The Way We Were – Maj. General Raj Mehta

Some defence affairs commentators find the Indian Defence Establishment in disarray; the Indian Armed Forces out of kilter

 “The problem is that we discuss so much, so brilliantly and from so many angles, that we are left with little clarity at the end…of what we need to do, how and in which time frame, besides little stomach for execution”  – Narayana Murthy, Mentor Infosys, on national TV, 13 November 2010.

 “E tu, Brute?” Latin phrase immortalized by Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1599). The quotation is widely used in Western culture to signify the utmost betrayal.


“The Way We Were” is the poignant title of a  bitter-sweet Hollywood love story of the heady seventies, starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford that ends up recalling happier days; the way we were, before angst, bitterness and  mistrust ruin a budding relationship. The Indian defence establishment; its armed forces; Army leading, has been plummeted from the dizzy heights of national euphoria in the seventies to its current, routine castigation by just about anyone across profession, rank, experience, or credentials to criticize constructively. The  media; printed, TV, new media is such that readers/viewers fed on  a barrage of sometimes poorly researched and needlessly hyped, opinionated statements by some arm-chair defence analysts/strategists may start believing that the defence establishment; in particular the Army, once the most respected of Government Institutions, is in terminal decline. What calumny.

 The defence forces have so far borne this self-inflicted hurt (we trustingly invite these commentators to educate us only to have them brutalize us later) phlegmatically and generously.  It is, however, in context of this frequent denouement of the military that this article examines the bitter-sweet opinions and reflections expressed in recent times by some at times sanctimonious writers/demagogues who occupy  hitherto unchallenged  intellectual space related to defence matters – policy, strategy, doctrine, structure, manning, threat analysis et al.


Recent comments have expressed angst about the induction into the PMO of a retired senior Infantry officer who had headed the Strategic Forces Command (SFC). The carping is about his being a “generalist” whose grasp of nuclear related strategic matters is “not known” to the defence community. The speculation is that he has been set a mandate of creating an Indian version of the supposedly professional and effective Pakistani nuclear secretariat – Strategic Plans Division (SPD). The implied criticism is that nuclear secretariats the world over are run by a specialist cadre  “top-to-bottom”; not an IAS/SFC variety of generalists that we have today. Such officers, it has been suggested, should be commissioned as SFC officers and trained incrementally on nuclear war-fighting. Vice Admiral Koithara (Retd), who, in his recent, landmark book on operationalising the Indian nuclear arsenal is derided by these analysts for not recommending a specialist cadre but merely the need for adequate “socialization”.  These defence commentators opine that India can ill afford IAS type generalists in the SFC except at cost. In the meanwhile, the PMO’s effort to revamp the nuclear decision making and its associated organisational and management apparatus is being watched by these analysts with cynical as opposed to keen, positive interest.

Readers will wonder what being from the Infantry has to do with being well-versed with nuclear war-fighting as much as they might wonder whether academics degrees in arts  subjects earned abroad qualify an analyst to become a nuclear war-fighting expert. The sobering reality is that General K Sundarji, the iconic Army Chief who acquired an enviable international reputation for his brilliant grasp of nuclear war-fighting, was also an Infantry officer. That said, the PMO’s efforts to codify nuclear war-fighting command and control norms using a retired SFC officer is obviously a step in the right direction. The SPD example, driven by a military (read Army) autocracy is not quite the best model to follow by a vibrant democracy. Instead, careful study and sensible application of the UK, French and US models may be more productive for the PMO.

 So far as the specialist cadre for SFC is concerned, it is an interesting idea but one that needs substantial thinking through. For one thing, the concept will affect not just the three Services, but, equally, the scientific community whether DRDO, BARC, ISRO and other specialist agencies. An HR model that will look at career progression issues within a small, nascent service will also have to be evolved, as issues of repetitive functioning and its security ramifications thereof; life long functioning within a “tunnel” which is what specialization encompasses. This, as opposed to the adrenalin driven challenge of  liberal and cross-linked development of ones faculties by taking on diverse challenges in each tenure; challenges that keep your creative juices flowing. The presumption that the current generalist  SFC staffing pattern is akin to  IAS babugiri  is wasted sarcasm  as generalist skills will be the order of the day with multi-skilling being an entry level qualification for the integrated battle field. One cannot help saying et passim  that today’s much reviled IAS generalist branding is what made the ICS – from which the IAS has evolved-  into the finest civil service in the world. The idea is therefore not faulty; just its understanding, implementation and oversight. Presuming that the SFC has carried forward the IAS legacy is being disingenuous, ill-informed and needlessly patronizing.

