Monday, February 02, 2009

The lack of political leadership is at the root of the failure of the armed forces

At the heart of the weaknesses of the Indian Army are its higher management and its relationship to the governmental structure. India is the only major democracy where the armed forces headquarters are outside the top echelons of government.

The Chiefs of Army, Air and Naval Staff - who function autonomously of each other - have become operational commanders rather than what they were meant to be - Chiefs of Staff to the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. This means that they are forced to play the role of future planners, trainers as well as operational commanders. Given the real and continuing commitment of the army in operational roles in the form of counter- insurgency in large tracts of the country, this cannot but have a negative impact on the task of long-term planning, decisions on equipment acquisition, force levels, doctrines and training.

This combination of roles has cost the country a great deal. For example, in 1971, confusion over the posture to adopt in Chamb was complicated by last- minute orders by the Army Chief, Sam Manekshaw, that the force should not adopt an aggressive posture. The Army commander, Lt. Gen K. P. Candeth, who had planned a pre- emptive offensive in this region, which India had lost to Pakistan in 1965, was forced to change tack just two days before the offensive was to begin. Units that were ready for an offensive had to suddenly alter their posture and the result was that when the Pakistani attack came, they were unprepared.

India may have gained Bangladesh in the war, but we lost Chamb.


Because the culture is command, rather than collegial, issues that need debate and discussion within the system on the subjects of force levels, acquisitions and strategy are passed from top to down. There is also that well- known instance when in 1965 Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri consulted the Army Chief, General J. N. Chaudhary, as to whether it would be all right if the country went in for a ceasefire as demanded by the UN. Without consulting his Air Force and Navy colleagues, leave alone his own staff officers, the army chief reportedly told Shastri that since the army was running short of ammunition, it would be a good idea to accept the UN demand. In fact, India had ample ammunition stocks at its rear depots. It was Pakistan which was dangerously short, and had India prolonged the war for just ten days, our neighbour would have been in deep trouble.

There are other negative consequences of the command culture.

According to a DRDO veteran, "There were several instances where army chiefs involved themselves on arcane issues such as the design of the INSAS carbine or the Arjun tank.

Because of the army culture, the specialist departments such as the Director of Weapons and Equipment or the Director General Mechanised Forces, simply fell in line with his view, even while they did not agree with him and this contributed to project delays." The 2001 group of ministers' report noted that the existing Chiefs of Staff system - where the senior- most service chief is designated chairman, chiefs of staff committee - had "not been effective in fulfilling its mandate." It felt that a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and a Vice- Chief of Defence Staff were needed to provide, first, single- point advice to the government. Second, to administer the strategic forces - essentially manage the military aspects of the country's nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.


Third, to oversee the integration of the armed forces, starting with joint planning and budgeting and setting up priorities vis- à- vis the demands of the three services. Fourth, to press the process by promoting "jointness" in the operational use of the armed forces. The CDS was seen only as a first step in a reform that would have eventually seen the emergence of theatre commanders who would - in their respective theatres or geographical areas - head all three forces - the army, navy and the air force.

The lack of a CDS means that the Prime Minister and his colleagues do not have single- point advice on military issues since each service chief gives his own views to the government.

It also means that the armed forces do not have an unfettered commander whose principal job is to fight a war and prevail over an external enemy rather than get involved in issues of provisioning, training and acquisitions.

It also means that there is no systematized access to the views and expertise of the uniformed services in managing the national security of the country. The aim of the group of ministers' report of 2001, the biggest exercise in reforming the defence management of the country, was to get the service headquarters within the government's fold. However, this was opposed by some politicians, including worthies of the United Progressive Alliance, who thought that since this involved appointing a Chief of Defence Staff, this could give excessive power to one person. Opposition also came from the bureaucracies - both the armed forces as well as civilian. Currently, they function as a department of the Ministry of Defence. The civilian bureaucrats of the ministry of defence and their uniformed colleagues may serve the same country, but they see each other as their principal adversaries.

At the time the report was accepted by the Cabinet, on May 11, 2001, a government press release said that "the recommendation in respect of the institution of the Chief of Defence Staff (would) be considered later after the government is able to consult various political parties." But four years later, on November, 2005, the then Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee declared that " a decision regarding appointment of the CDS can be taken only after wider consultations with various political parties."


The sad reality is that only the political class can guarantee the integration of the armed forces. This has been true for even countries like the US and the UK. The military and civilian bureaucracies have developed such a major vested interest in the existing system that they can find all kinds of means to undermine efforts towards reform. This is most obviously visible in the so- called action taken reports of the MoD bureaucrats in response to the various standing and consultative committee reports of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. The politicians know that something is wrong, they can probably see through the evasive tactics, but they don't choose to act because the government ministers too, as a rule, go along with their bureaucrats.

Countries who are deeply involved in security issues such as the United States, China or the UK have a tradition of effective political management of the armed forces. Indeed, in China, membership of the Central Military Commission of the Chinese Communist Party is arguably a more important position than even that of the party Politburo. India needs to develop a culture of effective political management of the armed forces, without which we will be doomed to remain where we are. In our system, the political class has been given the authority and legitimacy to act on matters of defence.

They must accept that responsibility instead of constantly kicking the can down the road.

This article appeared in Mail Today January 29, 2009

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