writings of ali ahmed ...with due acknowledgement and thanks to publications where these have appeared. Views expressed are personal and may not be associated with any organisation. Follow on twitter: @aliahd66
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The second edition of the joint doctrine of the Indian armed forces was released in April 2017. Admiral Sunil Lanba, current Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (Ch COSC), states in its foreword that it is intended as a reference document for the academia and citizens, among others. Therefore, unlike its earlier edition in 2006, this is thankfully not a confidential document. Nevertheless, it has not been put up on the Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (HQ IDS) website. For the sake of discussion here, the doctrine has instead had to be downloaded from a website run by a journalist known to be the cheerleader of the former defence minister.1
This is in keeping with the past practice of doctrinal reticence on part of the HQ IDS. Though its webpage2 has a cache of links to Western military doctrines, it carries links to the only two Indian army doctrines in the open domain: its flagship doctrine and another one on sub-conventional operations. It has not placed its own non-confidential Joint Doctrine for Sub Conventional Operations (HQ IDS 2012) on the webpage.
This suggests that the services are somewhat conflicted in their approach to transparency. There is a degree of openness, illustrated by the navy placing all editions of the naval doctrine and maritime strategy in the open domain, available on the official website of the headquarters for ease of access. Taking a page out of the naval book, the air force went public with the third edition of the air force doctrine and also made it readily available on their headquarters’ website. The army, for its part, has been more circumspect. The respective second editions of the two open domain army doctrines were not only kept confidential, but no press release was initiated on their promulgation, as is usually the case even with confidential doctrines (Ahmed 2015). It is apparent that the army has learnt the wrong lessons from the considerable criticism the first editions of the two doctrines faced (Navlakha 2007; Ladwig 2008).
The dissonance suggests that the more liberal approach to transparency of the other two services has been trumped by the army. The other baleful aspect of army influence on this doctrine is the quality of the product. The naval and air force doctrines are a pleasant contrast in terms of quality of writing and production values. From its resemblance to the army doctrines in terms of laconic language and pedestrian production values, the joint doctrine appears to have an army pedigree. This makes apparent an underside of “jointness,” the holy grail sought by the three services through the joint doctrine.
The army chief recently let on that the draft national security strategy and national military strategy are soon to be given to the government (PTI 2017). First, this appropriation by the army of the lead role in doctrine-making does not bode well for jointness. There is, within the HQ IDS, the Directorate of Doctrine (DoD)—that took ownership of the joint doctrine—which should logically be in the lead role on the two projects the army has appropriated. Even so, the DoD can at best address military strategy, not national security strategy, which is presumably the domain of the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS).
Non-traditional security approaches—such as human security—that arguably can best be captured by civilian input, presumably subsumed in the NSCS, would likely be eclipsed. While conceding that the army’s stepping up appears to be a case of its volunteering to bell the cat—knowing that bureaucrats and politicians are not up to it—it can only lead to a militarisation of national security thinking. Interestingly, the joint doctrine mistakenly includes the deputy chair of the NITI Aayog (formerly the Planning Commission) in the National Security Council (NSC) (p 33). This was true over a decade and half ago, when Jaswant Singh and K C Pant, known for their interest in national security, were deputy chairs of the Planning Commission in their turn.
Flaws and Failures
That said, the joint doctrine has some substance. The joint doctrine makes clear that, India’s aim being “comprehensive national development,” national security entails creation and sustenance of an enabling environment. For the military, this primarily implies prevention of war through deterrence and other supportive roles for the military, such as aid to civil authorities, and humanitarian and disaster relief. Military force application, when necessary, is to bring about outcomes desired by the political leadership. Conflict prevention is preferred through deterrence and coercion. It rightly points to preconditions for use of military power, namely, in the national interest; with necessary force levels; with clear objectives, capable of reassessment; with support of people; and as a last resort.
