IDSA COMMENT

The Army’s decade in review

November 30, 2009

Just as the US would likely date the first decade of the millennium to 9/11, for India it needs be dated to nuclearisation in May 1998. The Army has had a busy decade beginning with its triumph at Kargil. As it contemplates the coming decade it can be justifiably proud that its exertions have placed it reasonably well to take on the coming one. This commentary attempts to retell how the decade unfolded for the Army and to discern how it will navigate the coming decade.

The Kargil Review Committee Report set the reform agenda. In its recommendations made available in the form of the book, From Surprise to Reckoning, it attempted to forge a strategic culture from the popular interest generated by the media in matters military. The Army, embarrassed by the intrusions, set to work to ensure that these did not recur by raising HQ 14 Corps for Ladakh. It also had to roll back the impact of the conflict in the Valley in increased terrorism, reinforced by action of suicide squads called fidayeen. The government tried out the political approach in a period of ‘non-initiation of combat operations’ followed by the Agra Summit but to no avail. It was only with the induction of additional troops for Operation Parakram - the military mobilisation in the wake of the terrorist attack on Parliament - that the situation was mastered. Thereafter, there has been a steady improvement in the situation in Jammu & Kashmir in part due to successful counter-insurgency operations such as Operation Sarp Vinash in Surankot. The ceasefire since November 2003 along the Line of Control has enabled construction of the fence, dubbed ‘Vij line’ by Lt. Gen. S.K. Sinha. Adoption of an ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’ policy, in line with its sub-conventional warfare doctrine of 2006, has helped with winning hearts and minds. The innovation in this direction has been Operation Sadhbhavna.

The operational aspect, however, is perhaps not the most significant one. Instead, it is in doctrinal developments amounting to what a Pakistani analyst has characterised as ‘doctrinal awakening’. Immediately prior to the Shakti tests, the Army had already rolled out the first explicit edition of its doctrine in the form of the HQ Army Training Command publication, Indian Army – Fundamentals, Doctrines, Concepts. Coincidentally, the techniques of multi-directional attack and cliff assault were also disseminated timely for employment in Kargil. The Army’s introspection in the wake of Kargil resulted in its leaning towards Limited War thinking. The idea was to exploit the gap between sub-conventional operations and the nuclear threshold along the Spectrum of Conflict for conventional operations. This was to reinforce conventional deterrence. Kargil had demonstrated that credibility of the Sundarji-era conventional doctrine of ‘strike hard-strike deep’ needed refurbishing. Operation Parakram in 2002 revealed another shortcoming, that of a relatively longer mobilisation time period. This eventuated in the 2004 release of the second edition of the Army doctrine, referred to colloquially as ‘Cold Start’. Several exercises have followed in which the Army has tested its doctrine and its preparedness to face a nuclear future. It has reorganised with an additional Corps and Command HQ each along its western border. Essentially, it has transited from a defensive to a proactive and offensive mindset.

In addition, firstly, since the Army does not defend the country alone, there have been complementary movements. The Arun Singh Task Force recommendations at the beginning of the decade have firmed in, except for the crucial institution of the Chief of Defence Staff. In its absence, efforts towards Jointness have been sub-optimal. Secondly, the Strategic Forces Command, under the Nuclear Command Authority, is now a reality. The Army component only last week test-fired the Agni II missile. Though a failure, it has proven its ability to operate in trying night time operational conditions. Thirdly, the Army has shifted its focus decisively away from Pakistan to the over-the-horizon strategic challenge posed by China. It is in the midst of raising two mountain divisions and infrastructure improvement; in tandem with similar efforts by the Air Force. This would help cope with the Chinese challenge by shifting from ‘dissuasive defence’ to ‘active defence’. Fourthly, the Army has had an expanding interface with foreign armies in training over the period in addition to its long standing commitments in peacekeeping. Lastly, it is currently contemplating ‘Transformation’. The study undertaken by Eastern Army Commander, Lt. Gen. V.K. Singh, is likely to be released for implementation as early as the coming Army Day. The significant point is that the Army remains an adaptable and learning organisation, an essential characteristic in any organisation facing the speeding up of time.

Without doubt and without getting perturbed, plenty needs doing still. There is scope for the higher defence organisation being streamlined through formally institutionalising the military input into strategic decision making. Presently, there appears to be friction between the military and the bureaucracy, moderated somewhat by personal equations. But national security would do better than to rest on informal networks and chemistry between players. Secondly, while an aligning of the acquisition process has been done, the military concentrates on delivery of their requirement; not on better procedures. This gains importance in light of the likelihood that the next conflict could well begin without strategic warning. Therefore, for prevailing in short order, equipment at the start of the conflict will determine the outcome. The situation of the Army Chief saying ‘We’ll fight with what we have’ should not recur. Lastly, the effect of the vibrant economy has been such as to place a premium on the ‘right’ officer material. The present largesse, in conjunction with the recession, has given the Army a breather. But its recruiting and retention policy would require a long term facelift. Additionally, in mid-decade, there was the avoidable spectacle of the military pleading with the government for better emoluments. The next time round, the military will have a separate Pay Commission, which could ameliorate this aspect.

These problem areas would form the agenda for the next decade. However, doctrinal evolution must continue at the forefront. Rightly, the Army doctrine is in for another iteration. Its direction would be determined by the Transformation initiative. Two areas need urgent attention.

The first is that the nuclear era requires a rethink on the higher-end of conventional conflict, Total War. The issue that needs rethinking is the implications of the nuclear threshold on continuation of the strike corps as they are presently configured and employed. The concept of Integrated Battle Groups could be fleshed out in exercises. This important issue can do without retarding turf battles. There is a need to orchestrate diplomacy with military moves to achieve objectives. There needs to be a shift from the aim of inflicting punishment that informed thinking on war earlier to an aim of avoiding damage as much as possible. This owes to increased lethality and cost even of conventional arms, the nuclear overhang and that increasingly, because of its socio-economic advance, India has more to lose.

Secondly, the social culture within the military needs changing. This is a prerequisite for the Transformation initiative to succeed. Military sub-culture has dispensable legacy from the Mughal era and undesirable accretions from civil society. This would be the difficult part. One, the top-heavy structure the Army has acquired since implementation of A.V. Singh Committee II will retard the top-down approach for cultural change. The shedding of ‘privileges’ will not come easily. Two, ‘mandalisation’, resulting from pro-rata arms and services vacancies, requires revising in order to bring in meritocracy. Self-esteem should not be predicated on a ‘jhanda and danda’ definition, but on specialisation. Towards this end, training and subsequent employment of middle piece officers would require streamlining. The idea of a core ex-NDA (National Defence Academy) cadre, supported by a short service supporting cadre from an additional feeder academy, has the potential to make the hierarchy leaner and needs careful handling. Three, the Army Wives Welfare Association should be made autonomous of military resources in manpower and finances. Lastly, broad basing recruitment to include under represented ethnic groups, even at the expense of groups advantaged by the outcome of the 1857 War of Independence, is recommended.

Crystal gazing into the coming decade is a fraught exercise. Over the short term, events in Pakistan dictate higher order readiness. Over the middle term, managing equations with China should be so as to gain time to get the second strike capability and infrastructure organised. In both cases, a conflict avoidance strategy based on military deterrence would be in keeping with India’s economy-centred grand strategy. Recourse to writings of the military sociologist, the late Charles Moskos, indicates that the Army would change from ‘war readiness’ to ‘war deterrence’, even as society moves to being a ‘warless’ one. It can be predicted that this endeavour would make the decade eventful; the Army a ‘happening’ one; and watching it, an absorbing academic exercise.