India’s new military doctrine: Shoot first, questions later

India’s new military doctrine: Shoot first, questions later

In military terms, the Indian Air Force attack on Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakthukhwa is a major landmark as it indicates India has made a decisive break from its defensive and reactive mindset. This is a welcome development because in previous conflicts the defensive approach had prevented the country’s armed forces from performing to their true potential.

India and Pakistan have fought four wars, in 1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999. (1) Each of these conflicts was launched by the Pakistani military with the knowledge that if its military thrusts failed, its patrons – the US and China – could be relied upon to work the diplomatic back channels, get the world media to raise the alarm, and issue veiled threats, thereby bringing pressure upon India’s political leadership to call off its attack.

India’s military strategy was different. After the defending corps along the border soften Pakistan’s frontal positions, the mechanised columns of India’s elite strike corps would roll across the border, destroy the core of the Pakistan Army and slice the country into two, giving the political leadership a huge bargaining advantage.

Sounds like a bullet-proof strategy. But since India’s strike corps were based in central India, a significant distance from the international border, it took up to three weeks for these three armies – comprising hundreds of thousands of troops – to reach the front.

Because of the long mobilisation period, the intervention by Western nations and the truce-happy nature of its political leadership, India’s military brass could not use its strike forces to their full potential.

The second edition of the Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces (JDIAF-2017) leaves no doubt that both the political leadership and the military brass are moving away from strategic timidity and embracing the concept of strategic offensive. (2)

Released by former admiral Sunil Lanba, the Chief of Naval Staff, JDIAF-2017 declares: “India has moved to a pro-active and pragmatic philosophy to counter various conflict situations.”

The language of the document is typical Indian bureaucratese – riddled with typos and punctuation errors, besides being ponderous and verbose. Despite these faults, there is a sense of exuberance – rare in an official document. Perhaps this is an indication that India’s commanders feel they have finally been given a free hand to deploy the full might of the country’s vast armed forces in a future war. India’s elite strike forces will no longer sit idle waiting for the opportune moment, which never came in the last wars.

The document says: “Conflict will be determined or prevented through a process of credible deterrence, coercive diplomacy and conclusively by punitive destruction, disruption and constraint in a nuclear environment across the Spectrum of Conflict.” Translation: India will henceforth adopt Patton-style kick-them-hard warfare.

India’s shifting doctrines

Having a military doctrine is critical for national security because it provides clear guidelines for the political and military leaderships for tackling national security challenges. It provides a set of ideas on how a country plans to wage war – and more importantly deter war. A written document also sends a message to other countries – including partners and adversaries – that the Indian military has a plan of action and will act on it when the occasion demands.

The absence of a proper war doctrine, especially during the Jawaharlal Nehru years, made India fall into the trap of waging limited wars, thereby ceding the advantage to its adversaries. The defensive nature of India’s leadership can be discerned from the manner in which India handled the 1962 China war. During three separate attacks, in September, October and November, India let the Chinese dictate the time, place and nature of the war as well as the final ceasefire. “While we were not party to these proposals, we did not do anything to disturb the ceasefire,” the Ministry of Defence notes in its annual report.

In the 1965 war with Pakistan, New Delhi agreed to end the war at a time when it was hours away from delivering the knockout blow. For instance, the Battle of Asal Uttar in Khem Karan, Punjab, saw the utter rout of Pakistani armour. Writes retired Major General P.K. Chakraborty: “Many Pakistanis, including the Commanding Officer of Pakistan’s 4 Cavalry, were captured in the sugarcane fields. Asal Uttar was a great victory for 4 Mountain Division. Pakistan had suffered a crushing defeat due to the resolute stance of the Indian troops. It lost 97 tanks, including 72 Pattons; 32 tanks were captured in running condition. Some of the tanks had been moved only for 300 km. India in contrast lost only five tanks.” And yet India surrendered all the gains won by its gallant soldiers on the negotiating table in a Russian brokered truce in Tashkent. (3)

Again, in the 1971 war the political leadership let slip the opportunity to carve up West Pakistan after decisively defeating the Pakistanis in the east and neutralising Pakistan’s air force and navy in the west.

It was after the emphatic victory of 1971 that India’s strategic thinking shifted from defensive to deterrence. The change involved three phases. Former United Nations official and strategist Ali Ahmed explains that the first phase was the move from ‘strategic defensive’ of the 1970s to ‘strategic offensive’ of the 1980s. The second phase was of India again being on the strategic defensive till the turn of the century. In the third phase India has yet again moved to ‘strategic offensive’. (4)

Factors influencing change

Military doctrine reflects the state of the nation and cannot be divorced from it. For instance, the descent into the defensive mindset of the 1990s happened when India was beset with coalition politics. India was overrun by leftist and liberal leaders such as I.K. Gujral and Mulayam Singh Yadav who were sympathetic towards Pakistan. Gujral, in fact, made unilateral concessions to Pakistan and wound up highly prized intelligence assets in Sindh and Balochistan because of his view that “older brother” India must be magnanimous and generous towards Pakistan, the younger one.

However, this was construed as Hindu weakness, which emboldened the Pakistanis to prop up terrorist movements in Kashmir and Maoist infested areas.

