ALI AHMED | 7 FEBRUARY, 2019
The Chief’s three favourite hobby horses
The army’s Land Warfare Doctrine (LWD) was put out in the public domain rather quietly in mid-December. The nondescript manner of introduction of a significant output of the army was markedly different from the release in 2004 of its predecessor document, the Indian Army Doctrine (IAD), which was preceded by briefings to the media and released as a book by the Army Training Command. The first version of the document, Indian Army: Fundamentals, Concepts, Doctrine, was also brought out in book format by ARTRAC in 1998.
Curiously, this time round the army has settled for a release of the document only in soft copy and without any front matter, explanatory preface or introductory foreword.
There was no mention of it at the last army commanders’ conference, though the media carried details of the four high-level studies that were discussed at the conference. In 2004, on the other hand, the army commanders had discussed the doctrine in their spring meeting and released its document at their meeting in autumn.
Equally surprisingly, there has been no reference to the LWD either by the usually talkative Chief or by any army commanders.
What this points to is that the document likely does not command a consensus within the army.
This dissonance is easy to explain by going through the document, which has within it three favourite hobby horses of the Army Chief.
A War on Two and a Half Fronts
The first - admittedly not his alone, but one inherited by chiefs since the turn of the decade - is regarding ‘two front’ war. The second, on the grey zone of hybrid war, is the Chief’s contribution to the management of the Kashmir conflict, one he presumably felt entitled to make since his elevation as Chief was predicated on his supposed expertise in the subject, his having spent his last three command tenures involved in it. The third also goes back a long way, to the 2004 IAD, which spelt out the so-called Cold Start Doctrine (CSD) without putting a name to it.
The first controversial aspect, the ‘two front’ thesis, is referred to as ‘multiple fronts’ in the LWD, presumably to include the ‘half front’ that is the Chief’s personal contribution to doctrinal development as part of his hyping of hybrid war.
Indelicately put, the half-front is apparently the potential front open to manipulation by the two adversaries, Pakistan and China, inside India: its Muslims (particularly Kashmiri) and its Maoists.
On the back of a growing economy sometime in the mid 2000s, and the increased interest of the United States in helping India get to great power status, the army sought to switch its focus from its western foe by measuring itself against a more respectable one – size-wise – that is, China. There was also a lull on the western front owing to the peace process kicking in around then.
The China threat was therefore timely, which if not real would have had to be conjured up.
26/11 brought the Pakistan threat back into the equation, making for the ‘two front’ threat thesis. Though officially adopted in end 2009, it did not lead to a tweaking of the IAD then, since it apparently did not carry the day with the national security establishment. That two successive governments have not bit into the army thesis is evident from the key takeaway from the army’s closed door seminar of end 2009, that the Mountain Strike Corps are not receiving the kind of support it hoped for.
It can be inferred from the reiteration of the low profile thesis in the new document that this lack continues. By no means does this imply that the thesis lacks traction - but currently, from a grand strategic perspective, it would be untimely to name the collusive foes, or create a self-fulfilling prophecy by doing so, till a growing economy furnishes the means to take on both over time.
This bit of good sense appears lost on the army, which wishes instead to use the heightened threat to fight back the marked decline in defence budgets over the past two years. While for the ruling party it is to keep China placated till it gets another term soon, for the army it is to justify its share of the pie. In short, this is a temporary disconnect between the army and its civilian masters, while the thesis amounts to common sense within the army.
A Hybrid War Makes No Room for Peace
The second familiar hobby horse is the hybrid war hoopla. This is important to flag since it is evident the national security establishment subscribes to it - so much so that the speechwriter of the prime minister at his rally south of the Pir Panjals had the PM mouth bombast such as ‘We will break the back of terrorism with all our might’ or words to that effect. Rebuke from national security watchers was not long in coming, with a senior commentator pointing out that terrorism and militancy are not quite the same.
Unfortunately, according to the hybrid war thesis in the words of the LWD, what is happening in Kashmir is a sponsored proxy war and trans-border terrorism. Such a reading leaves little scope for a peace process, notwithstanding the presence of a representative of the union government for a year and half now, and the recent appointment of a former bureaucrat, with experience at the Kashmir desk in the home ministry, as an advisor to the governor.
It is a self-serving interpretation of the problem since it leaves only the military template operational in Kashmir. It cannot be missed that this serves the interest of the army chief, allowing him scope to display his expertise in his final year as chief.
Though not against the institutional interest of the army in terms of keeping it in the national eye - if only through the recent hit, Uri - it is uncertain that the hybrid war thesis commands a consensus, since the indefinite engagement it spells cannot but keep the army tethered to the twentieth century.
Jumping the Gun
Finally, the LWD seeks to operationalise the Cold Start Doctrine, one that the current Chief was the first to acknowledge as the army’s doctrine, even though his predecessors had demurred from doing so as it lacked the support of the ministry and of sister services. There is no certainty that it has the missing backing now. This also impacts the ongoing cadre review of the officers at flag rank.
The internal disagreement perhaps owes to the operationalising of Integrated Battle Groups finding its way into the document, preempting the spring exercises in which the concept is to be tested.
In a way, the LWD appears to have jumped the gun and could be updated later in the year, which begs the question why was it not held back till then.
Maybe the Chief was in a hurry to get it out and gain a sense of ownership. It is almost certain that should there be a change in government, he is liable to have his wings clipped and will likely serve out the balance of his tenure rather tightlipped.
All told, the Land Warfare Doctrine appears to be a self-centered exercise, put out by the army’s Perspective Planning Directorate and containing its Chief’s pet projects, rather than a document that has undergone the test of due diligence and due process.
It is yet another piece of evidence on the manner of handling national security at the five year mark of this government.