“Alexander of Greece, the Scythians, Genghis Khan, Mahmud Ghazni, Mohammed Ghori, Timur the Lame and the Mughals, among others all invaded India through the Khyber Pass in the Hindu Kush. Less than 400 men could have stopped these invaders at the Khyber Pass every time. But the motley array of princelings that ruled India only woke up from their drunken orgies when the invading hordes had reached Panipat and were knocking on the gates of Delhi.”

- excerpts from

‘India’s Strategic Culture: Need for change’

by Brig Gurmeet Kanwal

1. In 1992 George Tanham, an American defence analyst working for the think tank ‘RAND CORP.’, published an infamous essay titled “INDIAN STRATEGIC THOUGHT: AN INTERPRETIVE ESSAY”. His essay outlines how “India has very few writings that offer coherent articulated beliefs or a clear set of operating principles for the Indian strategy”. He goes all the way back to the Hindu conceptualisation of time and the lack of sense of time and says that this discourages planning and does not result in a strong culture of strategic thinking in India.


2. This essay titled “INDIA’S SHIFT IN STRATEGIC CULTURE IN THE BACK DROP OF CROSS BORDER STRIKES/OPS” is primarily written in four parts with the first three addressing an important underlying question pertaining to the ‘Indian Strategic Thought and Culture’ and the fourth one spelling out the challenges that the Indian military doctrine faces in today’s era and also the way ahead through these challenges as we turn the page on this eventful decade.







3. Strategy is a very broad term but it is basically about “Achieving set goals with a set of constraint resources in a certain manner within a certain context”. When used in international relations in the context of a nation state it’s a short hand for ‘Grand strategy’ which is ‘how a Nation state or particularly the leadership of a nation state defines its overall objective, uses its natural and human resources available to it in a certain way and in a certain context (i.e. the prevailing international environment)’.

4. In many countries there is process of setting out a ‘Grand Strategy’ in a documented form and that document becoming a template for people further down the chain to use. The USA is a classic example of the same. The white house puts out a ‘National Security Strategy’, which is then used to formulate a ‘National Defence Strategy’ or the ‘Diplomatic Strategy’ or ‘The Nuclear Strategy’ and so on and so forth.

5. Unfortunately, amongst the Indian elite as well as the academicians abroad a consensus prevails that India lacks depth in long term planning. One often comes across statements like ‘the Indian polity does not care about long term and are only interested in securing the next elections’, ‘the foreign policy makers are off doing their own thing’ and ‘the military is not kept in the inner circles of policy making and are made to act reactively and never proactively to various national security threats’ and over all the nation lacks the concept of ‘A GRAND STRATEGY’.

6. This essay provides a counter view to the above-mentioned standpoint and the very first argument against the same originates from the famous quote by astronomer Carl Sagan:


So, when Tanham and his likes could not see the evidence of a strategic culture they assumed it does not exist. Yes, India has not had a single strategic document and it is mostly because of political reasons, but this itself isn’t indicative that India at this moment or in the past has not had some level of strategic thinking.

7. If we look back on our history, we see many examples, starting from the Mauryan empire in which Ashoka imbibed the ‘nature of restraint’ into the war ethos of the Indian subcontinent which has persisted still, to the book called Nitti Sara that came out during the Gupta period and further the Mahabharata and the Babar Nama and so on and so forth. If we look towards modern history, post-independence there has been a lot of writing by our thinkers and leaders about India’s place in this world and its vision of the future.

8. The fact that India had remained unified among such ethical, cultural, lingual and social diversity and has maintained its territorial integrity by at times winning wars or via creating effective deterrence and has carved its niche in the international politics with positive relations with different countries are all testament to the prevalence of a strategic culture.

9. This perceived lack of strategic thinking in India originates from a lack of documented proof and also because the written docu which is available, is written in a language that the British and American historians did not understand, or also because most of it was destroyed by the invading dynasties or by even the British themselves, for example the destruction of Taxila and Nalanda.

10. India has been haunted by a lack of emphasis on preservation of archival material. Also, further more India has always had the tradition of passing knowledge, ideas and beliefs orally and not in documented form. All these factors have led to a belief that India has historically and still does, lack the semblance of a ‘Grand Strategy’.

11. With the above arguments we establish that India, even though lacked the documented proof of an underlying strategic thinking, has had a strong strategic culture not in accordance with the western template, but a strategic culture nonetheless.



12. Having established that India does have a strategic culture, we now dwell into how that Indian strategic culture has developed into various forms post the independence in accordance with various noteworthy instances and leadership that have held the helm of this nation.

