Military & Aerospace

Awakening to National Defence: Hope at Last?
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Issue Vol. 33.3 Jul-Sep 2018 | Date : 17 Nov , 2018

Clausewitz had prophesized that it was mandatory for a nation’s political leadership to possess a fair understanding of the profession of arms. For the military institution to deliver commensurate to the resources committed to its war-worthiness, the Ministry has to free itself from abject dependency upon archaic procedures and misinformed pinioning. Truly, civilian control over the military institution is exercisable by the wisdom of elected representatives and not through bureaucratic interpretations. For the nation’s political leadership to be competent to do so, it is mandatory that a deeper understanding of war is fostered among them. Indeed, that understanding must be the first among the principles of political management of a nation’s military institution. And the initiative to foster that understanding among the polity at large has to be the Minister’s first priority.

“What makes military failures more significant is the effect that they can have on society; military mistakes have a way of proving permanent…”
Geoffrey Regan

Rainbow over the South Block?

It was just great after a long, long time to find the Government’s Defence portfolio being managed by two successive Ministers who took ‘national defence’ on their agenda. This is a sign of the present Government viewing the nation’s state of defence preparedness as a priority responsibility. Arguably, this turnaround from the placid, if not regressive policies of the past, is caused by intense sabre-rattling from the neighbourhood and as much by the Government’s refreshing ideals of economic-technical-employment uplifting keeping its electoral promises.

Admittedly, there have been some able political leaders to hold that portfolio since Independence. But steeped in domestic politics of the day and little else, these worthies had been unable to bring themselves to imbibe that strategic knowledge which could have led to astute political management of the military institution. Apparently, most Defence Ministers, in misplaced notions, saw the Ministry’s domain as a ‘constituency’ where group and class interests, bounded by the election cycle, have to be nurtured. That notion would be understandable; but for the fact that in the process, little effort was devoted to strengthen the foundation of national defence – the military institution. The nation’s military capability was thus deliberately capped at what least had to be done to make it a tad tedious for the two powerful, innately inimical and militarily aggressive neighbours, from disintegrating India. The absurdity of that policy was compounded when even that least level of military preparedness was derived according to the blinkered strategic understanding of policy-makers.

Even if the ‘Congress culture’ would demur, in terms of tangible attributes of defence preparedness, performance of successive Governments of the past has been abject. The fundamentals of national defence – namely technology, industry and infrastructure have stagnated over the seven decades of post-independence and except for two decades of attention accorded after the 1962 debacle, deficiencies in weaponry and equipment have lowered the state of our military capability to a half-cock. Thus, after the path-making stints of YB Chavan, Jagjivan Ram and to some extent, R Venkatraman and Lal Bahadur Shastri, ended, hope of a turnaround is rekindled after a long gap, on the rise of a rainbow over the South Block.

Two Ministers

Manohar Parrikar had been the first between the two to take responsibility in his own hands. Apparently, he appreciated the salience of national defence within the overall ambit of national security and tried to imbibe the right concepts and practices of ‘political management of military institution’. His scientific education showed when he tried to reorient his Ministry from its long-established practice of ‘managing by procedural jugglery’ to ‘management by strategic consciousness’. Many long-frozen weapons acquisition and infrastructure development schemes were set in motion. But it was too ambitious to expect him to have learnt all and done all that he had promised to do in his short incumbency before his party accorded priority to its provincial fiefdom. One suspects that political nonchalance and bureaucratic captivity, which continued to stymie cost-efficient management of national defence, made him peel off from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in frustration.

Manohar Parrikar has been succeeded by Nirmala Sitharaman who has shown her sincerity and grit in taking up the cudgels and by all indications, she is intent on doing what is needed to strengthen our national defence. She was quickly off the mark and is oriented to the right approach, as it is seen in her giving impetus to many of the frozen modernisation schemes and infusing vigour into a moribund defence industry. Not a mean charter by any reckoning that has caused her appointment to be hailed by the nation’s strategic community. Many experts have thus come forward to apprise the new Minister with their analyses of the debilities besetting the nation’s defence preparedness and the manner in which these need to be attended to. Such advisories are relevant, of course and as she steers the Ministry’s course, her full intellectual focus would be tested in examining, evaluating and initiating appropriate measures to revamp the nation’s military institution.

