Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces – Wholly Informational, Hardly Doctrinal

The document should have been a forward looking and ambitious doctrine, instead, written in complex, difficult to unravel sentences, it seems almost inward-bound.

The JDIAF strives to be an educational document for the youngest of officers as well as policy makers. Credit: Reuters

If news reports of the statements made by the army chief are correct, the army seems to be on the verge of unfolding a national military strategy and perhaps coming up with a draft of a national security strategy. As a veteran, one can only hope that these would be robust, muscular and forward-thinking publications that enhance India’s interests, especially in light of a rather confused, meandering and poorly written joint doctrine of the Indian armed forces (JDIAF) that was released recently. Again, as a veteran, one hesitates to critique a publication issued by a military headquarters. The hope, however, is that such vital public documents would benefit from frank appraisals.

Of course, the document has emerged at a time when no real progress seems to have been made towards revitalising the apex joint structures. Making these as future-ready as possible and for the truer integration of the defence ministry itself has been a long-standing national need. The movement towards this seemed to have gathered some steam until a little while ago. However, all has remained silent on that front thereafter. Putting out a publication in a vacuum, and one which itself does little to fill the vacuum, seems puzzling.

A major observation is that this document tries to be all things to all people as hoped for in the foreword. In the event, it perhaps does not elaborate well “on the basic fundamentals of power and excellence across the full spectrum of war-fighting”. While one would wish that it addressed many doctrinal issues, it does not live up to the assertion that “it puts out in its narrative the best way to execute anything in an optimised manner…” What should “anything” imply?

The JDIAF, according to the foreword, strives to be an educational book for the youngest of officers as well as “policy makers…”. This is always difficult to achieve and perhaps should not be attempted.

In trying to increase the scope of what it covers, the document ends up being shallow almost everywhere. An open doctrine at this apex level should primarily serve three purposes. It should indicate rather well, without going into classified domains, how we ought to fight across the spectrum of likely challenges, known and likely threats and the capabilities we shall build to get there. (A joint strategy publication, on the other hand, must concentrate on how we would fight).

Second, it must reassure our friends and others around the world that we think robustly, and shall act robustly.

Third, it must be an actual tool for policymakers as well as senior military leadership for coherent enunciation. We also need to acknowledge that such documents are more likely to be read across our borders and on distant shores by very careful India-watchers, just like a few Indians would read our own and others’ publications with intense scrutiny. That is an important target audience. Moreover, a military doctrine or military-strategic apex document should not fall into the trap of more-than-required political correctness, especially at the expense of military robustness. We must carefully read Chinese white papers or hear the words their senior political-military leadership now use in conferences and seminars as part of their statecraft. Also, the strategic scan, which should have been the trigger for a doctrinal publication, is very generic and the threats discussed do not name anyone at all.

Missing picture

Were the drafters to have pictorially depicted the spectrum of conflict (as in the Indian navy’s maritime doctrine of 2009 or in the army doctrine of 2015), it might have been easier to align some of the subsequent arguments with more fidelity. Nuclear war is very much part of this spectrum and armed forces cannot ignore this as “unthinkable” for the simple reason that thinking, equipping, organising and exercising for it is the best way to prevent deterrence from collapsing and retain the upper hand in the sweepstakes. Thus, the first of the national military objectives (NMO) should have read “prevent war through nuclear and conventional deterrence across the full spectrum of conflict” rather than “strategic and conventional deterrence.” Deterrence, of course, works at the strategic level.

The second NMO is about defending territorial integrity. Here, robustness would have been useful because all along the political leadership have reiterated that the territories occupied by China and Pakistan are integral parts of India. With almost half of the state of Jammu and Kashmir thus occupied from 1948, 1962 and 1963 (Shaksgam Valley), merely “defending” is not adequate as a NMO. It would be beneficial to line up doctrine and strategy with the policy of “integrating” it with India. The political leadership shall decide when it would be done, but the military instruments have to make it possible. The “if” should never be off the table. Isn’t it time to pitch restoration of status quo anté in our doctrines and make it one of our “core interests”? Stating this does not amount to immediate belligerence but it would be in line with parliamentary pronouncements and ministerial statements and it is about our very own lands. To use a naval analogy, the ship-of-state’s hull-integrity has been breached and it needs to be fixed. It is not a question of if but merely when and its absence from our apex military documents could indicate that “if” is itself in doubt. That is not good statecraft and not good warcraft either.

In thinking of the military as an instrument of power (paragraph 14 to begin with), the dilution with considerations of utility in “non-conflict” situations and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) is uncalled for. Our armed forces have been good at HADR even before the term was coined and took such tasks in stride rather than treating it almost as a mainstream activity.

A more professional approach to the section on ‘Nature (of) War’ could have helped. An apex doctrine need not go into causes and purposes of war, even as a teaching tool for young officers. (One can hope that the academies are doing this quite well already or some other books could be prescribed.) Similar to many of our own doctrines as well of other countries, JDIAF describes war at four levels, pol/grand-strategic, mil-strategic, operational and tactical. War, of course, has an overarching, political-strategic purpose. It is warfare that has these other three levels. It is the UK doctrine that correctly makes this distinction. In a bid to introduce discussions like “conflict termination” there are confusing assertions like “conflict termination is a facet of op art. However, if the duration and cost escalates, termination assumes strategic proportions. Timing of terminating a military operation… is a component of both strategy and operational art.” The tenets of operational art apply to all levels of warfare and many can be usefully applied to other tools of statecraft including diplomacy. Operational art is not limited to the operational level of warfare, even if it finds its fullest application there.

