The Great Churning: Modi’s Transformation of the Indian Military  

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India is facing its gravest crisis in decades. The country’s healthcare system is on the brink of collapse after a resurgence of COVID-19. Thousands of Indians are dying each day, and families are taking to social media to beg for oxygen, medicine, and hospital beds for loved ones. The suffering and fear is overwhelming.

Responsibility for the country’s unpreparedness — over a year into the pandemic — falls to India’s political leadership in New Delhi and the various states. Until recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was lauded for his initial handling of the pandemic. With the benefit of hindsight, Modi and his supporters declared victory too soon. This reflects a pattern in Modi’s approach to governance. In 2016, demonetization, which overnight made redundant 86 percent of the currency in circulation, was hailed as a bold step toward curbing illicit money. Eventually, reports from India’s central bank showed that this exercise had little impact. Similarly, during the current Ladakh crisis, the disengagement of forces from Pangong Tso was hailed in some quarters as a victory, whereas now there is a growing belief that Indian “troops withdrew too early.” The broader lesson in all of this is that successful policymaking in India is often hampered by near-term thinking. Reforms are announced, credit taken, and victory claimed without sufficient attention to the institutional challenges in the way of thorough implementation. The same can be said of defense and military reforms today, which run the risk of early triumphalism undermining long-term change.

The Indian military is currently undergoing a fundamental transformation. These changes are made possible primarily due to the creation, in December 2019, of the post of a chief of defense staff. Armed with a mandate to create joint theater commands, the current chief of defense staff is at the forefront of an attempted structural and intellectual transformation. Successive military crises with both Pakistan and China have added a sense of urgency, and realism, to this effort. Full credit must be given to the prime minister who, early in his second term, is implementing long-promised defense reforms. However, much more needs to be done and greater civilian intervention, and transparency, is necessary. Ironically, a potential downside of closer political interaction may pose a challenge to the military’s traditional apolitical character and test the integrity of its current and future leaders. The Indian military may have gotten what it asked for, but it must be cognizant of its added responsibilities.

History of Indian Civil-Military Ties

The Indian military, the world’s fourth largest, has a proud tradition of being under firm civilian control. At the same time, the form of civilian control which took shape in the decades after independence created problems of its own. For one, the civilian bureaucracy took on a very strong role in managing the armed forces. Strong control was not unusual and coup-proofing measures were perhaps necessary in the new republic. However, the Ministry of Defence came to be staffed entirely by civilians, many of whom had very little expertise. In an essay published in 1976, the late Stephen Cohen noted this paradox of a “crushing civilian dominance over a very powerful and large military.” Second, the Indian military was characterized by a strong single service approach — to operations, planning, training, and education. Lord Mountbatten, one of the architects of India’s higher defense organization, had, since the late 1950s, petitioned successive generations of senior political leaders to appoint a joint staff and a chief of defense staff. However, these measures were opposed for fear of a loss of civilian control. Absent such an institution, the services obtained considerable freedom and operated in silos.

This then was a strange form of civilian control as the military, in return for maintaining its apolitical character, obtained considerable freedom in its own domain. This convoluted arrangement — of strong bureaucratic control and semi-autonomous services — compromised military effectiveness. To be sure, there were some reforms after the 1999 Kargil War. However, structural weaknesses remained. It did not help that, in the ten years of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s tenure (2004–2014), defense reforms were not a priority and civil-military relations were troubled.

Modi the Revolutionary?

In May 2014, amidst expectations of great change, Modi assumed his first term in office. More than a year later, in December 2015, he gave a forward-looking speech at the biannual meeting of his senior most military commanders, leading to periodic speculation about imminent change. There were some policy reforms, but, overall, his first term was underwhelming in terms of defense policy. For example, defense expenditure as a percentage of the gross domestic product fell to record lows — comparable to levels preceding the disastrous 1962 war with China. Despite public posturing, Modi’s defense policies, in substantive terms, fell short of expectations and were deservedly criticized — even, on occasion, by serving military officers.

Perhaps the prime minister learned from this experience as early in his second term, he surprised many by announcing the decision to establish the post of chief of defense staff, setting in motion the current military transformation. In broad terms, this transformation consists of three main developments. First, the chief of defense staff led top-down defense reform initiatives. The subsequent rollout of the reform belied expectations, as the government substantially empowered this office. Accordingly, in December 2019, Modi appointed Gen. Bipin Rawat as the first chief of defense staff, also making him the head of a newly created Department of Military Affairs. Rawat has an ambitious mandate to create joint theater commands. This pleasantly surprised military reformists, with Adm. Arun Prakash calling it “the most significant development in the national security domain since Independence.”

