Key Concepts in Defence Studies

The newspapers and television will give you a lot of information on relations between India and Pakistan or China or United States. Sometimes you may read about how there have been clashes on the border between India and Pakistan or India and China. You may read about clashes between police forces and militants in Kashmir. You may also have seen the Republic Day parade in Delhi. In that parade the Indian armed forces display various weapons. All this deals with issues relating to national security of India.

When we use the terms like national security or India as a nation we must understand the exact meaning of these terms. We use the term ‘country’ or ‘nation’ or ‘state’ to describe India, Pakistan, China, etc. While all the terms appear to convey the same meaning, technically there is a difference in each of these terms. Technically, the correct term is ‘state’. This is the term used to describe independent sovereign countries. But in normal usage, all the terms tend to be used interchangeably.

The world consists of different states (or countries); we use the word ‘state system’ or ‘international state system’ to describe this.

What do we mean by a state system? We are talking of the world consisting of sovereign states interacting with each other. They may sometimes have conflicts between them or they may cooperate with each other.

To understand the state system it is necessary to understand the meaning of some of the concepts: Nation, State, Nationalism, Self-determination, Sovereignty, National Power, National Interest and National Security.


The word ‘nation’ has been used in many different ways. How does one understand the term? A nation is a people who identify socially, culturally, politically in such a way that they want to establish a separate identity for themselves. There is a sense of oneness that is psychological and born out of commonness of culture, ethnicity, race, religion, language, history, etc.. They have a spirit of unity. They may or may not be located in a specific geographic territory.

Elements of a nation :

1. Demographic and cultural similarities

These similarities may be demographic characteristics such as language, race and religion or they may be common cultural or historical experiences.

2. Feeling of community

The similarities of demography and culture must translate into a psychological feeling of a community. This is a matter of perception held by the people of that community

3. Desire to be politically separate :

The sense of community that is based on the demographic socio-cultural and historical experiences, needs to provide for a political identity of its own. This political identity comes from geography. People living in a particular geographic area having common socio-cultural, religious or linguistic commonality can lead to a feeling of being a nation. Such a feeling is a product of the urge for self-determination. This can lead to a demand for self-governance at a political level.


Nationality is one of the main sources of nationalism. What is nationality ? It is the belief that people have about their role in the world. People who have a common cultural heritage aspire for sovereignty over a specific territory to decide their future. People feel that it is their right to decide their political future. They would want to form their own government that is sovereign. This is national self-determination.

What is sovereignty ?

The Preamble of the Indian Constitution uses the words, ‘Sovereign Democratic Republic’. Here the word sovereignty means the independent authority of the country. It signifies that the country is not dependent on any other country. It is independent to take its own decisions, formulate laws and govern. When people of a nation want to become a sovereign country it means they are demanding the right to self-determination. Freedom struggle is an expression of the right to self-determination.

Nationalism is a sense of political identity. It is closely associated with two aspects: nationality and patriotism. It is a love for one’s country. The people become sentimentally attached to the homeland. They gain a sense of identity and self-esteem by this identification and are motivated to help their homeland. The expression of such sentiments can be seen at different times: Cheering for a national cricket team, standing up during the National Anthem or support to the armed forces during a war. The emotions and feelings of the people about their country expressed in different forms can be described as ‘nationalism’. Nationalism is an ideology which holds the people to a sense of political loyalty to the country.

In historical times, nationalism had been associated with a sense of loyalty to the rulers. The armies would fight for their King or Queen. The concept of popular sovereignty came in with the French Revolution. Thus, today wars would now be fought for the sake of the nation and not for the ruler. For example, the Indian army fights for India as a country and not for its President or Prime Minister.


It is this urge for political self determination that leads a nation in the direction of statehood. When does a nation become a state ? A State must have the following characteristics to qualify for statehood: Sovereignty; Independent Government, Territory and Population.

  1. Sovereignty is perhaps the single most important factor that determines the characteristic of a state. Sometimes this term is used interchangeably with the term independence. There is however a difference between the two. Sovereignty is a legal term while independence is a political term. It means that the country is legally sovereign with its own independent constitution. For example, India became politically independent in 1947. It became sovereign after the adoption of the constitution in 1950.
  2. Every sovereign state must have a government. The government must be sovereign and independent. For example when India was a British colony, there was a government of India. But it was not a sovereign independent government. Therefore prior to independence India was not a state.
  3. Territory refers to the geographic boundaries of a state. Every state must have a specific geographic territory.
  4. In the existence of a state population would be the final and most significant essential element. The population of a state can belong to various religious, ethnic, linguistic groups, etc. Thus there can be many ‘nations’ within a nation state. In India we talk of ‘unity in diversity’. This diversity is made up of people belonging to different religions, ethnicity, race, language, etc.

