Book review: Arming without Aiming - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Sunday 5 December 2010

Book review: Arming without Aiming

India’s military modernisation
Stephen P Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta
India: Viking/Penguin, 2010
223 pages; Rs 499

The title of a book usually comes to the authors somewhere along the process of writing it. After reading the delightfully named Arming without Aiming, though, I cannot help suspecting that the title was born first and then a book written around it. Disappointingly, the authors, both well-reputed commentators on South Asian security, have done a little more than arrange morsels of information — many of them from questionable news reports in the Indian media — to buttress their thesis that New Delhi’s growing defence expenditure serves no clear military-strategic objectives.

Messrs Cohen and Dasgupta are correct, if not original, in pointing out that “India’s modernisation has lacked political direction and has suffered from weak prospective planning, individual service-centric doctrines, and a disconnect between strategic objectives and the pursuit of new technology." But the fundamental illogic in the authors’ thesis — a blemish that spreads its stain across the book — is the unquestioning assumption that these drawbacks stem from India’s strategic restraint.

Due mention is made of the benefits that have flowed from Indian restraint, especially the absence of global alarm over India’s military rearmament. But Arming without Aiming is coloured by a western approach towards the exercise of power. Restraint, the authors argue, is something that New Delhi will have to “break out of” in order to “assume its place as a great power”. A benign power, they assume, is disadvantaged in organising its levers of coercive force and, therefore, hamstrung as a great power.

The book begins well, presenting itself as a slim, pleasing hardback, even if the tiny typeset has been tailored for the strategist’s superior vision. The authors’ strong academic capabilities come through in the preface, in a short but interesting exploration of the earlier literature on why India has not been more focused in developing its military power. The authors also explore the historical roots of Indian restraint, including Nehru’s hiring of British scientist P M S Blackett as a defence adviser and Nehru’s acceptance of his advice that military spending remain below 2 per cent of GDP.

The authors remain on firm ground while using historical examples to illustrate India’s restraint: the pre-1962 period of low defence spending; the 1971 decision to limit war aims to the liberation of Bangladesh; and the 1974 decision to go no further down the nuclear path than a “peaceful nuclear experiment”. But they go badly wrong in arguing that India’s invariable failure at being assertive — in the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict; in occupying the Siachen Glacier; during Exercise Brass Tacks; and in the Sri Lanka conflict — reinforced India’s inherent restraint. Influential policy-makers in New Delhi perceive at least two of those operations, Siachen and Brass Tacks, as successful examples of coercive diplomacy. How then would they reinforce restraint?

Incorrect conclusions like this stem from the authors’ US-based perspective, and from Cohen’s long years as a Pakistan expert. Siachen, they argue — using the same logic as the Pakistan Army — is a failure because “initial Indian success has since proved to be a steady drain on Indian military resources”. The Indian military mindset, however, does not evaluate Siachen in logistical terms. For New Delhi, Siachen is a symbol of will and a continually successful feat of arms; Rawalpindi sees it as a debacle, something to be quickly wiped off the slate, and has consistently sought a mutual withdrawal from Siachen.

Besides the absence of local nuance, Arming without Aiming is marred by a string of factual errors that undermine its credibility with the reader. Misleadingly characterising the ill-conceived intervention in Sri Lanka as “India’s Vietnam”, the book asserts that more Indian soldiers died in Sri Lanka than in any other post-Independence war. In fact, the casualty count in Sri Lanka was barely one-third the count of India’s full-scale wars (Sri Lanka: 1,157 dead, 3,009 wounded; 1971 war: 3,843 dead, 9,851 wounded).

In a similar fashion, the book mixes up T-90 tanks with the T-72; it claims that India’s defence spending reached 5 per cent of GDP in the 1980s (it never went near that figure); and states that there are five contenders in the ongoing multi-role fighter tender (there are six). But these errors are fleabites compared to the authors’ argument that India’s low GDP per capita prevents it from devoting sufficient resources to defence! Even a novice in defence economics knows that the absolute GDP, rather than the per capita figure, governs what a country can allocate to defence. Luxembourg, with a per capita GDP of $105,350 (World Bank, 2009) can hardly claim the ability to spend more on defence than India, with our meagre figure of $1134 per capita.

The book’s heavy reliance on information from the Indian media, traditionally hostile to the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO), has generated an indiscriminate condemnation of indigenous research efforts. Much of this is outdated at the time of publishing, having been superseded by structural reform within the DRDO and by the turnaround success of major projects like the Arjun tank and the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme.

