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.
There is growing opinion within the strategic community that the services, mainly the army, needs to get out of its feudal mindset and give serious attention to reducing troop strength and enhancing combat capability by investing in technology. While there is much merit and wisdom in the argument that investing in technology to enhance combat power is much better than focusing on incremental increases in manpower, especially since manpower costs in the long run are not only unsustainable due high revenue outflow on salary and pensions but also adversely impact on capital expenditures and modernization. However, it is worth noting that in our context manpower requirements, especially the need for the ubiquitous boots on the ground, are based on such issues as terrain conditions, threat assessment and administrative requirements.
…the solution lies in taking a hard relook at our threat perceptions, operational concepts for war-fighting and adopting measures that can help in rationalizing manpower requirements.
The fact that we are faced with a unique situation with regard to the 740 Km Line of Control (LOC) between POK and Jammu & Kashmir and the 4056Km Line of Actual Control (LAC) that separates India from the areas controlled by China cannot be wished away. It is in these areas, especially with regard to the LOC that the situation of ‘no war, no peace’ is prevalent which implies that areas need to be held de-facto and claims are of little importance. In such circumstances the necessity for sizeable manpower deployment is unavoidable with the added administrative requirement of having sufficient reserves for relief and turnover.
Serving in mountains, especially high altitude is arduous, physically demanding and mentally challenging and requires regular turnover of units. Terrain and its impact on technology is the second issue that requires serious examination. While technology does play an important role in mountains with regard to improved survivability and logistics, the adverse impact of terrain and weather on electronic equipment, surveillance devices, transportation, weapons and ammunition needs to be factored in. This implies not only the need for duplication to ensure reliable functioning with its impact on maintainability and cost but also in some cases the need to adopt manpower intensive alternatives to ensure fool proof functioning.
Do these factors along with the requirements for additional troops to protect our international boundaries and meet our other commitments, such as counter insurgency, imply that manpower reduction is an unviable option? Of course not, but the solution lies in taking a hard relook at our threat perceptions, operational concepts for war-fighting and adopting measures that can help in rationalizing manpower requirements. While restructuring of the higher defence management, whether we adopt the suggestion given above or go in for a Chief of Defence Staff, is of the highest priority there is also a need to look at our organizational structures, weapons and equipment procurement policies, administrative establishments, logistics units and training structures and integrate them to the extent possible.
We must question the need for three strike corps in our western plains sector and consider if we cannot maintain an appropriate defensive posture with adequate strike capabilities using smaller and technically better organized forces.
For example, better command and control systems have led the US Army to commence “transforming the Army from its traditional, division-based force into a brigade-based force, a concept that has come to be known as “modularity.”[v] There is no reason why we cannot consider such restructuring for our formations in the plains, especially when we talk of a ‘cold start’ policy. What exactly stops us from training policemen, chefs, clerks and a host of other specializations in tri- service training establishments? There are numerous such examples which will gain in terms of efficiency and value by tri-service integration apart from ensuring huge savings in manpower and financial expenditures. Similar focus by each service on these issues will also provide huge dividends and the requirement of transforming our DRDO and defence production establishments is not even being touched on.
Threat Perception and Policy Initiatives
If we are clear as to the direction from which we face maximum threat, it is incumbent on policy makers to ensure actions are initiated to minimize all other threats that we face and the services are able to focus on dealing with the primary threat. While we may or may not be able to solve the Siachin and the Jammu and Kashmir issues with Pakistan any time soon, we need to commence serious discussion to prevent deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on priority.
Apart from the fact that the concept of employment and the command and control systems for the use of such weapons is extremely imprecise and indefinite, the issues of their physical security and safety raise grave concerns. If Pakistan plans to deploy these weapons based on the threat that our policy of “cold start” poses, we must seriously consider alternatives to diminish such perceptions. While a Kargil like situation is not inconceivable in the mountains, the fact that a conventional war between nuclear armed states in high population density areas is highly improbable. We must, therefore, question the need for three strike corps in our western plains sector and consider if we cannot maintain an appropriate defensive posture with adequate strike capabilities using smaller and technically better organized forces.
Similarly, we must give adequate attention to building up infrastructure on our eastern borders and also look at the issue of integrated border management seriously. The existing system is gravely flawed especially since the ITBP and the Army have completely different command and control structures and no institutional structures promoting coordination are in place. There is also a need to look at value addition in terms of integrating and enhancing our intelligence, surveillance, command, control and communications, cyber and electronic warfare and special operations capabilities as also our ability to handle out of area contingencies.
In Manipur it appears that a law and order problem is being treated as an insurgency to ensure that the army can be unwittingly utilized to maintain the status quo by pressurizing the local population which is greatly impacted by the promulgation of the AFSPA.
Finally, we need to introspect with regard to our employment of the army in counter insurgency operations within our borders. While undoubtedly the army has overwhelming expertise in conduct of such operations, we have been spending large amount of funds on expanding the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) to assume this responsibility with little result. Their command and control structures, recruitment and training leave a lot to be desired and it is worth considering if the vast numbers of ex- servicemen retiring at an early age cannot be adequately utilized to strengthen the capability of these forces.
Moreover, there are serious doubts as to whether the deployment of the army on counter insurgency operations in some areas, such as Manipur for example, is justified? The question that needs to be answered is can an insurgency, which basically is a political movement supported by the local population, continue at low a low key for decades. Logically, it either the populace becomes more disillusioned and this leads to civil war or the situation is resolved and the insurgency dies down as was the case in Punjab or Srilanka.
In Manipur it appears that a law and order problem is being treated as an insurgency to ensure that the army can be unwittingly utilized to maintain the status quo by pressurizing the local population which is greatly impacted by the promulgation of the AFSPA. This permits corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and security personnel to function without any accountability.
History has shown on innumerable occasions that armies have either been defeated or faced defeat because they prepared for the last war. Preparation for the future requires a hard look at the structures, processes and people that go to make up our war fighting capability. As there is no place for runners up in war. 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. A greater responsibility rests with our political leadership to clearly enunciate our national strategic direction and provide the required direction, momentum and resources to ensure that the armed forces have the capability to meet the challenges that face our nation in the coming days.
[i]Moore, Lt Gen (Retd) Harold G & Galloway, Joseph L; We were Soldiers Once…. and Young; pp 368-370; Random House Inc, New York, 1992
[iii]Chansoria, Monika; Chinese PLA’s Integrated Military Exercises in Tibet ; http://www.claws.in/SW/SW%20J.52-56.pdf
[iv]Raja Menon, A Mountain Strike Corps is not the only Option, The Hindu 29 Jul 2013; http://www.thehindu.com/navigation/?type=static&page=archive
[v] Stuart E. Johnson, John E. Peters, Karin E. Kitchens, Aaron Martin, Jordan R. Fischbach; A Review of the Army’s Modular Force Structure; RAND National Defence Research Institute, 2012, http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/technical_reports/2012/RAND_TR927-2.pdf