Armed forces

A Better Civil-Military Relationship Is a Strategic Necessity for India

American General John Hyten’s recent remarks on US nuclear policy point to how this relationship has evolved in other places.

US Air Force General John Hyten. Credit: Reuters/Yuri Gripas/Files

US Air Force General John Hyten. Credit: Reuters/Yuri Gripas/Files

Last month, a top US general in charge of the country’s strategic command that oversees the nuclear arsenal made certain pertinent remarks that signify a major shift in the civil-military relationship in at least some of the more evolved democratic countries. The remarks call for a major rethink on how the Indian establishment views not only this sensitive subject but also our disaster management mechanism.

Reacting to fears expressed worldwide that US President Donald Trump could trigger a nuclear war over the standoff with North Korea, Air Force General John Hyten said he would disobey any order that did not measure up to the US laws of armed conflict. He listed the four basic principles that would justify such an order: military necessity, distinction, proportionality and unnecessary suffering/humanity. He went on to explain that any order falling short of such parameters would be “illegal”. Trump has been threatening to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea, if attacked.

Building a system of military advice

The general, who was speaking to an audience at the Halifax International Security forum in Nova Scotia, Canada, must be lauded for being so forthright. At the same time, the US polity needs to be complimented for allowing a serving general to speak out on such a controversial subject publicly. I wonder how our own civilian establishment would have reacted if one of our generals were to say something similar even in a closed-door conference, leave alone at a public forum.

What is unclear, however, is whether such a US policy, which allows the military to question and debate the legality of civilian orders, has existed all along or has evolved after recent experiences. If anything, past experience does not indicate such a critical application to US actions in recent decades, including the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Either way, the US appears to have come a long way from its earlier experiences. Way back during the Korean war in 1951, then President Harry S. Truman had relieved Field Marshal Douglas MacArthur of command following his public statement contradicting the US’s declared policy. The decision to relieve MacArthur was known to have hurt American pride and public sentiment. Then again in 2010, US President Barrack Obama had fired the top Afghanistan war commander, General Stanley A. McChrystal, for questioning the Afghan policy. Back home in India, we have the infamous incident of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat being sacked for defying political authority over some appointments in the navy in 1998. I wonder how much we have changed since then.

Questioning of political authority by the military in our context is unthinkable. This is primarily because we don’t have a national security strategy doctrine and a robust higher defence management system in place. This will obviously impact the use, if and when, of the nuclear option or the need for an instant riposte to a nuclear attack. Even for dire emergency situations, including internal security situations and natural calamities, we don’t appear to have an effective system in place.

The American General’s comments, which were tucked into the inside pages of some of our newspapers, ought to trigger a wider debate and discussion. This did not happen perhaps because of the lack of a well thought out strategy doctrine and a higher defence structure, which would list out clear-cut responsibilities and accountability at various levels. The article in the December 2016 issue of the USI Journal by Rear Admiral A.P. Revi (retd) is an eye opener. Broadly, it brings out how the present higher defence management structure is a product of partial and half-hearted implementation of the Cabinet Committee on Security decision of 2002. The chief of defence staff (CDS), a crucial post, remains unfilled, joint-ness and integration is a distant dream, and the differences between the military and the bureaucracy remain unaddressed.

While the Nuclear Command Authority, with the prime minister as the chair, is the sole entity empowered to authorise the use of nuclear weapons, the role of the national security advisor, a civilian entity, remains questionable in the absence of the CDS. There is obviously no robust mechanism in place for the military to advise the prime minister and the government, leave alone question them.

On the contrary, most evolved democracies, including the US, have a robust system of military advice. The president and the secretary of defence are advised on military matters by the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (which includes the US army chief of staff and service chiefs). The recent statement by Hyten goes to show how strong and vibrant the system is.