Despite its drawbacks, Arming without Aiming is worth reading as an interrogation of the central crises in India’s military system. The authors correctly highlight that the directionless expansion of India’s military structures, and the acquisition of expensive weaponry, has not been accompanied by the political leadership that is needed to reconcile competing interests and allocate resources in a coherent manner. As a result, India’s strategic choices remain far more limited than they need to.


  1. Ajai sir Indian GOVT and Indian PEOPLE would love to spend several hundreds billion dollars on defence and quickly modernise its armed forces.

    But then we have to wait for our GDP to rise to 3 trillion dollars

    This man STEPHEN COHEN is a total anti Indian bast**rd

    Let him say what he wants

    If our two SHAMELESS enemies who openly DEMAND our land HAVE NOT been able to snatch our territory from us THEN WE must be doing something RIGHT

    We have followed stupid economic policies which have prevented our rise .
    Or else our GDP today would have been double

    We have to be patient .India will become a big power but it will take time

  2. Stephen Cohen!So what else can you expect.For him the Military dictatorship of Pakistan is far more planned, cohesive,coherent and effective.Why?Because they have no need to listen to Pakistan civil society(whatever little there is) or public opinion or debate their actions which enables them to do whatever the US (and the west) desire them to do.Don't go by the charades on supposed US anger on Pakistan's non-operation on WOT.Wiki leaks has shown the real deal.Thus military and strategic coherence for India will arise once it starts allying itself to US(and western) strategic aims. India has to grow unhindered for decades and it is in India's interest not to spoil for a fight. The long fight to develop economically.Military power and capability will inevitably grow in a commensurate way.
    Yes in the interim,but we must keep our guard up,keep our forces equipped(GET THE bloody 155mm guns for instance) and ensure that we too have our own deniable pin pricks to be used against our adversaries.Cunning,diplomacy and shrewdness in the key to India,not a fancy muscle display like the US whose idea of achieving peace is to flatten a country first.

  3. Col. Shukla -
    I first came across this at a Brookings site in October I think, post which I pointed out the publication to another reader of yours who goes by the alias Mertz.

    Factual errors are aplenty, but then, to me, it pointed out cetain issues we have as a nation. Our seeming lack of long term strategy for the military, our keeping the military organizational ethos in the Raj days, our lack of Program/Project management driven defense industry...

    I have been a loyal reader of Cohen's and he has written some rather good books on Indian military as well. One cant help it that he views things through western lenses and perceptions. I am quite surprised that Dasgupta let his research slip on rather obvious fronts.

    I was not aware that this was available as a book in India. Very nice!

    And I had a laugh on "..even if the tiny typeset has been tailored for the strategist’s superior vision"; thank you. I shall go look for the book.

  4. Nice review. Eager to read your book soon.

  5. How did Stephen Cohen, get a massive dose of misleading data like casuality in Sri-Lanka or T-72/T-90 tanks or India's military spending at 5% of GDP in 1980s etc?

    Do we ever have to trust Stephen Cohen in the future? He shows up at US Congressional hearings or other Think Tank activities in US. I am begining to wonder, if it is worthwhile when he makes the news.


    Hari Sud

  6. Ajai,

    First of all, I haven't read the book and neither do I intend to in the near future.

    But consider the following case with regard to your opinion on per capita gdp and defence spending.

    Compare country A and B. A and B have the same GDP but the population of A is 3 times that of B. So B has a 3 times higher per capita GDP.

    1. If country A spent the same amount of money as B on defence, it would mean country A's population would have to suffer a three times more severe cut in public welfare services per person. Which is a tough political choice for A. Country B can spend more because it's population is better off and in less need for welfare.

    2. Country A's government revenues will not be as high as country B's because both countries would probably have a certain income threshold only above which you have to pay tax. Less percentage of Country A's GDP would be tax revenue.

    See what I mean?

  7. Stephen Cohen has long been very aware of India's potential & has made it one of his credos as a South Asian expert, to deliberately, as much as possible, steer it in a non threatening direction, so as to not emerge as a dominant force in Asia. As such, his diatribes on DRDO, Indian actions etc are typical & are intended as propoganda to influence Indian decision makers to do what is not in India's interest. Shekher Gupta has long been a Cohen acolyte and plays by whatever Cohen says.