13. The very first incident that happened post-independence was the 1947-48 WAR with Pakistan in the state of J&K and the very first personality that shaped the Indian strategic culture post-independence was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. India emerged victorious but India having been just born as an Independent nation under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru decided to put fwd the Indian image as that of peace and non-violence having recalled the Indian forces even on the brink of total victory. This policy, of making amicable international relations, even at the cost of vulnerability of national security was further seen during the Panchsheel agreement with the Peoples Republic Of China.

14. The defeat of 1962 War brought in a great shock and even bigger opportunity to draw out lessons but even though it brought a great thrust towards improving the military capabilities of the nation, it failed to bring the grass root level changes in the strategic thinking of the nation. Thus, the year 1965 saw yet another attempt by Pakistan, as it waged war in the western sector and although India had the upper hand it wasn’t a decisive victory and it again became another example of India’s policy of being reactive and not proactive and also saw Indian leadership lacking backbone to put in a decisive victory as it weighed international backlash on its “delicately” created favourable international image as an non aggressor state.

15. The 1960s saw India witnessing the Green Revolution and achievement of self-sufficiency in terms of food supply and it was further enhanced by the Amul led white revolution in the 1970s. The prosperity though great was short lived as India had its borders closed to the global market thus the industrial growth required to boost the country at this juncture was missing. These are some of the examples cited when we talk about India failing to have strategic thought process for the long term.

16. However, there were flashes of decision-making that were aberrations from this pacifist and short-sighted thinking associated with Indian culture during the above-mentioned period. One of it was the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971 which till date stands as a testament to the outcomes possible when a strong political will backed a mighty military force, with a pro-active vision, to the goals set for the nation state, in the context of a threat to national security in the near future. Another one of these decisions was the setting up of the Indian space program in the form of ‘The Indian National Committee for Space Research’ in the year 1962 under the visionary Dr Vikram Sarabhai, the benefits of which India has reaped in the past two decades in all spheres from communications to defence to boosting the Indian image on the International platform.

17. The decade of 1990s was the most crucial decade as it brought about a paradigm shift in the Indian Strategic Culture. The globalisation of Indian economy, as is well known saved the Indian economy from ruins but the manner in which the globalisation was executed by Dr Manmohan Singh, the then finance minister, with enough checks and balances to ward off the predatory nature of big monopolistic corporations, was nothing but exemplary strategic thinking.

18. This decade also saw two major events. One of them was the Kargil war which again was a ‘History repeat Itself’ scenario during which too the ‘Ashoka Mentality’ of restraint during war resulted in India not opening any other front, the air force was under strict orders to not cross LoC. The nation’s leadership aimed to just restore the status quo against the aggressor state of Pakistan and resorting to ‘soft’ power by providing proof of Pakistan’s treachery in the UN rather than using any form of ‘Hard’ power.

19. This decade saw one exception to the prevalent model of the Indian strategic culture in the form of ‘The Nuclear Doctrine’ which was drafted by the National Security Advisory Board comprising of representatives from the Army, Navy, Airforce and the people from the scientific community, in response to the global pressure amounting on the Vajpayee govt to portray India as a responsible country thus a very unusual exercise of formally articulating a Nuclear Doctrine was carried out. This was more inclined towards the western template of a grand strategy in which a central document dictates the formulation of further policies and actions and also it remains unchanging even with successive changing leadership.

20. This decade also saw the western adversary initiate its policy of “Bleed India through a thousand cuts”. A type of asymmetric warfare which included infiltration of terrorists, funding and grooming locals as ANEs, pumping fake currency to weaken economy, pumping drugs into the youth and many more. In response India still following its unsaid, unwritten, yet unflinching policy of pacifism decided to contain its anti-terrorist operation to own side of the LoC.

22. India as a Nation state continued to rely on ‘soft power’ and continued to deny its fall-outs in articulating an Effective National Security Strategy well into the first decade of the millennium.



23. For India, this last decade (2010-20) has been one of the most transformative in terms of its Economy, Polity, Military and its International diplomacy. But this essay, leaving aside the economy, in this part shall throw light only upon the military aspect of the Indian strategic culture and only selectively, its relation to the polity, and international diplomacy.

24. In terms of India’s military doctrine all the three services have in past formulated their own doctrines which meant they were often not in concurrence with each other and are not necessarily sanctioned by the ministry of defence or the topmost political leadership. Yes, there exists various directives to govern the broader idea for the formulation of these doctrines, right from the guidelines laid down in the constitution, to the Raksha Mantri directives which are issued to the three services and various other agencies indulged in the security of the nation.

