Why oh why can’t we have better defence reporters?

Deterring external threats and combating domestic insurgents are two equally important tasks

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Ajai Shukla, NDTV’s defence correspondent and a former Indian army colonel, argues that Indian defence is dysfunctional. That’s because, he says, the armed forces are geared towards ‘invading a medium sized country’ while the real threat to India’s security comes from terrorism and insurgencies. So he applauds a recent speech by Defence Minister A K Antony, who “stated that India’s greatest security threat is not Pakistan, China, or nuclear weapons, but the difficulties of meeting the aspirations of all of India’s citizens at a time of rapid modernization.”

Like the pre-Iraq Pentagon and Whitehall, India’s establishment still believes that if the military has credible state-versus-state war-fighting capability, everything else will follow. Most weapons purchases in the pipeline are platforms needed for all-out war…You’d think that India’s last two decades of counterterrorism operations have been a brief interregnum before the military gets on with its primary task of invading a medium-sized country. [WSJ/Broadsword]

The amount of confusion in Shukla’s article is astounding, for he misses the fundamental reason why the Indian armed forces must always be prepared to fight conventional wars—deterrence. It is naive to think that the age of conventional state to state wars are over, just seven years after Kargil. If a conventional state to state war is ‘inconceivable’ today, it is because the military balance is stable. But the balance of power is dynamic and changes over time. It is necessary, therefore, to invest in maintaining this balance. So purchasing modern aircraft, missiles, ships and submarines is not misdirected at all. Rather, it is essential to ensure strategic stability along India’s borders and in the Indian Ocean region. It is unfathomable how Shukla could make such an argument when China’s military modernisation is worrying defence planners as far away as in Washington.

One might expect such an experience to orient a country’s security forces toward counterterrorism, as in the case of Israel. Not so in India, a rising power deeply uncomfortable with acknowledging disaffection and alienation among its own people…Strategy has followed the “foreign-hand” rhetoric. India’s military has directed its energies towards the external rather than the internal threat. Of two million men in uniform, barely 5,000 are counterterrorism specialists.

The argument that Indian armed forces must be refocused towards counter-insurgencies at home is faulty. There is no question that terrorism and insurgencies are major threats to national security. But Shukla’s argument—that the armed forces must focus more on domestic battles rather than deter external aggression—is absurd. India needs to do both. More importantly, as The Acorn has consistently argued, the Indian armed forces must not be called upon to fight their own, albeit disaffected compatriots. It is for good reason that many central paramilitary forces are housed under the home ministry, and not the defence ministry.

(In any case, the UPA government’s approach towards this is confused: on the one hand it wants to abolish the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act that empowers the army to fight armed separatists and insurgents. On the other it wants to involve them in more such operations.)

If its forces are prevailing in the struggle against separatist, left-wing and jihadist movements, this has less to do with equipment and training than with the sheer manpower that the Indian state can deploy: some 1.2 million soldiers and 750,000 paramilitary troops today

While Indian forces fighting terrorists and insurgents could do with upgrades in equipment and technology, it does not change the underlying fact that counterinsurgency is largely a numbers game. As America’s unhappy experience in Iraq shows, defeating insurgents requires boots on the ground and sound heads over shoulders. Moreover, in India’s economic context, labour is relatively more abundant than capital. So it is reasonable that the armed forces will be manpower-intensive. If India is prevailing in its battle against terrorists and insurgents due to the “sheer manpower” it can deploy, then that’s in the nature of things.

India’s counterterrorism strategy also suffers from misdirected intelligence gathering. India’s intelligence agencies have successfully infiltrated the decision-making elites of each one of its neighbours. But there has been little infiltration, either through human sources or electronically, of today’s terrorist cells run by radicalized educated professionals.

Shukla blames this external focus for being caught by surprise on the London/Glasgow botched bombings as an example. He also claims that Indian intelligence has failed to apprehend the culprits behind any of the recent terrorist attacks in Indian cities. Here Shukla is clearly attempting to adjust facts to fit his thesis. It is becoming clear that the London/Glasgow plot was the handiwork of a self-radicalised group, with very loose links to major jihadi outfits. That’s why everyone missed them. And that’s probably why they missed their targets too. And as for failure to apprehend the culprits behind the Delhi, Mumbai, Varanasi and other bombings, surely, Shukla can’t be unaware that the UPA government deliberately reined in police and intelligence agencies out of a concern that arresting Muslims would hurt its votebank.

Defence Minister A.K. Antony signalled an important shift in India’s security perceptions from external threats to the internal issues that breed terrorism: communal confrontation, sub-nationalism and lack of governance.

