Speaking at an international conference organised by the Centre for Air Power Studies in New Delhi early this month, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha said India was a ‘reluctant’ power in not being ‘pragmatic’ in its use of military power, especially the air force.
For the air force chief to use a forum on energising aerospace power to present the IAF’s corporate view about the underutilisation of airpower is understandable. However, since he also carries the onus of being India’s senior most military man as chairman of the chiefs of staff committee (COSC), his words bear additional scrutiny.
Critical of the end state achieved in the 1947-48 Indo-Pak war that in his view allowed Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to end up as ‘a thorn’ in India’s side, he said the further use of force could have settled the issue in India’s favour. While the historical accuracy of this view is debatable, of consequence here is the air chief’s view on conflict termination.
As COSC chair, he is the officer the government turns to for military input on the end state. Though his position on India’s strategic approach is a longstanding one – and perhaps the more popular – it needs probing. While laypersons can be permitted this indulgence, professions need to consider the consequences of encouraging India into an avoidable strategic over-stretch. Instead, it is preferable that the military’s advice be tinged with prudence and practicality – especially so on account of the nuclear backdrop to conflict today.
The longstanding critique in the popular strategic discourse – voiced by the air chief – has it that India has constantly pulled its punches, encouraging adventurism in the adversary. The follow-on prescription usually has it that India needs to be ‘doing more’ militarily and with other coercive instruments of national power.
If the apex of the military brass is persuaded along these lines, the resulting military counsel on conflict management and its termination would tend towards being more assertive than warranted. This has implications for escalation control in a nuclear setting. As scholar-strategist Bernard Brodie opined early in the nuclear age, the principal purpose of military force is no longer to win wars, but to deter them.
The military needs strategic sobriety to inform its input in higher conflict decision-making. On this, Samuel Huntington, though infamous later for his ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis, was spot on in his very first intellectual intervention in the 1950s. In his classic book, The Soldier and the State, he outlined the advisory role of the military brass.
Huntington wrote that the conservative-realist military ethic urges ‘limitation of state action to the direct interests of the state, the restriction on extensive commitments, and the undesirability of bellicose or adventurous policies.’ Since this coincided with developments in the Cold War accelerating the nuclear age, his prescription is valid for South Asia in the formative years of its own nuclear era.
The fashionable argument that India needs to ‘do more’ strategically and militarily trespasses on this sage advice. In his talk, Raha weighed-in in favour of the 1971 war model of use of military force as against the model of strategic and military restraint that featured in India’s 1962 and 1965 wars.
The significant aspect of the 1971 war model was in the mission creep that resulted in India’s original war aims being jettisoned in favour of delivering a body blow to Pakistan. The difference in the two previous wars was in the political leadership favouring war limitation. Arguably, fascination with the latter model could prove fatal for belligerents in a future war.
The injection of uncertainty into India-Pakistan relations by the national security establishment makes war plausible. Ideological predilections embedded in the Modi-Doval security doctrine could result in contamination of conflict strategy. Under the circumstances, an apolitical military cannot be seeing as buying into the party line. Instead, it needs to maintain strict self-regulation over its advisory function. The timing of the air chief’s allusion to PoK leaves a worrying impression that the apex military leadership is not sufficiently sensitive to this need of the hour.
Further, conflict termination is based primarily on political parameters. For instance, the end state in the first Kashmir war was determined by Indian forces reaching the ethno-linguistic divide between the Kashmiri and Punjabi dominant parts of J&K at which ended Sheikh Abdullah’s influence. Such factors, being largely outside the military purview, tend to be under-appreciated by it and are brought into strategic deliberations by other wings of government.
Consequently, for the military to pronounce on issues outside its remit implies an agenda. Is this an avoidable political foray in which the military is genuflecting to its new politico-strategic minders? Even if the motives are more prosaic – such as being soon-to-retire Raha’s gambit for a post-retirement sinecure – his words are no less troubling.
Ali Ahmed, a former Infantry officer with a PhD from JNU, has worked at a think tank and taught at a central university in New Delhi. Views here are personal.