Arjun Subramaniam in Conversation with India Ink

Air Vice Marshall Arjun Subramaniam is a fighter pilot, scholar, and author who recently retired from the Indian Air Force after 36 years of service. In addition to being an experienced fighter pilot, Air Vice Marshall Subramaniam also holds a Ph.D. in Defense and Strategic Studies from the University of Madras, India, and he has become of one India’s most respected strategic commentators and military historians, drawing on his own experiences and insights from more than three decades of military service. 


India Ink: The recent standoff with China at the Doklam pass finally cooled off after nearly three months, with China notably backing down from its previously hardline position. The border situation with China has been uneasy for decades, since the 1962 war and the 1967 clashes at Nathu La and Cho La. Does Doklam change the equation at the India-China border? Does progress on the US-India front (e.g. Secretary Tillerson’s remarks and visit) have much of a bearing on the border issue?

Subramaniam:  Firstly, your proposition saying that the border standoff has ended, is not entirely correct. There is evidence to prove that the Chinese have barely gone back 40-50 kilometers and there are photographs to suggest that there are large troop buildups at that distance which would be ready to move in for another encounter, or another face-off of the kind that took place in Doklam. There are many commentators in India, and I tend to agree with them, who say that we have not seen the end of this. That is in response to the first part of your question.

As far as the second part is concerned, yes, China is not comfortable with the growing India-US strategic partnership, because it believes that the US is using India to keep China under pressure. But India does not see it that way. India sees it as a partnership between two democracies. India is the most populous democracy, and the United States the oldest. So there should have been a convergence years ago. But the Cold War prevented that convergence from taking place, so I think the strategic partnership’s progression is natural, and not particularly directed at China. Yes, India could use some support in the region. But having said that, India has been very careful not to antagonize China excessively by drastically scaling up its military engagement with the United States. If you notice over the past few years, the military engagement has grown steadily, it has not grown spectacularly, and there is a reason for that. The reason is India realizes that the United States is thousands of miles away, while China is right at its doorstep, so it does not make sense to antagonize China pointlessly. India is cognizant of China’s power and would not want to confront it unnecessarily. But when pushed, India of late has the muscle or I would say, the capability, to respond in order to deter China. Nothing else.


India Ink: What role would the Indian Armed Forces, in light of their actions at Doklam, play in the conception of India as a “responsible power”? Is the thinking on this subject influenced by India’s involvement in the 1971 war that led to the creation of the independent Bangladeshi state?

Subramaniam: Of course! I think you have raised three valid points. Do you see India responding to requests for help from neighboring countries? The answer is yes. I think it was 1988 when India intervened in the Maldives. In 1987 it responded to a request by the Sri Lankan government to broker a peace between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. India has responded with military capability whenever the United Nations has asked for India’s participation. So the answer to your question is yes, India will not shy away from helping neighbors in distress if they are asked for help. India does not believe in unilateral assistance or intervention, it has to be a bilateral agreement. Whether the 1971 war has had any impact; of course! The 1971 war was the threshold, after which India started recognizing that it has military potential to be used as a tool of statecraft. As Indians, we have not read enough about our military, we have not discussed enough about how important force is as a tool of statecraft.


India Ink: During US Defense Secretary James Mattis’ recent visit to New Delhi, he discussed the possibility of a greater Indian role in Afghanistan, although the Indian side ruled out boots on the ground. Is Indo-Afghan military cooperation not involving Indian troop deployments likely? What role are we likely to see India play in Afghanistan as the US pulls out of the region?

Subramaniam: There are two issues here. Indian assistance to Afghanistan has been there for many, many years and Indo-Afghan military engagement is very strong. We have many Afghan officers being trained in Indian military establishments. The Indian assistance to Afghanistan is through helping Afghanistan build capacity, through training, through knowledge-driven initiatives, but not through direct deployment of forces or aircraft in Afghanistan. So yes, Indian military assistance to Afghanistan is historically linked, but India is cognizant of the fact that geography plays a very important part. We have Pakistan right on Afghanistan’s doorstep. Pakistan is a legitimate neighbor of Afghanistan and we do not want in any way to escalate the issue by deploying troops on the ground. There is one more thing must understand. The Indian people will ask, “What is in it for us? Why should we risk our troops in Afghanistan? Why should we risk the possibility of body bags coming back?” It does not serve our larger geopolitical interests. India’s strength is in capacity building, training, hospitals, education, and infrastructure. We are doing a lot of that. If you look at the figures, you will see that Indian assistance to Afghanistan has increased significantly over the last five years. So whenever US commentators suggest that India could do more in Afghanistan, they are incorrect. Our contribution to the rebuilding of Afghanistan is palpable and visible.


