Facing conflicts

Policy-makers short of strategic advice

By Gen V.P. Malik (retd)

(April 25, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) There is an old adage that “armies tend to fight the last war”. Captain Liddle Hart had that in mind when he said, “The only thing harder than getting new idea into the military mind is to get an old one out.” There are three reasons for such observations. One, the militaries — Indian armed forces not excluded — tend to be highly traditional and, therefore, conservative in their attitude and outlook. They do not visualise and accept changes easily. Two, large, conservative organisations develop strong vested interest groups within. Three, during peace time, the military does not get clear and firm geopolitical and strategic advice on potential threats and challenges, which is so essential for defence planning.

The Americans will not be able to blame Defence Secretary Robert Gates for the third reason. In his $534 billion defence budget proposals this year, Mr Gates has proposed a radical shift from the Cold War-based military strategies, doctrines and expenditure. Instead, he has focused on wars that the Americans are actually fighting, and are more likely to be engaged in, to make sure that public money is not squandered and the military is equipped with capabilities to wage such wars successfully.

The US will now allocate more money to improve its cyber defence, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance capabilities with equipment like armed drones (Predators and Reapers), special forces and light armoured vehicles to fight terrorists and insurgencies, and warships for coastal operations instead of high-end, big ticket fighter bombers, aircraft carriers, and other systems for high intensity conventional wars.

Why has Mr Gates done that? Is there any lesson for India?

Post-Cold War, there has been a paradigm shift in the geopolitical, strategic and security environment. Globalisation, multilateralism and regionalism are gradually replacing bilateral international relations and a straitjacketed concept of sovereignty. There is a comparatively more liberal approach to security (comprehensive and cooperative security) and abhorrence for high casualties and collateral destruction. Emphasis in defence technology is on the ability to eliminate or make an adversary’s nerve-centres dysfunctional, with precision surgical attacks or through electronic warfare and cyber attacks.

There is much closer monitoring of conflicts and conflict situations by the media. It ensures greater public accountability of the governments. International opinion is strongly against re-drawing of national boundaries through violent means. Besides, destruction of an adversary’s military potential and occupation of foreign territories are not easily attainable politico-military objectives as we have seen in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.

Due to these reasons, armed conflicts have gradually moved down the scale of intensity as well as inclusivity. Potential nuclear war has given way to restrained nuclear deterrence. Total war, even a conventional war, has yielded to “limited conventional war”, “restricted war”, “proxy war” and several other types of low-intensity conflicts. “Terrorism” is the latest form in this list. At the 11th Asian Security Conference, India’s Defence Minister A.K. Antony called it “a Frankenstein which has now become a threat to democracy, stability and peace”.

India’s security requirements are regional, unlike that of the US which are global. We have to take into account the nuclear thresholds with two of our more likely security challengers along with conventional, unconventional and asymmetric threats. While we prepare for the entire spectrum of conflict, the budgetary focus has to be on the more likely nature of conflicts, catering for deterrence as well as dissuasion strategies.

Due to nuclear symmetry with Pakistan and China, it may be border or limited conventional war, cyber war, cross-border terrorism (which will increase with the Talibanisation of Pakistan), and any other kind of low-intensity conflict. From other smaller neighbours, there is little conventional threat; more in the form of cross-border terrorism and induced insurgencies. We also require capabilities for the security of air space, coastline, threats to islands and sea-lanes (mostly limited or unconventional), out of area contingencies, and domestic Naxal-type insurgencies.

For sometime past, I have been advocating light, lethal and wired armed forces with improved intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to deal with future conflicts. I believe that some of our combat organisations can be reduced in size; made speedier, more versatile, flexible and better net-worked. It is high time we started thinking about greater combat effectiveness of special forces, combat groups, command and battle groups, and other equivalent formations for asymmetric and limited conventional border wars. The oft-repeated conventional argument is that we have long borders with Pakistan and China and, therefore, need corps level forces. But this has to be co-related to the likely duration of a war in the current geopolitical and strategic environment. The war may be over even before we are able to induct a strike corps across the border!

Having several large, unwieldy and expensive strike corps for conventional deterrence that tend to sit out of a war when it actually happens, is not a cost-effective military strategy or planning. Also, we need greater integration of surveillance and operational resources — satellite imagery, air reconnaissance, radars, armed helicopters and so on — to reduce mobilisation and force generation time. The sooner an intervening force arrives to influence the course of a military event, the lesser is the chance of the conflict devolving into firepower intensive, wasteful slugging match. Rapid mobilisation out-paces the enemy and has the same asset as surprise. “Anticipation” of a war, or in the battlefield, can also be substantially improved when we deploy ISR capabilities more effectively.

But why is this not happening? Primarily, because there is no clear and firm geopolitical and strategic advice at the political level on the potential security threats and challenges. A draft “national security strategy” paper prepared by the military staff has been gathering dust in the National Security Adviser’s office since January 2007.

How can we dovetail the required military capabilities with our geopolitical objectives in our defence planning? I suggest three immediate measures. One, appoint a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to bring about the much-needed synergy in the armed forces. Two, prepare a quadrennial defence review (as in the US) or Defence White Papers (as in the UK). Three, India’s defence planning requires greater political (and public) scrutiny and oversight. It cannot be left at the mercy of political leaders or bureaucrats. We should have defence expertise at the political level; a minister or minister of state in the Ministry of Defence and in the Parliamentary Standing Committee on defence.

The writer, a former Chief of Army Staff, is President, ORF Institute of Security Studies, New Delhi.
-Sri Lanka Guardian