants is not balanced. China respects only strength and India would do well to emerge as China’s equal without falling into a complacency trap. The challenge is greater in the non-contact, non-kinetic, informational, cyber, and digital allied domains.

China has also developed an all-weather relationship with Pakistan, which it employs as a proxy against India. This collusive support remains a reality and challenge for any future conflict for India, be it a one or two front conflicts. China not settling the boundary dispute and holding it as domicile’s sword leaves no doubt that undercurrents of conflict remain. Managing the rise of China and deterring its unilateral aggression in the region thus remains a strategic challenge for India. Thus, countering the threat from China is based more robustly on conventional deterrence with unlikely nuclear posturing.

India’s current strategic deterrence against China has not achieved its objective as highlighted recently in Eastern Ladakh. Thus, managing China both in peace and war requires collaborative military, economic, informational, diplomatic, and political levers to deter its revisionist designs. While China may continue to ignite sparks, India will need to do much more in these domains to build up such levels of deterrence capacity that the military opposition withers without conflict. China’s periodic forays in peacetime by way of transgression will have to be denied any psychological gains due to resolute military deterrence and astute political decisiveness to preserve its core national interests.

China would do well to recognize the Indian resilience, while India will do well to keep its powder dry against the deceptive Dragon. The nation must realize that the threat is knocking on your door.

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Lt Gen A B Shivane, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd)
Lt Gen A B Shivane, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd)
Commissioned in the 7th Light Cavalry, Lt Gen Shivane retired as DG Mechanized Forces. He was thereafter engaged as Consultant with MoD/OFB and authored two books on national security. He is a TEDx speaker and holds COAS Chair of Excellence 2021-2022 at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies. Gen Shivane has been General Officer Commanding of an elite Strike Corps and commanded 50 Armoured regiment during Operation Vijay and Operation Parakram, an independent armoured brigade and the elite Armoured Division. He has also served in counter insurgency operations in Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir and has been on a UN assignment. His other prestigious appointments include AQMG Mountain Division, GSO1 IS (Ops) in Kashmir, Commander Independent Armoured Brigade, BGS Strike Corps, ADG PP, GOC Armored Division and GOC Strike Corps.


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