The ongoing situation on the Sino-Indian border offers a unique opportunity for the military leadership. They could impel the political leadership to facilitate the formulation of a military strategy despite the lack of an overarching National Security Strategy. Militarily, let there now be no doubt that countering China should be the primary focus of our military power. Pakistan is the lesser threat. Rebalancing military power towards China from its greater inclination towards Pakistan in the continental and maritime domain will undoubtedly be the prime challenge.
The danger is that the present situation on the Northern border be seen as an Army specific problem. The absence of the IAF Chief during the Prime Minister’s visit to Ladakh in July was revealing. There are calls to convert the extant land deployment on the LAC to mirror the LoC with Pakistan. Mountain ranges devour troops for breakfast and the poor of India may have to eat grass to convert such ideas into realities. Incidentally, China employs hardly any worthwhile defences to protect the border; instead their troops are mostly housed in multi-storeyed structures located in garrisons that are essentially non-tactical. What this tells us is that there is sufficient opportunity for India to grab vacant land and it could form the basis of defending the Northern border. In a similar manner, strengthening our capacity to hit targets in Pakistan, without posturing, could be the basis of deterrence against terrorist threat. The maritime arm could be the offensive effort at all levels of conflict against both China and Pakistan.
The grasping of the opportunity presented will require the CDS with the three Chiefs overseeing the evolution of a military strategy that must be crystallised through a process that is integrated from conception and be a joint effort. The idea of strengthening the capacity of India’s military power must be the driving spirit of the discussions. The need is to transcend one’s own service loyalties for the larger good. The more recent example of such spirit displayed by a Chief was when Admiral Sushil Kumar, volunteered to establish the Andaman & Nicobar Command, the pilot project for Integrated Commands. It is another matter that the experiment is now a monument to Services parochialism. But it still has lessons that can applied to the now politically mandated creation of Theatre Commands.
An integrated evolvement of a military strategy must be born out of a common understanding of political ends and means likely to be available. This is the most challenging part, for the political objectives have to be generated through an interaction with the political leadership. This would seem a difficult and uphill proposition. Not so, if the military leadership seeks the political objectives as a united entity and is directed at the Raksha Mantri and NSA. If necessary, it should be done in writing. The questions put to the political leadership must be derived jointly and seek to provide answers, so the military leadership can then decide what sort of wars it should be prepared to fight. This might seem a strange way to deal with the problem of political guidance deficiency, but my hunch is that if the questions are jointly constructed with clarity, the political leaders would probably have fewer hesitation in their answers.
While the political leaders supported by the National Security Council Secretariat are providing their answers, the CDS and the three Chiefs must take a hard look at what could be the scope of fiscal support to the Armed Forces in the next decade. Though this will require consultations with the Finance Ministry and economic experts outside the Government, the picture would in all probability be gloomy and even the most optimistic growth prospects in GDP will indicate that it is going to be a tough financial situation. Joint doctrine, strategy, operational and tactical ingenuity will have to make up for the material shortcomings. Functioning with integrated brains more than brawn will have to meet the demand for the dire financial situation and puts a premium on inter-Service cooperation.
When the answers to the queries posed to the political leadership are received, the Chiefs will have to translate the political objectives outlined into the form, scale, and necessities of military power. Such an exercise is going to be very contentious between the Services unless the Chiefs rise above their uniform and wear the military hat. Issues would range from the efficacy of a particular form of military power to affordability of such a power. This will draw in the issue of financial resources likely to be available and throw up the difficulty of fulfilling some political objectives. This would require going back to the political leadership to moderate any demands that are likely to be beyond resource availability. It could also be that the military could point out that they are being asked to do much less than what they are capable of with the resources available. This back and forth, in writing, can therefore be the dialogue that has been absent between the Higher Defence and Political Leadership and the bane of Civil-Military relations
Sans a newly created military strategy that aligns, possible military means to likely and feasible political objectives, we may have the Army eating the military budget for lunch. The calls for turning the LAC to LoC are warning signals that herald the nature and character of the problem of creating military power that can be used as an effective instrument of statecraft. Ladakh like Kargil must spin the wheels of defence reforms. This time the CDS and the Chiefs could seize the initiative. They must start by asking questions that the military has been awaiting answers.