Writings on the military history of India broadly fall into three categories—accounts of single wars, biographies and government histories. Academic histories of India’s myriad post-Independence conflicts have rarely been attempted. This is what makes Arjun Subramaniam’s Full Spectrum refreshingly different. The author, an accomplished fighter pilot and retired Air Vice-Marshal turned military historian, turns his sights on doing an all-encompassing sweep of India’s military operations over the past half a century—from counter-insurgency in Punjab and Kashmir and the single-theatre Kargil War to the ongoing standoff with China in eastern Ladakh. It is a sequel to his well-received 2016 book India’s Wars: A Military History 1947-1971. Read together, both books cover all of India’s post-Independence conflicts and are thus must-reads for scholars and general readers alike.

The encyclopaedic sweep of the book is its greatest strength, but also a weakness. The operations are not covered in the detail that many of them deserve. The Full Spectrum, though, makes up for the two glaring omissions the first book was guilty of—an account of the insurgencies in the states of Nagaland and Mizoram and the 1967 India-China border clashes in Cho La and Nathu La. His latest vividly describes the Indian Army’s progressive descent into bruising deployments in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. At one point in the late 1980s, the army was stretched thin on three points of the compass, simultaneously fighting Naga insurgents in the Northeast, terrorists in Punjab and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in Sri Lanka.

One might wonder, though, if the armed forces learned any lessons from these operations at all. Punjab was India’s first brush with urban terrorism, yet there has been no strategic and operational analysis of secessionist terrorism in Punjab. Consequently, the impact Punjab has had on the contours of the terrorism and proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir rarely figures in current discussions on the subject.

One reason for this, as Subramaniam rightly points out, is fractured civil-military relations and lack of political interest in military strategy. This has resulted in a lack of congruence between policy, strategy and doctrine in areas of national security and the study of war and conflict.

The book arrives at a time when the Indian armed forces are on the cusp of significant military reform—the appointment of a chief of defence staff, the creation of joint theatre commands and a retooling to fight future wars. While militaries have frequently been accused of preparing to fight the last war, they haven’t seemed to have learned any lessons from them. Many of the present reforms owe their origin to committees set up after the 1999 Kargil War.

Subramaniam describes Kargil as a costly victory and the jointmanship between the Indian Air Force (IAF) and army as “sub-optimal”. “In retrospect, though airpower contributed significantly towards conflict termination, a golden opportunity to pave the way for truly integrated operations in mountainous terrain was lost,” he writes. Nearly two decades later, with the Indian armed forces facing a bigger, better-prepared adversary across the Himalayas, these are questions that demand answers. And the answers, as the author alludes to in India’s Wars, could be uncomfortable ones. Subramaniam describes the inability of the Indian armed forces to build on years of experience fighting air-land battles in Burma (now Myanmar) during World War II and mountain and valley warfare in the North-West Frontier Province. All these wars, Subramaniam notes grimly, have remained historical narratives. “Not analysing campaigns and building on experience gained has remained a weak area with both the Indian Army and the IAF over the last eight decades,” he writes. It would be truly alarming if this continued to be the case.

'Full Spectrum: India's Wars 1972-2021' by Arjun Subramaniam; HarperCollins, Rs 899, 390 pages