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Forums offer insights into a developing strategic partner

By Christopher Griffin
 

Many Indian strategists complain that their American counterparts do not understand India’s strategic interests, military capabilities or political culture. The U.S., they say, simply does not have the necessary knowledge to sustain a strategic partnership with India. But there is little material available in the U.S. on India’s military or strategy — and most of what is available in print is becoming rapidly outdated. Where is the American soldier or strategist supposed to learn about his burgeoning strategic partner?

One emerging source of information is the growing network of Indian Web sites devoted to security issues. The largest and oldest of these — older even than the Defense Ministry’s — is Bharat Rakshak (www.bharat-rakshak.com), a self-described “consortium of Indian military websites” founded in 1997 when a group of overseas Indians decided to combine their sites, devoted to disparate Indian military services, into an authoritative source. Over the years, Bharat Rakshak has received the sponsorship of strategist and publisher Bharat Verma and has emerged as the leading Indian defense Web site.


The most interesting part of the site is the Bharat Rakshak Forum (BRF) (http://forums.bharat-rakshak.com), which contains bulletin boards on almost every security topic, from India’s “Cold Start” war-fighting doctrine, to Indian Special Forces training, to such administrative trivia as the promotions and positions of officers. The threads are fleshed out with press clippings and photographs, making for one-stop shopping on many Indian security issues.

But perhaps the greatest use of these forums for the American reader is that they give authors ample opportunity to display the spectrum of legitimate opinions among Indians who follow defense issues closely, ranging from chauvinism to nuanced expertise. It shows the American audience not only the insights that their Indian colleagues bring to the table, but how their views of the United States are shaped by U.S.-Indian interaction.

An example of this need was the online response to the Cope India series of dissimilar air-combat training exercises — military jargon for flying U.S. F-15s and F-16s against Indian Air Force (IAF) MiG and Sukhoi aircraft in simulated combat. The exercises were designed so that the long-range detection and attack capabilities of the U.S. aircraft were deactivated, meaning they faced 12 versus four fights without the advantage of taking the first shots. This unrealistic scenario favored the Indian pilots, whose training focuses on visual range fighting, and who also, in the words of one American participant, “ran tactics that were more advanced than we expected.” U.S. pilots “lost” an overwhelming majority of mock engagements.

The first impression from the treads on the BRF Cope 2005 bulletin board is the sheer volume of postings. Many were nationalist rants: “the IAF is as sharp as ever and that should send a suitable message to our ‘potential enemies’ east west and north!” But another drew out the more important point that “we may need to have a small rethink of our jingo-baba ways … not all missions were run with the objective of pilots targeting one another … the majority of missions were joint missions … not missions where Indians targeted Americans.”

One posting even took an even more important step toward recognizing the value of the Cope India exercises, pointing out that a “young USAF pilot who participated in the exercise came back with a very positive impression of IAF and India. He felt honored to have exercised with the IAF in India, and has made friendships there with his IAF counterparts. In another 20 years, when his generation reaches the top positions, the U.S. military/strategic establishment will become a lot friendlier towards India.”

The second major contribution of India’s online security community is to point out the major security concerns that Americans are likely to miss due to geography and circumstance. South Asia Intelligence Review (www.satp.org), for example, provides details on the regularity and locations of terrorist attacks throughout South Asia, dispelling any notion that India is not a frontline state in the struggle against radical Islam.

In another case, one Bharat Rakshak forum is focused on the recent decision by Google to offer high-resolution images of India’s military bases with its Google Earth software. India’s army chief of staff recently called for Google to remove the images, but BRF participants are identifying Indian air bases and their visible aircraft with a “you too can be an imagery intelligence analyst” enthusiasm, although several participants speculated that the program run by the CIA.

The major weakness of BRF is that, unlike their American counterparts, serving Indian soldiers do not post. As one author notes: “You know what is really advanced about the USAF? Their pilots can go on a [bulletin board], right after they have completed an exercise, and talk about it, and post photos. Wow, if one of our pilots tried that, the IAF would expel his kid from Air Force School, make his wife dance at the AFWWA dinner, and add 5000 to his serial number.” I am not sure what the latter half of that quote means, but I will not hold my breath while I wait for Indian military participation in online forums.

The scale of the loss is indicated by the excellent milblog of retired IAF officer Vijainar Thakur (http://kuku.sawf.org/default.aspx). Thakur’s analysis of American losses in Cope India are the best on the Web. Unlike most Indian observers, he acknowledges the U.S. political logic that “adverse kill ratios” present the Air Force “with a wonderful opportunity to scare the Congress into releasing additional funds for the F/A-22 Raptor.” He also reaches the more important point, that with standoff weapons and AWACS support, the U.S. Air Force, even the relatively outdated F-15s, “could rule the Indian skies any time it chose to.”

So what does this mean for Americans? For one, you don’t have to fly 14 hours just to interact with India’s strategic community — it is available online. Also, it is evident that Indians are plagued by no fewer misperceptions about American strategy than we are about theirs. Most important, perhaps, is that the U.S. government should press the Indian military to create more opportunities for American and Indian soldiers to maintain virtual professional dialogues. Greater military transparency is a difficult direction for a country to move in, but it is the right one for an advanced, democratic power.

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