IDSA COMMENT

The Army’s Subculture in the Coming Decade

December 22, 2009

A decade is long enough to leave an imprint of change on any institution, including those generally regarded as conservative, such as the army. While informed commentary is plenty on the operational and technological environment, there is little on the cultural aspect. This article dwells on the challenges and likely changes in the Indian Army’s subculture as it navigates the coming decade.

The changes in equipment profile through impending acquisitions, organisational expansion in terms of inducting a mountain strike corps, technological absorption of net centricity, and doctrinal innovation reflected in the army’s doctrine, would all no doubt continue in the coming decade. The problems that remain would continue to attract attention, such as assimilating the impact of nuclearisation on warfighting; furthering jointness; competing for bureaucratic space, etc. However, despite the importance of these issues, the major change would instead be in the sphere of military subculture.

Even as the military as a social entity has witnessed considerable change since liberalisation, such as induction of women officers into the army, it has retained its distinct identity. But this is likely to come under assault from changes occurring within society which are predicted to speed up considerably over the coming decade. The conclusion therefore is that the army would do well to be forewarned and therefore proactive, instead of being defensive and buffeted by these changes.

The Army’s record of coping with change has been impressive so far. Each of the preceding decades since Independence has left a mark. The fifties witnessed the development of the remarkable apolitical character of the Army, for which General Cariappa was retrospectively elevated to Field Marshal. To the sixties can be dated the Army’s professionalism. This flowed from the army’s expansion, particularly in emergency commission into the officer cadre, the passing on by decade end of the reins of the army to IMA-commissioned officers, and the learning experience of a loss and a draw in two wars. These changes resulted in the triumph of 1971, but which in its wake left the remainder of the decade look like a jaded anticlimax. The transformation through the eighties has been possibly the greatest change in a single decade. The main features were mechanisation and, secondly, a greater willingness to use force, be it conventionally in Siachen, subconventionally in Punjab, in out-of-area operations in Sri Lanka, or in exercises such as Digvijay and Brasstacks. In the nineties, the army was only ‘officially at peace’, to quote a Chief of the period, and by decade end had fought what may yet turn out as the first limited war of the nuclear era. Coming to terms early with the changed context, the first decade of this millennium has been one of doctrinal and organisational adaptation.

The coming decade bears comparison with the sixties and eighties; decades that saw expansion in the midst of social change. Lessons from the responses in both instances may prove useful. Traditional military anticipation, caution and preparation should help meet the challenge of the onrushing decade.

The changing social landscape will impact the army. The most significant aspect is that the promise of liberalisation has ensured high economic growth. This has been transformational for India, evident from changes in entrepreneurial energy, political concerns, aspirations, and shifts in the urban and rural landscape, youth attitudes and social mores. India is looking to leverage the demographic dividend of its youthful profile to gain great power status over the decade.

The army has been responsive to these developments. It has taken steps such as catering to higher aspirations by implementing the A.V. Singh committee proposals and insisting on a fair pay commission package for its members and veterans. With higher budgets, its cantonments have the look of modern townships and there are additional married quarters. The format for interaction with the soldiery has changed over the last decade. It is more attuned to self-esteem needs, reflected in institutes such as NCO Clubs, Sainik Institutes and conduct of functions like Sainik Sammelans and Barakhanas. Thinking on how to manage the marital relationships better is ongoing, particularly with the profile of the Army Wives Welfare Association (AWWA) coming under judicial scrutiny over the last decade.

The direction of the future is in moving from authoritarian to a democratic leadership model; privileging and respecting specialisation; preserving institutionalism in the face of an expanding occupational ethic; and remaining in sync with changes in society. Some areas that require intervention are highlighted here.

Firstly, societal queries about the ‘peace dividend’ are likely to arise. Even as the region is currently unstable, it is possible that with increasing prosperity society would move towards a ‘war less’ one as obtains in developed states. And it would not like to put its economic gains at military risk. The long awaited ‘trickle down’ effect may catch on, plateauing out India’s insurgencies. With the precedent set by Op Green Hunt of increased reliance on central police forces for internal problems, the military would be able to concentrate on its core functions. The manner in which the border is currently being held is also likely to end. The implications for the army are that it would be nudged from ‘war readiness’ to a ‘war deterrent’ state. This would mean downsizing, increasing manpower efficiencies, higher per capita manpower costs, a ‘capability’ as opposed to a ‘threat’ based force, and a shift in the internal balance away from the infantry and armoured corps.

Secondly, recruitment could prove a site for competition, particularly given increasing self-selection to the soldier’s occupation by hitherto under-represented regions and communities. Increasing revenue budgets imply greater transfers through the pay cheque into local economies. The army would need technology savvy manpower, perhaps from urban centres. The regimental system may get a rethink. Communities traditionally providing manpower may not continue to be the source of recruitment. The controversy over the Sachar Committee’s query on army recruiting figures of Muslims prefigures a possible future. Instead of affirmative action, information strategies bringing the army as an employment opportunity to such sections is desirable.

Thirdly, increasing representation of women in the officer corps, to handle technology intensive armament and management functions would heighten quality. Their average qualifications are of a higher threshold than those of male candidate applicants. The jobs that they can tenant in the future army are many. This implies that the glass ceiling may be pushed upwards, as elsewhere in all modern armies. The present restriction of fourteen years service, based as it is on the army’s ambivalence on whether a woman officer should tenant command appointments as colonels, would require review. This aspect would clash with the army’s intended switch to an officer profile in which the NDA officer is in for the long haul, while the short service commission would exit at mid-career level.

Universally, armies have a conservative social orientation. In this perspective, ferment in society is seen negatively, reinforcing a tendency for preserving the martial space from intrusion from without. Insularity has its underside. The antidote is openness. The army trying to hull-down as an anachronistic island of social conservatism would render it susceptible to political forces that similarly look askance at change. Also, the privilege system may require review in light of better emoluments. Lifestyle changes that do not rely on soldiery furnishing officer privileges need to be instituted, top-down. The suggested parameter for non-operational tasks is that manpower be employed only for tasks in which the benefit directly accrues to them. The traditional, paternalistic, relationship with the soldiery has changed for a transactional style in the technical arms. This is inevitable in the fighting arms too. Presently, there is considerable scope for exercising a personalised leadership model. This creates dissonance in subordinates. An institutionalized style needs to be encouraged, so that there is a reasonable predictability in senior-subordinate relationships.

The sister services are ahead in this regard and their experience have a few lessons. The fresh winds from peacekeeping duties and from the expanded and multifarious experience on military exercises with foreign armies need to be harvested. Army War College in conjunction with College of Defence Management could act as a resource centre for the direction and design of cultural change. It could answer the question as to how a warrior ethic can be nurtured even as shifts occur towards a managerial style. The primary instrument for building the constituency for change would be the military education system. A review of how this could be best used can form part of the study. The study leave system could be so directed as to tap the thinking in corporate schools and technology management institutions. A higher leadership that has a greater proportion of soldier-scholars may be useful in managing the change.

The usual disdain of the tumult in civil society, fashionable in military circles, needs to be tempered. The ongoing RMA in slow motion can only complete itself in a contemporaneous army, and the army would have to make a conscious effort to remain so.