Second, Modi has placed particular emphasis on building up India’s domestic defense industry. Going by data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India has the ignominious distinction of being the world’s largest arms importer over the last four decades. Past governments have acknowledged this problem, but their policy remedies have proven ineffective. Under the “self-sufficient India” (Aatmanirbhar Bharat) initiative, the Modi government has, in a very public way, prioritized defense production. Despite opposition from labor unions, the government has gone ahead with politically contentious issues like the corporatization of ordnance factories. Crucially, policies favor both state-owned and private sector defense enterprises amidst an ongoing effort to encourage foreign firms to participate in this sector. Perhaps the biggest achievement has been a mindset change engineered within the military and in the defense industry toward working with each other. Previously, this relationship was marked by finger-pointing, mistrust, mutual allegations of corruption, and even incomprehension. Now, these stakeholders are encouraged to work together, and the private sector is no longer imagined as a den of vice. The government has also pushed the defense industry to focus on exports, which, according to one count, has grown by over 700 percent from 2016 to 2019.

The third element of transformation is in the field of military diplomacy. Simply put, the Indian military has taken on a central role in signaling its foreign policy priorities. Previous governments in New Delhi were somewhat hesitant, and unsure, about the proper place of the military in its foreign policy — with tortured debates about military exercises, engagements, and agreements. The military, therefore, was always left second-guessing its roles and priorities. However, the Modi government is not as bothered and has given the military a role within India’s larger foreign policy. It has moved relatively quickly to complete the so-called foundational agreements with the United States, opening up avenues for more ambitious visions for the future of U.S.-Indian military-to-military ties. Simultaneously, the Indian military is more open to engaging with like-minded partners, whether with the Quad countries or further afield. To be sure, this reflects a response to the rise of China and its newfound aggressiveness, but the result is that of the Indian military more closely driving defense diplomacy.

Current Debates

Transformation inevitably creates winners and losers, triggering debates about its necessity and likely drawbacks. Some of these debates are public, but the most consequential are usually fought within bureaucracies. In India’s case, there are two major strands of debate — one pertains to civil-military relations and the other relates to jointness (defined as the ability of the three services to operate together). India’s chief of defense staff was appointed as a secretary to the newly created Department of Military Affairs — thus giving them a formal role within the governmental bureaucracy. This office, perhaps without parallel among democracies, was created to address longstanding complaints against the civilian bureaucracy. Accordingly, 23 sections along with 160 civilian staff were transferred to this office — empowering the chief of defense staff on issues pertaining to officer promotions, defense planning, and inter-services prioritization, among others. The mandate of the Department of Military Affairs disempowers the defense secretary, whose only responsibility of some consequence now pertains to capital procurement. This raises the question of whether this corrective measure may have gone too far, perhaps creating inadvertent problems later. More than one military officers, usually in off-the-record conversations, admit that civilian officials in the Ministry of Defense are a necessary check on impulsive — sometimes motivated but oftentimes ill-thought-out — proposals from the military. However, if the Department of Military Affairs assumes its role as per its officially announced charter, then the responsibility for India’s defense capabilities will lie squarely with the military — and they will have no one to blame but themselves for the future state of the armed forces. There are still some concerns about whether the Department of Military Affairs might end up as another layer of bureaucracy to stymie the military. All things considered, since the Department of Military Affairs is still a work in progress, its overall efficacy can only be studied later.

The second debate centers on jointness. The Department of Military Affairs has an explicit mandate to create joint theater commands, and, currently, there are numerous debates about their possible shape and structure. Accordingly, three new joint logistical nodes have been established. The more contentious and significant changes would be the imminent creation — some suggest by June 2021 — of a three-star maritime theater command and an air defense command. Such a template would presage a gradual “theaterization” of all commands. Theaterization refers to placing units from the army, navy and/or air force under one commander. What remains to be seen is whether these theater commands would function directly under the chief of defense staff or remain under the service chiefs. If it is the former, then it suggests that, at some point, India may adopt the model of the British Permanent Joint Headquarters, which is unlike the U.S. system where the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has no operational responsibilities. Again, the exact contours of joint theaters and its command arrangement would only be clear in a couple of years, but these debates indicate a potentially massive restructuring.

What Did Ladakh Do?

Amidst all these changes, the Indian military faced its most serious military crisis with China in over 50 years. Chinese troop deployment last year amidst the pandemic surprised the Indian military, and clashes along the disputed border led to 20 Indian and four confirmed Chinese casualties. While there has been some drawdown of forces, the crisis is by no means over.

