The concept of deterrence is undergoing a transformation in the emerging multi-polar and multi-nuclear world and therefore, Indian deterrence strategies have also gone under various changes.

Over the span of 73 years after India’s independence, India has fought five wars along its unsettled northern land borders. India shares its northern borders with neighbours like Pakistan and China, who always had their eyes on the northern regions of Indian territories. China is currently engaged in a war-like situation with India because of its illegal incursions in the northern regions of Ladakh. While Pakistan in past has fought four bloody battles with India but still maintains its stubborn and uncooperative behaviour.

There are several borders that India happens to share with other countries – its land borders with China, Bhutan, Nepal, and Pakistan along the north and north-west sides, and with Bangladesh and Myanmar to the eastern side. Its water borders are shared by Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Indonesia, aligned along with the southern parts of the nation.

India is a peace-loving country and tries to maintain close friendly relations with not only its neighbours but with other countries of the world as well. But, since India’s independence in 1947, the biggest and longest threat to the country has been Pakistan. From land disputes over Kashmir and the Line of Control to blatant terrorist attacks that continue to this day, the India-Pakistan relationship has been complex and largely hostile due to recurring political and humanitarian disputes. In the last few months, the Indian army is also engaged with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) over China claiming Indian territory as their own.

India’s strategic environment has fundamentally changed since it fought its last war in 1999. While with the advancement of time, the threat of full-scale conventional wars is gone, or it’s better to say has lessened because of the Deterrence Theory that the countries are following. Deterrence is fundamentally about influencing an adversary’s decisions by showing them the power that the country holds.

The complex Deterrence Theory

The origin of the word deterrence starts with the Latin word deterre that means to frighten from or frighten away. Deterrence can be defined as ‘the action of discouraging an action or event through instilling doubt or fear of the consequences.’ It is also taken as a direct action that persuades an opponent to give up something that is desired. If applied effectively, deterrence discourages an adversary from pursuing an undesirable action. Deterrence is about preventing war rather than fighting it.

The majority of the countries are managing and enlarging their strategic space to ensure freedom to conduct multi-domain (trade, influence, diplomacy, markets, security, and stability) actions. Deterrence is also enhanced through security cooperation, military integration and interoperability, security, and intelligence agencies synergy. The deterrent impact of such cooperation and integration is both political and military in nature.

Recently in early November, the first phase of the 24th edition of the naval exercise, MALABAR 2020 commenced off from November 3 to November 6. This time, the trilateral MALABAR exercise between India, the United States, and Japan witnessed the involvement of Australia as well. Exercise Malabar began in the year 1992 as a bilateral exercise between India and the United States. Japan became a permanent partner in the year 2015. Singapore used to join the exercise once in a while.

In the year 2020, the exercise has become a quadrilateral naval exercise involving the United States, Japan, Australia, and India as permanent partners. The involvement of Australia this year in the MALABAR exercise is a part of the Quadrilateral initiative being discussed widely in the field of defence and strategy. This is done in order to annoy Beijing by creating a powerful hold on the Indo-pacific region.

Taking forward the synergy achieved in the recently concluded Phase 1 of Exercise MALABAR 2020, the second phase of Exercise MALABAR 2020 will be conducted in the Northern Arabian Sea from November 17 to November 20. Phase 2 will involve coordinated operations of increasing complexity between the navies of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.

Deterrence requires a national strategy that integrates diplomatic, informational, military, and economic powers. India must develop its strategies, plans, and operations that are tailored to the perceptions, values, and interests of specific adversaries across all domains in concert with other elements of national and international power in order to achieve strategic objectives.

Nuclear deterrence of India

Nuclear weapons are also a part of the deterrence strategy of nations. The theory of “Pre-war deterrence” and “Intra-war deterrence” gives a dramatic shift in the global security architecture. In November 2018, India’s first Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarine completed its first deterrence patrol. And with all historical fairness, INS Arihant marks the completion of the successful establishment of the Nuclear Triad. True to its name INS Arihant (Slayer of Enemies) provided India second-strike capabilities with the country’s nuclear shield complete.

INS Arihant: India’s first nuclear ballistic missile submarine

India in recent years has completed its nuclear deterrence with the completion of a nuclear triad. A nuclear triad is a three-sided military force structure consisting of land launched nuclear-missiles, nuclear-missile armed submarines, and strategic aircraft with nuclear bombs. Since conducting its second nuclear tests, New Delhi has adhered itself to a self-imposed “No First Use” policy (NFU) of nuclear weapons on another country. In 1999, India came out with an explicit Nuclear Doctrine that it would never carry out a nuclear first-strike.

According to India’s nuclear doctrine, the country will build and maintain a Credible Minimum Deterrence with no first use policy. According to this policy, Nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere. But once attacked, India’s retaliation would be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage on its adversary. India will never use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear-weapon state and thus, believes in tit-for-tat.

India has so far remained a responsible nuclear power despite not being a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). New Delhi’s adherence to no first use is not sacrosanct and the sanctity of NFU has been called into question from time to time.

In August 2019, defence Minister Rajnath Singh hinted that in the future, India’s NFU promise “depends on circumstances”. India cannot bind itself to no first use and cannot restrict itself in a disadvantageous position. Former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon in his book “Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy” writes that India may have to resort to first use in case it has definitive information on other country’s intent to launch first.

The nature and mechanisms of deterrence were majorly developed during the first cold war era (1945-1963). The theory of nuclear deterrence is largely an American product. India is surrounded by two nuclear-powered countries, i.e., Pakistan and China. The troubled relationship between India and Pakistan has rapidly evolved the deterrence theories of both countries. This is the major reason for countries maintaining international relations with other powerful countries. Maintenance of relations with other countries is also a part of deterrence theory.

Creating deterrence with military exercises

The military exercises are also part of the deterrence strategy of the countries. The military exercise is the technique of using military resources in training or performing drills of military operations, testing the quickness and real-time capabilities of warfare and adopting strategies without undergoing actual combat. Military exercise has become an imperative part of the armed forces all around the world that enables the forces to train soldiers on how to act, think, and work together at times of conflict.

India takes part in many bilateral, multi-lateral, and domestic military exercises such as – MAITREE (between India and Thailand), MALABAR (now in between Quad countries), YUDH ABHYAS (between US and Indian Armies), Exercise SHAKTI (between India and France), Exercise SAMPRITI (between India and Bangladesh), and many more such exercises – to showcase its power and might to other countries of the world.

MAITREE 2019, Indo Thailand Joint Military Exercise

The formal alliances: A method to deter China and Pakistan

After considering the issues India has with its two neighbouring countries, it is clear how the dual pressures have pushed New Delhi into aligning with the United States. The US–India partnership is mainly to deter Beijing or constrict Chinese actions. India has bilateral strategic partnerships including Security Agreements with the USA, Japan, Bhutan, and forged alliances in multi-national groupings and alliances like Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), etc.

Successful deterrence is knowledge-dependent and requires the ability to establish and secure communication access to adversaries in order to generate the desired decision outcomes. Conventional deterrence is more complicated than nuclear deterrence because it is hard to convince an adversary that you have the capacity to carry out sufficiently severe punishment as an outcome.

While focusing on China and Pakistan, we must not ignore other adversaries or conclude that the multi-domain lessons learned can be commonly applied, as every competitor is different.