“A nation that draws a demarcation between its thinking men and its fighting men will soon have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.”
– Sir William Francis Butler
There is an old saying that an army equipped with thick armour, dull sword and slow horses can never protect a nation from adversaries. India suffered humiliating defeat during 1962 war and Nehru acknowledged in the Rajya Sabha, that “we made a mistake by not building military capabilities.” The policy of non-violence had a powerful effect on the thinking of Indian leaders, which made them strongly favour disarmament and a peaceful solution of all international as well as national disputes.[i]
Under such circumstances focus of the government was certainly not on the development of military capabilities. As a result, two important things happened, first, the military was kept out of policy formulation for national security and, second, the ministry of defence became a place for accommodating political heavyweights as Defence Minister since the minister is also a member of the CCS. Except for Major Jaswant Singh, there was hardly any defence minister who had the understanding of strategic issues. In the early 60s when the Soviet Union was building their phenomenonal military and nuclear capabilities, President Kennedy, nominated Robert McNamara as his Secretary of Defence. He directed Secretary McNamara to “determine what forces were required to deal with the threat from the Soviet Union and he further directed that McNamara should procure and support US Military as economically as possible.[ii]
In spite of his criticism of pushing the US into a “futile war” with Vietnam, he was the architect of modern US Armed Forces.
A responsible political leader is a must to head the defence ministry and he should neither overuse nor underuse the military instrument. A weak military can cause a state to sink into chaos and anarchy and strong unrestrained military can create autocracy and totalitarianism in a state. The fatal step onto the road to self-destruction is likely to result from perennial neglect to build capability and failure to use force when it is necessary. A classic example of the latter is the Western powers’ appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938.[iii]
It is true that war is brutally dangerous but the inability to prepare for a war is also catastrophic, both conditions can cause disproportionate political upheaval. The 1962 debacle happened because political leadership had no clue about the political direction of war and military leadership had no platform to debate and discuss with the political leaders what could be achieved and what could not , through the war.
Political leaders heading the defence ministry are not supposed to run the day to day affairs of the defence ministry and military. Their job is to oversee development of military capabilities to protect vital national interests and also assume responsibility for bringing to notice of the apex political authority about the hollowness and strategic gaps that may exist or arise in the future. It is the responsibility of the defence ministry to integrate military means/force or the credible deterrence with the other elements of our power in order to attain political ends.[iv]
Therefore, the political leadership (Defence Minster) must possess the knowledge and skill to build holistic hard power that can supplement soft power to protect national interests. It is therefore, imperative that political leadership and the MOD should have the deep understanding of diplomacy including (defence diplomacy), geostrategic environment, threats and challenges (existing and future), national security strategy, political and military objectives, civil-military interface and defence planning process to build military capabilities for future.
A defence minister should be armed with the working knowledge of finance, internal security, strategic intelligence, strategic communication and functional ethos of armed forces. It is certainly a tall order but then such a charter is essential because national security and national interests are paramount. If a political leader is placed as defence minister because he/she is required to be adjusted due to seniority, in that case, it is injustice and compromise with the national security. Such an important political appointment cannot be handled by parachuting an apprentice to learn under the tutelage of an equally clueless bureaucracy.
One may not have McNamara as Defence Minister or hire Goldwater–Nichols to put defence reforms in place but a political leader or a professional to head the Defence Ministry, armed with the knowledge to give political and strategic direction to the armed forces to prepare for the future wars, is a must.
Brig Gurmeet Kanwal, a distinguished Fellow at the IDSA says that “capability building takes time but intentions can change any time.” There may be some who may argue why political leadership needs to get into strategy and capability building; the answer to this question lies in what Clausewitz had described – “warfare is nothing but a violent expression of the political process.” If war is a political process than political leadership is responsible for supporting military to build that capability and capacity to execute the process. Thus the responsibility and accountability of building capabilities to fight future wars rests with the political leadership.
The political objective will define military objectives; similarly, military strategy will flow from national security strategy. But if the national security strategy is not defined how will the military prepare itself to achieve military objectives? The charter of political leadership is to give political direction and build capabilities so that the military is able to achieve national security objectives laid down by the political leadership.
