Politicisation & Preparedness

How narrow political interests are compromising the military’s warfighting ability

Pravin Sawhney


India’s most ambitious and totally outdated military reform ‘Integrated Theatre Commands (ITCs)’ is dead since it was never a serious proposition. ITCs meant that elements of the three military services (two, army and air force, in case of land wars on the Line of Actual Control with China and the Line of Control with Pakistan) be brought permanently under a single commander for jointness and synergy in operations.

military’s warfighting

Jointness in operations implies that all services fight together as a ‘joint force’, and synergy means that they should be able to complement one another. For instance, army assets in the land domain should have the capability to hit enemy’s assets in the air domain, such as fighters or incoming missiles. Thus, for land war, the ‘joint force’ would comprise army and air force assets with cross-domain capability and with army as the lead service since boots on the ground are essential for occupation of territory.

Behind the veneer of ITCs which involved major structural reforms, the real purpose of the Modi government was to kill two birds with a stone: Retain superannuating army chief, General Bipin Rawat in uniform to ensure that the military served the ruling political party’s agenda rather than the national interest that it was constitutionally sworn to do. And to project the government’s commitment to national security by ostensibly undertaking long pending military reforms to strengthen war-preparedness. Never mind that those reforms were past their expiry dates.

The two overdue reforms were: the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) as suggested by the 2002 Group of Ministers recommendations following the Kargil review committee report, and the recommendation of the December 2016 Shekatkar committee report to create ITCs to fight better on the military lines with Pakistan and China. These committees were constituted by the Vajpayee and Modi-led BJP governments respectively.

A bit on why Rawat was ideal for the post of the CDS as envisioned by the Modi government, since he was past master at projecting military victory where there was none. During his three years tenure as army chief, Rawat planned the so-called 2016 surgical strikes and the 2019 Balakot air strikes against Pakistan. He also flexed military muscle against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during the 2017 Doklam crisis which resulted in projecting Prime Minister Narendra Modi—by nationalistic and unscrupulous mainline media—as the sole leader with courage to challenge both adversaries at once. The reality was all three episodes were disastrous for India as they exposed the operational shortcomings of the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force (IAF). This led China to conclude that India did not have the political will for escalation to hot war beyond grey zone operations. Confident of its assessment, the PLA occupied some 2,000 square kilometres of Indian territory by multiple deep incursions in east Ladakh in April 2020.

Thus, towards the fag end of his tenure, Rawat made the case of how his continuation in service as India’s first CDS would make the military strong and resilient for modern warfare. This was good reason for the Modi government to anoint Rawat as the CDS with a three-year tenure from January 2020 to December 2022 where his declared mandate was to raise ITCs for optimal operational outcome through jointness and synergy amongst the three physical services on land, air, and sea. His real job was to align the military leadership (especially the army, being the largest of the three services) with the government’s right-wing ideology. It was not accidental that emulating PLA’s example of its loyalty to President Xi Jinping (who wore combat fatigue in his two roles as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission and the commander-in-chief) rather than the nation, Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to don military uniform to assert that he was the topmost field commander.

Modi discharged his duty as India’s seniormost commander by making it clear to the armed forces early in his tenure that its focus should be preparedness, not for a hot war, but grey zone operations on both military fronts. Grey zone operations terminology was first enunciated by US Special Operations Forces in 2015 to describe all hostile activities below the threshold of war. For militaries, these operations comprise intimidation, coercion, and cognitive confrontation by non-kinetic means like cyber-attacks, counter space capabilities for satellites disablement, information warfare, cutting of internet subsea cables and so on with the only rule for these operations being no rules. The PLA calls grey zone operations Military Operations Other than War (MOOW). It has refined these operations since China believes that they help in negotiations with an adversary as well as dent his will to fight.

Thus, addressing his first combined commanders conference in October 2014, Modi told the military leadership that ‘the threats may be known, while the enemy may be invisible.’ The ‘threat’ meant the Pakistan military and the ‘enemy’ were terrorists. With this operational directive, Modi formalised the military’s role in counter terrorism (CT ops), which are grey zone operations. The 2016 surgical strikes qualified as grey zone operations since to avoid an escalation into war, the Indian Army informed the Pakistan Army even before it announced to the people of India that its mission of CT ops across the LC was over. Similarly, when the Pakistan Air Force reacted to IAF’s Balakot strikes the following day with precision air attacks near Indian Army installations, the IAF conceded that Pakistan’s action was an act of war, but there was no retaliation.

In both cases, the objective was to use the military to contribute to the ruling party’s electoral campaigns. Similarly, during the 2017 Doklam crisis with the PLA, India declared tactical victory when latter events proved that China had outsmarted India by amassing thousands of its soldiers without being labelled as aggressors since onus of escalation was on the Indian Army which was the first to bring its forces close to the LAC. Thus, the politicisation of the Indian military under Rawat was accomplished.

While starting his term as the CDS on 1 January 2020, Rawat made two things clear regarding the ITCs: One, the army would be the lead service in the ITCs. And two, the IAF would be in a support role to the army. Both his assertions betrayed his poor understanding of modern warfare where the PLA (identified as India’s primary threat) is at the cutting edge of both, the science of war (technology) and the art of war (war concepts). It also remains well versed with military art which is about exploitation of new technologies with new war concepts for optimal favourable outcome in war.

Given its deep involvement in CT ops in Jammu and Kashmir since 1990, the Indian Army lost sight of its primary task of preparedness for hot war. To this date, the Indian military follows the outdated US military’s ‘Air-Land battle’ war concept of the Eighties. Given two war domains or battlespace of air and land, the IAF and the army focus on their core competencies for war while coordinating their war plans with one another. The army’s core competencies are combined arms operations where its combat (infantry, armour, engineers) and combat support arms (artillery) complement each other on the spatial battlespace. The latter is an artificial construct divided into tactical and operational level with the focus on ‘winning the first battle’. Meanwhile, the core competencies of the air force are speed, range, flexibility, and precision strikes. In all wars, including the last full-scale war between India and Pakistan in 1971, the air force was in support of army’s operations since boots on the ground for capture and holding of territory were essential. The winner and the vanquished were determined by tactical battles of attrition where assets like tanks, guns and so on with each side mattered. Victory in such tactical wars necessitated that each service first and foremost concentrates on its core competency in its battlespace.

Things changed with infusion of technology into both services, faster in the IAF since aviation always has cutting edge technology of the time. So, by 2000, the IAF started talking of strategic reach with its limited combat assets implying that it should do independent operations, and not be tied to supporting army’s war plans. Thus, it was natural for the IAF to not accept Rawat’s archaic ITC concept which necessitated it to permanently part with some limited assets to commander ITC or to agree to a support role to the army.

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