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The problem with Indian forces

October 10, 2006 05:39 IST
The inglorious build-up to the 1999 Kargil war is back in the headlines. In a literary version of the seven-year itch, the opposing army chiefs who directed that war, Generals Pervez Musharraf and V P Malik, have in quick succession produced autobiographies that unsurprisingly recount very different versions of the conflict.

What is noteworthy, though, is last week's sharp rebuttal of General Malik's account by Air Chief Marshal Anil Tipnis, who led the Indian Air Force during that period. General Malik's book insinuated that the air chief was reluctant to support army operations at high altitudes. Now Tipnis has hit back with the charge that the army chief had lost his nerve and was hiding the gravity of the Pakistani intrusions from the government.

This would be a mere historical aside were friction between the armed services the exception rather than the rule. But the unseemly squabble between the Kargil chiefs is only the visible tip of a nasty iceberg. Sadly, the army, air force and navy find themselves in an increasingly unhealthy fratricidal competition for attention, roles and resources.

The government has never appointed a Chief of Defence Staff, the senior-most military officer who can co-ordinate the requirements of the three services, and the ministry of defence has neither the technical expertise nor the inclination. Many senior generals believe that this is a divide-and-rule strategy to keep the military weak and under civilian control.

Whether or not the conspiracy theorists are right, and whatever the fallout on inter-service camaraderie, the financial outcome is that India's vast defence budget -- Rs 89,000 crore this year -- is spent in a planning vacuum, distributed between the three services in a historically constant ratio. Mature democracies with experience of security planning, also called strategic cultures, plan top-down in order to get "more bang for the buck".

National aims and political objectives, formulated by a country's political leadership, are translated into a defence policy by the MoD. This becomes the military's bible; an integrated headquarters under the CDS, with real control over planning and financial resources, translates the MoD's directive into actual operational plans. To implement these plans, the integrated headquarters allocates responsibility and finances to the army, navy and air force.

How would this tried and tested system work in an Indian context? First, a body like the National Security Council would make the big (and difficult) strategic decisions: for example, should India retain the capability to beat Pakistan quickly in a conventional war? Or, with Pakistan's nuclear capability making full-fledged war unlikely, should India concentrate on combating insurgency and terrorism? If the NSC chose the latter, it could throw in a caveat: retain the ability to strike terrorist camps in the border vicinity. India's nuclear deterrent would also need careful and regular review at this top level.

Why must these priorities be spelt out clearly? Because India simply cannot afford to cater to every possible military eventuality. No developing country can pay for both the mind-numbingly expensive tanks, air defence systems and logistics needed to support deep thrusts into Pakistan, and for building real capability against cross-border terrorism: surveillance and intelligence systems, special forces, and high-tech personal equipment and communications.

Armed with clear priorities, the military would then do its planning. Assuming the government chose to focus on low-intensity conflict (insurgency and terrorism), the CDS would spell out the capabilities needed. He would lay down specific military issues, such as surveillance levels, firepower, and what forces are needed to physically take out a terrorist camp. Inter-service co-ordination is crucial to deciding who is allotted what task. A terrorist camp can be struck with the army's long-range artillery, or with air force ground attack aircraft, or with Special Forces infiltrated across the LoC. Since these capabilities come from different services (Special Forces could someday be an independent service) a CDS would decide who does what.

Instead, today, we retain all options -- nuclear war, conventional war and insurgency/terrorism -- without building conclusive capability in any. The political leadership refuses to provide a clear direction because tough decisions are politically vulnerable; it's much easier to look away. The army, navy and air force, instead of planning cohesively to build a finite set of capabilities, stock expensive arsenals that make each feel good, but that overlap functionally. Glossy brochures from arms companies are key drivers of weapons procurement in each of the three service headquarters, fuelling grandiose visions of "blue-water" or "strategic" capabilities.

But rather than appoint a CDS who could optimise the contribution of all three services from a single headquarters, government after government has chosen to fuel the fratricide.

Historically, inter-service rivalry has always hindered military efficacy. In the Pacific campaign in World War II, the friction between the US Navy, Marines and the Air Force almost brought the campaign to a halt. India cannot afford such a lack of strategic direction: higher decision-making and military planning between the services urgently needs to be harmonised.

Ajai Shukla
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