Finally, there is nothing to cheer about in Defence Minister’s A K Antony’s speech that India’s greatest security threat is the “difficulties of meeting the aspirations of all of India’s citizens at a time of rapid modernization.” Those are challenges of governance, public policy and maintenance of law & order. While those are no doubt challenges for the Indian government, it would be imprudent for the defence ministry to go about trying to solve those problems. A K Antony should not try to do the incompetent Shivraj Patil’s job.

The task for the armed forces, and by extension the defence ministry is cut out: to ensure that Indian military power creates a stable and peaceful environment without which there can be no development.

22 thoughts on “Why oh why can’t we have better defence reporters?”

  1. Col. Ajai Shukla seldom makes sense, especially when he talks about issues that never concerned him during his service in the military. But in this particular article, I must say he has a point – India needs to devote more resources to counter-terrorism. And this is happening – all IMA graduates get CI training nowadays. Specialised equipment(thermal imagers, surveillance radars, encrypted comms) is being put to good use often. And yes, India is succeeding in J&K slowy but surely.

    As for good defence reporters, there are a few worth noting – Shiv Aroor (the odd anti-DRDO article aside, I like the stuff he writes), Vishnu Som, Maroof Raza, Huma Siddiqui, etc.

  2. One wonder what Ajai Shukla was drinking when he wrote the piece? Turning military internally? A terror unit fighting squad can easily be turned into army fighting squad when Pak’s cross the western border armed to the teeth with American supplied apparent anti-terror war machines? This can be done even if ignoring the tremendously expanding monster to the north east claiming vast parts of the country?

    In fact Indian military is wary of war fighting capabilities used to fight terrorists in J&K (and elsewhere) and more than glad to hand over the day-to-day activities to para-military. Speaking of Israel, its not only deals with terrorists but also ready to deal with about 10 hostile countries in it’s vicinity extending all the way to Iran. Shukla picked the wrong example to make his case.

    Looks like Shukla was trying to breath air into AK Anthony’s unoriginal thesis on military’s future.

    I was really hoping Shivraj will become the president so that a more capable person will take over home ministry (I know, hope over experience with Manmohan and UPA in charge). Instead, we got an utterly corrupt president with shear incompetency continuing at home.

  3. Did he really go to NDA or IMA…or he is one of those who left because he was stuck being a Lt Col for zillion years and had some connections ripe at NDTV or IBN or what not….did he lost out the lesson at NDA that Army is meant to fight external threat and police is meant to fight internal threat….

    The world’s best counter insurgency ops have been done by Police in Punjab and Scotland Yard in UK and not the Army…

    His next…. India is hovering in dark because Army has not geared to rule itself and that what it is meant for aka Pakistan and other friendly neighbourhood…..India is not picking up economically like China for it doesnt take up economic ventures..

    Some people….!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. @Above:
    Col. Shukla was known to be a very competent officer in the Armoured Corps. Kicking mud on his professional achievements just because we disagree with him is wrong.

  5. Mihir,

    There’s no doubt that CI forces need a shot in the arm. The problems with Shukla’s piece sre firstly, he condemns investment in addressing the threat of conventional war; and secondly proposes that the army be used for CI. The comparison with Pentagon and Whitehall are bunk; as our army does not have an urgent need to take on insurgents in foreign lands, unlike American and British forces. How he could ignore the issue of military balance with China next door remains a mystery to me.

    The second is a issue of policy judgement. I don’t believe that the army should fight its own citizens. Shukla can think otherwise; but he provides no grounds to support his case.

  6. I’ve read a few articles by Col. Pavan Nair on India Together. He is a strong opponent of the Indian army’s position on the Siachen Glacier and the tortuous conditions under which soldiers spend their time there (mostly for a good promotion).

    I heard that ppl who work at ndtv for a long time become commies.

    Surprisingly, it was NDTV’s Burkha Dutt who covered the Kargil War extensively. Not sure how it is nowadays.

  7. I suppose he just wanted to say that Indian army should gear towards counter-terrorism too..

    Yeah, I dont trust NDTV either.. its an out and out commie channel. But note the irony/hypocrisy, NDTV profit is all about business and economy !! I suppose both the channels might even not be consistent with each other. But who cares? Karat’s sister is making money and *may* be donating some of it to the CPM, in return for political protection.

  8. >>> India’s intelligence agencies have successfully infiltrated the decision-making elites of each one of its neighbours.

    Then why was Kargil a surprise? And then why are Bangladeshi encroachments on our territory a surprise?

  9. Nitin,

    What do you think about writers on defense like Subrahmanyam, Chellaney, and our very own Jaffna .