‘First Principles’ of Military Management

However, true success of the Ministry’s venture in nurturing the military institution’s role, structure and application at affordable costs to the exchequer, would be best assured if the Minister succeeds in distinguishing military affairs from ill-advised application of civil processes which end up choking rather than strengthening defence preparedness. And to do so, it would be mandatory to be single-mindedly guided by the age-old ‘first principles’ of military management. These ‘first’ or basic principles have been handed down over nearly three thousand years of experience in statecraft and are universally followed in letter and spirit, except in recklessness. The Minister and her Ministry know these principles, of course, though it is debatable if these are diligently put into practice.

Salience of the said first principles may be better appreciated if we begin with just two examples of callousness with which the sublime spirit of military management, which actually drives the military institution, has been mishandled in the past.

First, in responding to the much needed improvements in service conditions of the soldier including the sailor and the airman, the Ministry chose to ‘upgrade’ the ranks tenable in various military appointments, a practice in civil sectors, instead of simply raising the compensation packages to ‘par-plus’ and let the sanctified hierarchy of military command, control and accountability be. It then went on to extend the years of soldiers’ colour service rather than keeping the military as young as commensurate to their skills, experience and military efficiency. Sacrosanct principles of military command, control and youth profile were thus fiddled with. No doubt, there were noble intents behind such steps, but it was clear that better via-media of implementing these intents had been blocked by misplaced inclinations of policy makers. Resultantly, the military organisation was turned dangerously top heavy, less agile, less innovative – all to the nation’s loss!

Second, in upgrading the career prospects of its civilian cadres, a powerful constituency no less, the Government landed up undermining the ever-silent soldiery’s status! Furthermore, the Ministry diluted the military’s lien upon the civilian defence-dedicated sectors – defence research and ordnance factories – only to encourage the latter’s unproductive autonomy. The result is there to see – India’s national defence is under siege; it survives on military hardware imported and trickle-produced.

Thus, by trying to manage it according to civil measures, many of the past Defence Ministers have actually ended up debilitating the noble military institution. It might, therefore, be useful if the sublimities of these first principles are reiterated, for the Government, the Ministry and even the new generation military leadership, to take note.

Principle 1: Understanding War

Clausewitz had prophesized that it was mandatory for a nation’s political leadership to possess a fair understanding of the profession of arms. For the military institution to deliver commensurate to the resources committed to its war-worthiness, the Ministry has to free itself from abject dependency upon archaic procedures and misinformed pinioning. Truly, civilian control over the military institution is exercisable by the wisdom of elected representatives and not through bureaucratic interpretations. For the nation’s political leadership to be competent to do so, it is mandatory that a deeper understanding of war is fostered among them. Indeed, that understanding must be the first among the principles of political management of a nation’s military institution. And the initiative to foster that understanding among the polity at large has to be the Minister’s first priority.

True appreciation of that priority comes from a simple, but mostly unseen fact. India’s huge military establishment is not the creation of her Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals, but it is commensurate to her much prided great subcontinental landmass, massive population, lofty ambitions, powerful enemies and above all, political choices.

Principle 2: Honouring the State-Soldier Covenant

An understanding of war should naturally lead to the honouring of the eternal State-Soldier Covenant. When the obligations of courting hardship, destruction and death are so fundamental to warfare, the nation has to find extraordinary personnel, train, equip and prepare them to be the nation’s warriors. The dispensation of society-nation-state meets that need by picking and segregating a carefully selected part of itself to form a fraternity of soldiery – soldiers, sailors and airmen – and equip them with the best of war wherewithal, training and upkeep that the State can afford. By so doing, the State ensures that its soldiery is best equipped to, first, bring success in its wars and then, as far as possible, survive its deadly destructiveness. Furthermore, in return for the servicemen’s arduous commitment, the State makes exclusive provisions for them to be well looked after, in and after service, dedicating a full-fledged department to attend to that charter. Finally, the State celebrates its soldiery with embellishments of medals, awards, respect and exclusive constitutional, judicial and financial privileges.

