By Lt Gen Ashok B Shivane (Retd)
This year 2020 has thrown up unprecedented strategic security challenges for India with significant lessons for the future. While the world reeled under the impact of the pandemic, India was combating the ongoing war on two fronts as never before -the war against Chinese Pandemic and the conflict against Chinese Himalayan intrusions.
Strategically, we had only a perfunctory focus on both the fronts – one, neglect of the health care sector and two ineptness of defence capability building, both at great cost. Once again myopia on strategic security focus came to the fore as also the follies of populistic budgeting for political mileage.
Mahabalipuram 2019 to Galwan 2020 and Lahore 2015 to Pulwama 2019 have been journeys of strategic illusion and an ostrich approach leading to complacency in matters of national security and highlighting the chinks in our armour. However, while the ongoing battle at Ladakh is being waged with fortitude and resolve by the brave troops on the ground, it leaves a trail of lessons for political and higher military leadership which cannot be glossed.
The greatest security challenge to learning military lessons of the past and preempting future threats is accepting the truth. This has been India’s strategic security waterloo since independence. Blinded in illusion, the convenient path has been to appoint committees post-conflict situations, whose reports remain undisclosed/buried with little corrective action or accountability, till the next crisis emerges. Once again in Ladakh as in Kargil, we not only missed ‘the forests for the trees’ but turned a blind eye to matters defence, compromising precious soldier lives and national interest.
Strategically, we focused on the wrong front knowing well that the primary threat lay elsewhere. This is despite Dokhlam warning bells and numerous signals. It is hard to believe that it was lack of intelligence but more likely the weakness lay in interpretation, analysis and dissemination of available intelligence for preemptive actions. This led to strategic surprise and disorientation both of military capability building and strategic cum operational military leadership focus.
Accountability at all levels must be established and corrective actions are taken. Operationally we failed to carry out an ethical assessment of our military capabilities for the primary front and did very little to bridge the gap. Ironically, the era and aura of ‘number game‘ and ‘surgical strikes’ on the less threatened front, seemed to be a more attractive mantra for stirring hyper-nationalism for political mileage, only to boomerang. The entire strategic security decision-making apparatus including the higher military leadership faltered and there is a need to initiate corrective actions as the threats to our national security escalate.
India faces a turbulent and fragile strategic environment with multifarious threats and challenges. The two front dynamics with internal front turbulence is a reality of today we need to face squarely. The Ladakh impasse has once again highlighted the sensitivity of the physical and psychological congruence of two fronts.
Chinese vicious cycle of strategic coercion and revisionist culture well documented during India-China border standoffs since independence. Traditionally, China has been playing the strategic game and India responding with tactical myopia. India must realise China under Xi and its middle kingdom mentality cannot be trusted. China not resolving the LAC imbroglio has a deeper strategic intent. Thus Dokhlam and Ladakh intrusions must not get blinded in the tactical transgression syndrome of the past or political diversions of the present.
On the western front, Pakistan’s continued obsession for Kashmir and revisionist ideology will continue to fuel Proxy War in Kashmir as part of its DNA, with spillover possibilities to the heartland. Yet it remains a lesser evil being in dire straits for its survival.
Pakistan’s strategic culture is deeply rooted in its revisionist ideology. Insecurities of partition, vulnerable geography, the obsession for Kashmir, and scars of 1971 humiliation, remain deeply embedded in the nations psyche.
The neorealism is indicative of Pakistan’s continued obsession of destabilising India through proxy war. Thus we have to live with two major deceptive and devious neighbours and reorient our strategic security focus with the primary threat already unveiled being China while keeping a positive control on the other front. This would require the cardinal strategic framework of national security strategy guided by national interests and a doctrinal shift in empowering our warfighting capabilities with a greater ascent on preemption than a reaction to adverse situations.
The need is thus to review our threats and focus for the primary threat to our Northern Borders by the 5 R’s - Reorient, Rebalance, Restructure, Re-budget and Recalibrate our modernization strategy. Our perceived deterrence on both fronts has failed to hold good and requires enhanced capabilities and capacities, greater credibility and effective strategic communication.