25. India, from the military stand point has always seemed to have doctrines poised towards “The Last War”. It has always discussed sustaining a Two Front War and making worthy gains so as to make favourable negotiations when the war ends. Although it is obligatory for any defence forces of the world to be ready for an all-out war but India as a nation state and its political and military leadership even though acknowledges the ‘current situation’, has failed to incorporate the same into an integrated and articulated National Security Strategy which is being exploited by Pakistan and its subordinate non-state actors.

26. The ‘current situation’ in the above paragraph points to the fact that both the fronts in our “Two Front War” are nuclear wpn states and also Pakistan has already made preparations for Acquiring Effective Tactical Nuclear Capabilities to employ against India in eventuality of a near loss in a conventional war thus further bringing down the nuclear threshold and further narrowing the window of a conventional conflict in the “ESCALATION MATRIX” . The ‘current situation’ also means that we as a nation have no effective deterrence against the terrorist infiltrations and proliferation of local youths giving into terrorism as the cycle of alienation of the people of a region of Kashmir increases day by day.

27. But this decade, esp. the latter half of it, has seen a phenomenal change in India’s approach to deal with the above current situation. Starting with the cross-border strike at a terrorist camp in Myanmar in June of 2015 as a retaliation to the ambush on an army convoy, then the cross-border strikes in response to the Uri attack in Sept 2016, and the most recent one being the Balakot air strikes on terror launch pads in Feb 2019 in response to the attack on CRPF convoy in Pulwama. Combined with these were the actions at the political level like the abrogation of Article 370 and article 35 (a). Furthermore, the decade is coming to a close with a stand-off with the People’s Republic of China in the Galwan sector of Ladakh in which too, instead of following the policy of de-escalation and disengagement even at unfavourable terms, as had been the history, the Indian polity backed the military for sustaining the confrontation till the desired outcome for the state is achieved.

28. One might ask as to what connotations does these actions at the political and military level have had with them? Well, these actions entailed the next big paradigm shift in the Indian strategic culture. To much delight of many military thinkers of past and present the mentality of the Indian polity along with Indian consciousness is moving towards a pro-active approach rather than a reactive approach towards problems and goals both domestic and international.

29. These strikes and stand offs and other political actions combined have initiated a domino effect that will have impacts in all areas that are supposedly governed by a ‘Grand Strategy’. It would impact the economic front as is evidently seen by the push towards economic self-dependency by the nation esp. to proactively counter the future threat posed by over dependency on one particular country. It would impact the foreign policy as now India no more banks on ‘soft power’ but rather effectively counters the state and non-state actors who desire to attack its national interests and this change in the Indian Strategic thought has been welcomed rather than admonished in the international community thereby negating the ill-founded fear of an international retribution for proactive aggression taken by India to safeguard its national interests.

30. In terms of military campaigns, we have seen that post-independence all the campaigns have reflected a reactive mindset with the exception of 1971, in which also, we forced the enemy to pre-empt the hostilities by our mobilisation and posturing of forces for a full-scale attack, so as to label him as the aggressor and not India, in the international forum. In the conventional scenario the first doctrine that emerged in an articulated form was the Cold Start Strategy. This strategy although was very effective but conformed with the Indian strategic culture of non-aggression and rather entailed actions after M DAY and not I DAY. When Pakistan countered this strategy with its EOs and ESOs, we came up with our own strategy of POs and PSOs, but contrary to their names all these are still reactive conventional doctrines to the breaking of hostilities and the war getting declared.

31. The major challenge here is that the enemy state has the initiative to start the hostilities, it has the advantages of being ready and a decisive victory becomes difficult as Pakistan follows the policy of the ‘Notion of Victory’. Also, due to our ambiguity in terms of the ‘Grand Strategy’, India as a nation state was predictable with regards to actions taken against various acts of aggression and violence, be it parliament attack or the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. We were put into a stalemate as it was impossible to discern the nuclear threshold of Pakistan once the war broke out and also a lack of decisive victory due to our restraint in war would automatically entail Pakistan’s ‘Notion of Victory’ and would be a matter of losing face for India.

32. It is amidst this situation that the cross-border strikes have ushered in the new thought process in the Indian Strategic Culture. Now India is no more predictable. It has already employed its Ground Forces as well as Air force in an unconventional manner to neutralise the threat of Anti National Elements or retaliated against an aggression towards its security in a befitting manner thus ending the stalemate of inaction faced by the Indian defence forces since decades. It has also sent a clear message to the international community that India has the capability to counter sub-conventional actions accordingly. India has also averted the threat of a nuclear attack by a cornered Pakistan and at the same time saved itself from any sanctions or ire by the international community.

