Guest Column | Past Perfect, Future Tense

Political leadership should ensure that India’s defence becomes a force to be reckoned with on the global platform

Gen. V.P. Malik (retd)General V.P. Malik (retd)

India’s defence report card of the past seven decades is more positive than negative. But the credit for that goes less to our politics, policies and grand strategies; more to those responsible for the operational planning and execution on the ground.

We have had reactive policies, ad hoc defence planning, inadequate equipping, intelligence failures and strategic surprises. And yet, the armed forces have maintained India’s security and territorial integrity much better than any other developing, democratic nation in the world. The armed forces have also played an important role in our nation building.

Indian Army taking out a flag march in Kashmir

Their baptism started soon after Independence. The Indian Army was employed to force the reluctant rulers of Hyderabad and Junagarh to integrate their states with the rest of India. We had to defend Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) when Pakistani raiders, led and supported by Pakistani Army, attacked that state. We liberated Goa in 1961 and fought that ignominious Sino-Indian war in 1962. In 1965, Pakistani ruler, General Ayub Khan launched Operation Gibraltar in J&K after a side-show in Kutch. In 1967, there was a skirmish with China at Nathu La. The third India-Pakistan war in 1971 resulted in a glorious military victory: liberation of Bangladesh, return of Bengali refugees, and a huge dent on the Pakistan Army.

In 1984, we pre-empted Pakistani attempt to occupy Siachen Glacier. The Wangdung skirmish with China took place in 1986. In 1987-88, because of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, we intervened in Sri Lanka’s civil war, and then in an exemplary rapid action across the Indian Ocean, we put down an attempted coup in the Maldives at the request of its government.

In 1999, despite intelligence failure, strategic and tactical surprise, we defeated Pakistan’s attempted intrusion in the Kargil sector.

Apart from these external security engagements, the security forces have fought insurgencies in North-eastern states since mid-Fifties, Naxalites in West Bengal in late Sixties, and terrorism in Punjab in the mid-Eighties. They continue to fight Pakistan-sponsored proxy war in J&K since the late Eighties.

Since the mid-Fifties, the armed forces have also worked in many United Nations peacekeeping missions, contributing to international peace and India’s image. Till date, we have lost about 160 soldiers while performing these duties.

Besides these operational successes, the defence forces have made a substantial contribution to nation-building; its consolidation, and its political stability. They remain a role model of ‘unity in diversity’: of secularism and of an apolitical outlook with loyalty only to India’s Constitution. Despite the raising of National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF), they remain India’s chief rescue and relief force in any disaster management mission.

Then why do I say less to our politics, policies and grand strategies?

Barring the 1962 war with China, which taught strategic lessons that we often tend to forget, India’s national defence has been ensured in all military engagements. Unfortunately, many a time we have failed to convert sacrifices and hard-won operational achievements into long-term politico-strategic successes.

In 1948, we decided to approach the United Nations on the J&K issue, just when our forces were about to reach the gates of Muzaffarabad. We conceded suzerainty to China over Tibet in 1954 without any quid pro quo, and thus created a long-term security problem for the country. In 1962, the highest level of the government indulged in provocative forward deployment on the India-China border without preparing the military for it.

We returned strategically important Haji Pir Pass (which is a major source of cross border infiltration today) to Pakistan after the 1965 war. After the 1971 war, we returned 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war, without getting Pakistan to agree to a permanent solution on J&K.

Indian Army soldiers celebrating the Kargil victory

In Sri Lanka, we lost 1,155 soldiers but failed to meet any long-term strategic objective.

The hijacked Indian Airlines flight IC 814 on 24 December 1999 landed in Amritsar for refuelling. But it could not be stopped from taking off due to poor crisis management and lack of coordination on the ground.

In 2002, we mobilised and deployed troops on the Western border for 10 months, but without a clear political objective.

In hindsight, all these events reflect on India’s poor strategic vision, guidance and directions, and lack of coordination amongst civil and military leaders responsible for defence capability planning and its implementation.

Late K. Subrahmanyam, the doyen of India’s strategic community, once said, ‘India has lacked an ability to formulate future-oriented defence policies, managing only because of short-term measures, blunders by its adversaries, and force superiority in its favour’. My view is that the lack of political guidance on important security related issues, our political leaders’ excessive dependence on the bureaucracy, marginalisation of professional military, and non-participation of academic and strategic think tank advice at the highest level of decision making is a major handicap in our strategic vision and thinking. After nearly 70 years, there is a need to do a detailed, apolitical, dispassionate study and analysis of our past armed conflicts to learn grand strategic lessons for the future.

