Thursday, 7 February 2019

The land warfare doctrine: The army's or that of its Chief?

The Land Warfare Doctrine (LWD) was put out in the public domain rather quietly in mid-December. The non-descript manner of introduction of a significant output of the army was markedly different from the release in 2004 of its predecessor document, Indian Army Doctrine (IAD), that had been preceded by briefings to the media and was released as a book by the Army Training Command. The first version of the document was also brought out in a book format by ARTRAC in 1998, Indian Army – Fundamentals, Concepts, Doctrine. Curiously, this time round the army has settled for a release of the document only in soft copy and without any front matter, explanatory preface and introductory foreword.

There was no mention of it at the last army commanders’ conference, though the media carried details of the four high-level studies that were discussed at the conference. In 2004, on the other hand, the army commanders had discussed the doctrine in their spring meeting and the document was put out later at their meeting in autumn. Also, equally surprisingly, there has been no reference to the document either by the usually talkative Chief or any army commanders. What this points to is that the document likely did not command a consensus within the army.

This dissonance is easy to explain by going through the document. It has within it three favourite hobby horses of the Army Chief. The first is admittedly not his alone, but one inherited by chiefs since the turn of the decade. This is regarding ‘two front’ war. The second on the gray zone of hybrid war is the Chief’s contribution to management of the Kashmir conflict, one he presumably felt entitled to make since his elevation as chief was predicated on his supposed expertise in the subject having spent his last three command tenures involved in it. The third also goes back a long way to the 2004 IAD, that had spelt out the so-called Cold Start Doctrine (CSD) without putting a name to it.

The first controversial aspect, the ‘two front’ thesis, is referred to as ‘multiple fronts’ in the document, presumably to include the ‘half front’ that is the Chief’s personal contribution to doctrinal development as part of his hyping of hybrid war. Indelicately put, the half-front is apparently the potential front open to manipulation by the two adversaries, Pakistan and China, inside India: its Muslims (particularly Kashmiri) and Maoists respectively. On the back of a growing economy sometime in mid 2000s and increased interest of the United States in helping India get to great power status, the army sought to switch its focus from its western foe by measuring itself against a more respectable – size-wise – foe, China. There was also a lull on the western front owing to the peace process kicking in around then. The China threat was therefore timely, which if not for real was one that would have had to be conjured up.

26/11 brought the Pakistan threat back into the equation, making for the ‘two front’ threat thesis. Though officially adopted in end 2009, it did not lead to a tweaking of the IAD then, since it apparently did not carry the day with the national security establishment. That two successive governments have not bit into the army thesis is evident from the key take-away from the army’s closed door seminar of end 2009, the mountain strike corps, not receiving the kind of support the army has hoped for.

It can be inferred from the reiteration of the thesis in this document that this lack continues. By no means does this imply that the thesis lacks traction, but currently from a grand strategic perspective it would be untimely to name the collusive foes or create a self-fulfilling prophesy by doing to till the growing economy furnishes the means to take on both over time. This bit of good sense appears lost on the army that instead wishes to use the heightened threat to fight back the marked decline in defence budgets over the past two years. While for the ruling party it is to keep China placated till it gets another term soon, for the army it is to justify its share of the pie. In short, this is a temporary disconnect between the army and its civilian masters, while the thesis amounts to common sense within the army.

The second is the hybrid war hoopla. This is important to flag since it is evident that it is subscribed to by the national security establishment, so much so that the speech writer of the prime minister at his rally south of the Pir Panjals had the prime minister mouth bombast such as ‘We will break the back of terrorism with all our might’ or words to that effect. Rebuke from national security watchers was not long in coming with a senior commentator pointing out that terrorism and militancy are not quite the same.

Unfortunately, the hybrid war thesis in the words of the LWD has it that what is happening in Kashmir is a sponsored proxy war and trans-border terrorism. Such a reading leaves little scope for a peace process, notwithstanding the presence of the representative of the Union government for a year and half now and the recent appointment of a former bureaucrat, with experience at the Kashmir desk in the home ministry, as an advisor to the governor.

This is a self-serving interpretation of the problem since it leaves only the military template operational in Kashmir. It cannot be missed that this serves the interest of the army chief since it allows him scope to display his expertise in his final year as chief. Though not against the institutional interest of the army in terms of keeping it in the national eye – if through the recent hit, Uri - it is uncertain if it commands a consensus since the indefinite engagement it spells cannot but keep the army tethered to the twentieth century.

Finally, the LWD seeks to operationalise the CSD, one that the Chief was the first to acknowledge as the army’s doctrine, even though his predecessors had demurred from doing so as it neither had support of the ministry nor of sister services. There is no certainty that it has the missing backing now. This also impacts the ongoing cadre review of the officers at flag rank. The internal disagreement perhaps owes to IBG operationalising finding its way into the document, preempting the spring exercises at which the concept is to be tested.

In a way, the LWD appears to have jumped the gun and could be updated later in the year, which begs the question why was it not held back till then. Maybe the Chief was in a hurry to get it out for gaining a sense of ownership. It is almost certain that should there be a change in government, he is liable to have his wings clipped and will likely be serving out the balance of his tenure rather tightlipped.

All told, the LWD appears a self-centered exercise, put out the army’s perspective planning directorate and containing its Chief’s pet projects rather than as a document that has undergone the test of due diligence and due process – yet another piece of evidence on the manner of handling national security at the five year mark of this government.