33. One might argue here that why the cross-border strikes are being stated as a strategic shift when Indian military has been carrying out retaliatory shelling and low depth cross border raids in the past too. On this I wish to remind two basic words associated with strategy i.e. “Integrated” and “articulated”. These strikes were an integrated effort by all its intelligence agencies, state media, its diplomatic channels, its highest political leadership and, after execution, the collective consciousness of the Indian common man. Thus, these strikes had impact on the Indian strategic culture as a whole.




34. Before we can put forward the vision for the Indian Strategic Culture esp. in the field of military we must dwell upon the reasons as to why India as one of most successful democratic nations of the world has not had a white paper ‘National Grand Strategy’. On the surface it seems to be a lack of political will or outright a practice that is non prevalent in our history itself but unlike the Nuclear Doctrine which was made out of extra ordinary compulsion, drafting a ‘Grand Strategy’ in a democratic set up which is still only 75 years old is a humongous task which has its own political costs.

35. One must understand that Indian democracy at its origin itself had drafted a ‘Grand Strategy’ for itself in the form of the Preamble of the Constitution which states the nation’s aim as that of becoming a ‘prosperous democratic state’ and this remained the guiding idea for all successive governments in the past. Yes, the meaning of prosperity at the time of independence may have been just to feed the population of this country and with the end of this decade it may be to send a successful landing mission on the moon, but nevertheless the driving Idea behind all governance has been the same. Now the turmoil begins when a government decides to put this basic, crude, idea-driven form of Grand Strategy into a white paper document setting out clear cut goals with corresponding timelines and the requisite allocation of available resources and then to take consensus of 2/3 of the political leadership and also of the consciousness of the populace without inciting great criticism even to the point of losing the next elections.

36. It is not Impossible to carry out such an exercise and make an all-inclusive document after due debates and deliberations. It would take years to formulate but yes, it is possible. Reports do suggest that the National Security Advisory Board has been directed by the government to initiate a similar proceeding. But it is not really the end of the world even if we do not have a white paper document to dictate the National Grand Strategy.

37. The military has for itself a doctrine by which it has been carrying out its training, operations and modernisation. The doctrine dictates the overall objective of the highest echelons of the military leadership in consonance with the aims of the political leadership but at this juncture in time the military faces three major challenges that cannot be tackled at the tactical level and changes need to be brought at the highest level and the same needs to reflect in the military doctrines of all three services.

38. The three major challenges to the current national strategy in terms of its military doctrine are as follows:

(a) The first challenge is that the military deterrence in the form of nuclear weapon capability that we achieved in 1998 has by and large now been negated as both the hostile states of Pakistan and China now engage only in sub-conventional warfare, cyber warfare, economic warfare, Info and Psychological warfare, and in LICO envt. (Low Intensity Conflict Ops).

(b) The second challenge that the military face is that it does not have a truly integrated Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Information, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4I2SR) System that is, in the realm of modern warfare, the bedrock of all operations, be it conventional or sub conventional.

(c) The third challenge that the military face is in keeping up with the pace of technological changes in the world esp. in the field of warfare. India’s defence expenditure remains 1/3 of what china spends on its military and Pakistan though spends a tiny bit less in terms of amount but still spends three times if we compare the percentage of the Gross Domestic Product. It is a grave concern because right now the military faces only a ‘Quantitative gap’ with the Chinese PLA which, in the next 15 years, could very well turn into a ‘Qualitative gap’, if we don’t address the issues of modernisation of the military equipment. Many examples of the above challenge can be stated from all three forces viz. the Army still awaits its 155mm SP Howitzers, the Navy still awaits its more advanced submarines and the Air Force which placed a demand of 126 MMRCA Fighters had to make do with a mere 36.

39. Having stated the challenges faced by the military and having established that these cannot be resolved at the tactical level and requires a shift in the strategic culture of not the military, but the nation itself, we shall dwell upon the solutions to these challenges as well as some new areas which can be termed as the way ahead for the military in this new decade we are going to face.

40. FIRST CHALLENGE. As mentioned above the very first challenge that India faces is to come with a new deterrent as the nuclear deterrent gets negated in the sub conventional scenarios or in LICO envt.