Where Do We Stand After 70 Years?
We have over 4,900 km long disputed borders with two of our major neighbours. Both are nuclear armed. Both have more nuclear weapons and long-range missiles than us. Over the years, they have established a very strong strategic nexus.

Pakistan continues to stoke fire in J&K, bleed India with its strategy of ‘thousand cuts’, and take asymmetric advantage of having many cheap, ready-to-die fidayeens. It is apparent that our governments neither have a comprehensive nor consistent strategy to counter it.

China has extended its claim to the whole of Arunachal Pradesh. Already occupying Aksai Chin and part of Gilgit-Baltistan, it openly sides with Pakistani claim on J&K. It has shown no desire to resolve the boundary dispute. Its geo-strategic pincer around India has become closer and stronger. As has been noticed in the case of India’s attempt to enter the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), or to get Masood Azhar, the JeM leader banned. China’s coercive diplomacy vis-a-vis India is out in the open.

On the internal security front, a few years ago, nearly 40 per cent of India – over 200 districts – were affected by insurgency or insurgency like situation. However, terrorist violence and fatalities have come down now. This year, till October 30, we had 761 terror- related fatalities, as compared to 5,839 in 2001. Although threats have declined, the vulnerabilities persist. They persist due to polarising violent identity politics and contempt for constitutional norms. The recent Jat agitation in Haryana is one such example.

Security threats and challenges, in fact the whole gamut of military conflicts, has undergone a change in the last few decades. Geo-politics, strategic, and technological developments keep adding new dimensions to security challenges as well as uncertainties. New security-related problems can emanate unexpectedly, from unexpected quarters, and in unexpected forms.

Although in this new age of Brexit, Trumpism, heightened nationalism and un-predictability, no one can give an assurance that nuclear and high level conventional wars, despite very high costs, casualties and international pressures, are ruled out. But recent trends show that there is a greater likelihood of sub-conventional, hybrid and limited border wars than all-out conventional wars. In the near future, even with China and Pakistan, I do not expect all-out conventional wars where all our army corps would need to be employed. However, there are greater chances of asymmetric, hybrid and limited border wars with Pakistan and China due to unresolved boundaries.

In the current strategic environment, wars if and when they do occur, can no longer be taken to the logical conclusion of military victories or change of national boundaries as was the case in the past. They would be conducted with the objective of achieving political successes rather than military victories. The perception element has become very important.

Information technology (IT) continues to enlarge security and battle-space. It has become more and more inclusive and requires much faster decision making. In recent years, cyber and space domains have added yet another complexity. The entire command and control mechanism of the government is dependent on space satellite and IT facilities. Cyber-attacks on critical civilian infrastructure would have much larger significance than any damage to military installations. Therefore, any military cyber war infrastructure must work in close coordination with the National Information Board. The cyber protection strategy will require a template on which a holistic government approach can be based.

Similar is the case of nuclear war strategy which has to cover civil as well as military defence aspects.

Defence Management
In the current strategic and security environment, the separation between tactical, operational and strategic levels of warfare has blurred. While there was always a degree of overlap between these levels, due to the increasingly pervasive influence of IT, this overlap has increased substantially. A small military action along the Line of Control (LC), or a terrorists’ act in the hinterland, becomes an issue for consideration and decision-making at the highest level. We have a situation wherein a junior military officer posted on the LC/Line of Actual Control (LAC) is expected to understand political considerations, and the political leader to know the tactical and operational considerations. In this environment, the intelligence and decision-making cycles must be speeded up.

In such a conflict scenario, careful and calibrated orchestration of military operations, diplomacy, and perception management, within the country and abroad, would be essential. And the requirement to maintain continuous control of the ‘escalatory ladder’ will require close political oversight and politico-civil-military interaction.

In any conflict, it has become essential to achieve synergy through integration and joint-ness. Joint-ness in military operations validates the well-known principle of war, ‘economy of effort’ in financial and human resources. It precludes wastage of resources by using an appropriate mix of force capabilities.

An essential defence management requirement is greater politico-military inter-face (direct and not through civilian bureaucracy, as happening now) to enable faster decision-making and integration of the defence forces verticals at the top. This should cover national security strategy, defence policy and planning, force structuring, budgetary economy and where possible, common personnel and logistic policies.