The Kargil War of 1999 was also a result of the Pakistani cowboy generals’ perception of India as weak. If anything good came out of that conflict – and the attack on the Indian Parliament two years later – it was the consensus among India’s political and military leadership that Pakistan would no longer be granted concessions.

Another factor transforming the country’s strategic culture is India’s emergence as a powerful economy with an increasingly wealthy, assertive and aspiring middle class. New Delhi now sees itself as a key member of the global order. Pakistani military sociologist Ayesha Siddiqa writes in South Asia Journal: “Much of this change is linked with India’s growing desire to establish itself as a global power. The upcoming and affluent middle class and the Indian diaspora have a relatively aggressive stance so far as national power is concerned, which adds to the military’s relative influence.”

The 2003 nuclear doctrine, in which India declared that it would launch “massive” retaliatory strike if Pakistan lobbed even a single battlefield nuke at India’s armed forces is evidence of the country’s hardening strategic posture.

Cold Start: Still running

JDIAF-2017 has given more sleepless nights to the Rawalpindi generals who are obsessed with achieving parity with India. The document indicates that India’s famous Cold Start strategy – which aims to grab bite-size chunks (60-80 km deep) of enemy territory within the first three days of an Indian armoured thrust – may be on the back burner but not off the table.

The document says: “Therefore, undertaking ‘Integrated Theatre Battle’ with an operationally adaptable force, to ensure decisive victory in a network centric environment across the entire spectrum of conflict in varied geographical domains, will be the guiding philosophy for evolution of force application and war fighting strategies.” This is a clear sign that India is preparing for Cold Start or at least some form of this blitzkrieg strategy.

Two recent developments suggest Cold Start is not in cold storage. In 2016 the Indian Army placed an order for 1,600 T-90 tanks – which will form the spearheads of an Indian armoured thrust. These tanks are capable of operations in a nuclear-biological-chemical environment. Secondly, in May 2017 India inked a deal with the US under the US Foreign Military Sales programme to buy equipment for use against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats. This includes 38,034 general purpose masks and 114,102 filters.

Surgical strikes

Balakot and the September 2016 surgical strikes on terrorist camps in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir caused considerable heartburn among Indian leftists, liberals and some political leaders, plus denial in Pakistan, but it had one unexpected result. The strikes nailed the lie peddled by these same groups – and backed by Pakistan and several Western analysts – that India’s options for waging conventional war in the backdrop of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal were limited.

The scope of the joint doctrine includes India’s likely response to terror provocations. It says retaliation could be in the form of “surgical strikes”. In fact, the document says Special Forces units will be “tasked to develop area specialisation in their intended operational theatres”.

Worryingly for Pakistan, the logical conclusion of surgical strikes is that India will fight future battles inside Pakistan. For, India cannot afford to allow Islamabad’s low-cost high-intensity terror warfare against India to continue forever. The costs are simply too great as paramilitary and military forces are being tied up in internal security, impacting their morale and war fighting capacity.

Critical shortfalls

To be sure, the doctrine is not a magic wand that will make nagging problems go away with a wave. It will achieve its purpose only if India moves towards integrated military structures. Currently, there is considerable resistance to tri-services cooperation because the Indian Air Force fears that it will be swamped by the much larger Army. However, such cooperation is a matter of do or die. During the Kargil war while the army was engaged in bitter fighting on the peaks, the IAF chief went on a week’s tour of Europe because he wasn’t keet in the loop about the extent of Pakistani infiltration. (If it’s any comfort, Pakistan’s air chief was also clueless about what was happening in Kargil.)

Hopefully, India will now appoint a tri-service Chief of Defence Staff required to integrate the major commands. Similarly, the government must establish an aerospace command in the backdrop of China’s aggressive military space programme which has successfully tested anti-satellite weapons and is on the verge of a breakthrough in hypersonic glide weapons.


Having a long-term plan to systematically build military capabilities in tune with geopolitical aspirations is one thing. But a military doctrine must have definite goals. For instance, can Pakistan (or even China) be allowed to remain permanent roadblocks in India’s quest for supremacy?

Retired Indian Army colonel J.K. Achuthan explains the conundrum: “Imperial Rome ruled much of the Western world and the Mediterranean rim for centuries during ancient times, simply because it had a very clear war doctrine that did not tolerate the emergence of any other military power in its neighbourhood. We are having problems with Pakistan mainly for this reason, because from 1980s onwards we have allowed it to emerge unchecked as an inimical military power, which is seething with a paranoid revenge syndrome and aspiring to attain military parity with India.” (5)

A public document cannot obviously mention the issue of neutralising our next door neighbours – even if they are diehard enemies. But the ambit of military doctrine should include such uncomfortable questions as well. Only then will future generations of Indians be truly safe. For, the ultimate aim of war is peace.


  1. Pakistan Lost All Four Wars Against India, Geo TV, Pakistan,
  2. Bharat Shakti,
  3. Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi,
  4. Ali Ahmed, ‘India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia’
  5. Indian Defence Review, ‘India’s War Doctrine – The Next Decade’

Featured Image: Indian Army

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Rakesh Krishnan Simha

Rakesh is a globally cited defence analyst. His articles have been quoted extensively by national and international defence journals and in books on diplomacy, counter-terrorism, warfare, and development of the global south.