Geo-politics necessitates more political awareness amongst Armed Forces’ Officers


“War is a continuation of politics by other means”
Carl Von Clausewitz

Let us start by unequivocally stating that it is nations that go to war. The Armed Forces are one of the pivotal constituents of comprehensive national power (CNP) in a multi-polar, multi-domain international security environment, where nations are in 24X7 persistent engagement of cooperation, competition, confrontation and even conflict when national interests/sovereignty are threatened. And since confrontation/conflict are mainly geo-political and economic in nature as Clausewitz aptly puts it, it is axiomatic that armed forces and its senior hierarchy should mandatorily be geo-politically and politically[i] aware and well versed in its nuances.

Armed Forces: Traditional Apolitical Compartmentalised Culture        Armed Forces serve the country and/or its constitution and its personnel remain apolitical whilst in service. The exception being the PLA in China which serves the CCP (Chinese Communist Party). In fact, military personnel are discouraged from giving political views and frown upon members who show an interest in political affairs. For the military, to be a professional implies knowing the business of arms, security and conflict, but staying outside the purview of political understanding and compulsions impacting security. It will not be incorrect to say that the military and political spheres are distinctly separate, and in most democracies, including USA and India neither side wants the other to intervene/interfere in their domains. This has major implications in today’s geo-political environment, where many nations like Iran, Pakistan, North Korea have mastered the art of hybrid multi-domain warfare/operations (MDW/O), and stay below the adversary’s red lines of war, whilst concurrently achieving their strategic objectives. Understanding geo-politics, national politics and strategy as long as it pertains to national security is slowly being welcomed specially amongst the senior leadership. Therefore, it has become very important that the political and administrative, and military spheres understand each other and have overlapping strategic and activity areas, to optimise, integrate and synergise responses both pro-active and reactive. 

Military Officers in National Policy and Decision-Making Roles
The primary role of any armed forces is to protect the sovereignty and integrity of the nation against external aggression, and also ensure its internal security.  As the scope, strategies, space, timelines and domains impacting national security enhances and widens, it is natural for military officers to get more involved in national security policy and decision making. I have felt strongly since the last decade or so, that armed forces officers should become security professionals and not just military professionals. Civil-military-security architecture integration is an essential component to ensure optimum comprehensive national power (CNP) and stability of a nation (henceforth civil implies political direction and also bureaucratic/administrative participation as both are inseparable in India today).

In the most powerful democracy, President Trump surpassed many US Presidents in nominating unprecedented number of military officers in top posts in his administration, from Gen(s)/Adm(s) Mattis, Michael Flynn, John Kelly, Michael Rogers, David Petraeus to name a few. President Biden has already nominated Gen Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defence. Being a global power, for these military officers to function optimally they must be both politically and geo-politically well versed, apart from being experts in the realm of military strategy. In India too, though fewer in number we have/had the likes of Gen V.K. Singh, B.C. Khanduri, Jaswant Singh, Rajesh Pilot, Capt Amarinder Singh and Col Rathore. It is true that they all stepped out of the military domain and established themselves as individuals in the political arena unlike the US military officers listed above, who were pushed straight to tenant political appointments.

Functions and Role of DMA and CDS
To illustrate the necessity of overlapping civil and military spheres, as also the requirement of geo-political and political awareness of military officers (needed more at the senior levels, but Rome was not built in a day), let us look at the national and strategic job profile of the CDS Gen Bipin Rawat who assumed his appointment on 1 Jan 2020, based on Government approval of 24 Dec 19[ii],[iii],[iv] (see links given at endnotes). He heads the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), created within the Ministry of Defence and functions as its Secretary, and will also be the Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. He will act as the Principal Military Adviser to Raksha Mantri on all tri-Services matters and provide impartial advice to the political leadership, is the military adviser to the Nuclear Command Authority. All tri-services commands including Space and Cyber will come under command of the CDS. DMA deals with all three services; integrated HQs of MoD and three service HQs; Territorial Army, all infrastructure works; procurements less capital acquisitions; promote jointness in procurement, training and staffing; restructuring of military commands for optimal utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through establishment of joint/ theatre commands. A glance at his charter makes it obvious that CDS must have a deep understanding of the civil domain.

Traditionally Civil Controls the Military in a Democracy                        One of the critical characteristics of a democracy is the ‘established civil control of the military’. Making a military officer (serving or retired) in charge of defence, like Gen Mattis or now Gen Lloyd, does upend this trait a little. Critics and media in USA and India (hold strong views on participation of military in political sphere) have written/ insinuated often that this decays the civilian control of the armed forces, and repeatedly placing a military man in charge accelerates the decay.