In similar vein, it is the Ministry’s responsibility to refute motivated rumours and false insinuations that inimical forces, ‘liberated’ intellectuals and sometimes frivolous media, throw at the military institution. The insinuation of an attempted military coup in Delhi, conjured up lies of human rights violations and filing of FIRs against duty-bound soldiers are a few examples when the State’s responsibility to stand by its military institution has failed. Even if meant to embarrass the Government of the day, these falsifications shake the soldiery’s confidence upon the State they stake their life for. To clarify, retribution of actual wrongdoings is equally necessary to keep up the innate cultural sublimity of the military institution.

Appreciation of the hoary State-Soldier Covenant helps strengthen the soldiery’s spiritual contract with the State and makes them stake their body, mind and filial bindings to keep their part of the bargain – all to the benefit of the State and the society. The Minister, therefore, may do everything to uphold this Covenant and so save the soldiery from falling into a state of want in terms of war-wherewithal, fighting spirit and twilight times of life. And that must be the second principle for the Minister to pledge allegiance to. The soldiery cannot be denied the right weaponry to fight with just because some politicians and their cronies make money from defence purchases and it does not behoove the majesty of the Indian State to first deny them their entitlements and then go on with endless appeals and contrived delays when judiciary favours their cause.

Principle 3: Celebrating Sainik Dharma (Military Culture)

On its part and in fulfillment of its mandate ordained, the military institution is called up to throw its mind and body to the purpose of securing the objectives of warfare that the nation commits it to. Indeed, the primary instrument of warfare must be the soldiers, sailors and airmen who, suppressing their natural instincts and giving up their democratic rights, commit to extreme exactions of courage, honour and discipline in order to devote to their colours and motherland to accept deprivation, tame danger and court injury or death in the process. And to lead such extraordinary personnel, there have to be extraordinary leaders who must epitomise sacrifice, brain and brawn – a rare amalgamation of intellect, innovation and gumption, all wielded with youthful foolhardiness. Truly, it is that Sainik Dharma or the military culture which makes the soldiery to go to such extremes when duty takes precedence over life and limb; honour becomes preferable to death; hopeless battles are fought regardless and danger stands ignored in disaster relief. It is the military culture which instinctively draws soldiers towards deadly fire while other citizens find safety in fleeing away from it.

Military culture is to be imbibed by arduous training and motivation. The Minister, therefore, may not be impressed by the quasi-military pretentions of various other arms of the State – bureaucracy, technocracy, academic, police et al – to claim military culture and practices. All are equally important no doubt, but these cannot and need not pretend to be military in culture, training, experience and performance. Indeed, the trend of civilian claim over military privileges and concessions carries the danger of reciprocal expectations among the soldiery and its disastrous consequences in the battlefield. Nurturing the soldiery’s cultural exclusivity, therefore, must be the third principle for the Minister to propagate – for the nation’s good.

Principle 4: Sanctity of Military Commission and Military Law

Exclusive sublimity of the soldierly ‘call’ is demonstrated in the Head of the State’s bestowal of ‘Commission’ to his military officers – in contrast to ‘appointing’ civil officials of the State. From time immemorial, this act of forging filial relationship between the soldiery and the Sovereign, manifests through the Sovereign’s trust upon each individual military officer, enjoining him to protect the State’s sovereignty, regardless of odds, while conferring upon him the authority to exercise legislative, judicial and executive, all-in-one, powers over their command. In the construct of the State, that indeed is a warrant extraordinary.

Civil as well as military leadership may, therefore, delve deep into the eternally true fourth principle of political management of the military institution – that is Military Exclusivity. In this principle lies the dual essence of military ‘commission’. One essence is that the ranks of close-knit and motivated body of extra-ordinarily spirited, trained and equipped warriors could turn renegade unless they are led and leashed by extraordinarily competent and trusted leadership. Indeed, it is the Officer Corps that carries the burden of fostering discipline, gallantry and humanity among the soldiery even while engaging in constitutionally sanctified violence of ultimate scales. The Ministry may, therefore, see to it that frivolous attempts to categorise military leaders with other officials of the State are nipped. If equally important, the two are different in every respect, as indeed the State requires them to be.

The second essence is that besides sublime leadership, extraordinary laws are also needed to control the extraordinary men and to deploy them on extraordinary roles. Therefore, attempts by the armchair liberals to subvert the exclusivity of military law and military command, with all their severity, are to be repudiated – for the greater good of the nation.