  8. Contrary to popular belief, OP Meghdoot was indeed an ill-conceived operation as the Indian Army's positions astride the main passes of the Saltoro Ridge immediately west of the glacier (Sia La, Bilafond La, and Gyong La) were 3 degrees east of NJ9842. If at all India wanted to mount an audicious operation in pursuance of its strategic objectives, then it should have allowed the Indian Army to mount the expedition at Dansum, which is exactly where the Pakistan Army based its Siachen Brigade at an altitude of 16,000 feet. Had Cohen and Dasgupta read authenticated news reports of OP Meghdoot, then the truth would have dawned upon them. The same goes for their coverage of EX Brass Tacks, when in fact it was EX Checker Board and OP Trident that highlighted India's dissuasive deterrence posture vis-a-vis the Chinese around Sumdurong Chu in early 1986-1987.

  9. @ Hari Sud -

    We don't have to believe anything we read. But we should read. All these are what I would call "opinion pieces", backed by data, or in this case, a certain lack of verified data. Among the tons of writing, you will find a lot of carefully planted disinformation as well. It is up to us to sift through and connect the dots based on our resources, experience etc.. A large part of intelligence gathering is about reading tons of stuff and akin to panning for gold.

    Even US congressional hearings have a certain amount of well crafted "playing to the audience" in it, for example, subtly telling the ISI that CENTCOM "loves" them..

    The fact is that all is not how it looks.

  10. Ajai, who is the publisher of this book and what's the price? Is it available at Indian outlets?



  11. You have not met Mr. Cohen, much less have knowledge of strategic affairs close to what he has or ever will. So please keep your comments impersonal.

    He could be wrong but he is not an idiot by any stretch of imagination. Have you bothered to ask how he has come to such conclusions, what data is he premising such inferences on.

    You may say you dont feel the need to. But before you call people names do your homework

    By the way Mr. Shukla could be dead wrong too.

  12. I would not be surprised at some of the conclusion mentioned in the book.

    I see a lot of (western)commentator base their opinion by referring to media reports. Any civilian government will be "directionless" in military matters. Civilian governments are not formed to plan grand invasion and declare the same on World media!

    On the other hand it is good to have the world media consider India military as a "going nowhere". It saves us being another "China", which is the villian now for everyone.

    Why would the author consider Indian weapons buying as "directionless"? Just a summary glance on the expansion plans of IAF in the next decade tells you there India will be fielding a really powerful airpower. a nation which can filed almost a full 4++ and 5 gen airpower in the next decade is hardly "directionless".

    It is the job of the professional to plan their threat perception and present a requirement matrix to the civilian government to handle this threat perception.
    The civilian government is only bothered with the cost.

    Civilian governments wont know the different between "Cold Start" or "Hot Start" . They will always have only one question for the armed forces in criss situation.

    "What can you do"?

    As far as considering 26/11 response as a "reference point", like the US ambassador has done in his memo, makes me wonder about their "professional ".

    If I make myself a cold bolded strategic thinker, all Pakistan has done is kill 166 civilians in India. Neither has it hit India's economic growth nor it's profile. On the contrary Pakistan has managed to achieve what India has been trying for decades

    Pakistan is now a terrorist nation in everyone's eye.

    Why should India waste men & material getting in the dirty mud!

    You cannot defeat a failed nation like Pakistan!


  13. Off-sets will work only if the overall conditions to expand manufacturing and bringing in new enterprise are conducive and implemented.
    This will require a change of attitude of the GOI on FDI and the pvt sector role in defence.Patience is the key and a long term view has to be taken.
    And regard exports we will have to stop being or at least pretending to be squeamish or taken a moral high ground on weapon exports.Arms business is actually the business of death and one has to be hard nosed about it.

  14. Hello Ajay Sir,

    I do not agree with your comment that Indian media ever was/is hostile to DRDO... If anything it swallows the snake-oil stories from DRDO for facts... The myth of Kalam was the product of Indian media... He fitted the bill of a patriotic Muslim who has done great service for security of the motherland... His intention may have been good but he or DRDO did not deliver on the promises they made.. i feel sad for the army when it parades a liquid fueled and bulky tactical missile... Does any other country has a liquid fueled tactical missle...? I am not an expert but you can comment...

    I have not read all your posts.. but if you could point to the right direction where i can read on the real achievements (deployed) of DRDO i will be thankful...


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