Culture of Professionalism in Indian Armed Forces: Impact on Civil-Military Relationship
An overriding characteristic of our armed forces personnel is pride in their professionalism, and a very strong inclination to stay apolitical. It is taught from inception of his/her entry into the armed forces, along with a strong culture and tradition going back centuries, that a true military professional is above politics and serves the country and constitution. This automatically makes the individual ill-suited for the rough and tumble of dirty politics, and world of real politik.

The challenge/or even problem of a military man getting involved in the national policy making realm, is not that the military man has to become political, but that they think they can ignore politics altogether.[v] The politician and bureaucrats on one side of the divide, and the military professionals on the other side feel that their domains are strictly separate, whereas increasingly they overlap and in many non-kinetic, cognitive security challenges, their cohesive multi-domain responses both reactive and pro-active is mandatory for a strategic resolution. Take the increasing employment of information influence (including media and social media), psychological (IIO/IO and PSYOPS) and cyber operations by our main adversaries China and Pakistan, which targets the networks and more importantly the human mind/response systems, and thus impacting decision making; both spheres are affected and have to fight jointly, and master the IO and PSYOPS domain. The military professional culture cuts both ways; leads the military to resent when political/civilian leaders intervene in battlefield decisions, hindering political leaders’ ability to scrutinize military activity and ensure it serves geo-political goals.

So, does this prevailing culture of military professionalism, undermine Indian national security? Because it could absolve military leaders of national/strategic accountability during periods of confrontation/ conflict. Conversantly, political leadership can quietly ask the military to resolve the situation if they find the situation politically damaging or critical and would prefer the military to bear the consequences. Naturally there must exist an exquisite balance of power between the two separate but inseparable spheres in the relationship.

Security, Armed Forces and the State: Clear-cut compartments of military and geo-politics no longer exist
Traditionally and as amplified by Samuel Huntington in his seminal book ‘The Soldier and the State[vi], compartmentalisation of military and political spheres, however, respect for each other’s domain and silos, has been the ethos. The military culture of professionalism virtually dictates how military officers should deal with politics and political thinking, and makes them apprehensive and wary of discussing even domestic and international geo-politics, forget about electoral politics.

Rigid/pure politics free thinking (only military thinking and activity) is virtually ordained (informally but pervasive) from the time a military man enters service. Unfortunately, such compartments adversely impact decisive and effective strategic planning and action. This also creates an unwanted sentiment and environment within the nation (people, political and administrative dispensation) that overlapping of spheres is wrong and incorrect.

Officers respect civilian authority and remain committed to keeping out of partisan and electoral politics. One could say that this approach has worked reasonably well for our armed forces and India since independence. Time will only tell if the same will ring true, in a future multi-domain environment where confrontation envelopes both the kinetic and non-kinetic domains, and warfare/ conflicts have expanded to hybrid, informational, economic, scarce critical resources, psychological, and cyber domains. It is a very fine line as rigid compartments can have very serious irrevocable impact on national security, in case understanding and synergy between all elements of national security do not coalesce.

Necessity of Military Participation for Geo-Political and Strategic Decision Making
It is generally understood that civilian control means military follows orders, which without a consultative and advisory process will prove disastrous. Civilian power should not imply unilateral orders in the realm of military or even security issues today. A process suited to the style and needs of the executive which is interactive (institutionalised and informal), and works in synergy for both political ends and military objectives/modus operandi is a strategic necessity. It ultimately is a two-way street; the executive lays down the objective/terms of reference and wants to ascertain from the military the efficacy of achieving it through military and multi-domain means; the military must in a forthright manner elucidate the probability of success and repercussions/fall out in case of failure (part failure).

The military prefers to be left alone to carry out its task unhindered, unsupervised and is uncomfortable at being micro-managed. Thus, the interaction essentially remains transactional, where military leaders expect to be provided definitive political guidance from civilians and respond by devising options in a potentially iterative but inherently transactional process that reflects the notion of clear boundaries between military and political domains. When civilians fail to play their assigned part, military leaders often chalk it up to dysfunction and poor leadership instead of to the character of the political decision-making process.

Overlapping Influence: Two sides of a Coin
There are pros and cons of strict compartmentalisation vis-a-vis overlapping influence of civil and military spheres. One could even argue that compartmentalisation creates a deficit in accountability and ownership. While the civil polity outline the political goals, the military lay down military objectives and measure success based on its achievement. Enduring strategic success gets lost sight of. From the military point of view, civilian oversight (nobody likes constant oversight) on what is generally considered military domain and operational and tactical activity is very disconcerting.

Till recently, not only the military but security professionals considered domain autonomy as a right and not privilege. Even today as I write one hears statements from very senior military officers (serving and retired) that providing resources including fiscal to meet operational military capacity and capability building is the onus of the civil hierarchy. They feel their responsibility is just to state their requirements which needs to be met in the interest of national security, which could be excessive, fiscally impossible or even unnecessary. The military must learn to cut their coat based on the cloth (prioritisation is a must). 

