Our Chiefs of the defence forces have been making headlines with their statements on national security issues and at times also on issues outside their domain. Questions have been raised by the media, the opposition and veterans about what the Chiefs should and should not be saying. While some are cheering them, others say they have transgressed into the political domain.
Curiously, the defence secretary who is “responsible for the defence of India and the armed forces”, as per the Government of India (Transaction of Business) Rules 1961, has never made a public statement with respect to national security in 53 years of my military memory. Yet, in the not-too-distant past, a defence secretary allegedly commented on the clamour for a Chief of Defence Staff – “We already have a Chief of Defence Staff, I am the Chief of Defence Staff!”
The ministers of the government have been quick to defend the controversial statements of the Chiefs and linked any criticism of what they said to anti-nationalism.
The Prime Minister, the Defence Minister or other members of the Cabinet have never made any policy statement on issues pertaining to national security. And whatever little they say is for political gains in earthy language, such as “ten heads for one head”, “munh tod jawab” and “aaj tak aissa nahin hua” etc., completely divorced from policy, if there is any.
In a democracy it is the right of the citizens to know how the government and the armed forces are safeguarding the external and internal security of the nation. What is the National Security Strategy? Based on the National Security Strategy, what is the government’s Force Development Strategy (a continuum)? What directions have been given to the armed forces? How are the armed forces executing the National Security Strategy and the Force Development Strategy, i.e. the broad contours of the Military Strategy to deal with the threats? Out of all these aspects, only the last is in the military domain.
India lacks a formalised system for higher defence management and strategic decision-making. We do not have a formal National Security Strategy or an approved long-term Force Development Strategy. Politicians and bureaucrats are ignorant about matters military. There is little or no interaction between the political government and the three Chiefs.
A recent “Langar gupp” – generally a simplistic version of real facts – in the armed forces with respect to the state of politico-military relationship tells the tale. A very senior politician is alleged to have made a casual remark with respect to interaction with the military – “We do not call the military top brass for meetings because our meetings are held at odd times and after 8 pm their (top brass) ‘happy hour’ starts.” Implying that the military brass gets down to their drinking after 8 pm. If this is the impression the political masters have about the work ethics of their military hierarchy, what can one say?
There is little or no discussion on national security in Parliament. The media by design, default or fear, does not question the government. Most think-tanks are government-sponsored and revel in generics. In this environment, the Chiefs become “the whipping boys”.
Both in terms of force development and execution of the Military Strategy, the armed forces have to show tangible results. The media and public question them. Due to lack of interaction and formal directions from the government, and inexperience in handling the press, the Chiefs blunder into giving statements based on their “standalone” judgment. Thus the current controversial statements by the Chiefs are more by default than design.
Most developed countries including China have evolved a formal National Security Strategy, part of which is in the public domain commensurate with security. Consequently, let alone their Chiefs, even junior military officers freely articulate the strategic affairs of the nation.
Communication skills are an essential attribute of military character. Final orders for battle are always given by word of mouth in person. This enables the leader to inspire his subordinates with his body language and confidence in the battle plan. In our armed forces, adequate attention is not paid to developing communication skills, particularly when facing the camera. As a result most senior officers in and out of service cut sorry figures when facing the camera, leading to frequent faux pas.
The 2015 Special Forces’ raid on NSCN (K) hideouts “along” the Myanmar border is a case in point, reflecting all that is wrong with the government’s and armed forces’ interaction with the public.
A high-profile ambush executed by NSCN (K) based in Myanmar had taken place and retribution was warranted. We have had a tacit understanding with the Myanmar government for conducting “hot pursuit” of insurgents across the border. Let alone the Special Forces, at times complete infantry battalions have conducted “hot pursuit” operations across the border. Such operations were never publicised and diplomatic propriety was maintained.
After the June 2015 raid, the Indian Army gave a cryptic public statement for the first time in 40 years to say that the Special Forces have carried out raids/operations “along” the Myanmar border inflicting substantial casualties upon NSCN (K). Without consulting the Army and with utter disregard for diplomatic propriety, the government decided to make political capital out of the operation.
Ministers went ballistic about the hard strategy and decisiveness of the government. Trans-border strikes to punish the terrorists were described in detail. A former Colonel and a junior minister, using the operation as an analogy, indirectly warned Pakistan about similar strikes. A former Army Chief who is part of the cabinet was ignored. Diplomatic relations with Myanmar took a nosedive. The Myanmar army formally denied that such an operation had taken place. NSCN (K) camps were probably shifted and the Myanmar army deployed troops to monitor the border. The national security adviser (NSA) was rushed to Myanmar for damage control.
Since then, the government has gone into an overdrive to mend fences with the neighbour. One wonders if the damage would ever be undone.
Recently, the Army Chief, who was GOC 3 Corps in 2015 and responsible for the operation, recalled the details at a book launch. Probably taking a cue from the government’s public stand in June 2015, he mentioned the details of the trans-border nature of the operation. He also mentioned that he had almost launched the operation but had to delay it for three to four days as the NSA wanted to personally brief the Special Forces’ team leader.
After this statement of the Chief, “not to be named” senior officials of the external affairs ministry (MEA) and the defence ministry allegedly told the media that the government had been left red-faced by the Chief’s statement or, as the media put it, “the gaffe of the Chief”. What does this tell us about the government’s approach towards national security and its Chiefs?
First, expediency to milk the operation politically did irreparable damage to relations with Myanmar. Second, the Chief has not been briefed by the MEA or the NSA about the changed “stance” of the government and the efforts to repair the damage to improve relations. Third, the NSA is interfering in the nuts and bolts of the operations. No lessons apparently have been learnt from the Pathankot air base attack. Lastly, rather than the defence minister or the NSA having a word with the Chief, “not to be named” officials let their chagrin be known to the media.
This environment is unlikely to change in the near future. In the present environment, the Chiefs should deflect the political and macro national security issues towards the government and restrict themselves to the military domain. Even there, they must stick to time-proven methods where formal cryptic military briefings are given at various levels periodically. More so, when talking about ongoing counter-insurgencies which are predominantly in the political domain.
Parliamentarians, political parties and the media should refrain from needling the Chiefs and instead question the government. Both should force the government to reform its higher defence management system and formalise a National Security Strategy, the relevant aspects of which must be shared with the public.
The government must also be forced to formally state its policy periodically with respect to current strategic issues in Parliament and through formal media briefings. The Chiefs must advise the government to approve a long-term Force Development Strategy to streamline modernisation while simultaneously reforming defence structures, organisations, training and human resource development. They must also periodically and formally brief the media and the public with respect to their domain issues commensurate with security.
If all this is not done, we will continue to provide a spectacle to the international strategic community and our public with gaffes galore by the government and the Chiefs.