Principle 5: The Concept of ‘Military Necessity’

In the international colosseum, there is no sacrosanct code nor any enforcement mechanism to secure a nation’s sovereignty from ever-lurking predatory forces – indeed, ‘might is right’ in that arena. It is so that when all civilised avenues fail to dissuade adversaries from striking against one’s nationhood, exercise of military might must be the ultimate recourse to impose restraint upon such adversaries and make them to concede. Obviously, that ultimate option leaves no choice but to succeed, whatever the cost – for military failures bring ever-lasting damage to the nationhood. Therefore, in cognisance of over three thousand years of statecraft, societies and their nationalistic manifestations have found wisdom in committing their hard-earned resources to raise and keep, in robust spiritual and physical health, a military institution to preserve the ‘State’ they create and its sovereign dispensation that they seek. That is why many nations who have little to do with war – even Switzerland, Canada and Belgium – go out of their placid routines to nurture the core of their military institutions, whatever little they might have.

As a corollary, when the onus of the extreme option is so fundamental to the preservation of national identity, respect and progress, there is no choice but to uphold the primacy of military imperatives. That indeed is the pristine principle of ‘military necessity’ when all other considerations are jettisoned in order to fulfill military requirements. The Ministry may not, therefore, test military imperatives by the yardsticks, policies, procedures and rules that apply to civil matters of administration, finances and environment. In so doing, the Ministry may find it possible to fructify the three-decade old case of provision of bullet proof jackets – the effective ones, of course – and the little less old demand for the basic weapon – rifle, carbine and light machine gun. Application of extra-ordinary considerations and special dispensations for the military institution is thus the fifth principle of its politically astute management when no sentiments, principles and rules may come in the way of meeting the nation’s military necessity.

Principle 6: The Concept of ‘Military Edge’

When it comes to jostling for hierarchical authority, cadre status, pay and perks, the military hierarchy stands outwitted by the cadre-coalition of civil bureaucracy. Having little time to experience the South Block system at work, they could be excused that innocence – manoeuvre of file notings cannot be a role primary for military officers. It took them over three decades to realise the disparaging effects of the Third Pay Commission of 1973, just as it took two decades to rue the pay and pensionary discrimination that were surreptitiously inflicted upon them! Therefore, as the bureaucratic instinct of garnering cadre-advantage is but a fact of life, it is incumbent upon the political leadership to be the fair arbitrator in fostering a balanced and healthy civil-military equation. Deliberate or not, but in effect, there has been enough of undermining of the soldiery’s status and interests in the recent years – filing false affidavits to downscale the soldiery’s pay bands and issue of crass notifications to undermine their status, all with impunity, are some tricks the Ministry could save itself from. It is time to end the charade!

The Minister, therefore, may not overlook inter-cadre turf manoeuvres and subtle subversions when these impact the military institution and use her authority to protect the soldiery’s sensitivities. Similarly, the Ministry could make the military career, with all its tribulations, still attractive enough to draw out some good candidates from the long queues for police or clerical recruitments, to be assigned the responsibility of defending the nation. These gestures would pay good dividends to the nation’s defence, because while building up war-winning military spirit is a long and tedious process, just some signs of apathetic dispensation are enough to crumple it. The Indian soldiery needs to raise that spirit of ‘nishchaykarapni jeet karun’ (resolve to be victorious) to make up for its modest weaponry, equipment and logistics – as indeed it has been raising so far. Protecting the soldiery’s‘military edge’, and dignity must, therefore, be the sixth principle to administer the nation’s military institution.

Principle 7: Spare the Military from Social Experimentation

Traditionally, the profession of arms has ever been a direct access to social and material status. A key catalyst in the upliftment of American-Africans was through military service just it has been elsewhere, including India. But that access has been open only to the fittest – not just to those who ‘can’ fight, but only to those who can ‘defeat’ an equally robust and cunning enemy. That is why extraordinary physical and psychological robustness remain as the core qualification for recruitment into soldiery. That is why the military institution is spared from societal experimentations, including reservations. The excruciation of war is considered to be a burden large enough to shoulder.

