Rear Admiral Raja Menon: ‘What the Indian Army is fighting is geography, not so much the Chinese’

Rear Admiral Raja Menon, who retired as the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff in 1994 and is the author of A Nuclear Strategy for India, recently wrote a paper advocating a reorientation of India’s military grand strategy from a continental one to an offensive oceanic strategy, keeping in view the threat from China. The paper has been shared with the government.

India’s defence budget is bigger than Russia’s, Menon points out, but 82 per cent of the Army’s budget goes towards 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 defence is wrong, the fundamentals of funding are wrong,” Menon said.

With the 21-month long standoff in eastern Ladakh remaining unresolved, Krishn Kaushik interviewed Menon about his proposed strategy.

You talk about building punitive action capability against China. What kind of capability does India have?

At the moment, we have no punitive action capability. We are at the receiving end.

I wrote a paper on living with China, and living with China meant deterring China so that we are left in peace to grow economically. Our primary objective would be to grow economically for which we will need our own geographical space, which China will not give us unless there is something that deters China. That was the foundation of the idea of building up punitive capability.

What kind of punitive capability should India build?

I first looked at the Himalayan border, and I discovered some startling things. One was that the Indian Army is much bigger than the Chinese PLA (People’s Liberation Army). The Indian Army is a very fine fighting force, and yet, on the point of encounter over the years, we are invariably outnumbered, although overall they (the PLA) have fewer numbers.

I have researched this and discovered that they have built a six-lane highway from the Burmese tri-junction all they way into Xinjiang. And along this highway, they can move altitude acclimatised troops 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 be having some weakness. I found China’s maritime geography is very, very weak. China faces the Pacific Ocean. It is deeply connected internally through the Belt and Road all the way to Europe, but it is dependent on the Indian Ocean for a large per cent of its oil and commodity trade.

The connection between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean is geographically very constrained by the Malacca Straits and the other straits. We have to exploit its maritime geography. But the days of World War II sea-denial are over. Today, you can’t go around sinking tankers. I calculated that China needs to unload nine 2,50,000-tonne tankers a day to run its economy. If you can interrupt its flow of oil, it will come into the Indian Ocean to investigate. Thereby, we can induce a battle on favourable terms.

Firstly, using the maritime reconnaissance of the Quad, so that Chinese warships heading for the Malacca Straits are picked up by the Quad while they are in the South China Sea, and we get warning two days in advance that they are coming.

We then induce the Air Force, which I foresaw was going to be the problem — for the Indian Air Force to forget about defending continental air space, which is their present strategy, and set up a base in Car Nicobar, where they have an airstrip in any case. The only financial input that I see for the strategy I am suggesting is up-funding the Air Force for setting up a base in Car Nicobar, so that fighters operating from there can dominate the Malacca Straits and suppress any Chinese information gathering aircraft.

I visualise a sequence of events running 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 exert dominance over the battlespace and quarantine Chinese tankers in the Nicobar Islands. We don’t sink them. And induce the Chinese to come into the Indian Ocean to find out what’s going on. We then get warning of their arrival, and literally massacre them.

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Apart from building up our air capability in the Car Nicobar area, what other capabilities will we need?

The last thing we want to do is go to war with China. We want to deter China, so we should take these steps openly and visibly: One, sign an agreement with the Quad for dividing the Asia-Pacific into areas of maritime search. This is something I had suggested to the Foreign Office, but the Foreign Office keeps the Quad as a diplomatic talk shop.

Then, we need to develop a base in Car Nicobar. We should clearly indicate to the Chinese our line of thinking.

Thirdly, we need to be ready for the fact that the Chinese, having seen our approach, will send their warships prior to committing aggression. I suggested in my paper that we create a second battlespace over the Straits of Hormuz, to threaten Djibouti, the UAE and the Chinese tankers in the Gulf of Hormuz. For this, I am suggesting a bold initiative — take over the defunct Royal Air Force air base in Masirah Island, which belongs to Oman.

Here again, I am suggesting an up-funding of the Indian Air Force, and inducing it to give up the continental air-mindedness, go expeditionary, which is what all air forces in the world do, except the Indian Air Force.

A third battlespace, dominated by Indian aircraft carriers, would be in the central Indian Ocean.

Once we are seen to be establishing this, I think the Chinese will think a lot before committing aggression against us.

China is continuously encroaching on our geopolitical space, and tying us down using Pakistan. We have got to get out of that trap. Where we are making mistakes now, I feel, is: one, we are appeasing China; and two, we are getting into an unnecessary arms race with Pakistan.

Our policy needs to be the other way around: where we make peace with Pakistan, and stand up to China. That’s why I call my paper, ‘Reorienting India’s military grand strategy’.

Can we do this with two aircraft air 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 am really pushing for a bigger Navy.

The change must initiate from a tri-service level. We will have a tri-service strategy of holding the Chinese in the mountain, and threatening them in the Indian Ocean.

Maybe this brings in the other issue that, so far, we have written our strategy without consulting the Foreign Office. Bring in the Foreign Office. Because, once you start operating outside the continental borders of India, the Foreign Office comes in in any case. We need the Foreign Office to establish the military component to the Quad, to negotiate over Masirah, to understand that our diplomats will speak with authority when the Navy is a regional Navy.

Is there still a belief in the Foreign Office that we can appease China? I think there is. We need to get on the same wavelength… We must have a common picture.

Can we rely on multilateral groupings like the Quad, or other nations to protect us in a conflict?

No, we can’t. And I don’t suggest that. But maritime search is a peacetime activity. The only thing we need to do is to divide the areas where we will do our search and where the United States will do its search.

We have communications sharing and intelligence sharing agreements with the United States. We don’t need to de-stabilise anything. We can institute this right now, as is, for sharing maritime search information. So that India knows the picture in the South China Sea, and the United States knows the picture in the Indian Ocean. This can be a peacetime activity, which is slightly upgraded during wartime.

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