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Reminding the Chiefs of Fidelity
At a lecture at a Delhi think tank, the Air Chief recused himself from answering two questions in Question and Answer time. The two were on nuclear issues. He averred that these were out of the ‘ambit’. It is uncertain whether he meant that the nuclear issue was out of the ambit of the lecture or of his duties as Air Chief. The think tank nevertheless described the Q&A as ‘comprehensive’.
His presentation, ‘IAF at 100: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats,’ had a one-line mention of the nuclear issue, though the issue reasonably merited inclusion at a minimum in the sections on Threats. It’s possible he thought otherwise. On the other hand, if he believes that the issue is out of his remit, then the matter is rather more serious.
Using this point as entry here, I discuss aspects in the recent conduct of the three Service Chiefs. I proceed with first looking at the significant elision by the Air Chief, then the minor storm in the Army’s teacup and finally at the trivial matter of the Navy Chief’s social media postings. I conclude that the time is ripe to remind the Chiefs of the lodestar, Fidelity.
The Air Chief and a major matter
Indian Air Force (IAF) operations with either prospective foe - China and Pakistan - will play out in a nuclear backdrop. The IAF provides the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) with both dedicated and dual role nuclear delivery platforms. It will package together the aerial forces necessary to reach air-delivered nuclear ordnance to the target. It will alongside conduct diversionary operations, air defence suppression, aerial refuelling, provide intelligence and surveillance and post-strike damage assessment. It may be called on for deliberate conventional degradation tasks of the enemy nuclear capability.
Its conventional operations could trigger off a nuclear threat if it inadvertently degrades the opponent’s co-located nuclear capability. Its air defences – both radar and kinetic - would be critical in intercepting enemy nuclear cargoes. Its own airfields could end up as counter military targets for the enemy and those hosting SFC assets counter force targets. It would be actively involved in post-nuclear strike(s) conventional and nuclear operations, while also facilitating first responders in emergency and humanitarian operations.
India has given itself a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), who in his capacity of Permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (PC COSC) is in the reporting line of the Commander-in-Chief SFC and is the Military Adviser to the Nuclear Command Authority. As PC COSC, he would be aggregating the counsel of the three Service Chiefs, including that of the Air Chief.
Incidentally, among the Service think tanks, the IAF funded think tank has acquired pole position on thinking on nuclear issues, dating to the days when the IAF wished for a Strategic Air Command. Today, it has now settled for being an Air and Space Force, the latter is inextricable from nuclear issues.
It is incomprehensible therefore for the Air Chief to believe that nuclear matters are out of his ambit. Excluding these from finding more than a passing mention in his talk therefore has a different impulse.
Missing nuclear matters
Over the Modi years, dwelling on nuclear matters has been left to defence ministers, who when doing so have shown up suffering from a foot-in-the-mouth infection. In any case, since the PC COSC only has an administrative lien over the SFC, the defence minister – to whom the CDS is military adviser - is not in the operational nuclear loop. The National Security Adviser has advisedly kept mum, unlettered as he is known to be on nuclear nuances, as was his mentor-in-khaki predecessor.
Clearly, India is missing a significant bit of transparency in governance. Its nuclear weapons’ relevant policy making is under wraps, after its last bout of transparency, when at the end of the last dispensation, of Manmohan Singh, not only had Singh called for No First Use (NFU) but had the head of his National Security Advisory Board explicate the doctrine in excruciating detail. For its part, Modi’s national security minders, after having received a rap on the knuckles for their exuberance in their input of the earlier manifesto of his party, have kept off dilating on the doctrine.
Its apparent that after the early nuclear doctrinal effervescence, designed to get the United States’ nuclear proliferation lobby off India’s back, India has lapsed into doctrinal taciturnity. Apparently, this ambiguity is deliberate, to obscure the direction of the deterrent.
And here is the catch. If there is no change in doctrine, then the situation is as dangerous as obtaining from a doctrine that has changed. Keeping from transmitting the status to the enemy might arguably be fine for ambiguity-based nuclear deterrence, but is yet another piece of evidence of the backslide in Indian democracy. The nation may not be interested in being defended to death.
Persisting with a doctrine that is twenty years old is good for consistency, if strategic equations have not changed in the interim. However, much water has flowed down the Indus since. Consistency is a virtue in regard to the NFU principle. Under threat from revisionists, its need against China is such that luckily it continues in place - officially and for the moment.
As for the plank of massive retaliation – even if read down to mean the infliction of unacceptable damage – it is oblivious to Pakistan’s move to Full Spectrum Deterrence. The formulation rejects the Pakistani belief that Mutual Assured Destruction is in play in South Asia.
