by Gen V P Malik (retd)
ONE of the cornerstones of a democracy is a healthy politico-military relationship. But what has been witnessed in the recent past is an unhealthy row over the age of the last Army Chief, the attempted bribe to purchase Tatra vehicles from BEML, a public sector undertaking, deliberate leakage of a classified letter to the Prime Minister on defence preparedness, and the deep suspicion over the movement of Army units on training near Delhi.
There is also deep discontent among the armed forces veterans and widows who retain an umbilical connection with serving soldiers and maintain traditional camaraderie and kinship. They feel cheated over pension disparities and anomalies by the civilian bureaucracy and an unsympathetic political leadership. As a result, they have been organising rallies, fast unto death agitations, and surrender of war and gallantry medals to the President to draw public and political attention. The general impression is that the political leadership takes little or no interest in the armed forces’ advice to protect their hierarchal status in the government and society. The relationship is far from healthy.
A major cause for the fragility of politico-military relationship is that instead of maintaining ‘political control’, India practices a unique system of ‘bureaucratic control’ over the military. There is hardly any discourse between the political and military leaders on geo-political and security-related environment, strategies and defence planning for conflict contingencies. My aim here is to draw attention to these strategic aspects.
Over the last few decades, with greater focus on peace and economic development, the approach to security has become more liberal. There is greater consciousness of the comprehensive nature of security. That includes the traditional defence-related threats as well as societal, economic and environmental challenges. Globalisation and regional cooperation are the buzz words in international relations.
Prevention of collateral damage in conflicts and violation of human rights have become matters of serious global concern. A war as an instrument of foreign policy has become increasingly unviable due to international pressures, very high costs and casualties. Sub-conventional conflicts and armed violence have become more prevalent.
Although there is a greater likelihood of limited conventional wars than all-out wars, the armed forces cannot afford to take any chance. They have to be prepared for an elongated spectrum of conflicts, ranging from aid to civil authority, counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism to conventional and nuclear wars. They require careful prioritising of roles and missions. Forces require greater versatility and flexibility. These strategic and technology-driven considerations impact the decision-making apparatus and conduct of warfare.
For example, separation between the tactical, operational and strategic levels of warfare is blurring. Enhanced mobility, long reaches in targeting, improved communications and more intrusive command and control have obscured tactical and strategic boundaries. It is a situation where a junior military officer is expected to understand political considerations and the political leader to know the tactical and operational considerations.
We need more integrated command and control systems for quick decision-making at all levels of command. The cycle of collection, collation, synthesis and dissemination of information needs to be speeded up, as also the subsequent actions and feedback.
War fighting has to be conducted in a more integrated manner. Integration has two aspects: greater and faster politico-military interaction and coordination, and integration of the three armed forces verticals at the top for the purpose of defence planning and force structuring, operational planning, integrated advice for budgetary economy and common personnel and logistics-related policies.
In any future conflict, there would have to be complete understanding between the political and military leaderships on the political and military objectives and the time available to the armed forces to execute their missions. That would be crucial for planning and conduct of operations. We can also expect fairly rigid political terms of reference as were given during the Kargil war.
There are some other challenges likely to be encountered. The military would be required to react quickly to an evolving crisis which may erupt with surprise. It would be expected to arrest deterioration of the situation on the ground and regain the initiative without any loss of time.
Domestic and international political support for a military operation will depend upon its ability to operate in a manner that conforms to political legitimacy —- avoidance of civilian casualties, minimisation of collateral damage. This will require careful and calibrated orchestration of military operations, diplomacy and the political environment. Continuous control of the escalatory ladder will require close political-military interaction.
Militarily, the greatest challenge could be in the political reluctance to commit a pro-active engagement and its insistence to retain the authority for approving not just key military moves but also many operational decisions.
There would be heavy reliance on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance by political and military leaderships before committing optimal resources. Drones and surgical strikes would be a common option. Employment of ground forces across the borders could be discouraged or delayed due to fear of casualties and difficulty in disengagement.
Information operation is already important. The requirement to achieve and retain the moral high ground and deny that to the adversary would need a comprehensive and sophisticated media, public affairs and information campaign.
As the size and complexity of nuclear arsenal in the region increases, different kinds of complications would emerge. The armed forces would have to remain in the decision-making loop.
Such a strategic scenario demands (a) keeping the military leadership in the security and strategic decision-making loop, and (b) closer direct politico-military interface in war and peace (when we must prepare for war contingencies), and not the ‘bureaucratic control’ kind that exists today. This leads me to ask certain questions.
Does our political leadership have critical understanding of security-related strategic issues and implications of military employment and institutional conduct? Are they adequately conversant with military purposes, capabilities, constraints and effects? If not, should they depend more on military or the generalist bureaucratic advice?
Why do our armed forces continue to suffer serious shortage of weapons and equipment year after year? Why does India after 65 years of Independence and fighting so many wars have to import over 70 per cent of its defence equipment from abroad?
War as Clausewitz noted is continuation of politics by other means. Recent conflicts have involved a much greater level of integration of politics, diplomacy and military planning and execution than in the past. Even when a decision to employ the military is made, the political leadership has to monitor its escalatory ladder. In practice, there is continuing erosion of the dividing lines between war and politics.
Unlike other democracies of the world, the political leadership in India has managed to sideline the military leadership except when faced with an imminent conflict or a crisis situation. There is no politico-military interface; interaction is mostly through civilian bureaucracy. The national security framework is not in sync with the needs of new security challenges or healthy civil-military relations. There is an urgent need, therefore, to re-engineer our national security paradigm and defence management structure. The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff.