Why is it that a string of intelligent men who have been defence ministers have not and probably will not act to set up a unified military command despite differences in ideology and work culture?
When the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS) was set up in 2007, its mission was to “Rise above sectoral and departmental legacies, and examine joint warfare and synergy issues in their entirety”. Yet, it would seem that the recommendations for reforming and restructuring the higher security management of the country coming out of CENJOWS do not fulfil any of the missions it was tasked with. This begs the question, how is a government meant to act on advice that is blatantly promoting sectional interests under the guise of jointness?
Indeed, should we be criticising ministers and bureaucrats for “ignoring military advice” or thanking them for turning a deaf ear to obviously bad advice? Ultimately we need to sit down and ask ourselves why is it that a string of intelligent men who have been defence ministers like A K Antony, Manohar Parrikar and now Arun Jaitley, have not and probably will not act to set up a unified military command despite differences in ideology and work culture. The latest paper from CENJOWS titled “Reforming and Restructuring: Higher Defence Organisation of India” is a stock standard example of why our bureaucrats and politicians do not and should not take military advice. There are of course the usual rants about how financial advisors become financial controllers and deal blockers, without even an iota of introspection into why the blocking takes place.
Evidently the need to rigorously defend financial decisions within the system, where one loses some battles and wins some battles, is an onerous burden on the forces. One must not, however, diminish the problems the military faces on this score. The way out of this, of course, is not simply subjugating civilian authority to the military but rather education and a decision taking framework. The problem is to this day, not one Indian university teaches defence economics, and yet this does not seem to be a priority for the military.
This deeply sectional view—where all problems are externalised, becomes far worse when we get to military recommendations. Apparently, the Navy and Air Force Chiefs are simply to be logistics, equipment and training providers—to supply the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) on demand. The problem with this is the CDS invariably will be from the Army, due to its sheer size and centrality to Indian military planning despite the fact that modern warfare has moved on to air and navalcentric combat and domination patterns.
Let us assume for a minute that this is not the case—that the navy and air force chiefs will on occasion become CDS. The problem doesn’t change because each will bring their inherent air or naval bias and a lack of thorough knowledge of the other services or what they can achieve to the table. In effect, the consequences of such a CDS despite its appeal on paper would be much like a having a mad rotational government system where the left nationalises and the right privatises all national assets every alternate five years.
Perhaps, the most worrying aspect of the entire set of recommendations is the blasé attitude it has towards the politico-bureaucratic fear of a coup. Apparently, the belief in the “integrity of senior officers towards the greater interests of the nation” should be enough to allay civilian fears. For good measure, it is added that all countries tend to be army-centric and everyone should just get used to it. If any greater proof were needed of the military’s disconnect from civilian decision making, then these two lines should be clinching evidence. One is yet to hear of any general who carried out a coup, claim that his coup was “against national interest”. Far from it, each and every coupster claims that they do what they do in the greater interests of the country. More importantly, we should understand that coups are not carried out at sea or in the air but on land, which is why coups are carried out by armies—not by air forces or navies.
Historically, naval powers are much less prone to coups than continental powers. Take the great rivalries of the 19th and 20th centuries: Germany, France and the USSR were much more prone to coups—something unthinkable in their adversaries— primarily naval powers—the UK and USA. This is precisely why continuing army-centrism is the single biggest block in evolving greater trust between civilians and the military and a Joint Command effectively hollowed out or steamrollered by the army will only exacerbate this pathology rather than ameliorate it.
To sum up, rather than piling on ministers and babus for indecision and blocking and blaming the Navy and Air Chiefs for petulance, we should be collectively thanking them. The former set has blocked this dangerous idea of a CDS for political considerations, the latter for their sectional considerations within the military. Yet, all of them in their own way have had national interest at the core of their opposition to the integrated commands—which of course is the clearest proof-of-concept of why despite the best of intentions, the office of the CDS will be a dangerously dysfunctional and incoherent office that will do more harm than good.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies. This article first appeared in Swarajya Magazine on 24 Mar 2017 and is also available at https://swarajyamag.com/defence/ the-dangers-of-integratedcommands