What were the implications of this crisis on India’s military transformation? First, the crisis forced the three services to work together in a manner unprecedented since the 1999 Kargil War. This focused attention in New Delhi and drove home the urgency to adapt to the changing external environment, work toward greater jointness, and, in a sense, accelerated the urgency to reform. To be sure, however, the opposite effect also happened as there was resistance to immediate reforms on the pretext that they would create near-term instability while India faces pressing military challenges. The crisis, therefore, made it certain that theaterization, when it comes, will be implemented over a longer period of time. Second, the Ladakh crisis has reoriented Indian military posture toward the northern frontier with China. Over the last decade, the Indian military has incessantly articulated the need to fight a “two-front war” — a euphemism signaling a shift from the Pakistani border toward focusing more broadly on the threat posed by China. Despite the pronouncements, however, there was a “failure to adapt” its doctrines, force structures, and deployments. The Ladakh crisis changed that, and the Indian army, especially, is now currently “rebalancing” its military deployments away from the western borders and towards the northern borders.

The Ladakh crisis highlighted the importance of new-age technologies, primarily drones and cyber warfare, to the Indian military. Acknowledging this, in a recent speech at the Raisina dialogue, the chief of defense staff, Gen. Bipin Rawat, admitted that the Chinese “have been able to create disruptive technology which can paralyze systems of adversary.” Without being more specific about these disruptive technologies, he added, however, that India has been able to successfully resist such pressures. There is still a lack of clarity on the organizational and doctrinal changes that logically should follow such changes. However, it is clear that new-age “disruptive technologies” are increasingly the focus of attention within the military.

What Needs to Be Done?

The Modi government should learn its lesson from past policy failures and resist premature declarations of victory by assuming that establishing the chief of defense staff is an end in itself. Instead, this is the beginning of the process. The government needs to reform the civilian bureaucracy, which suffers from, among other problems, a lack of expertise on defense issues. There is a need to create a “dedicated security administration cadre” of civilian experts to staff national security bureaucracies, as suggested by prior reform committees, who can work with the military and enhance both civilian control and military effectiveness. However, elements of such systemic reforms have yet to be put in place.

India’s current military transformation requires greater civilian participation and expertise in defense matters. The chief of defense staff has a difficult job of carving out a role while dealing with strong single-service bureaucracies. In this effort, amidst vociferous debates on theater commands and its functional arrangements, there seems to be a lack of civilian guidance. To address this lacunae, Adm. Arun Prakash, a former chief of naval staff and a member of various reform committees, recommended the “constitution of a Parliamentary Committee, with military advisers, to oversee and guide this transformational process.” However, civilian intervention in the reforms process appears to be minimal and, instead, the chief of defense staff is seemingly driving the process. Unfortunately, the chief of defense staff and his staff have not yet come up with any reform document or vision document, and instead there are periodic airing of ideas.

Moreover, leaving it to the military to reform itself would be a mistake. Bureaucracies often prioritize human resource considerations over operational effectiveness. This dynamic is especially pronounced in the Indian military, which has short tenures for commanders at the brigade (typically 18 to 24 months), division (12 to 15 months), and corps (11 months) levels. This has had a direct impact on the Ladakh crisis as the as 19 different commanders have commanded the corps responsible for its defense in its 21 years of existence.”  In addition, thus far, there has been little talk of civilian-led reform of professional military education or of incentivizing joint billets for senior officers promotions. As argued by the military historian Srinath Raghavan, “unless there is a thorough overhaul of professional military education, the military will be unable meaningfully to work the new structures that are taking shape.” Such an approach of reengineering and reform is required in virtually every other facet of military power — doctrines, force structures, acquisition, and so on. Greater civilian intervention is, therefore, required to usher in an intellectual, as well as physical, transformation.

Potential Downside

There is a potential downside to this newfound political engagement with the military. The civilian bureaucracy, for better and for worse, acted as a layer of insulation between the political class and the military. As the past few months have demonstrated, the country’s political elite often fails to exercise restraint and is capable of making costly errors. However, with the creation of the chief of defense staff and the Department of Military Affairs, political intervention in the military promises to be more direct than ever before. That sort of a relationship is precisely what military reformists, frustrated by “civilian bureaucratic control,” have been arguing for. However, there is a potential danger of politicization of the military, wherein military officers indicate their support for a political leader, party, or ideology to promote their personal careers. Over the last couple of years, there have been numerous commentaries, across generations of veterans, expressing this precise fear (read here, here, here, and here).

Closer interactions with politicians will test the integrity of current and future generations of military officers. Whether they succumb to the temptations of power for their immediate gains or uphold their constitutional oaths and retain the apolitical tradition remains to be seen. As the Indian military undergoes its most significant transformation, it should remember an adage — everything need not change.



Anit Mukherjee is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore and a non-resident fellow at Centre for Social and Economic Progress (CSEP).

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel Northrup)