Unity in Diversity in India

Look at Palestine as a case study

The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) has been granted recognition as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The PLO has also identified Gaza and West Bank as the territory of the State of Palestine. However, Palestine is neither sovereign nor does it have geographic territory of its own, its territory is under the jurisdiction of Israel. This is why it cannot claim to be a state.

National Interest

What is national interest ? National interest is the protection of the core values of a nation. What are these core values? They are the country’s goals and ambitions. These can be political, economic, military, or socio-cultural. Nationalism motivates people to protect what is theirs – values that they seek to cherish and protect as belonging to their state. It is the protection of these values that is the core of the concept of national interest.

Look at the Indian constitution. Its preamble will give you the core values of India. It talks of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. These are the values that the state must protect. The state is expected to provide social, political, economic and political stability for its citizens. It has to look after the welfare of its citizens.

What are the threats to these core values? How does the state protect these core values? What then are the main elements of national interest?

  1. The state protects its citizens from any external aggression or internal disturbance. National security is an important component of national interest. Unless a nation is secure it cannot provide various services to the people to enable them to live a peaceful and prosperous life. The threats to the core values can come from external aggression or internal disturbance. India has experienced wars with both, Pakistan and China. These are external threats to India’s national interest. Similarly, there can be terrorist attacks. A terrorist attack against the Parliament of India (in 2001) or the attack in Mumbai (in 2008) are also threats that affect India’s national interest. Internal disturbance is caused when people use violent means to express their demands. These violent means can come during demonstrations, riots, militant agitations or insurgencies. These threats harm the economic, political and social stability of the country.
  2. The state must protect both personal freedom and national freedom or independence. Conflicts and wars can destroy freedom. Therefore, states try to promote peace, both at the domestic level and the international level.
  3. States try to maintain international order to promote peace and stability. It is only through peace and stability that nations can promote development in their countries. One way of doing this is through regional and international organisations. These organisations provide for a forum for dialogue between countries.
  4. Justice is another important value that the states try to protect. This is done with specific reference to protection of human rights. It is also achieved through international law. The International Court of Justice plays an important role in this matter.
  5. Finally, the states try to promote the socio-economic welfare of its citizens. Providing food, shelter, clothing, education and health to the population are some of the key aspects of welfare.

National security is the most important component of national interest. National security is not just security from external aggression. It is closely related to the political, economic and socio-cultural stability of the country. Unless a nation is secure it cannot provide various services to the people to enable them to live a peaceful and prosperous life.

National Security

National Security

What is national security? The origins of the concept of national security can be found in the concept of national interest.

The defence of the ‘territory, sovereignty and freedom of the country’ is the fundamental aspect of India’s security policy. Traditionally, National Security meant protection of the state from external aggressions. The military dimension of security is an important, but not the sole, component of national security. To be truly secure, a nation needs other forms of security. Besides the traditional military aspect of security; the non-traditional aspects; ie. Diplomacy or politics, society, environment, energy as well as natural resources, economics and human resources are equally important.

The aim of national security is to achieve peace and harmony among people, socio- political and individual life stability and good governance, thus helping in nation- building. Another important element for our national survival is national unity. This unity is an outcome of the tradition, culture, history that makes people proud of their country. Therefore, the defence system created during peacetime for national defence is known as ‘national security’. Thus while the traditional aspect of security is important, there are other dimensions that need to be studied.

National Power

We have seen the importance of the concept of sovereignty and nationalism. We have also seen the various elements of a state and what constitutes national interest. When we try to understand the state system, national power is another important element that we need to study. This is because it is the national power that protects the national interests of the country. It provides national security to the country.

Usually when we talk of national power we focus on the military strength of any country. This is only one aspect of national power. Let us understand the various elements of national power.

Elements of national power are classified in two groups: Tangible and intangible. Tangible elements are those that can be seen and measured. Intangible elements are those that cannot be seen but can be experienced.