    We do have good defense thinkers, but we dont have good news channels !

  10. Why should it be an either-or choice? The experiences of the Indian Army starting from Sri Lanka (and I’m not referring to the insurgencies in the North-east much earlier) belie their current vision, training and equipping. How about Kargil – how much of it was conventional warfare? Could we actually cross the line during Parakram? A general officer was sacked by the then government for moving his tanks too close to the IB.

    It is akin to the mindset that the US army had post-Vietnam – let’s not talk about asymmetrical warfare, we will tackle Warsaw pact countries in Europe. Eventually when they land up in Iraq and Afghanistan, the current talk is to discard the conventional altogether in favour of CI and CT operations.

    We should avoid falling into the same trap. It is about striking a balance between the two conflicting requirements – of conventional and non-conventional warfare. All armies, given a choice, would want to fight only the conventional war – train for it and be fresh to take it on, when the time comes. However, the ground realities are different – India has done and will continue to quell its ‘million mutinies’ and the army happens to be last refuge of the scoundrel. The police forces have their own limitations – whether it be state police or central police organisations – the army can’t (and if you think dispassionately it shouldn’t) avoid its share of responsibility (as dirty as it could be) and remain a holy cow.

    And, it’s not about personalities – it is about the systems and processes in place? When the foreign minister of a country accompanies terrorists during a hostage crisis and the defence minister compromises the RAW intelligence sources to score a PR point against Pakistan President during Kargil against professional advice, no strategy or equipping or training will help in asymmetric operations. As with diplomacy during conventional warfare, it is the political nous during the internal strife that has to play along and actively support the military to act as a force multiplier. The key is the attitude, the mindset, the nous – of politicians, bureaucrats and the generals.

    My counter question is – why can’t we have better processes, better systems and dynamic institutions? And I hope the real professionals will then be there – in defence, bureaucracy, politics as well as in journalism.

  11. pragmatic

    no strategy or equipping or training will help in asymmetric operations. As with diplomacy during conventional warfare, it is the political nous during the internal strife that has to play along and actively support the military to act as a force multiplier. The key is the attitude, the mindset, the nous – of politicians, bureaucrats and the generals.

    Indeed. To that I’d add the attitudes of the media, opinion shapers and ultimately of the public itself. I’ve called this the “clash of convictions”.

    That the Army and Rashtriya Rifles (same difference) are engaged in CI, and trained and equipped for it is a fact. My argument is that except in circumstances where there is a clear external link (J&K and the proxy war is a good example), they should not be deployed for these purposes. So I’m against the use of the Army in anti-Naxalite operations, for instance. And I’m very much against the use of the Army to quell communal riots. The peace-making capacity of a flag march will be diluted and lost if it is used too frequently. So it is, as you say, about processes and institutions. Personalities, unfortunately, can mess up the best of both.

  12. “Personalities, unfortunately, can mess up the best of both.”

    Touche! Point conceded…

  13. Acron missed to note that Ajay wants Govt to spend millions for night vision goggles & bullet proof vests etc along with billions spent for offensive platforms which may not be used at all. I suppose that makes sense.

  14. Invalid,

    It makes sense. But just where in the article does he make that point? I suppose then the title of the post, and the main argument should be “India Must Invest in More Night Vision Goggles and Bullet Proof Vests”, not “Dysfunctional Defence”. No, in this article he’s calling for a change in focus.

    or offensive platforms which may not be used at all

    That’s the point. Investing in platforms that may not be used at all is a good idea if the investing rules out their use. That’s deterrence.

  15. Nitin,
    I agree with you about Col. Shukla being wrong about compromising conventional war fighting capability for CI. Some journos tend to do that from time to time. All we can do is smile at their foolishness and be secure in the knowledge that better sense prevails where it should.

    I partially disagree with you when you say that the Army shouldn’t be used to fight its own citizens. Until recently, the Army was the only Indian institution that had the highly trained manpower, equipment, and wherewithal to fight such battles against trained militants. Today, most of India’s CI battles are being fought by the RR and the CRPF. Both being paramilitary organisations, the former being a specialised CI force.

  16. well this was very well written
    hypocracy and indian communists go together

    we face an active threat from china and as u rightly pointed out we have to have deterrence
    isn’t china doing the same ? infact they are rapidly strengthening blue water capabilities and slbm capability to counter USA , not only that they want a road to the himalayas
    yes better counter terrorism tactics should be employed but what is the point with such a lame and weak central govt which is bending over backwards to move troops out of jnk to help the overground wing of the HUM(as per a retired COAS on times now) or the PDP as it popularly called .

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