Military Book Reviews

A Military History of India since 1972

A Military History of India since 1972: Full Spectrum Operations and the Changing Contours of Modern Conflict by Arjun Subramaniam

A Military History of India since 1972 is a definitive work of military history that gives the Indian military its rightful place as a key contributor to Indian democracy. Arjun Subramaniam offers an engaging narrative that combines superb storytelling with the academic rigor of deep research and analysis. It is a comprehensive account of India’s resolute, responsible, and restrained use of force as an instrument of statecraft and how the military has played an essential role in securing the country’s democratic tradition along with its rise as an economic and demographic power.

A Military History of India since 1972 is a very comprehensive history and commentary on the various military operations of the Indian Defense Force since the end of the second war with neighboring Pakistan in the early 1970s. It is a companion to an earlier book by the author: India’s Wars: A Military History, 1947-1971, which covers India’s military operations starting in the year of India’s independence from the British Empire through two major wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971.

The author is a retired Air Vice Marshall of the Indian Air Force and served as a fighter pilot during the time of some conflicts he documents. He has an impressive academic Curriculum Vitae. He is a Fellow at Harvard and Oxford Universities and a Visiting Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Ashoka and Jindal Universities. Currently, he is also an Adjunct Faculty member at the U.S. Naval War College. Subramaniam has lectured extensively at a wide range of universities, think tanks, and war colleges in India and abroad, including Harvard, MIT, Georgetown University, Oxford, the Carnegie Endowment, and the International Institute of Strategic Studies.

This book is an academic work published by the University Press of Kansas. It has received very favorable endorsements from Defense luminaries such as former Defense Secretary William Cohen, and James Stavridis: a prolific naval author, media commentator, and retired admiral. The author presents each conflict with a balanced description of the causes and successes of India’s enemies and both the shortcomings and victories of the Indian Defense Force.  

As a retired senior Indian Air Force officer, Subramaniam has broad access to interview many fellow senior military officers, including former chiefs of all three branches of India’s Defense Force, and Indian government officials. A similar ability enables the author to provide a highly detailed account of the conflicts during this time period. The book incorporates over twenty detailed maps; it’s extremely helpful to readers not familiar with the geography, internal Indian boundaries, and external international boundaries in the Indian subcontinent region. The book also has over twenty pages of photographs.

The secondary title, Full Spectrum Operations and the Changing Contours of Modern Conflict is a concise description of the major theme of the book. The author takes us through the arc of India’s military conflicts; starting from the post-nuclear standoff with Pakistan. From that point we see an evolution: a prolonged period of Chinese communists propagating ethnic violence in the northeast corner of India, a Pakistani influenced Islamic extremist terror campaigns in the far north Kashmir, Punjab, and Jammu providences, moving towards a more recent direct border conflict with communist Chinese military forces.


India’s ongoing border skirmishes with communist Chinese forces high in the Himalayas Mountains offer glimpses of China’s military in combat and political activity during an active conflict. From a military aviation perspective, lessons learned from India’s extensive high altitude helicopter operations will interest military rotary-wing operators and associated logistics planners. The Indian Defense Force “pivot” from assigning strategic and tactical priorities from counterterrorism to an increasingly aggressive Peoples Republic of China predates the similar U.S./U.K./ Australia strategic shift by several years.

The one most interesting item I took away from this outstanding work is the author’s explanation of how “Western” interests express too much unease concerning the India/Pakistan nuclear standoff. Air Vice Marshall Subramaniam places strong faith in the ability of the Pakistani military to ensure the proper handling and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in the face of political uncertainty and the terrorist activity of factions of Islamic terrorists opposed to the Pakistani civilian government. It may be idle speculation, but I suspect both the shared military culture of Indian and Pakistani armed forces under the British Empire informs the author’s opinion and forges during two world wars.

Another poignant takeaway, of particular interest to readers with a naval background, is the detailed description of the Indian Navy’s significant deployment on anti-piracy campaigns in the west Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, starting in 2008. Initially deploying independently when vessels with many Indian national crew members came under attack by Somali pirates, the Indian Navy soon took part jointly with NATO and European Union anti-piracy operations. The Indian Navy developed a reputation for aggressively responding to violent pirate activity with equally violent surface and helicopter assaults. The author writes, “Since 2017 the Indian Navy has begun continuous mission-based deployments across the Indian Ocean.” This is partially in response to China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy gaining permanent access to Indian Ocean ports in Pakistan, Siri Lanka, and the construction of a port in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa.

Since they published this book before the recent “fall” of Afghanistan, I eagerly await the author’s (hopefully) upcoming articles and commentary on what India’s security situation will tell us in the future.

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