Introduction. Like all individual and durable groups, the military services have acquired personalities of their own that are shaped by their experiences and that, in turn, shape their behaviour. And like individuals, the service personalities are likely to be marked by the circumstances attending their early formation and their most recent traumas.
This remains true for the Indian Armed Forces as well. The Indian Army, which is the largest of the three services, traces its roots to the British East India Company and the formation of local levees in 1757, which just over a century later came under the British Crown after the mutiny of 1857.
The Navy and Air Force too mark their modern beginnings under Imperial rule from London in the 20th Century, developing and maintaining traditions and a work ethos that reflects in their current functioning. It is thus appropriate that 75 years on from the birth of our nation, along with the armed forces we inherited from the colonial masters, it is a worthwhile exercise to try and understand the organisational culture of the current 1.4 million personnel in uniform and their leadership; how they think as a collective body and address issues of national security.
This is important because security challenges to the Indian state, which the three forces must address together with other instruments of state power, as also their own continuing modernisation and integration, are an ever present and expanding palate that affects the growth and wellbeing of the Nation.
Each service has a set of ideals, or values, that give it a distinct culture, and from which flow unwritten principles of how it sees itself and others in the profession of arms. For the Army it is the perception of being the nation’s guardians, coupled with a sense of patriotism and pride at being present in the remotest corners of the country. The Navy feels that it is the service with a better grasp of strategic and operational challenges facing the nation and prides itself on professionalism at sea and “showing the flag” globally.
As for the Air Force, it sees technology and the use of all elements of airpower in the exercise of statecraft as a key objective for its existence. While the army and air force do have serious differences in their understanding and use of airpower for attaining strategic objectives, the navy clearly recognises it unique presence in the maritime domain and does not have very many overlapping missions with the other two services (maritime air strike and amphibious operations not withstanding), which gets reflected in how the three services view each other’s primary role in the defence of the nation.
The Indian Army
The Indian Army by its very presence across the length and breadth of the country, especially along troubled borders, views this as a source of strength, even as it leads to extended operational commitments, which can sap personnel and equipment very quickly if not addressed in timely fashion. Such an operational and geographic spread is also responsible for skewed organisational development when it comes to weapons’ modernisation and adoption of contemporary practices in equipment management and logistics.
The preference of an organisation to address the ‘here and now’ over the need to change for imprecise future requirements is an issue that planners of the Indian Army grapple with. This is further reinforced when an army’s top leadership tends to mostly stay focused on day to day tactical events, with prospects of recognition (and risk as well) being higher for all involved, which is reflected in the promotions and awards lists.
It is appropriate that 75 years on from the birth of our nation, along with the armed forces we inherited from the colonial masters, it is a worthwhile exercise to try and understand the organisational culture of the current 1.4 million personnel in uniform and their leadership; how they think as a collective body and address issues of national security.
This is part and parcel of the ethos and functioning in present day Sub-continental realities, and is not going to change anytime soon. The professional DNA of the largest of the three services is rooted in the British military legacy of the regimental system and is perceived by most, within and outside of the organisation, to be a final bulwark against external attempts to break India’s unity.
Ultimately, the existing size and functional ethos of the Indian Army is both a strong motivator and a barrier to the agility and transformation needs of a 21st Century joint force that must quickly evaluate and address new national security threats. How the armed forces, especially the army, gear up to face an organisational toss up in recruitment processes, the intense thrust for procuring only indigenous equipment, and a more even spread of gender representation in all ranks will be a true test of their organisational resilience.
A professional, modern and operationally capable force is what comes to mind when one looks at the Indian Navy. As with many navies, organizational history and tradition have a unique pride of place in the Indian Navy. Tracing its history to the establishment of the East India Company’s first squadron of warships in 1612, the predecessors of the modern Indian Navy maintained a small flotilla focused on costal defence.
The Indian Navy, the smallest of the three forces, prides itself on professionalism and a strong belief that command of a warship and operations at sea (surface, sub-surface and aerial) are the ultimate test of character of those who don ‘whites’.
From such unassuming beginnings, it is today a blue water capable navy that is key to India’s stated objective of being a net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region. In the first decade-and-a-half after independence, the Indian Navy contributed to the country’s early nation building efforts. Operationally the navy came into its own in the 1971 war. Its audacious raid on the Pakistani port city of Karachi is enshrined today in the celebration of Navy Day on 04 December each year.
The Indian Navy, the smallest of the three forces, prides itself on professionalism and a strong belief that command of a warship and operations at sea (surface, sub-surface and aerial) are the ultimate test of character of those who don ‘whites’. The command of a frontline ship is an actively sought after opportunity and defines future careers of mid-level officers. In so far as equipping and modernising of warships and naval systems is concerned, the navy is decades ahead of the other two Services in its indigenisation efforts, with a mix of western and Soviet bloc/Russian systems and weapons.
The Indian Navy is experiencing a high operational tempo in the wider Indo Pacific construct with cooperation and interoperability with like-minded navies high on the agenda. How it forges its future identity and capabilities will determine, and be affected by, the nature of challenges it faces from inimical forces in the Indo-Pacific.
Indian Air Force
The Royal Indian Air Force came into being in October 1932 when an intrepid cadre of men and technicians was set up as an independent service to police the unruly tribesmen on the North-Western Frontier. It went on to expand and saw extensive action during the Second World War.
Today the Air Force is a technologically advanced multirole service, called in to project power across the region and deter known adversaries.
The post partition period was a challenge for the fledgling force as it organised a hurried induction of troops into the Kashmir valley in October 1947 and then continued extensive air dropping and sustenance missions to beleaguered forces across J&K till the ceasefire in Jan ’49. 1971 saw the IAF dominate the skies in the East, while in the West it held its own against pre-emptive air operations by Pakistan and ably supported ground forces and conducted strategic raids in depth.
Today the Air Force is a technologically advanced multirole service, called in to project power across the region and deter known adversaries. It is proud of its lineage, with various squadrons tracing their histories and sacrifices of air warriors in aerial combat, in peace and war. The Air Force maintains a high operational tempo despite a falling strength in squadrons. Induction of new high tech platforms and dealing with obsolescence are parallel activities that keep technicians and their operators busy.
The service continues supporting troops on land while keeping a vigilant eye on the airspace along contested boundaries. High camaraderie among all men in blue, but with a distinction within the different categories of pilots, is now an unstated yet accepted way of how top ranks are eventually filled. How the service visualises and adapts to its expected missions in defending the nation’s airspace and other vital interests in a future joint environment will redefine its organisational culture established thus far.
A military service is a living entity; an amalgamation of its history, past experiences and current organisational structures, manned by those who have an ideal to live up to. The Indian Armed Forces, with their venerable traditions and extant commitments in the service of the nation, have got turbulence ahead as they enter a period of integration and joint functioning. There is no getting away from this as the strategic environment demands a joint response, as does the need to streamline and optimise resources.
Organisational culture and ethos will determine how well and smoothly such a process occurs. Signs of an easy transition to an integrated system of planning and conduct of military activities in peace and war have not been forthcoming. It will need firm external pressure from government, and military leadership that is ready to break with past tradition which will see the Indian Armed Forces reset themselves for securing the nation’s interests in a truly integrated fashion.
 Carl H. Builder. The Masks of War; American Military Styles in Strategy and Analysis. A RAND Corporation Research Study. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, Baltimore and London. P-7,8.