India has a near-unique record in strategic matters. After World War II, it is one of the two countries that has fought four wars. The other, of course, is China. But India's four wars were all indecisive—that is to say they led to no political objective despite the lives lost. In fact, three of the wars didn't even have a political objective to begin with—the 1948 Kashmir war, the 1965 and the 1971 Indo-Pak wars. The 1962 war with China had a political objective thrust upon us, namely to defend our territory. All this, one would think, constitutes rich experience. But as Frederik the Great of Prussia said after his many campaigns: "If unthinking experience in battle is all that counts, my baggage mule should be a Field Marshal. He's been with me through eighteen battles".
War is politics conducted by other means. Therefore, wars as taught in staff colleges are fought for a political objective. The political objective is converted into a military one, the attainment of which automatically leads one to the higher political goal. It sounds simple, but hardly anyone ever gets it right. Bush (senior) and Maggie Thatcher surmised that the political objective of the Gulf war was to oust Saddam. This was converted to the military one of ejecting Iraqi forces from Kuwait and destroying the Republican Guard. Shorn of military support, Saddam would be toppled and peace restored to the Gulf. But two years after Desert Storm, Bush and Thatcher were private citizens while Saddam still rules. The lesson is: military officers fail staff colleges for getting their tactics wrong, but politicians and generals rarely get their strategy right.
In fifty years in Kashmir, India has lost more men than it has in any of the four wars it fought. Yet, two of the wars, 1965 and 1971, saw bitter but inconclusive fighting in or over Kashmir. We failed to fight these wars over the political objective of settling the Kashmir dispute because the armed forces headquarters were neither given a political objective to achieve nor could they cobble one together on their own. Indeed in 1965 Prime Minister Shastri is alleged to have said "General saab, hum iske baarey mey kuch nahi jante hain, aap log kar lijiye jo karna hai" (We don't know anything about it. You do whatever you think is right). It's not clear who Shastri said this to, but, obviously, the armed forces were not acting as a team since everyone forgot to tell the navy that a war with Pakistan was imminent. Unaware of the looming crisis, the navy was actually in the Bay of Bengal on its summer cruise when the war broke out in the West. When it did manage to get to the Arabian Sea, the government, acting through an additional secretary, merely told the navy to "not operate" north of 23 North latitude. That effectively put Karachi out of reach. If these instances, of the armed forces not acting cohesively under a Chief of Defence Staff (cds), are thought to be stray ones, there is the case of the air force, which, while the army was being battered by the Chinese in 1962, sat on their airfields because the government was fearful that using air power to save the army would "widen" the war.
So, there is a brigade of status quoists in the country, and particularly in the air force, who say that if things are going fine, why meddle with them? But things were never fine. Between 1962 and 1999, with the passing of 37 years, nothing had changed—if it took the army 19 days to request for and get air power to intervene in Kargil. Things in 1999 were just marginally better than 1962. So while the air headquarters has issued a statement that the air force stands by the ccs decision to appoint a cds, the unhappiness of the air force with fighting a joint war needs closer examination. That the air force has a right to be paranoiac is conceded. It fought and lost the battle with the navy to retain maritime reconnaissance, and it similarly lost the light helicopter fleet to army aviation. It will also most likely lose the tussle to keep ground combat helicopters, which are better integrated with the army. In retrospect, and in the calm reflection of hindsight, the air force was wrong in all these cases. But where the air force has an overwhelming case, and where it is being undeniably short-changed, is in not being made the custodian of the strategic missile forces. This is clearly an air force matter, and except in the case of submarine-launched missiles, the other services should get out of the kitchen. India's strategic deterrent should at present be with the air force. But having said that, the single-point advice to the National Command Authority on nuclear war must rest with the cds. It is absurd to imagine that only an Air Marshal will follow the PM around with the missile codes.
In the past, it may have been a laughing matter to leave one of the services out of a war altogether, as we have so incompetently done. But now that we have nuclear weapons, we are in the senior division. Rank amateurism of the kind we have so far displayed in fighting disjointed wars will lead to nuclear disaster. India is in the rare situation of having two continental neighbours who are nuclear-armed and with whom border wars have been fought. The distances involved are not inter-continental; missile flight times are just 150 and 570 seconds from Pakistan and China. There are no warning intervals. Any flying object crossing the border could be nuclear-tipped. Airspace management is impossible. The scenario of Mrs Gandhi visiting the army war room just once a day, and on some days not at all, during the Bangladesh war are things of the past. The services have to plan, fight and negotiate together. They have to integrate their intelligence, their procurement and their operational objectives, and only a cds can do all this. The Group of Ministers have nothing to fear, provided they take all their advice from the armed forces, but act resolutely. (Raja Menon, a former naval officer, writes on strategic affairs.)