Defence policy has to be a joint effort between civilians and the military
Speaking to a military audience in 1973, the eminent war historian Michael Howard said that he was tempted “to declare dogmatically that whatever doctrine the Armed Forces are working on now, they have got it wrong.” But he went to add: “It does not matter that they have got it wrong. What does matter is their capacity to get it right quickly when the moment arrives”. I was reminded of this speech after reading the recently unveiled Joint Doctrine for the Indian Armed Forces. The first such doctrine to be published by the Indian military, it has been panned by many perceptive analysts of military affairs.
All the same, the doctrine is an important attempt by the armed forces to inform and influence public debates on strategic issues. From this standpoint, the most curious part of the document is an appendix on “Civil-Military Relations”. These couple of pages lay out the military’s perspective on what is wrong with our existing institutional arrangements of civil-military relations and how to set it right.
Civil-military relations in India have been on the brink of a crisis over the past few years. Controversies over one-rank one-pension and the latest pay commission were symptoms of deeper problems. Yet successive governments have done nothing to address them. The doctrine’s attempt to flag this issue in public attests to the military’s deepening disquiet on this front.
The appendix on civil-military relations opens with a quote from an air marshal: “Direction in the Civil-Military Relationship in any democracy is strictly the right of the political leadership and not bureaucracy”. This harks to the military’s longstanding complaint that civilian control has turned into civil service control. There is something to this claim, though it tends to be overstated in military discourse. Nevertheless, the doctrine is right in observing that “it is prudent that institutional and structural mechanisms exist that facilitate free flowing communication between the two, thereby enabling critical and timely decision making. The functionaries in the MoD ought to be enablers of this relationship.”
More problematic is the military’s own view of how these arrangements should function when it comes to such critical areas as the use of force. The doctrine states: “Military professionals are experts in the use of force under the political institution of the State. Apropos, it would always be essential for the civilian authority, in consultation with military (as part of decision making process) to decide the Military Objective and then leave it to the military professionals to decide upon the best way of achieving the objective.” In other words, the military should have a say in deciding the aims and should be left free to pursue it.
The underlying premise about military professionalism is not as compelling as it sounds. As scholars of civil-military relations have pointed out, the military is quite unlike other professions. Few military officers have actual experience of fighting wars: our top military leadership, for instance, joined the services well after the 1971 war. Treating them as experts in the management of violence is a bit like entrusting a crucial surgery to a doctor who has prepared all his life to perform a surgery without ever having done one.
Equally dodgy is the subsequent claim about operational independence for the military. Earlier, the doctrine quotes Clausewitz’s famous dictum about war being a continuation of politics. But the demand for operational independence is inconsistent with the Clausewitzian view. If war is a continuation of politics, then politics will influence and intervene at levels of warfare down to the tactical.
It is curious that on one hand the military wants greater say in policy matters, but on the other it wants to keep the civilians out of its domain. The former demand is entirely understandable, but the latter is incompatible with any properly integrated system of civil-military relations. The military can’t have its cake and eat it too. If strategy is the bridge between political ends and military means, then it will have to be jointly constructed by the civilians and the military.
Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal