Rear Admiral Raja Menon, who retired as Deputy Chief of Naval Staff in 1994 and is the author of a nuclear strategy for India, recently wrote an article advocating a shift from India’s grand military strategy from a continental strategy to an oceanic offensive strategy, keeping in mind the Chinese threat. The document was shared with the government.
India’s defense budget is bigger than Russia’s, Menon points out, but 82% of the army’s budget is spent on personnel costs, which he says ‘we can’t afford’ . “We need a reorientation. The fundamentals of strategy are wrong, the fundamentals of sticking to a continental defense are wrong, the fundamentals of funding are wrong,” Menon said.
With the 21-month stalemate in eastern Ladakh still unresolved, Krishn Kaushik interviewed Menon about his proposed strategy.
You talk about building a capacity for punitive action against China. What kind of capacity does India have?
Currently, we have no capacity for punitive action. We are at the reception.
I wrote an article about living with China, and living with China meant deterring China so that we were at peace to develop economically. Our primary objective would be to grow economically for which we will need our own geographic space, which China will not give us unless there is something to deter China. This was the basis of the idea of building a punitive capacity.
What kind of punitive capacity should India build?
I first looked at the Himalayan border and discovered surprising things. One was that the Indian army is much larger than the Chinese PLA (People’s Liberation Army). The Indian Army is a very good fighting force, and yet, about to meet over the years, we are invariably outnumbered, although overall they (the PLA) are outnumbered.
I researched this and found that they had built a six-lane highway from the Burmese tri-junction to Xinjiang. And along this highway, they can move troops acclimatized to altitude to overwhelm us at any point of contact.
What the Indian army is fighting is geography, not so much the Chinese. But then, China must have some weakness. I found China’s maritime geography to be very, very weak. China faces the Pacific Ocean. It is deeply connected inland by the Belt and Road to Europe, but it depends on the Indian Ocean for much of its trade in oil and raw materials.
The connection between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean is geographically very constrained by the Strait of Malacca and the other straits. We must exploit its maritime geography. But the days of World War II sea denial are over. Today you can’t get around sinking tankers. I calculated that China needed to unload nine 2.50,000 ton tankers a day to keep its economy running. If you can interrupt its flow of oil, it will enter the Indian Ocean to investigate. Thus, we can induce a battle under favorable conditions.
First, to use the Quad’s maritime reconnaissance, so that Chinese warships heading for the Strait of Malacca will be picked up by the Quad while in the South China Sea, and we are warned two days later. before they arrive.
We then instigated the air force, which I predicted was going to be the problem – for the Indian air force to forget about defending continental airspace, which is their current strategy , and set up a base at Car Nicobar, where they have an airstrip anyway. The only financial input I see for the strategy I am suggesting is to fund the air force to establish a base at Car Nicobar, so that the fighters operating from there can dominate the Straits of Malacca and suppress any aircraft Chinese information gathering.
I visualize a sequence of events unfolding like this: The Chinese commit aggression against us in the Himalayas; we respond by saying that we choose the time and place of our retaliation. We then exercise battlespace dominance and quarantine Chinese tankers in the Nicobar Islands. We don’t sink them. And encourage the Chinese to come to the Indian Ocean to find out what’s going on. We are then warned of their arrival, and literally slaughter them.
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Besides strengthening our air capacity in the Car Nicobar region, what other capacities will we need?
The last thing we want to do is go to war with China. We want to deter China, so we need to take these steps openly and visibly: First, sign an agreement with the Quad to divide the Asia-Pacific into maritime research zones. It’s something I had suggested to the Foreign Office, but the Foreign Office keeps the Quad as a diplomatic discussion hall.
Next, we need to develop a base in Car Nicobar. We should make our line of thinking clear to the Chinese.
Thirdly, we must be prepared for the fact that the Chinese, having seen our approach, will send their warships before committing aggression. I suggested in my article that we create a second battlespace over the Strait of Hormuz, to threaten Djibouti, the United Arab Emirates and Chinese tankers in the Gulf of Hormuz. For that, I suggest a bold move: take over the Royal Air Force base on the island of Masirah, which belongs to Oman.
Again, I suggest increased funding for the Indian Air Force, and urge it to abandon the continental spirit of air, to become expeditionary, which every air force in the world is doing except the Indian Air Force.
A third battlespace, dominated by Indian aircraft carriers, would be in the central Indian Ocean.
Once we establish that, I think the Chinese will think a lot before committing aggression against us.
China continually encroaches on our geopolitical space and binds us to Pakistan. We have to get out of this trap. Where we’re making mistakes now, I think, is: one, we appease China; and second, we are embarking on an unnecessary arms race with Pakistan.
Our policy must be the other way round: make peace with Pakistan and stand up to China. This is why I call my article ‘Reorienting India’s Military Grand Strategy’.
Can we do this with two aircraft carriers?
Frankly, I don’t think we can. But the last thing I want is to give the impression that as a writer with a naval background, I’m really pushing for a bigger navy.
Change must be initiated from a tri-service level. We will have a tri-service strategy of holding the Chinese in the mountains and threatening them in the Indian Ocean.
This perhaps raises the other issue that so far we have drafted our strategy without consulting the Department of Foreign Affairs. Bring in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Because, once you start operating outside the mainland borders of India, the Foreign Office steps in anyway. We need the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to establish the military component of the Quad, to negotiate on Masirah, to understand that our diplomats will speak with authority when the navy is a regional navy.
Does the Ministry of Foreign Affairs still believe that we can appease China? I think so. We have to be on the same wavelength… We have to have a common image.
Can we count on multilateral groupings like the Quad, or other nations to protect us in a conflict?
No, we can’t. And I’m not suggesting that. But maritime research is a peacetime activity. The only thing we need to do is divide the areas where we will do our research and where the United States will do theirs.
We have communications sharing and information sharing agreements with the United States. We don’t need to destabilize anything. We can institute it now, as is, to share information on maritime research. For India to know the picture of the South China Sea and for the United States to know the picture of the Indian Ocean. This can be a peacetime activity, which is slightly enhanced in wartime.