With issues of getting India back on track economically and serious problems in keeping the navy afloat, India’s policy makers probably have little time to worry about the recent events that have overtaken the Ukraine, especially the Russian occupation of the Crimea. But they should be, because Russia’s unilateral and wholly illegal action sets a precedent that we may yet regret. Not only was Russia’s reasons for the unprovoked action, supposedly the protection of the ethnic Russian population that required little protection, completely unwarranted but what is more worrying, was the inability of the international community to initiate any substantive action to deter the Russian action.
It is incumbent on our military hierarchy to ensure that they are not guilty of acts of commission or omission that can result in sub optimal performances by the armed forces in meeting their constitutional duties.
The rising tide of aggressive nationalism in China may just see this precedent as an opportunity to correct what it sees as historical wrongs in the Asia- Pacific region, may be even closer, in Arunachal.
While, undoubtedly, there is some justification for not being excessively alarmed about such a scenario, in view of the fact that we are a nuclear power with the proven ability to target major population centers in China. However, the credibility of our nuclear deterrence is questionable if the recent media reports on the government having been “spooked” by the movement of some troops ostensibly towards Delhi in January last year is to be believed. The inability of the Defence Minister or the Prime Minister to communicate directly with the Army Chief on the subject reflects poorly not only on their leadership and personal qualities but more importantly on the functioning of the National Command Authority that controls our nuclear assets. This episode only emphasizes the need for keeping our powder dry as a sensible precaution keeping in view that nations, over the years, have been known to miscalculate, more so when they believe the opposition to be lacking effective leadership and direction.
It is worthwhile to look back at historical precedent to understand how poor understanding of strategic imperatives adversely impact on national security policies. In the winter of 1965 the US Army engaged the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in its first major battle in the Ia Drang valley, in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, close to the Cambodian border. It was the head on collision of two determined armies, one a high tech super power that had never lost a war and the other a peasant army which had just dealt a death blow to French colonial interests and was as determined to throw off American colonial ambitions. In the thirty four day campaign the North Vietnamese losses were estimated at 3561 killed against 305 American dead.[i] It led President Johnson and his military advisors to conclude that given sufficient numbers they would defeat the North Vietnamese. Ten years, more than half a million troops and fifty eight thousand deaths later, the United States was confronted with its first comprehensive and humiliating defeat.
At Ia Drang, a division sized NVA force, the B3 Front, consisting of three Regiments; approximately 9000 men engaged the two under strength battalions, approximately a thousand men, of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, the 1st Air Cavalry Division, in a series of meeting engagements. Despite its vast numerical superiority the NVA Division was fought to a stand-still by a mixture of American determination, raw courage and vastly superior fire power supported by the innovative use of helicopters in ways and numbers that was to change the very course of warfare in the future. The result, the B3 Front was forced to break contact and withdraw across the Cambodian border to recuperate and rearm. Despite repeated requests President Johnson refused to let American forces cross the Cambodian border in pursuit of the NVA.
Our political leadership is unwilling to face the fact that victory or defeat in any future conflict with China will be in the killing fields of the Himalayas, not in the Indian Ocean as some strategic thinkers would have us believe.
An action that could have resulted in their piecemeal destruction and forced Ho Chi Minh and Gen Giap to reconsider their future actions, may be even accept the truce then being suggested to end US involvement. The inability of the American political leadership to understand the nature of the North Vietnamese challenge and to confront it head on at that time was directly responsible for their subsequent defeat. A clear example of lack of strategic aim and undoubtedly a complete disregard of what Clausewitz had written at the time of his death in 1831-“No one starts a war-or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so- without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to fight it”.[ii]
We are today confronted by a similar challenge from Chinese hegemonistic designs. Our raising of the Mountain Strike Corps is too little, too late. The PLA can today support double the forces in Tibet than it could a decade ago. We have neither enhanced force levels nor improved infrastructure, apart from an odd exhibition of intent, in this past decade.[iii] We are even unwilling to synchronize our border management structures, as the past few border incursions have clearly shown.
Our political leadership is unwilling to face the fact that victory or defeat in any future conflict with China will be in the killing fields of the Himalayas, not in the Indian Ocean as some strategic thinkers would have us believe.[iv] While enhancing our naval capabilities in the Indian Ocean is undoubtedly important and necessary in the long run, it can hardly pay us any dividends until we take priority action to deal with our Achilles heel in the mountains, especially in these times of financial difficulties. It may therefore be prudent to consolidate the Navy at its existing force level and stabilize its operational capabilities. We need to avail of the existing window afforded to us with the new Chinese leadership busy consolidating its position and dealing with the emerging situation in East Asia if we are to enhance our infrastructure and military capabilities in the mountains to be able to confront the Chinese on an equal footing.
The appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff will place him at parity with the Cabinet Secretary which will impact the civil –military bureaucracy and is unlikely to be acceptable to the Civil Service.
Restructuring Higher Defence Management
The first and foremost requirement would be the reform of the higher defence management. While a number of options have been suggested over the years by various committees the inability to make any substantive changes to the structure have not really been stuck because of service intransigence, though that has obviously been a factor, but on the issue of order of precedence. The appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff will place him at parity with the Cabinet Secretary which will impact the civil –military bureaucracy and is unlikely to be acceptable to the Civil Service.
Another viable option available could be to appoint a military four star officer as the Defence Secretary, in which case the Integrated Defence Staff could be fully merged into the MOD with the Chief of Integrated Defence Staff being replaced by the Defence Secretary. Such an option has a number of advantages as it not only ensures that the Defence Secretary is an experienced technocrat with the obvious advantages that accrue by doing so, a precedent that already exists in a number of ministries. In addition while the service chiefs continue to remain as powerful as earlier with regard to service matters, the MOD becomes not only technically proficient on military matters but also in a position to ensure effective inter service integration. Finally the existing and future inter service commands such as the Strategic Command could be reporting directly to the Defence Secretary.