On a different tack, some  analyst’s naïve presume with reference to Pakistan,  that feelings of kinship, cultural ties and  its  David-versus-Goliath  inequality with India    will compel Pakistan to stop at nuclear brinkmanship rather than risk nuclear first use in a future war with India. This is a quixotic construct that will have few takers the world over. The world’s biggest security worry today is not just the repeated Jehadi efforts to target Pakistani bases which reportedly harbour nuclear weapons, but, equally, the growing unrest within the Pakistani armed forces (from which, incidentally, the “specialist cadre” of the SPD has been extracted) about their role in emerging Pakistan and their documented involvement in state sponsored terror. The grim implications of their being the custodians of Pakistan’s nuclear war-fighting wherewithal do not need reiteration in educated forums.

India’s efforts to improve its debilitating electricity deficit by using nuclear energy to generate power has led some commentators to (amazingly) advise the Government to build such nuclear power stations all along our “borders” with Pakistan to nuetralise the remotest risk of the Pakistani Nuclear Command Authority ordering strikes against them. The logic given is that the fear of radioactivity spilling over the border will inhibit the urge to strike such targets. This line of thought is extended by saying that fear of assured Indian nuclear response will compel the Pakistani Army and ISI to control terror groups who might target these sites, because the costs to Pakistan will be unmanageable. The added suggestion: Unilaterally withdraw the liquid-propelled nuclearised version of the allegedly ill thought through Prithvi missiles to reduce our trust deficit with Pakistan/inspire confidence in them (because we have the Agni missile in place), makes the lay reader wonder whether mindless rhetoric has hijacked both reality and realpolitik.

One would think that such commentators have given the hapless PMO enough to chew upon. That is unfortunately not the case. The next unsolicited advice, reportedly offered in international forums is that the Chinese gave the Pakistanis a “dirty” bomb. We should improve on that by giving it our clean implosion trigger fission technology. The perceived gain? Improving the trust deficit, my dear Watson…! The disconcerting logic offered by the analyst is that Pakistan has never posed a credible threat to India ever and will never ever be a threat. That being so, unilateral transference of superior Indian nuclear weapon technology to Pakistan stands vindicated, seeking nothing in return.


Some analysts have gloomily noted that the Government has the Service Chiefs to come up with a “joint plan” against China in the event of war. To them this implies that the Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) concept which envisaged integrated airlift, attack helicopters and logistics for offensive operations is dead and buried. They also accuse the MEA China Study Group (CSG) of promoting peace over preparing for war. They fear that because the MSC was pushed by Gen VK Singh, the current Chief would desist from carrying the VK “China tilt” forward. Fearful of a Chinese “incursion” into Sikkim, they fear we are under prepared and need the aging T-72 tanks to be replaced by independent T-90 brigades  fit for operating anywhere along the 4700 km border/LAC with China. The UPA, these analysts feel, has marginalized the Army and promoted the IAF and Navy in its plans to tackle China. What these analysts demand is that the Army double its current deployment of ten divisions, all offensive in orientation with full complements of force-multipliers. This coupled with long range missiles with thermonuclear bombs that work (they suspect that those tested by India were duff and clamour for stringent retesting) is the only way to keep China at bay. They fear that, given our current policy of CSG led “appeasement” and China’s rapidly improving infrastructure, we are in serious trouble. The analysts feel that the Army in particular is simply not good at transformation because it lacks “organisational agility”…The Army brass are clueless about the way ahead. This is so, these prescient analysts feel, because the defence forces are linear, defensive, orthodox, risk-averse and antiquated in outlook. What is needed is not appeasement CSG style but a mixture of savvy orientation, vigour enterprise and drive which is lacking in the forces.

Readers in the know will be appalled by the divisiveness, the savage, misdirected innuendos about defence forces incompetence/inertia and embarrassing lack of  practical terrain knowledge of this surreal chair-borne analysis, which, though starkly true in part, lacks a sense of perspective and equilibrium. The one whistle blower who merits our deep respect 62 years after he wrote a brilliant, precedent-setting-for-a-politician military appreciation of the threat from China and our needless “appeasement” of that country with rhetoric (Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai) is Vallabh Bhai Patel, the Deputy PM and Home Minister under Nehru. His prescient look at our China policy was cold-shouldered by   Nehru. Its slip-shod compliance, decades later is the core reason why we are genuinely ill prepared for a war with China. Holding the Services responsible for this logjam is therefore thoughtless and imprudent. The CSG is MEA turf; not the Armed Forces, and, if appeasement is indeed its cup of tea, isn’t Government of the day responsible?