Salience of this aspect manifests in the context of misguided liberals, including few among military brass, who feel that the current bar of physical, cognitive and spiritual standards are ‘unnecessarily’ high, and advocate the lowering of military standards of recruitment as well as easing of hard in-service training. There are enough numbers of men and women who are physically robust and mentally tuned enough to deal with and beat, ‘Han-Pathan’ adversaries in ground, sea, air and cyber combat. But goaded by farcical populism, a trend of compromising with fundamental attributes of soldiering is emerging. Large numbers of less fit, less spirited, less agile and therefore less useful in crunch situations which the military is meant to tackle in the first place, are accommodated in the military ranks thus on the pretext of social justice. Similar is the matter of retaining in service those who have been rendered medically unfit due to military service conditions. These have to be taken care of by the State and that responsibility cannot be left for the combat elements to shoulder. Protecting the soldiery from the imposition of populist burdens of societal uplift programmes, therefore, must be the seventh principle of astute military management.

Certain Contemporary Applications

As stated, the principles listed above are eternal, universal and well known among the political leaders, the bureaucracy and indeed the entire polity. There are however, reasons galore to believe that many a time the understanding fails to manifest in the doings of our Ministries particularly the Defence, Finance and Home Ministries and the mandarins, civilian and military, who run these. It might therefore be an apt ending to this well-intentioned missive if the above-listed principles of military management are tested against some of the issues in current contention. Listed as follows are few considerations; the list is representative in nature and cannot be exhaustive:

Defence procurements, kick-started at the Government’s initiatives to revive the state of defence preparedness, would need a decade or more to make a difference. Similarly, the defence industry, asphyxiated for 70 years, would take time to deliver. It would also need the infusion of best brains, push-funding, much corner-cutting and recues from dead expenditure to pull off by consistent application of the policy of military necessity. Corridor announcements of intent are only a small part of that commitment; the larger part is in execution.

For the next decade or more, India’s military capability must be manifest from the soldiery’s blood, guts and ingenuous exploitation of dated hardware. Therefore, the imperatives of recruiting young, keeping them in high spirits, imbibing them with honour, discipline, professionalism and honourably releasing them once past their optimum efficiency, must be a part of military exclusivity.

Contemporary societal norms are much diversified from the exactions of military character and culture. Military attributes take generations to build and are liable to fall ‘at ease’ at first signs of any slack. Therefore, for the larger sake of our sovereignty, democracy and freedom, it is wise to commit to strict standards of soldierly attributes. It is also wise to attract only the ‘good’ men and women to volunteer to the call of military exactions.

Only when Tehsildars, Thanedars and Collectors respond to soldier’s domestic woes, would the citizen’s respect for the military institution be truly vindicated. Attending soldiers’ funeral cannot be the end of the State-Soldier Covenant. Similarly, asking soldiers to fight with weaponry which do not enjoy their confidence, is contrary to that hoary Covenant. Scientists, bureaucrats and finance managers may, therefore, recuse from deciding as to what weaponry is best for the soldiers to fight with, win and survive.

Defence management cannot pride itself when soldiers have to battle with handicaps of protective gear, low ammunition stocks and tentative logistic back up. It is further seen in poor light when the forces have to attend to their fallen, disabled and retired brethren, or when they have to defend against wild insinuations while the Ministry’s designated welfare and public relations departments hibernate. The nation’s defence management turns into a farce when its soldiers’ military edge is compromised while rewarding civil cadres and law-makers with frequent elevation.

The Indian soldiery is burdened more than enough; they need to be spared from inefficient and inimical management of their affairs.

A Ministry Extraordinaire

The Indian military institution is under stress – not on the call for blood and gore, but on account of inefficient defence management. Thus while the Ministry may continue, as indeed it is, to focus on modernisation of military organisations, equipment, defence infrastructure and industry, its early priority should also be to boost military spirit and foster mutual trust among politicians, civil servants, diplomats and intelligence heads on one hand and the military rank and file on the other.

When powerful and aggressive predators lurk all around and anti-nationals grow within, the principles of military management discussed above, are the foundations over which the nation’s sovereignty, democracy and rule of law would be preserved. The Minister’s challenges are humungous. May she win! Amen!

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Gautam Banerjee

former Commandant Officers Training Academy, Chennai.

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