In short, India expects Pakistan to suffer unacceptable damage without giving it back in some measure, though Operation Swift Retort should rightly have dispelled any such notion. Perhaps, India believes the Hindutva glue is strong enough to see India through Amrit Kaal despite nuclear exchange(s). Dispel any doubts: to be genocidal is to be suicidal.
Given that an unchanged doctrine is a national disservice, it is possible that there has been a doctrinal shift, but one kept from the public domain. The shift could be in making nuclear war fightable, if not winnable. With proportionality informing a graduated nuclear doctrine, it is possible to get off the nuclear horse – with some help from the other side. While nuclear war is eminently avoidable, it can be nobody’s case that Limited Nuclear War is not preferable to Total Nuclear War.
India’s doctrinal reticence is perhaps informed by the delusion that assuring Pakistan of wiping it off the map is better for deterring. This is delusion since it has not credibly answered the criticism (assertions not being credible) that such assurance will make Pakistan go for a dead-hand option - and earlier too while its capability is intact.
The unchanged doctrine predicated on unacceptable damage is fine in an equable strategic environment. When a nuclear use scenario is less likely to arise, promising the worst is safe since there would be no call for delivering on the promise.
However, the strategic environment in regard to both neighbours does not lend confidence. While the Army Chief characterizes the one with the northern neighbour as ‘stable but unpredictable’, the one with the western neighbour can only be predictably unstable. The Air Chief talked of ‘collaborative challenges’ posed by two together. Under such strategic circumstance, a subterranean change to graduated response implies an inordinate comfort level with both conflict outbreak and nuclear weapons’ advent.
From the foregoing it is clear that the Chiefs – CDS and Service - must level with the public. The assumption that political and military are separate compartments in nuclear matters is passé.
In the subcontinental context, the military will nudge the political. Denying people the right to know, reinforces the project of a patronizing State catering to the labharti rather than a democratic state catering to citizens with a need to know.
The Army Chief and a minor matter
In a response the Air Chief said that he was not going to discuss higher policies. He would not want to speak on a policy of the government gives the game away. It’s official: the Chiefs’ lips have been zipped.
While this is an unfortunate loss for democratic debate, the situation is worse when the mouth stays zipped even when within the corridors of power.
Take the strange case of the Army suggesting that soldiers partake of social service when they are on leave. For this, they are reportedly to be equipped with information on the plethora of Union development initiatives, which they could either lend a shoulder to or disseminate when on leave.
The Adjutant General (AG), no doubt with the authorization of the Army Chief, has sent out instructions to this effect and the output is to be reported on a quarterly basis to the headquarters. This implies neither has the AG remonstrated forcefully with the Army Chief and nor has the Army Chief put his foot down against the imposition with his boss, Rajnath Singh.
The matter is patently nonsensical, but the brass evidently does not have the gumption to deter. Attending the National Defence College is a prerequisite to get to three-star rank these days. It begs the question if the illustrious institution on Tees January Marg is delivering on its mandate to turn out apolitical brasshats.
If the general cadre has been reading the headlines lately, it must be aware that the Union government is in a face-off with some state governments run by non-Bhartiya Janata Party political parties. Knowledge of this would have alerted the brass on the hidden agenda of their political bosses, allowing them to stand firm against being used as a vehicle for the Union’s purpose against recalcitrant state governments. Both, ignorance of this and falling in line when in full knowledge of this, is an unwarranted play in political partisanship by the Army brass.
It can be argued that the Army cannot take a stand all the time and must pitch and roll as necessary. Doing so is a call for the Army brass to take. Its for the Army brass to pick its fight and not be harried into one by appeasing one or other faction in the veteran and strategic communities. This allows the Army to get what it can and must from the national cake.
With Agnipath having been forced on the military, such rationalizing lacks potency anymore. It can yet be argued that the regime kept vacant the CDS office and had to retire the previous Army Chief before it went in for the makeover. A newly elevated Army Chief was too gobsmacked to take a stand, assuming he might have wanted to. But then, the assumption flies in the face of the rigour that attends deep selection. Besides, by letting the measure - soldiery as regime propagandists - go past, it is clear his deep selection stands vindicated.