In the backdrop of the above, the moot question is why India has not defined her national security strategy even after fighting five conventional wars? The uncomfortable answer is that the political leadership has not developed the understanding of national security per se and neither has the bureaucracy the understanding or will to push their political masters to define the same. Ambiguity is more often than not due to the inability of the political leadership to understand their own intent and objectives. Political objectives could be achieved during 1971 Indo –Pak War primarily due to the fact that PM Indira Gandhi had a deep understanding of strategic issues and she chose to bypass bureaucracy and defence ministry on matters of national security.
Political leadership, bureaucracy, and military were brought together to create a system that rationalises the formulation of strategy, military capabilities and employment of military for the legitimate or just cause. Such a system was conceived to maintain a balance and civilian control over the military. Political leadership is actually a bridge to maintain a balance between bureaucracy and military because of unrestricted powers of either of the two causes friction and rigidity. Excessive power of bureaucracy often brings a grinding halt to decision-making process. Bureaucratic control has given rise to a number of civilian support staff and workforce employed to run uneconomic civilian establishments to supposedly support combat force. In the US, the Defence Department is paying a staggering number of people – 1,014,000 contractors and civilians to fill back-office jobs far from the front lines. That workforce supports 1.3 million troops on active duty.[v]
The situation in India is no better. This is a leverage that allows bureaucracy to control budget and have numbers on their side. Bureaucracy in the absence of a permanent political leader often gains a vice-like grip over the decision-making system particularly when the relationship between military and bureaucracy is strained. The void created by the transient nature of political head in MOD is filled by bureaucracy. Instability and musical chairs in the MOD sends a signal how (un)serious India actually is about capability development especially when neighbours are modernising at an unprecedented pace never seen in the history before. Nexus is building and encirclement of India is near complete from land and sea.
Therefore, such a void has serious consequences when there is difference of opinion between bureaucracy and military on sensitive issues of pay and perks, perceived downgrading of the status of armed forces and conflict in J&K taking shape of a lethal hybrid war. In the backdrop of the above, subjects of national security should not be delegated to bureaucracy and military alone, it needs constant political supervision because military perceives that they have to fight with three adversaries, bureaucracy, inimical powers (state and non-state actors) and constant struggle to maintain military preparedness.
India needs a full-time defence minister who has requisite knowledge and understanding of the higher direction of the war. The Defence Ministry cannot be run with the advice of bureaucrats who have inadequate knowledge of national security and defence planning process. To flag the importance of knowledge of the operating environment it is worth mentioning my personal experience to show how well MOD officials understand the operational requirements of soldiers on the ground.
In 1989-90, Siachen and super high altitude areas required multi-layer boots to prevent frostbite and chilblain to soldiers operating in minus 20 to 34 degrees. The purchase of boots was objected to by the dealing officer at MOD on grounds why India needed to import boots at more than Rs 10000/- a pair when the best of the shoes in India were available in the range of Rs 1000/- to 1500/-. I was deputed from High Altitude Warfare School to explain why Army needed special boots. I knew that no logic would change the mindset till I showed them what happens if special boots were not provided to soldiers.
As expected the dealing bureaucrat was not prepared to listen to the logic of a comparatively junior officer from the field till I showed him the amputated toes and feet of the soldiers. For that bureaucrat minus 30 degrees was justa number, never having been exposed to such extreme weather conditions; hence for him a good snow boot or high ankle Bata shoes was good enough for surviving in the glacier.
The problem is or was not with the bureaucrat, , it is with the system where neither a politician feels the necessity to empower himself with the requisite knowledge nor a bureaucrat is made to spend time with troops to understand the operating environment on the ground.
It is time to remind the nation that India is traversing through challenging times and a political void in the MOD certainly does not send a reassuring signal to the military and one of meaning business to the adversaries.
[i] Nehru and the Indian Armed Forces 5th Lecture -by General J N Chaudhuri, 5th May 1973. Accessed from https://www.cambridgetrust.org/assets/documents/Lecture_5.pdf on March 19, 2017.
[ii] Roherty, Decisions of Robert S. McNamara: A Study of the Role of the Secretary of Defense, 67.
[iii] Christopher Bassford, Policy, Politics, War, And Military Strategy,
Published by clausewitz.com in 1997.
[v] Craig Whitlock, Bob Woodward,Pentagon buries evidence of $125 billion in bureaucratic waste, Independent, December 6, 2016