Developing capabilities to counter China must be the primary focus which would also cater to an irate Pakistan. China must be denied both physical and psychological ascendancy. Rebalancing and reorienting military power towards China including maritime domain, as also the creation of centralised reserves for inter-front application and out of area contingencies must find strategic focus.
The focus must be on raising the deterrence ante to include greater offensive defence content with long-range standoff precision capability, dissuasive posturing and preemptive intent. The strategic construct of this strategy ‘to raise the cost of military misadventure by our adversaries’ is more political than military. This requires a whole of nation approach.
A strong military cannot be built on paltry budgets ending into emergency panic procurements under crisis. It also needs manufacturing prowess and greater technological capabilities. The lack of civil-military harmony and inter-ministerial disconnect has led to a lack of military, political and diplomatic synergy in matters of defence capability building and morphed threat appreciation.
Ironically without a Strategic Defence Review and the absence of a National Security Strategy, India lacks the foundational edifice for restructuring and capability building and thus remains more reactive to a crisis which seems to be our forte.
Technologically, we kept our modernisation focus to fight the last war with dwindling defence budgetary support and reforms, strategically we lacked a national security strategy and integrated vision, and operationally, military leadership was found wanting in the nuances of the operational art of fighting limited wars having become counter-insurgency oriented.
It’s high time the counter-insurgency and anti-terrorist domain be handed over to the central police organizations and other state forces to relieve the army for its primary task. Further one border one force concept must be institutionalized to instil coherent command and control with due responsibility and accountability.
At the doctrinal level, the focus must shift from the contact battle to operational and strategic domain both in the military and non-military segment.The need thus is to restructure and refit a “big war military with smart, lean, agile, technologically lethal combined arms joint warfare capabilities” to dominate the key operational factors of “Time-Space-Force-Information”.
Force Transformation thus is a right initiative provided it is deliberated and calibrated for well-defined outcomes. However, the determinant of the success of preemptive force application irrespective of the front will be information superiority and decision dominance.
In short, we need a knowledge-based; decision-oriented, lethal networked joint force strike capability in both kinetic and non-kinetic domain. In addition to technology induction, areas of C5ISR, Information Warfare, Cyber, Space and AI must find the requisite focus in our capability development empowered by a shift from a platform-centric approach culture to a network-centric approach.
While the integrity of continental boundaries will remain primary, the importance of the maritime and aerospace domain merits due focus. India must thus calibrate its military capability as a total of synergetic application of warfighting elements in all seven mediums - land, air, sea, space, underwater, cyber and cognitive domain.
The need is to optimise tri-service capabilities beyond a single service parochial approach based on an integrated military strategy to achieve desired political objectives. The present desirability and feasibility mismatch between the desired political objectives, suboptimal ways, and the inadequate means must be resolved by interactive moderation and jointly constructed politico-military strategy. It would require clarity of balancing the desired end state, employing effective ways to achieve the objectives and synergizing all means of national power.
Since the development of necessary capability will take time, the vulnerability must be offset by multilateral and bilateral defence cooperation albeit with due diligence.
Tactically blood, guts and valour of our brave soldier and his indomitable spirit of selfless supreme sacrifice have repeatedly been the saviour for the nation. He needs to be empowered morally, physically and psychologically.
Some recent ill-conceived and short-sighted proposals impacting the welfare of soldiers thus need to be treated with caution and wisdom. Further, it must not be forgotten that the veteran is an extension of the serving soldier family.
Today’s soldier - tomorrows veteran is a conscious reality. The wise advice of Chanakya to Chandra Gupta Maurya “The day a soldier has to demand his dues will be a sad day for Magadha. From then on you have lost all moral sanctions to be king”, must not be lost sight.
To conclude in the real world only power is respected. A nation is secure if it does not have to compromise its national interests and preserve them if threatened. Only a secure and strong nation can pave the path to its domestic, regional and global aspirations.
It essentially entails empowering the national security apparatus for future threats and desired capabilities, both the man and his machine. This requires a whole of nation approach with credo “Nation Above All”.
*Author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed here are personal.