Australia shouldn’t lose sight of the Indian army
This article was originally published in The Strategist by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute on 31 January 2024.
In the public discussion on Australia’s defence relationship with India, Army-to-Army cooperation gets short shrift. That’s understandable, with maritime issues at the heart of both countries’ strategic interests. The Australian and Indian navies will naturally attract the spotlight.
But navies don’t operate in a vacuum. India’s army is by far its largest and most influential military service. It does more to shape New Delhi’s defence outlook—including in the maritime domain—than is often understood in Australia.
The Indian army is leading the charge on several issues Australia cares about. Not least of these is its position at the literal front of New Delhi’s responses to Beijing at India’s contested border with China. And importantly, the army’s size means it could wield serious regional influence, including in Southeast Asia.
The Australian Defence Force employs around 60,000 people across all three services. The Indian Army alone comes in at around 1.2 million. It offers not just capabilities, but extraordinary capacity to conduct activities simultaneously than nearly any other defence partner.
Both countries could benefit from building on the Indian Army’s close defence engagement with Southeast Asia. By cooperating directly, or with separate, but complementary, regional initiatives.
The Indian Army’s size poses a dilemma for Canberra. Australia’s army can’t operate on the same scale. Even if its capacity doubled overnight, it’s not clear that its influence or interoperability with the Indian Army would grow accordingly.
Australia and India have responded to this thoughtfully. A decade ago, they were focused on building links at the most senior levels, and on placing officers in each other’s military educational institutions. When it came to exercises, they focused on building niche skills together, not practising large-scale manoeuvres.
Their cooperation has since grown in complexity. We shouldn’t be surprised if both sides’ interest in Southeast Asia and the Pacific leads them to deliver assistance or training packages together in those regions. Australia’s impending appointment of an army adviser at its high commission in New Delhi also signals more to come. But where to from here?
A guiding principle for Australia’s army engagement should be that ideas spread further than people and assets do. We have plenty of them to share. Our army’s modest size means it can generate, adopt and importantly, discard ideas quicker than larger organisations can.
Two examples illustrate this. The ADF is already pursuing the first: sharing lessons and mistakes from its decades-long journey toward a more ‘joint’ approach to military affairs.
The Indian army is evaluating how it can better integrate its capabilities with those of India’s navy and air force. The aim of a joint approach is to ensure that the military’s three services are stronger collectively than the sum of their parts.
To achieve this, India is establishing joint commands that will oversee the forces of two or more military services each. This represents more than a reshuffle. Done right, it will reflect an evolution of the republic’s intellectual approach to warfare.
The ADF has a hard-earned reputation for doing ‘joint’ well, though its members would be the first to attest they haven’t perfected it. Not every lesson the ADF has learned will apply well to India’s circumstance, but, having mistakes along the way, Australia should share its observations.
This year’s iteration of Exercise AUSTRAHIND—an Army-led activity—is the first that has substantially incorporated joint elements. The significance of this step for the defence relationship shouldn’t be understated.
The second area with potential for greater engagement is contemporary recruitment, inculcation, training and retention. An exchange of views on these topics may not create impressive headlines, but they’re crucial to military success.
New Delhi is using its new Agnipath military recruiting scheme to pursue multiple goals, one of which is to sharpen the army’s focus on potency over sheer size. The scheme allows the army to hire and fire personnel more flexibly than before in response to organisational demands.
That flexibility is one of the several reasons the Agnipath scheme has proved controversial. Most recruits under the scheme will only serve four years before leaving the military. As it’s comparable to many Australian soldiers’ own initial period of service, this might sound unremarkable to Australians, but the norm in India has been much longer, more like 10 to 14 years.
The prospect of having ‘short term’ soldiers rotate through the army concerns some insiders, who prize the ‘esprit-de-corps’ forged among soldiers as they progress through mature training pipelines alongside comrades from similar regions and cultural backgrounds.
For its part, the ADF is seeking to increase its own numbers by around 30% by 2040. The two armies have much to discuss in terms of how they train, inculcate and foster cohesion among recruits.
There are countless options for the Indian and Australian armies to explore. If Australia wants to position itself as a source of ideas, then now is the time. We can make a fantastic start by making more use of the recently concluded memorandum of understanding between the Australian Army Research Centre and India’s Centre for Land Warfare Studies, by exchanging papers and fellows each year in advance of formal Australia–India army-to-army staff talks.