 The sheer effrontery with which these analysts say that the MSG idea is buried shows how little they know about synergy and the way the Services create it. For MSG’s to evolve, intimate “jointness” is needed between the Army and Air Force So what’s wrong if Government asks the Chiefs to jointly devise a workable formula? The thoughtlessness of saying that the Government is promoting the other two Services over the Army (because of the “VK” factor) is as asinine as suggesting that the current Chief, Gen Bikram Singh, is neglecting the MSG because of ego hassles. Firstly, the person lending substance to the VK “China tilt” was none other than his Eastern Army Commander, now the Chief. Secondly, the “China tilt” is a legacy of the disastrous Sino-Indian War of   1962, so what’s new? Lastly, each of India’s defence forces have clearly enunciated charters, both stand-alone as well as joint. To presume that the Government is being divisive by promoting one over the other is to miss the wood for the trees. Not the least, the implied taunt that the defence forces are sluggish, diffident about China and laggardly is disrespectful of the reality. The Services suffer from no such complex. The Navy is doing its job competently in international waters. The IAF is building capacity opposite China quietly and rapidly; aware that its airfields are at far lower altitudes vis-à-vis the Chinese in Tibet; a huge strategic advantage. It has better aircraft and certainly better pilots. The Army knows that even in 1962, what failed was political and higher military leadership. Man-for-man, the younger officer and soldier were more than a match for the PLA. A study of the 1962 Western Command battlefields for instance; of Rezang La in the west and Walong in the east will dispel all doubts about the quality of Indian soldiering. Post 1962, India has won all its wars on home turf, including the stand-off with China at Wangdung. The senior Army leadership today is quietly confident of fighting well (as in Kargil; Gen Ved Malik’s grim statement) with what it has.  The common man has that faith too.  The problem is with the small heckling lobby; driven by the numbing rhetoric to which the reader has just been exposed.


When some defence analysts make inane remarks questioning the professional credentials of the Army Chief; write glibly that Army commanders become richer by crores post their tenures; when they imply that the Army rank and file is desperately antiquated and rates very poorly (as compared to Western nations, China) in terms of using and understanding modern weapons, they display abominable naivety. They do not know that,  even with state-of-the-art weapons available on demand, the Americans have won no war after World War 2 and are currently in departure mode, revoking the shame of Vietnam in Afghanistan. While these analysts praise the Chinese for being ten feet tall, lauding their thoroughness, strategic foresight, rapid modernisation  and soldiering skills, they forget that bamboo-sandal-clad Vietnam savaged China in 1979, forcing the PLA to withdraw after sustaining over 35,000 casualties and learning instead of teaching lessons. . To write/state that India is stuck with a military that cannot think straight because it is incapable of strategic thinking is really to want to be lauded for being both thoughtless as well as grossly ignorant about ones own armed forces and their displayed military capability.

This writer has two concluding points to make: Firstly, pointing an astonishing lack of practical knowledge by one such “revered” analyst – Making one gargantuan “Strike Corps” out of the three we have; thus assembling an unprecedented 3,500 tanks under one head…with the quixotic intention of spooking Pakistan a Pakistan inexplicably perceived as a “nuisance” which can be won over by networking them into the Indian ur security and economic matrix. To such a Pakistan, we need to disarm them by sharing our clean nuclear fission technology and unilaterally capping our Prithvi nuclear missiles. Any young officer with some ground experience will instantly point out to the sheer impracticality of these suggestions and the yawning gap that exists between high sounding rhetoric and hardnosed practicality. The last word, stated in sadness and in incipient hope is that the Indian Armed forces have so far, involved in  national good; always and every time whenever the country needed them. A mans most prized possession is his life and India has lost count of the soldiers who died unhesitatingly for the Idea of India. It is therefore a moot point for defence analysts to consider whether the good that soldiers do when alive should be “oft interred with their bones?”  With what intent and purpose? Nation building or nation denigration?

Friends, Indians, Analysts; lend me your ears…Allow the governance and  defence forces of a nascent democracy to grow and prosper through constructive, analytical, research led criticism, not mindless carping. Let the defence forces become capable and worthwhile servants of the people.

Allow them to be the way they were, in the euphoric seventies. Do not let them look at you askance; in your avatar of unending abuse and calumny of everything military. They are, after all, your forces. Avoid their silently mouthing;“E tu Brute?” The Services, the Army leading, will not fall, fail or collapse, of course, but you will certainly denigrate the Idea of India.


One comment

  1. Capt K Senthil Kumar (Retd) /

    A perfect rebuttle to the ill informed analysts, hats off to your sir for such a wonderful article !

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