India Ink: The Tejas LCA was infamously turned down by the Navy for not meeting their requirements, and its induction into the Air Force has been slow. Even after it and the Rafale aircraft are fully inducted, the Air Force’s requirements for new aircrafts would still not be sufficiently fulfilled. How will the current deficit the Air Force faces in terms of equipment affect India’s military posturing and position over the coming decade?

Subramaniam: It is an issue that has been widely discussed. It is an issue which the Chief of Air Staff himself has acknowledged - that we currently face a deficit of aircraft if we need to be able to deploy on two fronts against both Pakistan and China. But I will not place too much importance on whether it will have a debilitating effect on our capability. It would just make it a little harder to switch resources from one theatre to the other. And yes, the induction of the Rafale, a speedier induction of the Tejas, and the competitive bidding process for a single-engine fighter that will happen soon will all help, but I do not think it will be anything less than 10 years before the Indian Air Force is able to come up to its requisite capability. In the interim we will have to make do with what we have and what we have is not bad at all. 200+ Sukhoi 30s, 40 Rafales, 40-50 Tejas, 50 Mirages and a similar number of upgraded MiG-29s - I think the Indian Air Force is a potent arm even with what it has.


India Ink: Despite several recommendations by various panels and defence ministers in the recent past, a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) has yet to come, and the autonomy of all three combat arms has ensured coordination between the same has been minimal. Is true inter-services coordination unlikely while the forces remain autonomous? Will a Chief of Defense Staff be enough to bring coordination between the forces to a level that improves India’s strategic standing?

Subramaniam: Interesting. Your question has two different layers.

The first layer is that yes, there have been many committees after the Kargil War, and all these committees have recommended a restructuring of the higher defense organization, as they call it. That restructuring as recommended by those reports has not taken place - you are correct.

The second layer, that not everybody understands, is that India does not and need not follow a model that is followed elsewhere, and therefore, there are multiple reasons why those structures have not come in. One reason is that the three forces do not feel that there is a requirement of a super-boss as they call it, in order to ensure coordination between the forces. I will not agree with you when you say coordination between the forces, because they are independent, has been suboptimal, it could be better but it is not bad. Is there need for better integration and better joint planning? Of course there is. There is always room for improvement. Do you see a CDS coming in? Historically, in large democracies like India, it is only when the political establishment is convinced, that something is the need of the hour, that it is pushed top-down. If you are expecting that the three forces will sit together and say “Hey, we need to integrate better, let us have a joint structure”, it is not going to happen. The CDS is only going to come about if someone in the political structure, and that someone has to be pretty big in the system, who understands the issues tells the Armed Forces, “this is what we need to do, and too bad if you do not agree, you need to follow through with it.” This is how democracy works. We have not reached that point as yet. So I think it is still a few years before India has a powerful CDS who is a one-point advisor on defence matters to the Prime Minister and Defence Minister.


India Ink: In terms of US-India defense cooperation and American firms manufacturing aircrafts in India, American firms have indicated a reluctance to part with proprietary technology and bear a portion of the legal liability for manufacturing defects. Given that India wants technology transfer, what do you think are terms that both countries can agree to?

Subramaniam: I understand the US viewpoint. US companies are right to be apprehensive of a complete transfer of technology because, as they argue, they have spent decades developing this technology, and it does not make financial sense for them to hand it over on a platter. That is one side of the story. The Indian side is that it has to leverage large deals for proprietary technology transfer, because India is being left way behind when it comes to other Western countries when it comes to developing high-end technology for defense production. By high-end I mean radar technology, missile systems, and the entire range of such technologies. India has been left behind over the last few years in these and the gap between India and China in these things has grown immensely. With this Make in India programmed and this rather tough transfer of technology clause, India is trying to bridge this large gap that has opened in the past few years in the defence-manufacturing sector. I think that is the underlying reason. Now I am not much of a defence technology or a business guy, but I do not know how this difference is going to be bridged, because unless this gap in perception is bridged, big US firms are not going to set up manufacturing units in India with corresponding transfer of proprietary technology.