Nevertheless, there is a conceptual flaw. The joint doctrine spells out three “states” of being: peace; conflict or war; and a combination of the two. It sees the difference between peace and conflict as the absence of threat in peace, and in conflict the presence of threat necessitating military measures. However, threats also exist in peace and military measures are taken to deter and mitigate these, without transitioning to conflict. Since this is easy to point to, the conceptual clutter might just be a case of lazy editing and can be left at that. However, the concept of peace is defined as absence of “real or perceived threat” not only to the country’s national interests, but also to that of its “strategic partners,” the latter a patently unnecessary inclusion.
Some problematic phrases also give one pause for thought. One such phrase is “decisive victory,” occurring thrice in the document. When obtaining politically desirable outcomes is sufficient as a military aim, going for decisive victory can be overkill and is unnecessarily escalatory. The armed forces intend to “shock, dislocate and overwhelm” the enemy. After mobilising “swiftly” and with an “early launch” of operations, they are to “rapidly achieve tangible gains” (p 19). This appears to be a hangover of the Cold Start doctrine, as the 2004 army doctrine was colloquially referred to. The Cold Start doctrine was taken out of cold storage by the new army chief on taking over (Shukla 2017).
With much water having flown down the Indus since then, particularly Pakistan’s induction of tactical nuclear weapons systems, Cold Start will bring the nuclear overhang down on the conflict. Another beehive stirred by conventional operations simultaneously will be the hybrid war—asymmetric war waged by irregulars—which the doctrine prognosticates as the future form of war. Together, these will put paid to the fond expectation in military writings, and echoed in the document, of a “short” war (p 10). By not dwelling on how these twin menaces will be tackled, the doctrine packages war as a usable option.
This is important to point out since, according to the doyen of military thinkers, Carl von Clausewitz (2008: 30), the first consideration for the political decision-maker is to understand the kind of war contemplated. Since the document does not have a section on nuclear war—plausible between nuclear powers—it does not provide the necessary grist to thinking intelligently on how a war can turn out. The absence of discussion on escalation avoidance, control and de-escalation suggests that the armed forces are living in denial of the nuclear reality, the Achilles’ heel of the joint doctrine.
This gap is attributable to a structural flaw. While the HQ IDS serves the Ch COSC—the “first among equals” among the chiefs—it does not have a dedicated section of the staff dealing with nuclear conflict. The Ch COSC is in the reporting line of the Strategic Forces Command (SFC). Since the SFC is the custodian of India’s nuclear deterrent and executor of nuclear operations, it quite rightly is not the locus for nuclear decision-making input. Further, the Ch COSC is double hatted in also being the operational head of his service. Thus, the Ch COSC—the focal point for professional military advice—is hobbled.
According to the doctrine, the second channel of reporting of the SFC is the National Security Advisor (NSA). The NSA is a civilian appointed by executive order, unlike in the United States where appropriate legislation and procedures of appointment and on roles exist. A mere press release serves to inform of the appointment being made (PIB 2014). There has been no effort to legalise this anomaly by situating the appointment in the constitutional scheme of democratic accountability.
Though in its diagrammatical description of the higher defence organisation (p 38), the doctrine misses out on the link between the NSCS with the SFC—within the NSCS is nestled a Strategic and Defence Division, which deals with strategic planning. This division also comprises military staff who serve the non-uniformed NSA. The comparative lack of military heft in nuclear decision-making leaves a void in institutional checks and balances for the inordinately high-powered and unaccountable NSA. This explains the persisting status quo in the face of multiple reports recommending the creation of a chief of defence staff or permanent Ch COSC (Mukherjee 2015). The doctrine, in its chapter-long discussion on civil–military relations, sensibly recommends inclusivity in the national security structures so that military input is not only a statutory requirement, but is expected, sought and given.
