April 1, 2010

General opinions

General Deepak Kapoor’s statement that India is reworking its war doctrine to meet the possible challenge of a two-front war raised apprehensions in Rawalpindi and Beijing. Though reactions from China were muted, Pakistan objected to the blatant ‘provocation’. However, the real addressee of General Kapoor’s remarks was New Delhi rather than Rawalpindi or Beijing. The Indian military is neither authorised to, nor has demonstrated any inclination for, delineating national security strategy for the international audience; it can at best communicate suggestions to the Government of India.

In a closed door seminar at the Army Training Command in Shimla on December 29, 2009, General Kapoor is reported to have stated that India could take on Pakistan and China simultaneously and “bring [war] to a satisfactory conclusion in 96 hours”, and even suggested that a “limited war under a nuclear overhang” was possible in South Asia. The Pakistani Foreign Office issued a statement declaring that the Indian army chief’s remarks “betray a hostile intent as well as a hegemonic and jingoistic mindset” that was out of touch with present-day realities.

Contrary to reflexive reactions, General Kapoor neither enunciated a ‘new doctrine’ nor ‘revised’ any existing doctrine; he simply articulated the Cold Start strategy, announced in April 2004. In early 2002, Indian troops were mobilised against Pakistan for its support to the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001. This mobilisation, Operation Parakram, in 2002 was followed from the Sundarji doctrine pursued by India since 1981. Under the Sundarji doctrine, the strike corps (offensive forces) were stationed in Mathura, Ambala and Bhopal and the holding corps (defensive forces) were deployed at the border. This implied that in event of an attack on Pakistan, the strikes forces had to be mobilised through long distances. The Sundarji doctrine not only deprived the Indian military operation of an element of surprise but also forced the country to abandon an offensive strike under international pressure. As a corrective for the deficiencies of the Sundarji doctrine, the army unveiled the Cold Start doctrine in 2004.

The Cold Start doctrine seeks to make the deployment less predictable by taking the onus of attack away from the strike corps and placing it partially on the forward deployed “holding” corps of the army. These holding corps incorporate eight smaller division-sized Integrated Battle Groups(IBGs) that combine mechanised infantry, artillery and armour. The drawing point of the doctrine was swiftness of deployment and tactical operations. The IBGs could be mobilised almost immediately and are trained to conduct limited offensive operations. The objective is to make significant territorial gains before the international community can intervene and at the same time, restrain operations in a manner that will deny Pakistan the opportunity to employ nuclear weapons. Thus it was considered possible to have a limited war with Pakistan; a war that did not involve use of nuclear weapons.

Though the feasibility of a limited war is debatable, the army continued to experiment with the Cold Start strategy. Based on it, several exercises, including the Divya Ashtra in March 2004, Vajra Shakti in May 2005, Desert Strike in November 2005, Sanghe Shakti in May 2006 and Ashwamedh in April-May 2007 have been undertaken by the Army. General Kapoor’s statement on December 29, 2009, rather than a curtain raiser for the Cold Start’ doctrine, was part of his statement at a regular ARTRAC conference.

Incidents of military coups in post-colonial states had made the Indian government apprehensive of any non-combat function of the Indian armed forces after independence. According to Subash Kapila, a strategic analyst, Jawaharlal Nehru completely sidelined the Indian armed forces from any effective participation in national security decision-making. When General K M Cariappa, India’s first Commander-in-Chief, approached Nehru with a draft defence paper, the latter responded by saying, “We don’t need a defence policy. Our policy is ahimsa…” The debacle of 1962 stimulated a wave of change in the interactions between the armed forces and civilian establishment. After 1962, the armed forces have been incrementally involved in formulating threat assessments and response strategies. But there is much to be desired. As the late J N Dixit opined, while at the operational and professional levels the military personnel and civilian leadership has to function in different spheres, at the higher levels of policy-making this compartmentalisation should be done away with.

Some of the recent statements by the top brass of the armed forces, voicing its strategic concerns, have been seen in many quarters as a reaction to this continued compartmentalisation. General Kapoor’s in-house comment on the two-front war, neither officially acknowledged nor denied by the Army, was preceded by several instances when statements by service chiefs were widely discussed in the media. In September 2009, General Kapoor suggested that India may have to revisit its no first use policy with regard to nuclear weapons. His suggestion was based on a report by the Federation of American Scientists which stated that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal could be as large as 70-90 warheads. Around the same time, Air Chief Marshal P V Naik, India’s air chief, admitted that India’s present aircraft strength was inadequate and merely one-third of China’s air capacity. In August 2009, navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta’s comments that it would be foolhardy to compare India and China as equals sparked reactions in the country’s political circles.

Is advocacy by the military—contrived or unintentional—in the public domain desirable or dangerous?

Stephen P Cohen, in his seminal work on the Indian Army asserted that India’s armed forces readily accept their apolitical role—the problem is about who precisely defines the meaning of military and political. General Kapoor’s comment on the two-front war encouraged debate on the Cold Start strategy in the public domain, but did the general cross over into the political realm in doing so? Are public statements on feasibility of strategic policy by the military fostering discussion or is it violating the segregation of military and political roles?

For fostering dialogue while avoiding mix-up of military and political, it is important to heed to K Subrahmanyam’s advice: India should cultivate the healthy practice of officers discussing defence strategies with the caveat that the views expressed are personal and not those of the service or the government. Such discussions, rather than being shunned as unwanted activism on the part of the military, should be appreciated in the light of the fact that experience and expertise of the military personnel can positively contribute to public dialogue and a well-informed national strategy.

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