India Ink: What role could the drones that India is presently trying to acquire play in operations in Kashmir or Siachen, where attrition is fairly tangible? Where do drones broadly fit in the military’s strategic calculations?

Subramaniam: Drones are increasingly important for a variety of military roles. If you recollect, drones, UAVs, RPAs first came into the scene because they offered military commanders an eye onto the battlefield. In other words, they were for surveillance and reconnaissance. The drone flies over the tactical area, the commander can see what the enemy is doing and thereafter he can use a weapon of his choice. And then, drones progressed. Commanders said, “Why should we risk manned aircraft to go into enemy territory? Why not just arm these drones with weapons that it fires off at targets when it sees them?”  

But drones have limitations. However much people say that drones are going to replace manned aircrafts in the future, it is not going to happen in our lifetime. Because drones are slow. They do not fly fast, and therefore, in a scenario where two adversaries are evenly matched militarily, no one will allow a scenario where a slow-flying drone comes deep into enemy territory and shoot down targets - it will be shot down in no time. So drones are only useful in asymmetric situations. That is why America is investing so much in drones, because every situation America faces is asymmetric. Tomorrow, if God forbid there is a classic, conventional confrontation between China and America, American drones will not see deployment, because they will be shot down by Chinese surface-to-air missile systems or Chinese interceptor aircrafts. Drones are very effective for surveillance, for targeting locations close to the border, and so in places like Siachen and Jammu and Kashmir, the drones will be very effective. They will be effective for surveillance, and if armed, nothing prevents us from targeting terrorist camps in Pakistan again. So drones and UAVs are an inescapable necessity, but by no means will they replace aircrafts in the future.


India Ink: What role does the Air Force play in Indian thinking on grand strategy?

Subramaniam: In any conflict, the first responder is invariably the Air Force. The IAF is a reasonably powerful force. In any conflict, the Air Force will play an important role if you want to surprise the enemy and go deep into enemy territory. It will play a very important role in shaping the battlefield, it will play a very important role particularly in transporting troops and materiel from one theatre to another. We have a large, excellent transport fleet, we have the C-17 from the US, and the C-130 which is a Special Forces aircraft. Any kind of power projection into maritime spaces will have to be led by the Indian Navy, but the Air Force has the capability to play a supporting role. Indian Sukhois deploying from bases in Southern India, with air-to-air refueling, have the potential to fly deep into the Indian Ocean and can complement our maritime forces in terms of protection. The Air Force has the capability to directly and independently impact a conflict by its ability to surprise the enemy, it has the capacity to complement and support the Army on the battlefield, and the ability to complement the Navy, even when far from our coastline.


India Ink: Given that many of the discussions on strategic considerations may not dominate the thinking of many citizens, how do you think that the Indian public views the goal of military modernization? On a qualitative level, do you see a difference in the way that the people view the Armed Forces, compared with how they did in the past?

Subramaniam: That is again an interesting question. A recent study by Pew revealed that the Indian people have immense respect for the Armed Forces. It surprised me a little bit, but I realize that respect need not accompany knowledge or an understanding of the military. So I am glad the report indicated that the Indian people have respect for the Armed Forces, but my endeavor through this book (India's Wars: A Military History, 1947-1971) and my writing has been to try and enhance the Indian people’s understanding of the military. So to that extent, I think young people in India want to know more about its Armed Forces. Many people believe that since there is no large-scale armed conflict, what is India’s Army doing exactly? That is one of my endeavors in writing this particular book, as well as the one I am researching now, which will come out in a couple of years. It is what exactly the Indian Armed Forces has done to help India develop as a democracy in the manner that it has. My endeavor is to tell a story and to tell people that I am not saying that India’s military has been overwhelmingly important, but that it has played an important role in the survival of India’s democracy.