Overseas military deployments & defence decisionmaking

India needs to rethink its defence decisionmaking system

It is usual to conduct navel gazing after failures and fiascos. But it is good to do so after little successes. Even as the Indian Navy demonstrated the utility of its deployment in anti-piracy operations far from Indian shores, it is opportune to examine a debate that has been taking place in the background. As Manu Pubby reports the “Navy feels that it needs greater authority to tackle piracy off the Somalia coast. While the Navy has proposed that the Chief of Navy Staff be given the direct authority to sanction action against pirates in the high seas, the ministry has said that all permissions should be routed through the South Block.”

The navy’s case is based on allowing its commanders the operational flexibility to employ the appropriate assets to achieve its mission. This need not be inconsistent with the political leadership and top defence ministry officials having oversight over the broader strategic and policy issues. There is, obviously, a tension between the two, arising from where operational control ends and strategic policy starts. But the fact that there is contention between the naval headquarters and the defence ministry suggests that such issues have not been satisfactorily ironed out (perhaps because of a paucity of unilateral overseas military deployments).

Sushant Singh and I have previously argued that India must rethink its policy on overseas military deployments, and have advocated sending forces only to theatres—such as Somalia and Afghanistan—where its interests are involved. Such a policy requires development of guidelines that achieve the twin objectives: strategic alignment with geopolitical goals and operational flexibility for military commanders.

The decision of where and when to deploy is primarily a political imperative and should rest with the legitimate constitutional authority: the prime minister, the appropriate cabinet committee and the defence minister. The national security advisor, the defence secretary and the chief of defence staff must inform and advise the political authority. Of course, this means that the political leadership can task the armed forces with a particular mission. But it should not exclude the armed forces from submitting proposals to the political leadership, through defence ministry channels, seeking mandates to conduct particular operations. It is up to the civilian component—political and bureaucratic—to define the mission, sanction the capacity and approve the rules of engagement.

So empowered, the armed forces will have the mandate to conduct a particular military campaign with full operational autonomy for almost all levels of conventional warfare. Within the sanctioned capacity and rules of engagement, the military commanders will have the latitude to decide the best course of action to achieve the mission’s objectives.

It also needs changes to the structure of the armed forces. As Sushant Singh & Rohit Pradhan argue in this month’s issue of Pragati it is important to distinguish the roles military advisors and military commanders. So while the chief of defence staff (CDS) should rightly be the government’s chief military advisor, in this capacity he should not have operational control of the troops. Operational control, as K Subrahmanyam has pointed out, should be vested in theatre commands that combine army, navy and air force resources, along the lines of the US model.

Both the political leadership and the military brass might find it seductive to merely seek “control”: but what India needs is both a policy framework that defines roles and responsibilities of the top echelons of India’s defence setup, as well as a restructuring of the armed forces themselves. Until this happens, India’s approach to emerging military threats will be reactive, ad hoc and sub-optimal.

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4 Responses to Overseas military deployments & defence decisionmaking

  1. Pragmatic 12th November 2008 at 17:36 #

    Very well said, Nitin. IMO that this is indicative of the strains building up in the civil-military relations in the country. In the short-term, they may be damaging to the system. However, in the middle to long-term, one hopes that some wisdom will dawn ogn to the political class to undertake the much-needed reform of the defence services and the national security setup in the country.

    In that sense, this debate is important. The defence services lie at the core of national security but the two circles of defence services and national security are not coincident. The economy, internal security, public policy and diplomacy are other circles that partially overlap if we map the venn-diagram of national security.

    Should the defence services push the government a bit more into the corner, it might work out in the larger interest of the nation? I hope they do so and the political class is not only forced to take note but act. I hope…

  2. Vikas 13th December 2008 at 14:17 #

    It is suggested that the theater commanders work within the parameters and guidelines, laid down by the political leadership, advised by the professionals viz the services and the NSC. There is no requirement of anyone from the Defence Ministry beaurocrats except the political leadership viz. RM and RRMs.

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