Made in the Himalayas: building war games for India and its partners
19 Sep 2023|

Wargaming has returned to the fore as a tool for military planning. US think tanks are outcompeting each other in wargaming a Taiwan contingency, with their recommendations amplified by mainstream media. One recent war game even made congressional representatives act as US National Security Council members in a Taiwan contingency.

The potential benefits of wargaming are historically evident, even if their full impact is still debated. Many war games are essentially geared towards military scorecard comparisons and warfighting, with the objective of collecting information on the likely use of weapons systems within a set of strategic choices.

But such games tend to have limited engagement with the larger political context. The road to war is often left unexamined when games begin with the assumption that a political decision for war has already been made. The political objectives for the hypothesised military operation are assumed to be relatively fixed and unidimensional.

Understandably, perhaps, many games are geared towards making useful and timely interventions in the debates on the US’s warfighting capabilities and options in a Taiwan contingency.

India lags in wargaming and should develop a culture of strategic wargaming. But the type of war game that’s prominent in the West may have limited value for India, particularly in examining potential conflicts with China in the Himalayas.

For one thing, compared with other countries, India’s political system is characterised by ‘absent dialogues’, between civilians (politicians and bureaucrats) and the military, and between the government and its people. This, combined with limited access to information, make it difficult to build war games aimed at deducing likely outcomes of a conventional war between India and China or Pakistan.

In addition, Indian analysts generally don’t seriously consider an all-out war against China as an option. The unfavourably skewed military balance combined with geographic disadvantages imposes costs that are considered too prohibitive to accept. Political considerations, in part related to historical memory and self-identity, make the prospect of a defeat in any such war all the more unbearable.

Rather, India’s security challenges are usually conceived in terms of political crises surrounding military contingencies such as transgressions and military coercion by China. India’s cognitive energies are geared towards establishing conventional minimal deterrence vis-à-vis China, which also relies on appeals to China’s own broader strategic interests. In contrast, US strategic priorities pertain to coalition warfighting to deter rising Chinese assertiveness in the entire Indo-Pacific region.

But in understanding a potential conflict in the Himalayas, straightforward bean counting or even more nuanced assessments of military capabilities may miss important variables in decision-making and responses. Analyses of long-term trends are useful and indispensable guides but can suffer from inductivism and may ill-prepare us for strategic surprise—such as Chinese actions in May 2020. Well-designed war games have the potential to combine analysis and military empirics to uncover unthought-of pathways, drivers and contingencies.

The military balance should be understood in conjunction with the particular ways through which a crisis evolved towards war. Hence, an understanding of the nature of the crisis and its history and elite perceptions of political realities are indispensable for a fuller understanding of the architecture of the India–China flashpoint in the Himalayas. Crises occur primarily in the minds of human agents, which is why war games are a valuable tool to understand the contours of a future crisis as it looks in the minds of decision-makers.

The evolving crisis in the Himalayas poses tough questions for the Indian strategic community, which remains confused about Chinese objectives and strategy.

In recent months, the US administration and strategic community have registered a greater interest in the stand-off between India and China in the Himalayas as an emerging flashpoint with global implications. The US is making a cognitive shift from supporting bilateral dialogue to resolve the crisis to assessing China’s continuing military build-up and coercion of India. But US decision-makers also struggle to understand what is driving the border conflict or how it could end.

Simulation exercises and wargaming would assist India and its partners to better anticipate strategic decisions and prepare responses to various pathways. A recent report recommends that Delhi and Washington ‘hold joint wargaming exercises to develop mutual understanding of the threat of a future India–China conflict and identify Indian capabilities gaps that can be filled before conflict breaks out’. Another thoughtful analysis recommends discussing escalation-driven crisis scenarios with Quad members to enable ‘red-teaming of India’s escalatory assumptions, as well as its proposed off-ramps, to support Delhi’s escalation-control efforts ahead of time’.

But cooperation in wargaming between India and its like-minded partners will require translation of differing strategic concerns to reflect India’s unique needs and approaches. Wargaming should be a flexible tool that emphasises scenarios that are principally political, but with strong military arbitration.

These war games should also emphasise scenario-building to help unpack the slow and winding road to a severe crisis and then, possibly, war. Given the political nature of the crisis, such exercises could face significant challenges when conducted at an official level, meaning that academic institutions and think tanks can play a valuable role.

With these objectives in mind, I, with the assistance of senior retired military officers, design war games for the Council for Strategic and Defense Research in New Delhi. These games have generated valuable insights by encouraging vigorous debate of interpretations and responses. Conditions are also created to allow for back-channel negotiations to assess likely dynamics between military developments and civil negotiations.

Also valuable are have been role-play-driven insights on possible Chinese perceptions of the larger border crisis as well as Beijing’s more immediate reasons for undertaking the May 2020 military operations. Intra-team negotiations can also be used to interrogate unspoken assumptions on each side.

It may seem surprising that a wargaming culture hasn’t taken off in India given its acute security challenges and strategic aspirations. As part of managing a rising China in its own backyard, India will have to reduce perception gaps that exist between it and its like-minded partners. Increasing engagement in jointly designed wargaming exercises that permit free thinking and force players to reckon with difficult choices is one way to do so.

This article was written as part of the Australia India Institute’s defence program undertaken with support from the Department of Defence. All views expressed in this article are those of the author only.