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In terms of material military power, India does not lag far behind the traditional materially powerful states. The country ranks among the top in terms of the size of and investments in its army, air force, and navy. Furthermore, in 1998, India revealed to the world that it possessed nuclear weapons. Yet, while India has sufficient material power to be categorized as a powerful state, the country does not always think and act like a materially powerful state. For India, more material power has not been necessarily enough to ensure greater international influence. Thus far, India can be accused of ‘arming without aiming’ in its quest for greater international influence.

India’s Material Powers

India’s raw military power is impressive. The country’s military consists of 4,207,250 active and reserve forces, a 2,102 strong air force (total number of aircraft), 4,426 combat tanks, and 295 naval assets which include 3 aircraft carriers. The defence budget totals $51 Billion, which makes it the 6th highest in the world.

India has been gradually arming since independence. Initially, India lacked sufficient economic, military, and political resources to project force at a distance. Yet, first under Rajiv Gandhi a dramatic modernization of the armed forces was undertaken. Over the last few years, with the economic boom, defence spending has increased substantially. From $11.8 billion in 2000 to $30 billion in 2009 to $51 billion recently. On the nuclear front, the country became a nuclear weapons state in 1998. India currently possesses 130 nuclear warheads. Reasons for going nuclear include security, domestic, and normative concerns. The security-based rationale emerged because China had already acquired nuclear weapons and there were reports that Pakistan was also on its way to becoming a nuclear state. Domestically, having the bomb served as a political tool to further the government’s interests and national pride. Normatively, acquiring nuclear capabilities helped the country to be seen as a modern state which had risen above its colonial past and was now member of an exclusive club of states

India’s Drawbacks

Although India is influential on the global stage, there are several drawbacks which prevent it from achieving its full potential. First, modernization efforts are bedeviled by piecemeal acquisition, uneven distribution of resources, and, the lack of coherent planning. For instance, Cohen and Dasgupta (Arming without Aiming: India’s Military Modernization, 2013, p. 2) have argued that “India’s military modernization suffers from weak planning, individual service-centered doctrines, and disconnect between strategic objectives and the pursuit of new technology.”

Second, as Harsh Pant has argued India faces a conundrum: its political elites desperately want global recognition as a major power and all the prestige and authority associated with it. Yet, they continue to be reluctant about actually using that power in foreign affairs.

Third, there is a lack of strategic vision or national security doctrine. Policy makers are mired in the exigencies of day-to-day pressures emanating from immediate challenges rather than developing any grand strategy that clearly sets out the nation’s strategic goals and priorities. There is also minimal military input into the Ministry of Defence, and due to the continuous transfer of bureaucrats, there is little institutionalized expertise within the ministry.

Taken together, disjointed efforts at modernization and acquisition the military and the lack of an underlying cohesive strategy or national security doctrine, have resulted in arming without aiming. Thus, it is unsurprising that, as Manoj Joshi has commented, statements of the Prime Minister and other officials evidence that there is confusion on what exactly nuclear weapons are all about.

What Can India Do?

Although more than adequate in its material power, this does not guarantee India international influence. India also needs to think and act like the powerful state it is.

While it is important for India to retain foreign policy autonomy, the country should more actively try to play a leading role in international institutions. Without blindly jumping on the American bandwagon (Ciociar, 2011, p. 63), furthering ties with the United States in order to balance a rising China might need to be considered. Although India is weary about directly antagonizing China, the government must be ready to step outside its comfort zone when necessary.

Although restraint has been an important aspect of India’s foreign policy, “restraint is not seen as a virtue by those who want India to be a great power, a counterbalance to a rising China, and a provider of security in the international system rather than a passive recipient of the order created and managed by others” (Cohen & Dasgupta, 2013, p. 2). The country should take greater interest in issues outside its immediate neighbourhood to gain international recognition. Joining coalitions could be a start to this: “As the dominant regional power in South Asia and an aspirant to a seat on the U.N. Security Council, India is likely to be called on in the future to take an increased role in ensuring international peace and security, either under U.N. auspices or as a part of various multilateral coalitions”, and therefore must be ready to take up such a role (Ladwig, 2010, p. 1171).

India already possesses the military capabilities to be counted among the world’s powerful states, but thus far lacks the governmental initiative and strategic vision required to fulfill that potential. In the short-term, three actions could be taken. Within the government, an increase in military inputs on strategy and institutionalized expertise among policy planners and security experts could go a long way in ensuring resources are appropriately used. A coherent nuclear policy needs to be adopted as the current doctrine has many inconsistencies (Chari, 2000, p. 126). Last but not least, decision-makers must realize that great power status cannot ‘simply’ be bought. Military capabilities, while necessarily part of the equation, do not automatically result in being a great power. Establishing clear aims, consistent policies and a strategic vision is necessary for preventing India to continue the cycle of ‘arming without aiming.’


Chari, P., 2000. India’s nuclear doctrine: Confused ambitions. The Nonproliferation Review, 7(3), pp. 123-135.

Ciociar, J. D., 2011. India’s Approach to Great-Power Status. Fletcher World Affairs, 35(1), pp. 61-89.

Cohen, S. P. & Dasgupta, S., 2013. Arming without Aiming: India’s Military Modernization. s.l.:Brookings Institution Press.

Ladwig, W. C., 2010. India and Military Power Projection: Will the Land of Gandhi Become a Conventional Great Power?. Asian Survey, 50(6), pp. 1162-1183.

Pant, H., 2009. A Rising India’s Search for a Foreign Policy. Orbis , 53(2), pp. 250-264.



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