ISSN 2330-717X

Compellence, Deterrence Or Defence?: Saxena Task Force And India’s Defence Reforms


By Firdaus Ahmed

Mr Naresh Saxena, former defence secretary, cabinet secretary and ambassador to the US, is to lead a task force on the next steps in defence sector reforms. His team comprising former chiefs, bureaucrats, military technologists and strategists is to begin work in mid-July and complete its report in six months.

Commentators will be undoubtedly rush to inform the deliberations, leading to strategic commentary that is likely to get both parochial and ugly as the monsoon proceeds. In particular, the face-off between the army and air force will be open to exploitation by status-quoist parties out to derail any substantial movement. The key issues anticipated to figure in the Saxena task force report are the appointment of the CDS, whether this figure would have command or staff responsibilities, integration of the service HQs with the ministry, integration of theatre commands; professionalization of the defence ministry bureaucrats; jointness and higher military education etc. The very constitution of the task force suggests its necessity; ten years since the last bout of post Kargil reforms.


Specifically, the Saxena committee would need to have a determined perspective on how the nation wishes to deploy its military instrument: for compellence, deterrence or defence. That would in turn be a function of what balance India envisages between the strategic choices: ‘sama, bheda, danda, dana’. Defining the latter could be suggested to the government, since the former cannot be done without this prior definition. Once the issue of strategic doctrine is settled, the restructuring necessary to operationalize the doctrine becomes easier. However, the consequences of the restructuring may be missing in the debate. This article, mindful of possible consequences in terms of the ‘security dilemma’, seeks to point out additional necessary measures even as the reforms are proceeded with.

That the reforms are intended to enhance India’s military capability is certain. The logic is that this is necessary to cope with India’s rising power indices, its perception of regional and global responsibilities and security threats. In this logic, the security situation has changed with the rise of China and the possibility of a ‘two front’ situation for India. India may be taking measures to enhance its security, but it must be noted that these measures would enhance the perception of threat of its neighbours, even though India, in its logic, is merely being responsive to prior moves of its neighbours. The upshot is an in-built interactive mutual threat spiral known in theory as the ‘security dilemma’.

India needs to be mindful of its neighbours’ reaction which would ratchet up the threat India itself perceives. India could choose to be complacent about this, believing that higher preparedness brought about by the reforms would enable it to cope better with higher threat levels. Despite this, the recommendation here is that even as India proceeds with the necessary and perhaps long overdue reforms, it needs simultaneously to put into place measures to mitigate the consequence in terms of security dilemmas for both its neighbours and in turn itself.

How can this be done? The expectation is that the reforms would place India in a better position to engage its neighbours, specifically China and Pakistan, from a position of strength. This would be useful for Indian self-assurance and help deter the neighbours. The resulting engagement, for instance, border negotiations with China and the dialogue with Pakistan, would be more outcome-oriented. Materializing this expectation would however require ensuring that the power play in the background does not get ugly and affect the engagement.

It is equally possible that increased capability may result in India believing that it can do without the ‘give and take’ necessary for amicable solutions to outstanding problems. India must therefore alongside keep up the engagement structures and processes that are already at work on both fronts. Yet, these are not enough in the new post-reform circumstance. Additionally, a joint forum for strategic dialogue can be forged with both separately, that would mutually arrive at and implement conflict avoidance measures, confidence-building measures and over time, when greater trust is available, create security architecture conducive for cooperative security.

The advantage of this innovation would be in mitigating the security dilemma. Each state can be expected to respond materially and physically as necessary, since in the realist logic, capabilities are of consequence, not intent. However, the psychological effects of security-related movements by one on the other are amenable to amelioration in case dialogue is in place where concerns can be ventilated. Essentially, the forum could serve to present and explain respective strategic doctrines as non-threatening to the other side. For instance, China’s infrastructural developments in Tibet, presence in POK and water-related initiatives in the east have perhaps instigated the defence reforms in India. The forum could serve to bring future such concerns to each other’s attention. The idea is not to substitute reforms but to complement them.

India is likely to settle for deterrence with an offensive bias. Ensuring that it is not mistaken for compellence is the challenge.

Firdaus Ahmed
email: [email protected]

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IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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