Despite recommendation of the Group of Ministers in 2002, we have neither delivered a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) nor addressed many of the organisational problems of the armed forces. The government created Integrated Defence Staff (IDS). But by keeping it headless, it has failed to provide an integrated and joint paradigm; much less give integrated one point advice to the defence minister, prime minister or the CCS. As on date, each service headquarter continues to do its own planning and management of defence matters related to its own service. On the same principle, each service chief represents his own service only and offers advice to the government related to his service.

My feedback shows that there has been no change in the responsibilities, accountability and procedures, or in the attitude of civilian officers posted in different departments of ministry of defence(MoD). Inter-services cooperation across the entire spectrum of military functions remains weak. In the absence of direct military advice and framing of long-term policies, the bureaucratic wall between the political executive and the armed forces has converted the concept of ‘civilian political control’ into ‘civil bureaucratic control’.

In June 2011, the government set up another task force under Naresh Chandra, former defence and cabinet secretary, to carry out another review of the entire gamut of national security, defence preparedness and management. This task force submitted its report in August 2012. Till date, there is no news on its implementation.

Analysts and soldiers now ask some fundamental questions: questions about higher defence control organisation which tends to keep the defence forces outside the decision-making loop, the lack of single point military advice and coordination, planning and implementation of force modernisation and deterrence; even about civil governance which leads to excessive and prolonged employment of the army for internal security.

There is an urgent requirement to re-organise the MoD and its business rules. The CDS appointment has become indispensable. It is essential to develop, prioritise and optimally employ inter-services capabilities and to promote joint-ness in the armed forces.

Defence Self Reliance
Kargil war made me realise that unless India becomes adequately self-reliant in arms, ammunition and equipment for its defence forces, its national security will remain highly vulnerable. We have had large deficiencies in our inventories, and were heavily dependent on foreign countries for weapons and equipment. During that war, every country that we approached, either refused flatly or took us for a ride by trying to sell their old weapons, ammunition and equipment at a high price. That situation is not very different today. After nearly 70 years, we still import nearly 70 per cent of our defence equipment. We think that we are a regional power but we also carry the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest importer of defence equipment.

No country can stake claim to the status of a major power unless it can design and produce a major proportion of the hardware required by its armed forces. Our military industrial complex requires an urgent review. The laudable objective of ‘Make in India’ in the defence field can succeed only when we can break the 70-year-old nexus and comfort level in the MoD; between its bureaucracy and defence public sector undertakings such as Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Ordnance factories and others.

With the latest increase in the Foreign Defence Investment (FDI), and an elaborate Defence Procurement Procedure-2016 in place, India’s defence industrial base will take 15-20 years to make up deficiencies in our arms and equipment, with a reasonable level of modernisation. Looking at the deteriorating regional security environment, this delay is unacceptable.

So, there is a need to work out a comprehensive strategy and holistic policy framework for the immediate and long-term defence requirements. The strategy should include:

• facilitating the domestic defence industrial houses to expand their hi-tech base soonest

• creation of skilled worker base

• ensuring a level-playing field for public and private defence sectors

• an unambiguous export policy, and most importantly

• sufficient defence budget for capital purchases

Along with a strong push to ‘Make in India’, it would be necessary to place some orders on approved Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) – complete item or in CKD condition, as we have done in the case of 36 Rafael fighters aircraft to meet our minimum essential, operational requirement, lest we are caught in another Kargil war situation.

Men and Women Behind the Gun
In the armed forces, we have always believed that the man behind the gun is more important than the gun. In last 70 years, there has been a steady denigration and erosion of the soldiers’ status within the government, and therefore in the civil society. This is reflected in the qualitative and quantitative dilution of the military rank and file, despite being the most dependable brand in the country. Honour (izzat) and comparable status in the government and society have sustained the armed forces and enabled them to draw the right kind of leadership. By taking away its pride and status, making the career unattractive, and not getting required weapons and equipment, the military is no longer a prime choice today. Next, it will affect their morale and fighting spirit. Our political leadership must introspect and correct this aspect sooner than later.

National security decision making and higher direction of military conflicts in the current strategic environment cannot be dealt with using watertight compartments. It requires multi-disciplinary vertical and lateral consultations, and much faster decision making. We need many changes in the national security structures, processes and procedures which can make it more efficient, resilient, and speedily responsive. India’s defence at 70, I hope, will pay serious attention to our strategic policies, higher defence control organisation, forces’ modernisation, capacities, and military morale. It is only then that we can be secure internally and externally, fully prepared to take on the role that we see for ourselves.


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