India’s civilian leadership must step up
Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat’s recent views on the supporting role of air power have set off a media storm. In retrospect, the General will perhaps admit that these were ill-advised comments coming at an especially crucial time, when furious bureaucratic battles are surely being waged.
This was only to be expected. Nowhere in the world has integration (defined as the ability of the army, navy, and air force to operate together) been easy and painless. However, inadvertently, something good may still emerge from the furore following General Rawat’s statements, if saner counsel prevails. But, that would require civilians to step forward and take ownership of the reforms process, including by more forcefully emphasising jointness.
Unfortunately, thus far, we have not seen any evidence of that. As a result, it is perhaps inevitable that the Indian military will lurch from one controversy to another, muddling its way through what was supposed to be its most consequential transformation ever.
To his credit, during his now infamous interview, General Rawat made some astute observations about jointness. However, his argument that the “Air Force continues to remain a supporting arm to the armed forces just as the artillery or engineer supports the combatant arms in the Army” fetched the most attention, and rightful criticism. It might be tempting to argue that the General misspoke and, thereby, temper this controversy but that would be a mistake. Instead, a more organisationally grounded reading would be that the General only said the quiet part loud.
Indeed, the (mistaken) notion that the Air Force is a supporting arm for the Army comes across from the opinions expressed by generations of senior Army officers from Generals JN Chaudhuri and Sam Manekshaw onwards and now General Rawat. Air Chief Marshal PC Lal, perhaps the most cerebral of all air chiefs, referred to this as the “supremo syndrome”, an alleged tendency for the Army to treat the other services as “under command”. Even now, in light of this controversy, a cursory analysis of the discourse on military WhatsApp groups will still find that many Army officers submit to this view.
In turn, the Air Force, too, has not covered itself in glory in the positions it has taken on the issue of jointness. To begin with, it has fanatically opposed the post of CDS, arguing, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, that current structures were optimum. On the contrary, the consensus-based and rotational office of the chairman chiefs of staff, and the convoluted arrangements of advanced and tactical headquarters have not, in any of our wars, facilitated jointness. More egregiously, the Air Force has been unwilling to propose an acceptable model of jointness, one perhaps drawing on the experience of other modern militaries, and instead propounds the “all is well” syndrome. Ultimately, India’s military effectiveness is compromised between these two irreconcilable, if flat out misguided, syndromes.
It is, however, unfair to criticise either of the services too harshly because of an important mitigating factor. Simply put, joint warfighting is not a part of the Indian military’s DNA. Instead, officers are socialised into a narrow, and parochial, single service approach. General Rawat’s career trajectory is itself testament to that — at no point has he held a position at a joint organisation. That, however, is not exceptional. The promotion policies of the Army and the Air Force do not prioritise service in joint organisations and, instead, they want to retain their “best” officers within the service. As a result, over the last two decades very few (if any) of their service chiefs have had any experience with jointness. Notably, the Navy stands out in this regard as more than a few of its chiefs have had such a posting.
Apart from physical service, another way to imbibe jointness is through professional military education. However, even this activity is driven by the single-service approach, with resultant silos and misperceptions about the other services.
With the decision to create the office of CDS, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi embarked upon perhaps the most significant transformation of the Indian military. The disagreements that we see between the services are only natural and were to be expected; however, the civilian leadership now needs to step in and step up. Many reformist officers, such as Admiral Arun Prakash, have been arguing for greater political ownership of this transformation.
Indeed, we are still unclear on the proposed joint structures. Will the joint theatre commands, when established, report to the CDS? If yes, will India now have, like the British do, a Permanent Joint Headquarters? Or will the theatre commands report directly to the defence minister, mirroring the American experience? In which case, would we then create a counterpart to the Office of the Secretary of Defence (OSD), as such a role cannot be fulfilled by the department of military affairs? All these are critical, institution-defining questions, but we have no clarity on them.
Which brings up the single biggest question. Who is doing the thinking underlying this transformation? And what is their roadmap? In the absence of such a vision document, enjoying the full and public support of the PM, we are perhaps fated to witnessing more episodes of public spats among the services.
Anit Mukherjee is associate professor, RSIS, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and a non-resident fellow, Centre for Social and Economic Progress, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal