Wednesday, 13 April 2022

Expectations of the Tour of Duty initiative

From Sardar Patel Bhawan to Nagpur

Writing on the Tour of Duty (TOD) initiative, a former military adviser in the National Security Council Secretariat cautions against the baby of military effectiveness being thrown out with the bathwater. He hints at the less remarked reasons for the move, stating, “The other payoffs cited are of strengthening the connection between society and the military, instilling nationalism among the youth, reducing age profile, and providing an opportunity for the youth to fulfil their aspiration of serving in the Armed Forces.”

This post argues that these are not quite ‘other payoffs’. A rationale on financial grounds is but rationalization to sugarcoat TOD to make it palatable for the army to swallow. Commentary from former army men expresses apprehension about the move.

Theory has it that primary group bonding takes time. Horizontal group integration is furthered when the primary group faces and bests challenges, collectively. Personnel turbulence is the enemy of cohesion. Absent cohesion at the primary group level, the army’s operational showing is iffy.

The army’s deployment in operational areas is largely in high altitude and in counter insurgency. Both settings require cohesion in primary groups. This is usually pre-existing, brought about by training together. It can also be generated when faced with adversity and operational tasks.

But this presupposes a degree of personnel stability. In case there is a revolving door system then the time and stability required for horizontal bonding will not be available. This may make cohesion wither.

It is possible to generate cohesion in face of operational dangers – such as in war or crises – and military leaders have the capability to infuse respective outfits with it. However, it’s the organisation’s lookout that cohesion is pre-existing so that the premium on leadership to also cater for it is reduced.

That this aspect stands neglected in the initiative suggests that the organization expects that cohesion will not be required. Hints on this have been abroad for some time. There is an expectation that the future wars will be different in kind.

The assumption is that high intensity wars are passé. The nuclear umbrella precludes these. Advantage can be taken of a peace dividend from nuclear weapons’ possession to see if the army can be re-jigged a bit. Wars if any will be of short duration, subsumed under Limited War. Hybrid wars - with mostly non-contact operations as hallmark - will be the wars of the future. They require composition and skills of a different kind.

These are persuasive arguments. Nevertheless, the initiative begs the question: Why? Why has the government not followed a different route to the same end: rationalizing the defence expenditure?

Elected twice over as a majority government, it is indeed a government with a difference. It is best placed to address both India’s external and internal security issues with long term solutions.

Other governments with less political capital have come close but have fallen short, since they did not command majorities and had to answer to right wing carping for being soft-on-defence. They did not have the certitude of not selling out on the national interest that the right wing has.

The right wing has appropriated ‘nationalist’ credentials and claims to have a better handle on the ‘national’, as against parochial party, dynasty or caste, interest. The right wing also has the social capital having the infrastructure in place to sell its decisions in both polity and society.

Therefore, there was nothing stopping this government from settling India’s security issues with neighbours over the past eight years, as prelude to realigning the army to the changed security circumstance.

With the border problem behind the nation – when Lines of various designations redefined as demarcated borders – and mutually agreed, negotiated solutions to territorial disputes on the cards, the army could have easily been both downsized and upgraded. It would have been spared the calisthenics that the TOD entails. 

The TOD initiative implies that the government believes that it has both sets of problems reasonably fixed. The subtext of the initiative rollout is that wars of last century – the Russian invasion of Ukraine notwithstanding – are not replicable. We don’t need conventionally-oriented militaries, reliant on cohesion to deliver on their operational responsibility. 

This is inexplicable in strategic terms. A country beset with what is popularly called a two-front challenge, attenuated by collusion between two hostile neighbours, cannot be complacent. Let’s take a counter factual. It can be argued that had Covid not interfered, it is well nigh possible that in spring 2020 India might have been subject to joint coercion by its two adversaries, put off by its initiative the previous year rescinding the political map of Jammu and Kashmir.

To drive home the point a hypothetical situation is not required. Even in the context of Ladakh, had Covid not interfered, India may have had to evict the Chinese intrusions. This would have required - along with other measures as standoff missiles and airpower, cyber attacks, information war etc - a Kargil replay. Galwan provides a glimpse. It is arguable that a system sans cohesion cannot deliver at the crunch.

Even if we are to take the internal security situation, from the hiatus in Kashmir and rolling back of Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the North East, it cannot be taken that the central police forces can keep the lid on matters. A spiral in externally-abated insurgency can be expected in case of outbreak of hostilities with normal interdiction of the communication zone by the adversary using proxies.

Insurgency will not go away until politically addressed, which the government has resolutely refrained from doing. Not only did it set the political clock back by its Article 370 convolutions in Kashmir, but also shot itself in the foot in Nagaland while it was doing so. As the army’s experience of the nineties with the evolution under fire of the Rashtriya Rifles suggests that without subunit cohesion, only repression, hardly conducive to conflict termination, will be on call.

Are we to believe that the government expects to succeed in conflict avoidance always and every time? Since strategy is a two-player game, that is rather presumptuousThe government’s main task in war is not to mistake it for anything that it is not. War is pretty only between a hyper-power at the peak of its unipolar moment and a ragtag army, and that too only in its first, opening phase.

Surely, the government is aware of this, since it has a military adviser, albeit one that sings its tune. So to embark on destabilizing the army through the TOD must be with some very good reasons. These are not reckonable in the strategic ken, but have impulse elsewhere.

Strategists make a mistake in analyzing this regime’s actions in conventional terms. Most analysis is in the realist paradigm, unsuited for grasping the regime’s intent and actions. The cultural lens is the best prism to get a fix on it. As Elizabeth Kier had it, militaries are configured in a manner that their internal power is rendered inert by governments more bothered by the internal power equations.

The shift in political culture has been towards firming in of Hindutva. The regime’s aim is its propagation, which at the current juncture entails consolidation. It therefore cannot afford instability and definitely not the uncertainty of conflict. Consequently, war avoidance is its strategy, not so much through deterrence, but through tacit appeasement.

This explains the prime minister going out on a limb to claim there was no intrusion and the subsequent vacuous rounds of interminable military-level talks. Even Operation Snow Leopard was just us dancing solo.

It explains the preceding years of defence budget draw-down, broadcasting to the other adversary, Pakistan, that it need not worry since India is not accentuating the asymmetry with it. The regime pulled its punches even in the surgical strikes, allowing Pakistan to brush these off with contempt.   

Consequently, the strategy is janus-faced: signaling to an external audience a relatively flaccid India, while the internal audience is made to see a fiery India. 

External stability enables the regime to countenance instability within the military. It has already leveled all other institutions. Even the military is considerably degraded in institutional strength. The TOD is thus a preemptive measure to neuter the military by removing any cohesion that it can muster to challenge the regime, a coup proofing of sorts.

It is cover for right wing penetration into the military, through induction of right wing oriented youth. An aim plus is militarization that will remove in one generation the right wing’s belief that Hindu effeteness brought about their slavery for over-a-1000 years. Preparing recruits for the corporate world is hogwash.

The measure also has the plausible purpose - as left-wing critique has it on social media - that the foot-soldiers of the right wing can get trained in military mores officially rather than informally in shakhas. After the Ram Navmi incidents across the country, what they will then be put to then need not be belaboured here.

The outlandish TOD can only have a very useful purpose. Balancing of long term budgetary proportions is the reasoning bureaucrats have added to the pie. The TOD pie has instead been cooked up in Nagpur, with icing done at Sardar Patel Bhawan.