One of the main reasons of acrimony is that armed forces professionals often attribute intervention to be driven by domestic politics. When politicians limit troops, impose timelines on operations, or otherwise micromanage events on the battlefield, they are, the thinking goes, treading on the military’s terrain. Occasionally, like in the present case along the LAC where the standoff is ongoing, even tactical operations/ incidents take on strategic proportions. In fact, while operational issues against Pakistan along the Line of Control and even International Border is resolved by military, against the Chinese even tactical incidents (transgressions, minor and temporary standoffs resolved by set protocols) have strategic connotations (with experience, one can state that I have felt that some actions are best left at operational level, as it provides more flexibility to manoeuvre and resolve, compared to strategic/political dimension).

Concurrently, geo-politics sometimes dictate that strategic effectiveness gets optimised on visible intrusive civilian oversight. The tactical and operational levels of war have their own logic and rhythm and can too easily become disconnected from larger political considerations. As history amply illustrates, USA has won all of its battlefield conflicts/wars but rarely achieved strategic/political victory/ resolution. Whether either side likes it or not, military cannot dismiss domestic political constraints as external impositions on strategy and operations, and similarly the civil given the vast and changing domains of confrontation, must accept overlapping and synergised civil and military planning and action as essential. Any future strategy without this connect has little or no chance of success. Everybody acknowledges that the current LAC standoff in East Ladakh needs political resolution, but the ground is prepared by military manoeuvres, and both have to concurrently work alongside.

Dawning Realisation
A nation’s geo-politico-economic-military-informational strategy is essential in today’s 24X7 persistent global engagement to create/ maintain/expand strategic space and be reckonable amongst the comity of nations. Even the global powers USA and China have to resort to it. India a rising regional and balancing power will increasingly get involved in international and regional issues. This further reinforces the necessity of overlapping knowledge and synergy of civil-military spheres. While this has been known and understood for some time (structures/institutions like CCS, NSA, RM assisted by Defence Secretary, CSC, IDS), the implementation and creation of overlapping structures/institutions and synchronisation has gained momentum in India. Creation of CDS, DMA, and organisations to coordinate non-kinetic domains, in addition to existing institutions are a welcome and necessary step to meet new world challenges. These individuals and organisations translate political goals into military means, and ensure two-way communication and understanding of capabilities, capacities, resources availability (fiscal, technological, human) and vulnerabilities. Specifics and details are left for another day.

Transformation of Military Traditional Values
There must be a gradual but relentless transformation. It starts from the beginning of an armed forces officers’ journey, and must carry on institutionally and informally. He must engage and study in geo-political and political thinking, with emphasis on civil-military relations. Nuances of civil-military synergy is a must know. Importantly I want to emphasise that rather than distancing themselves from engagement with politics altogether, officers should strive to become politically aware and astute.

Absolutist tendencies always have adverse implication, and awareness will prepare officers to understand and participate in strategic discussions and assessments, and actually provide the instinct and knowledge to stay away from partisan politics. This can only be achieved by a sustained process from both the civil and military senior hierarchy (not based on whims and fancies of individuals), confident that in today’s geo-political environment, awareness is better than the dangers of seclusion and closing one’s eyes to reality still allows the others to see you.

The time has come for holistic civil-military integration and synergy in India to meet the challenges of a multi-polar, multi-domain world specially with a belligerent and hegemonistic China and its ally Pakistan in our immediate neighbourhood. This necessitates change in the culture of the armed forces to become more geo-politically and politically aware and nuanced. The military will be better able to achieve a military victory/objective which corresponds to political ends. This can come about only when both the civil and military acknowledge the limitations of compartmentalised action, and work towards true integration. .

[i] Geopolitics is the analysis of the interaction between, on the one hand, geographical settings and perspectives and, on the other, political processes. Geopolitics and politics are generally the same thing, except on a global scale. While politics will centre around individuals or groups of people, in geopolitics you will mostly see countries or international organizations being discussed.

[ii] Cabinet approves creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff in the rank of four star General, PIB, GoI, 24 Dec 19.

[iii] Cabinet Secretariat Notification, 30 Dec 19

[iv] MoD Order dated 09 Jan 20 giving Allocation of Work and Staff between DoD and newly created DMA

[v] ‘The Real Threat to Civilian Control of the Military: The Officer Corps Can No Longer Simply Ignore Politics’, by Risa Brooks, Foreign Affairs, 08 Jan 2021. This article provides few ideas on the subject, but related to the US and Western concept.

[vi] ‘The Soldier & the State – The Theory & Politics of Civil–Military Relations, by Samuel Huntigton, first published in Belkamp Press, 1957

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