Indian army soldiers arrive at the site of a gunbattle with suspected militants in Chadoora, on the outskirts of Srinagar March 28, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

Indian army soldiers arrive at the site of a gunbattle with suspected militants in Chadoora, on the outskirts of Srinagar March 28, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

A shaky history in India

Historically in India, we have had instances where the civilian authority decided to ramrod its decisions on the military, and the latter acquiesced without a whimper, ostensibly to save their skin. While the indecisive result of the 1948 Kashmir war could be explained by the inexperience of the Indian civilian and military leadership then, subsequent actions betray the lack of a well thought out strategy. For example, how we brought the 1962 war with China upon us and then decided against using the Indian Air Force shows the total lack of cohesion between the civilian and military leadership.

Later in 1965, our failure to correctly gauge the designs of Pakistan during the Rann of Kutch fracas, and the political leadership’s decision not to use the Indian Navy in the Indo-Pak war, is inexplicable. The Indian Peace Keeping Force fiasco from 1987 to 1990 in Sri Lanka occurred primarily because of our failure to read the situation in that country correctly and prepare for it. The failure of the military to read the Kargil situation correctly in the run-up to the Pakistani intrusions in early 1999 and then to bring the war to a logical and befitting conclusion reflected a complete lack of military assessment and preparedness, besides lack of national strategy and political will.

Even in internal security situations, had there been a robust system of politico-military deliberation in place, events such as Operation Blue Star in 1984 in Punjab could have been avoided and handled differently. The Indian Army’s involvement in Jammu and Kashmir for the past three decades is another case in point. While it has resulted in continuous bleeding of the Indian Army, the suffering and alienation of the local populace has never been deliberated upon, nor has the end goal been thought about.

Test all these wars and operations since 1962 against the basic laws and parameters of armed conflict that Hyten talks about (military necessity, distinction, proportionality and unnecessary suffering/humanity). Would any of the conflicts pass muster?  And yet, none of them have been questioned then or till date. Not only that; the politico-military thought has not been collectively applied for a solution to the ongoing border disputes of our country with our two nuclear-tipped neighbours.

Leave alone armed conflicts with potential enemies, our approach has been ostrich-like even in dealing with intrusions and natural calamities, like the December 2001 attack on parliament, November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks and the tsunami in 2004. Every time there is a fresh crisis, we grapple to firefight and then forget about it till another fresh episode. While other countries are discussing and debating the dangers of a nuclear-armed Pakistan, we prefer to close our eyes to the danger. This, despite discordant voices from Pakistan talking about using tactical nuclear weapons in case of India using the Cold Start Doctrine. What if Pakistan’s tactical nukes get out of hand?

On the contrary, see how the US has evolved since the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005. The US has a chain of command and a continuity of government plan worked out in case of the top leadership being neutralised in an attack. Similarly, they have the search and rescue drill, medical response and a well thought out and rehearsed counter response firmly in place.

Hyten, while talking of the laws of armed conflict, said that these had been drawn from ancient laws such as the Book of Manu of the Hindus and The Art of War of Sun Tsu from China.  While the US has drawn from our ancient civilisation, we remain oblivious to its importance.

In order to send the message home to our lawmakers, perhaps an Indian version of the chilling History Channel documentary The Day After Disaster should be screened in the parliament. The US documentary takes an in-depth look at the hypothetical after-effects of a massive disaster, such as the detonation of a nuclear bomb in the US capital.

Kanwar Sandhu is a former journalist and a defence analyst. He is a member of the Punjab State Legislative Assembly.

  • alok asthana

    Armed forces must get to work like the police does. In case of a crime, the police HAS to do some things, and CANNOT do other things. All is laid down in Cr P C and various other instructions. If a cognisable offence has been committed, even the PM can not order that FIR is not to be lodged. But the functioning of army is totally dependent of orders from Def Secy. Here I am making the point that like the police, the tasks and duties of army must be laid down. If anyone , PM or RM, violates that, army should be entitled to refuse. Whether they do or not is another matter.