Author: Air Cmde Jasjit Singh AVSM, VrC, VM (Retd)
India is unquestionably one of the foremost major powers of the world. One of the most important lessons one learns from human history is that rising to greater power and capabilities brings its own challenges. And more often than not, the assumption of being a great power can lead to the biggest mistake the powerful make: that their power would deter challenges and hence mere power is enough as the core of response.
The reality is that like building a high reputation is much easier than sustaining it, the same principle applies to national power and security. And we are not anywhere near the peak to assume that high economic growth will naturally provide the means to great power status.
To begin with, such a rise in economic growth also triggers the revolution of rising expectations; and the first thing that one must expect is the desire of ever increasing numbers of people wanting to get rich and richer by fair means and foul on one side and the reality of debilitating poverty, disease, hunger, homelessness, illiteracy and deep despondency watching on television screens a quality of life that most middle class are still aspiring to and the rich working hard to increase their income that they don’t have time to enjoy. In all this a single but the most important issue: that of national security which even those who preached and / or practiced and were directly responsible for it no longer reflect on the central elements in it. Hence to me the greatest challenge to India’s security and the dream of a billion people is that of inadequate understanding of national security. And if we don’t understand the meaning of national security, how can we respond successfully to the challenges it faces?
It may surprise most that the subject of national security is not taught as a discipline in any of hundreds of universities that churn out experts in political science and other disciplines. On the other hand there is hardly any university in the United States, the sole super power, that does not have a full course or a major curriculum backed up by think tanks on national security. The internationally well recognised concept and definition of national security rests on two pillars: that of protection and sustenance of the core values of the nation and secondly, the protection and promotion of the country’s vital national interests.
But where do we find Indian core values? Can we judge and define them individually like some of the scam-masters no doubt do? Or is it laid down anywhere for our guidance? In the Armed Forces we take our oath to uphold the Constitution, but few if any look at even the first page in the Preamble that tells everything. And rules require that this should be displayed prominently in every government office in India. But this has lost its significance because this is not related to anything learnt even in formal education. The essence of this page implies that the idea that forms the ideology of India is based on the principle of equality of the human beings. And not surprisingly that forms the basis of democracy, secularism, social and economic justice and so on. If we deviate from these values and norms, we endanger national security. Thus the challenge and required response are fairly simple to understand but people don’t know the connection nor does this form part of our Macaulayian education system. And if the Armed Forces do not pay attention to it, their ability and legitimacy receives a setback weakening national security.
The other pillar of national security concerns the Armed Forces equally directly (and vital for the nation to understand the issues since they constitute the most important public good so as to ensure its survival and security) since the most vital interest of a State is its sovereignty and territorial integrity without which the nation State does not remain one as such. There are many other vital interests that would and should take priority in our thinking and actions. Time and space do not allow me to dwell on them here. But applying the concept of national security along the above lines we can identify the principles vital for success of the Armed Forces. The obvious first is that each component of the Armed Forces and their sub-sets must work toward a common goal and objective. In other words a common approach to national security and hence a common understanding of what can be done individually as well as collectively is critical. The ideal would be a national consensus on our national interests. But the minimum is the common understanding and sharing of that understanding among all segments of the society and the nation. Achieving that common understanding about critical military issues is a military task and responsibility.
All professional militaries work on the principle of collegiate decision making as the individuals move up the command and responsibility (both representing accountability) chain. The good ones are conscious of the limits and strengths of each other and that provides the space and the concept of jointness so that each Service or component of military power compensates for the limits of the others to create a more powerful response than would be possible otherwise
To begin with, each component of the Armed Forces operates in a different medium (air power in the vertical dimension above the surface of the earth, land power on the surface of land, naval power at and under the sea) and hence each has its own strengths, capabilities and limitations. And the Armed Forces which can identify, understand and find ways and means to build the highest degree of mutually strengthening the strengths and rely on the component(s) that can step in to fill the deficit of other’s limitations would achieve the highest level of professional competence jointly. We need to introspect and understand these limits, strength and weaknesses accurately and not get carried away by narrowly based vision and loyalties. What makes the problem more complex is that loyalty to the unit, squadron, regiment, etc. is crucial and makes our Armed Forces so very special and highly combat capable. But this is bound to come in the way of a common / joint approach at another level. While at a certain level up the hierarchical ladder, this is supposed to transform into an expanded envelope of common loyalty and at the apex level this turns into loyalty to the concerned Service. Thus there is an in-built risk of natural jointness at lower levels of command and operations than at higher levels where each person has to assess the value of cooperation versus a loyalty-based single-service approach.
All professional militaries work on the principle of collegiate decision making as the individuals move up the command and responsibility (both representing accountability) chain. The good ones are conscious of the limits and strengths of each other and that provides the space and the concept of jointness so that each Service or component of military power compensates for the limits of the others to create a more powerful response than would be possible otherwise. Thus jointness becomes a farce by simply using the same or similar uniform one day in a weak without understanding one’s own and the partners’ strengths and weaknesses. Incidentally, this loyalty factor also needs to undergo significant changes in its span all the way to loyalty to the Armed Forces in general and the country in particular as the individual moves up the vector from small unit command leadership and loyalty to their own Service to higher positions of responsibility to the nation.
These capabilities of each component need to be clearly taught and understood at each level. For example, simply because of the intrinsic quality that air power acquires since it operates in the vertical medium above the earth, makes it possible for it to influence and even control the movement and freedom of actions of the surface forces on the earth and oceans below it. But the latter can only marginally impose a similar effect on air power limited to the envelope of terminal defences. This provides air power (regardless of who it belongs to or who owns it and / or operates it) with a strategic capability each and every time. Consider the oft ignored first sorties of the old warhorse, the Dakota DC-3 that flew the infantry troops from Delhi to Srinagar in a couple of hours on early morning of 27th October, 1947. If they had not landed when they did we could not have been able to put “boots on the ground” with the IAF consistently providing critical airlift and combat strength where required even in uncharted areas that finally rolled back the Pakistani invasion. The situation was so critical that the pilots were instructed to fly over the airfield (mostly a rudimentary strip then) and assess if the airfield had not been captured by the enemy and only then land. Both the Air Force and the Army, operating in their own environment to achieve a common aim, compensated each other’s limits and maximised their total capability. Otherwise the map of the sub-continent might have been quite different though not necessarily at peace. In doing so both components of military power upheld both pillars of national security.