The chapter titled ‘Military Instrument of National Power’ could have been written robustly, but it merely meanders. It seems unlikely that any of the single services are happy about the cursory treatment land, sea and airpower have been given and not necessarily because of their turf-sensitivities but for more substantial reasons. The references to the element of ‘Defence of India’ from the constitution of India are superfluous to the discussion and could have been omitted. In fact, the way paragraph five is presented, referring to the seventh schedule of the constitution, a reader would think that the two facets of ‘insurance’ and ‘assurance’ are enshrined in the constitution, which they are not. These two terms are anyway confusing and do not form any context for the framework of joint purposes of the military instruments. It would also have been correct to attribute para 16, ‘Application of Mil Power’ as the Weinberger Doctrine.

The JDIAF should have been a forward looking, ambitious doctrine on a strategic canvas that spans the Indian Ocean region at least. Then it would profitably have become a catalyst for meaningful strategy documents. Instead, JDIAF seems almost inward-bound while the nation seems to at least be chafing to be outward-bound. In place of some meaningful discussion on expeditionary capabilities and expeditionary operations, we merely have some empty lines on amphibious operations. It just does not seem fitting coming from the integrated defence staff. Despite space as a future arena of great importance (ask the Chinese), and despite some ambitious moves by the Indian Space Research Organisation, JDIAF hardly soars into the skies.

Higher Defence Organisation (HDO) spreads over chapter four. It begins by misquoting Article 52 of the constitution, which merely states that “There shall be a President of India”. Even if we overlook this, Article 53(2) just states that the supreme command is vested in that office and is governed by law. JDIAF asserts a few things which are not, in fact, stated anywhere in the constitution. The several paragraphs that follow explain the organisation of Ministry of Defence, cabinet committee on security, national security council secretariat, national security advisory board and the like, but it is difficult to see how any of this becomes doctrinal. Describing organisational structures is informative to the uninitiated, but should be included in some other publication if needed. The same can be said about chiefs of staff committee, service headquarters and the like in the book.

Nuclear matters

Since nuclear deterrence is so central to the nation’s armed forces (even if a small proportion of them are directly involved) and all allied agencies, it should have received deeper treatment.

Doctrinally, how would India retain an upper hand in the deterrence framework against two adversaries simultaneously? (Indeed, there seems to be no mention in the book about the current and future challenges posed by the Sino-Pak nexus even if multi-front concerns are often mentioned by serving senior military leadership and are in consonance with political statements.) How would nuclear deterrence support and/or impact conventional war-fighting?

That the chapter on HDO ends with a complex, difficult to unravel sentence, does not help doctrinal understanding. It is unclear what this specific sentence means, “The shapes and contours of future conflicts have undergone radical metamorphosis and the dynamics of external and internal developments have expanded the epicentres of our Nation’s strategic concerns.”

The next chapter ‘Integrated and Joint Structures’ is, again, almost wholly informational and hardly doctrinal. It explains the many structures and organisations at the joint level from operations, planning, training, intelligence, logistics etc. An early paragraph has an awkward definition of jointness that confounds a reader. To wit, “Jointness implies or denotes possessing an optimised capability to engage in Joint War-Fighting and is not limited to just Joint-War fighting (Joint Operations). The attention to detail is in the placing of the hyphen.”  What could a young officer, a general officer or a policymaker make of this?

The last chapter is ‘Tech Orchestration & Capability Development.’ More informational than doctrinal, it is beset with generalities. The first paragraph, ironically, summarises what should really have been the core content, treated doctrinally in the book’s preceding pages. An assertion in para ten that “striking a balance between indigenisation and foreign purchase is essential to ensure India’s military independence and modernisation” is not only quite contradictory but unfortunate coming from a headquarter that ought to be constantly batting for indigenisation, enhanced force-building synergies, leveraging commonalities, etc. Yes, some imports are perhaps inescapable for some more years, but are they “essential”? And how is “military independence to be ensured” via imports?

Finally, about the two appendices. One explains what is doctrine and is based on one of the earlier doctrinal publications, the Indian maritime doctrine of 2009 but provides credit to it only for the header quote. One would think that, with more doctrines having been published, there is little need to explain this to a reader. Even younger readers would be more informed than they are often credited for.

The other appendix is about civil-military relations. It is difficult to fathom the reason for its inclusion. If it were important doctrinally, it should have been in the main book and not a lead-off from an awkwardly worded sentence in para four of chapter four. It reads: “Towards this end it is prudent that congruence in the two time-tested institutions (perhaps government-military) exists/is built upon for a right balance of unambiguous political control, as dwelt upon in Appendix B…” With the purpose of the military instrument being the attainment of policy/political objectives, what is meant by a “balance of unambiguous political control”? How can there be a balance in rightful unambiguity?

There are better examples of doctrinal documents. For one, the Indian navy has approached doctrine writing and other documentation quite seriously. There is a case for all apex headquarters to have a system of hierarchical system of numbering. The navy, for instance, has one. A doctrine is a book of reference. Thus, the 2015 Maritime Security Strategy is NSP 1.2. Another suggestion is to curb the widespread urge to produce coffee-table books by the dozens, often of low accuracy and utility. In any case, the same approach often gets replicated in truly important documents. Next, there is no need for excessive symbolism in jointness. In the book being reviewed, there is a spread of quotes from all services (and in the correct sequence of army-navy-air force), photos and colour schemes. The problem is not in doing this but in that it often takes up more time and effort such that primary content, syntax, simplicity of language, etc do not receive sufficient scrutiny.

Lastly, such documents will be carefully read by some within the country and in a few critical quarters of our friends and foes alike. Robustness, depth, seriousness of approach and a weather-eye on the future could be small increments to our military influence in the service of national aims. We simply need to do better.

Rear Admiral Sudarshan Shrikhande is a retired officer of the Indian Navy