Open Forum

Indians need to understand power play

The Doklam stand-off and a variety recent opinion pieces in magazines and newspapers draws attention to the poor state of defence policy preparedness and the lack of meaningful higher defence control in India. 

Aug 18, 2017
By R Adm (retd) Sampath Pillai
The Doklam stand-off and a variety recent opinion pieces in magazines and newspapers draws attention to the poor state of defence policy preparedness and the lack of meaningful higher defence control in India. 
Not even the pre-eminent super-power of the age, the United States, has the resources to provide itself with impregnable security or to exert world-wide diplomatic/coercive influence. The USSR in the 1990s imploded due to excessive imbalance in its allocations towards military capability. 
In the case of liberal, democratic Europe, particularly the UK and France, reduction in military capability has been associated with economic stability and collective security mechanisms. 
In China massive economic progress has been initiated and sustained by a totalitarian regime, along with a massive resurgence in China’s military and diplomatic leverage.
India today is the world’s largest importer of defence hardware and technology. India’s growth in the sphere of defence technology has been patchy with undue reliance on imports of hardware and equipment and poor adoption of indigenous adaptations, for numerous reasons, including excessive bureaucratic interference and widespread corruption.
Given the time span that we have, militarily, our choice of technology advancement in the military seems skewed. Instead of high tech missile destroyers (built in the country, but with their weapons and sensor-suites almost totally imported) and 5th generation fighters built abroad for the Air Force, we should be concentrating on indigenous development of weapons systems in the private sector. 
We need to take the long view and completely restructure the Defence Research and Development Organisation to allow progress in defence R&D. 
We need fewer aircraft carriers and submarines right now (we must, however, keep some for training) but we will need plenty in about seven or eight decades. We should plan for them now, not operate them now aimlessly. 
Right now we just need coast-guarding capability, and the ability to transport the Army by sea and by air, for Indian defensive operations, as well as for UN sponsored multi-lateral ventures. We need to look long-term to build the next century's weapons.
Some commentators paint the matter as an issue of “guns versus butter”; that we have to ensure economic progress for all Indians rather than waste resources on military “toys”. 
They point to India still having the largest population of desperately poor in the world. Detractors of this view-point suggest that without first guaranteeing security against external threats, economic development could be rendered infructuous. 
The dilemma is how to prioritize our proposed solutions to balance our allocations of resources in the defence/development debate.  This prioritization process needs some kind of broad and enduring consensus in all sections of society. 
Defence and security matters have in recent years become too important to leave to the generals and admirals by themselves. The few security studies departments that exist in universities produce little of note that would merit consideration by political decision-makers. 
Bureaucrats tasked with defence and security decisions get little time or career-experience to capably grapple with complex issues involved.  
Politicians have little personal experience in matters military, very few having served in the military in any capacity. Some retired diplomats, military veterans and a few aspiring academic armchair-strategists produce little-read papers of uneven standard in a few think-tanks sponsored by a couple of  central ministries and other organizations, mainly in Delhi; also in Pune and Bangalore.
A greater and more sophisticated awareness of the military by the public, initiated and propagated by defence institutions and ideas, will automatically lead to a more sophisticated and measured articulation of military pronouncements. It will also allow more measured responses than the jingoistic, mostly factually-deficient pronouncements that permeate the public space.
Organizationally, without arrogating to itself any notions of a “praetorian” political role, like the Turkish or indeed the Pakistani model, the military has the greatest stake in this matter. It is to the long term advantage of the military to ensure that national security is understood by as many people as possible. 
Little or no resources are provided to the need for educating the general public on matters military. 
‘Civil-military relations’ as a subject usually relates to specific issues such as riots and disturbances, or ‘winning hearts and minds’ during internal security operations. An occasional ‘open day’ for the public at large to visit defence installations, defence exhibitions which concentrate on hardware, the annual Republic Day parade on New Delhi’s Rajpath,  and one or two under-researched Bollywood movies are all that is available to the public to try to understand military and security matters.
The military has tended to look upon the civil-military equation in sometimes adversarial tones, a relic of our colonial past, which lingers. While technologically advancing rapidly, the military mindset is still heavily weighed down by a feudal and colonial past. 
These attitudes have been aggravated by an incorrect sense of decreased military pelf and position in society by a misguided harking back to colonial-time status and a slanted and biased reading of military history. 
Meanwhile, the military has neglected to structurally address its relationship with the people of the country. Youth institutions, like the NCC, have suffered due to neglect and apathy. There is no policy or structure within the military to address the youth of the country, who will be the active voting public of tomorrow.
The Indian cultural scene, when it covers anything military, essentially is about mythology and ancient times. The Indian military has singularly failed to capture the imagination and attention of our writers, playwrights and dramatists, who have rarely turned their attention to crafting works relevant to the military.
There was a time when sports and athletics were hugely sponsored and advanced by the military and attracted the public, both to participate and to watch. Budgetary and operational considerations appear to have reduced this facet of civil-military interaction. 
 “Jugaad”...our penchant to get the job done, even without the appropriate tools and resources, probably has been very good in getting us off the ground in some initial endeavours. Unfortunately in the unforgiving milieu of security and military matters, nothing less than a total commitment of resources and manpower to the tasks outlined can produce results. 
What India needs to do now, in terms of its uneasy relations with its neighbours China and Pakistan, is to become more assured internally, with better military capability, economic indicators, scientific research and investment across the board.
We have a huge "window" of opportunity, in as much as the Chinese do not want any southern distraction for some years, decades probably. They have enough on their eastern and south-eastern plates -Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Koreas, the South China Sea disputes, Vietnam, even Japan, and the US itself - for them to spare any real concern about India. Even a cursory perusal of Chinese think-tank strategic writing or pronouncements today clearly indicates their priorities and pre-occupations. India is not anywhere near the top! 
For too long, weighed down by our over-long adherence to a Nehruvian fantasy of “boxing above our weight” in international affairs, with a pacifist approach and with non-alignment as our lynch-pins of policy, we now need a more hard-nosed understanding of power and its exercise. We need to learn to “talk softly, but carry a big stick”.
(R Adm (retd) Sampath Pillai was part of the policy-planning establishment of the Indian Navy and CMD of Goa Shipyards. He can be contacted at

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