Below the conventional level is the sub-conventional one, which in hybrid war can be expected to be coextensive with conventional operations. Nevertheless, the doctrine’s discussion on Low Intensity Conflict Operation (LICO) is only in response to proxy wars waged; as the doctrine has it, by an “inimical adversary, engineered through hybrid elements” (p 20). Also, “surgical strikes” in response to terrorist provocations, though finding mention (p 14), are not discussed. Surgical strikes could well obliterate the distinction between the sub-conventional and conventional levels. Pakistan’s good sense in pretending that no surgical strikes took place in September 2016 may have made the option appear reusable. The constant, media-generated hysteria for more-of-the-same, such as in the aftermath in May 2017 of the beheadings of the two soldiers by a Pakistani border action team along the Line of Control and the murder of young Kashmiri military officer, Ummer Fayaz, while on leave, obfuscates escalatory dangers.
Further, the doctrine’s merging of counter-infiltration and counterterrorism operations within the LICO came at a price. It misses the indigenous dimension and the aspects of militancy and insurgency altogether that were better captured earlier by the two doctrines on sub-conventional operations, that of the army and the joint doctrine. Though it locates LICO at the sub-conventional level, the shift to the use of LICO in relation to sub-conventional operations and absence of “sub-conventional operations” in the terminology at the end of the book appears to be an arbitrary shift. Indeed, this reveals a problem with the wider military approach in Kashmir. The doctrine’s characterisation of the internal conflict in Jammu and Kashmir as a proxy war calling out for the LICO makes for a very limited approach to conflict management and resolution in Kashmir. No wonder the internal conflict continues with renewed gusto, with teenage girls joining the ranks of stone throwers this season.
Finally, to note the doctrine’s signal contribution, it rightly alights on, among others, democracy, secularism, inclusive socio-economic development, respect for diversity, peaceful coexistence, pluralism, and tolerance as national values (p 1). Its reiteration of these is interesting in the light of the military’s political bosses supervising a transition away from these values. Since doctrines serve as a form of messaging, can this be taken as a subtle pushback by the military?
Nevertheless, so as not to go overboard in its temerity, the doctrine echoes the popular, and erroneous, strategic discourse, deeming the threat to these as an “eastward spread of [Islamic] fundamentalist and radical [Islamist] ideologies” and an “engineered radicalized tilt towards such ideology amongst India’s [Muslim] youth” (parentheses added; p 10). Evidently, the doctrine is oblivious to the principal threat to national values emanating from majoritarian extremism. It cannot be faulted overly.
Vice President Hamid Ansari has pointed to the principal failing in the national security discourse in his delivery of the fifth K Subrahmanyam lecture in New Delhi in February 2017. In a veiled reference to what cultural nationalism has wrought, he said,
The operative principle for this [national identity] is ‘national-civic’ rather than ‘national-ethnic,’ though a segment of opinion today would want to modulate or amend it and espouse instead an Indian version of ‘cultural nationalism’ premised on ‘religious majoritarianism’. (Ansari 2017)
The military would do well to revise its threat template accordingly.
Combined with the military’s thrust for inclusivity in national security policy and decision-making, it would appear that not much would change in terms of variegation in input, particularly if subjective penetration of the military by cultural nationalism is so thorough already. On the contrary, more direct exposure of the military brass to the political class, unleavened by the bureaucratic layer as is the military’s desire, would imperil military professionalism and its apolitical position with irreversible finality. The selection late last year of the army chief set a precedent whereby politically aligned or pliable military leaders might be easier to spot by the political ruling class. This could bring about a change to subjective civilian control of the military—in which there is a convergence in ideology between the civilian and military—from the present-day objective military control based on the apolitical character and professional distance of the military.
The military is virtually the last institution standing. With the publication of this joint doctrine, it has staked out its professional space, but would need to engage with the concerns raised here. Of greater significance, however, in the present context, is its brave hark back to constitutional values as national values, knowing that these sit at odds with the definition of national values held by its political masters. This presents the military as an island on which can yet rest hope for the soul and idea of India.