WhatsApp groups are agog with the dangers. The (quasi-)non-governmental organization with country wide presence is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It would no doubt welcome a soldier getting into part time social service. With Agniveers soon to get into the groove of service life, they would be easy pickings for the RSS; and, when they leave the colours, available for deployment as a non-Manipuri Meitei Leepun or Arambol Tenggol. The dangers have been flagged when the Agnipath scheme was trotted out. It seems the path is being leveled for the dangers to materialize. Hindutva is setting up a State in an image of 2000 years back by setting upon a modernist State.
The Navy Chief and a trivial matter
Are generals blind to the rug being pulled from beneath their feet? It would appear Admirals certainly are.
A recent social media post on the Naval Chief shows him trudging on a path to a religious shrine housed in a cave. In an earlier instance, the shrine was visited by the previous lieutenant governor (LG) of the Union Territory with an entourage comprising the Corps Commander and the Rashtriya Rifles Force Commander in tow, besides an (unauthorized to LGs) lieutenant colonel as Aide de Camp.
It’s quite in the tradition of late of institutional heads making a beeline for the Gods, the most recent instance of which has been the Space agency Chief temple-hopping on national television in wake of Chandrayaan triumph, at the risk of dissonance over scientific temper.
The tempo of such in-your-face religiosity has been set by the prime minister himself, first at the unveiling of the Simha emblem atop the new parliament building and, next, in the installation within it of a scepter supposedly symbolising the transfer of power from British India to India while actually marking the transition from India to New India. Public religious displays are to culminate in the first session of parliament in its new building, rumoured for as early as the forthcoming Special Session. But the grand finale is being reserved for at the inauguration of a grand Temple built on a judiciary-appropriated land on which a mosque once stood.
What was the Navy Chief trying to project with his photos on social media depicting him striding along with other devotees? It could be a bit of soft power for the betterment of the Navy’s image. After all, the tall, lean Admiral in full stride does strike an imposing pose. It also shows that the Navy might be a maritime force, but then it is not unmindful of India’s mountain fastnesses where its troubled borders lie. Keeping in the mind’s eye of the powers-that-be through towing their line on religion worn on the sleeve does help with pulling resources towards the Navy, especially in a regime where sycophancy delivers results, as the appointment of the National Human Rights Council head suggests.
But then, the reason could be more prosaic: the Navy Chief was trying to inveigle himself into the consciousness of the ruling party, for reasons as a post-retirement sinecure. However, as his retirement is not nigh, is he instead setting new standards for naval officers to emulate; and, if so, at whose behest? It is no secret that senior officers visit the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine very often, but in a personal capacity, even if not on leave and using official facilities. But this has never been so openly done.
Be that as it may, the overt performative act on part of the Navy Chief – otherwise entitled to his religiosity – was unwarranted, since the media handle putting out the photos of a personal itinerary was an official one. Such public obeisance is part of the strategy to project the religious antecedents of Kashmir in order to strengthen India’s cultural case on its possession. This is also part of Hindutva strategy of saffronising India. The Navy Chief is not unaware, but is merrily playing his part.
Fidelity as lodestar for Chiefs
The nation is ill served by Chiefs self-censoring. The next step is worse, if any gets to be regime spokesperson or mascot – as appeared to be the danger when Genaral Bipin Rawat was around. The Air Chief’s predicating his talk with Vikshit Bharat is an indicator of dangers ahead if the trend is not arrested.
Chiefs are exemplars. They represent the Service. Their mandate is the professional input of policy and overseeing the execution of policy and decisions. Clearly, if the input is slip shod, so is the policy and decision output they are charged to implement. This can prove a negative cycle.
Consequently, the most significant quality in Chiefs is Fidelity. It girdles a moral backbone.
The Google-thrown up meaning of Fidelity is just right for the purposes here: ‘(T)he quality of being faithful, especially to a wife or husband by not having a sexual relationship with anyone else.’
It is said that the institution is an officer’s First Wife, his spouse coming in a distant second. By when an officer gets to the apex, the relationship with the First Wife grows in consequence – often at the expense of the Second.
Now that there is a shift to a uniform uniform for the brass, even the regiment cannot serve anymore as a Third Wife. Consequently, there is no scope for a three-some with a political party or ideology as a Third Wife.
Fidelity, therefore, is to hold the institution, the Service, as the first - though not only - love. The Service interest is obviously to be embedded in the wider ambit of national security. The Service cannot supersede national security, but then national security compulsions cannot by default override Service interests. In case of deficit in upholding the latter, national security can only suffer.
The Chief is witness to and subject of the tension between national security interest and the Service interest. Managing this tension is their lot. They tend to let themselves and respective Service down in case of inability to distinguish between national security interest and a regime’s political interest – and, worse, a demagogue’s self-interest.