41. One of these can be via strong retaliatory policies as is the case of much famed Israelis and we have already shown much progress on that front in terms of the discussed cross border strikes. Another very potent deterrent that we have already progressed upon and which has clearly emerged as the game changer in the coming era are HYPERSONIC MISSILES”. The ICBM of the cold war era which were capable of delivering a nuclear warhead were extremely high trajectory missiles and once they entered the higher atmosphere, thry could be detected by the radars but the hypersonic missiles have the capability to fly low and close to earth and also travel at five times the speed of sound thus becoming extremely difficult to counter with the existing anti-ballistic technologies.

42. But the most important military deterrent that is going to emerge in the 21st century is going to be UNMANNED WAR FIGHTING CAPABILITY. India has always played catch up to other nations in terms of technological advancements esp. in the field of military but this is one race that India on a strategic level needs to focus on early and be a pioneer rather than play catch up. Uses of Unmanned Warfare (with or without Artificial Intelligence) is going to be the game changer in Sub conventional as well as conventional warfare and is going to be the next global deterrent.

43. SECOND CHALLENGE. The need for developing an integrated C4I2SR system has long been echoing in the corridors of the military discussion rooms but it never materialised to a level that it may become a real force multiplier. But now the technology required to make a breakthrough in this field has emerged and is developing by leaps and bound and that technology is the ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. AI is going to revolutionise the field of warfare in terms of data collection, data integration and decision making and it is going to shorten the OODA loop and even assist in rapid decision making as it works not just on the initial input of data but rather learns through patterns and previous decisions of cdrs. In a sub conventional scenario, it can help be a big help for example in a CI envt. given access to required technology it can triangulate the suspected indls and relay the loc back to sub unit cdrs on ground without the time delay involved by a human and various sanctions required to be taken. In a conventional scenario, when we talk about defeating our enemy in time and space in terms of force projection into his vulnerabilities and criticalities, superior AI is going to be big force multiplier as it can process data from a whole theatre and relay real time input to commanders at all levels thus cdrs at all levels are fully aware of the bigger picture and can take better decisions. Also a combination of Superior Cyber Warfare Skills and superior AI tech can be devastating for enemy’s decision making machinery.

44. THIRD CHALLENGE: The third challenge is the biggest and requires the political will backed by a popular consensus of the populace. It is understood that economic resources available to the nation is limited and the national security has not been prioritised by the governance for more than half of India’s independent life, so when we talk about an economic thrust to boost the military capability, we talk in terms of focussed approach to the above two challenges in addition to the long term vision of enhancing conventional war waging capabilities. This approach can be summed up as Covering for our deficiencies in congruence with acquiring the next gen tech simultaneously and then meeting somewhere in the middle during the process”.


45. To most, it seems that the above three challenges and solutions are purely in the domain of military and are isolated issues when we look at the vast context of a ‘National Grand Strategy’. The question may also arise as to why a paradigm shift is coming into the mindset of Indian strategic thought, when all these strikes, and these challenges, and the solutions remains in the domain of military only. The answer to this question arrives from the following observation:

“India, though on independence had some semblance of strategic thought, but erred greatly when it set out its objectives. This mistake was not of setting of wrong goals or objectives but the sequence in which those objectives were tried to be executed. The nation pushed for economic prosperity and international diplomacy with ambitions of carving a niche for itself in the world community before committing heavily on its national security and military capabilities and paid a heavy price.”

46. India today stands on the drawing board again. It has to again chalk out a long-term vision for itself but this time around it must execute that vision in the right sequence. The image that we project to world should not be of a pacifist nation, it should not be just a country with cheap skilled labour, it should not be a country whose prized human resource is sucked out by other prosperous nation. Rather it should be a country who gives punitive punishment to those who threaten its national interests and security, and stand its ground against any armies of the world not just in terms of training but in terms of eqpt and weaponry, it should be a country which is economically strong and self-dependent, it has to change from a raw material exporter to a finished products exporter, it has to be a country of pioneers in the field of space, defence tech, agriculture, and information technology.

47. As conclusion to this essay, I wish to state that these cross border strikes have spun the wheel and that the coming five years will mark the rebirth of this phoenix named India as a resurgent and self-confident nation state.


1. The essay draws some of its ideas, references, quotes, facts and figures from the following pieces of literature or speeches by the following individuals:

(a) Pragati podcast on “Indian Strategic culture” by Dhruva Jaishankar, Director of the U.S. Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation.

(b) Article titled ‘India’s Strategic Culture: Need for change’ by Brig Gurmeet Kanwal, former Distinguished Fellow, IDSA, and former Director of Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.

(c) Book Titled “Defence Reforms: A National Imperative” published by the IDSA, New Delhi.

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