Tangible elements

Elements of National Power

1. Geography

In geography we study the size of the country, the weather and climate, its location in the world, geographic features like mountains and rivers, etc. If you see the map of India you will notice that the Himalayas are a natural boundary in the north. You can also see the long coast line that India has. India can therefore play an important role in the Indian Ocean.

2. Raw materials and natural resources:

This includes the following:

  • Agricultural products like food, cotton, rubber, jute, etc;
  • Animal products like milk, fish, poultry, meat, oil, etc.
  • Minerals like iron ore, coal, etc.

India is one of the largest producers of milk in the world. It is self-sufficient in wheat and rice. India has large amount of coal and iron ore reserves.

3. Population

The most important aspect of population is not the total number.

What is important is the working population that a country has. India is described as a ‘young country’. India has more than 50% of its population below the age of 25 and more than 65% below the age of 35. This is an advantage as it is an excellent workforce.

4. Technology

Science is the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world. Technology is the application of practical sciences for industry or commerce. Technology refers to methods, systems, and devices which are the result of scientific knowledge being used for practical purposes. Science and Technology are important elements of national power. Nuclear, space and electronics science are some of the areas where India has excelled.

Intangible Elements

1. Ideology

Ideology is a world view of a society, people or a country. Indian ideology can be understood in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution.

2. Morale

Morale is the national character of the people. How do people react in times of a crisis? In times of floods, earthquakes, war, etc. people would come together to help and not panic. This is the morale of the country.

3. Leadership

Good, competent and capable leaders lead the country to peace and prosperity.

National Security Policy

We have argued that states will take decisions to protect their interests. They try to protect their core values. We have also tried to understand the various elements of national interest. We have seen that the main values are security, freedom, order, justice and welfare for the people of that state. These are all humanitarian goals. This means that a country like India, Pakistan, China, Russia, France, etc. would generally try to provide these values to their people.

What then is a national security policy ? National Security policy is based on the national interest of that country. It is a policy that aims to safeguard the country’s national interest.

The making of national security policy has two dimensions:

  1. Security policy is based on certain basic principles and values that a country cherishes. These basic principles are the goals of the country.
  2. Another important component that determines the formulation of security policy is national power. A security policy is not made in abstract. National power will provide the capability of the state.

The basic principles provide the goals. The goals would tell us what the country intends to do. We have to match the goals with the capabilities when we make policy. Thus a balance of intent and capability would give you policy.

Goals + Capabilities = National Security Policy

For example, India’s security policy is based on the basic principles of ‘independent understanding of world affairs’ and ‘peace approach’. This means that India would not be dependent on any country for its security policy; it would make its policy independently. It also talks of peace as a core principle in the formulation of its policy. India would thus try to solve problems through dialogue and discussion and not through war and conflict.

Based on this one would have to understand India’s policy towards different countries like Pakistan or China or France, etc. Similarly, one would have to understand India’s policies about trade, arms control, environmental issues, etc. But India also has to look at its capabilities in terms of national power. If, for example, India has to fight cross border terrorism, it has to calculate its national power and then make a policy that would help it to fight terrorism.

We have seen the various elements of the state system. A country formulates its national security policy on the basis of the understanding of its national interest and the national power. A national security policy is one that seeks to protect the national security and thus take care of the national interest of the state.

Chart of Key Concepts


A sense of oneness that is psychological and born out of commonness of culture, ethnicity, race, religion, language, history, etc. with or without identified territory.



Defined as an expression of the concept of the nation.



Key ingredients include people, territory and sovereignty (government).


National Interest

Defined within the context of the core values of a nation as identified by the Constitution; as being a product of history (civilizational); the value systems of the polity, economy; the society and culture. The determining factors would be the geography, the geopolitics, the political, economic and socio-cultural aspects that go to determine the core values.


National Power

Protection of Core Values and therefore of national interest is dependent upon the national power of the nation state (Capability factor). National Power is dependent upon the material and non-material elements that contribute to power.


National Security Policy

Policy that seeks to protect the national security and thus take care of the national interest of the nation state.

What is meant by ‘territory’ ?

Territory has three aspects :

  1. The actual land within the national boundaries.
  2. The territorial waters along the coastline. This is 12 nautical miles (22.2 km or 13.8 miles) along the coast line.
  3. The air space above its territory (there is no international law on the height of this airspace)

What is National Security ?

Walter Lippmann states : ‘a nation has security when it does not have to sacrifice its legitimate national interests to avoid a war, and is able, if challenged to maintain them by war’.

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