Indian Army Chief’s Dilemma

General Dalbir Singh Suhag, the current chief of the Indian Army, is a proud third generation soldier from the Jat clan. During the past 41 years, General Suhag has participated in numerous combat operations in Kashmir, Kargil, Sri Lanka, Assam and Nagaland, and has over 1.1 million men under his command. Since independence, the Indian army has conducted numerous combat operations against Pakistan, China, Sri Lanka, and Maldives. However, the large size of the army, its long history, and the growing Indian economy, pose various challenges for General Suhag, some of which are driven more by the army’s organizational interests rather than Indian national interests.

Military, by its very nature and function, attributes great value to unity, discipline, and leadership. However, the study of organizational behavior considers three important factors: size of the organization, its adaptability to environment and differences among resources, and operational objectives. The age of colonization introduced competition for resources between the army and the navy, which was further intensified in the 20th century by the introduction of the air force. A brief review of 20th and 21st century warfare informs us that in industrialized societies, the military increasingly became heavily dependent upon domestic industry, whereas in the developing countries, due to limited industrial capacity, the military either remained dependent on foreign military industry, or sought human-intensive solutions to their security challenges. Currently, Indian society is undergoing a major transformation from an agricultural economy to an industrialized economy. This transformation has deep and far reaching implications for the army, and the environment in which it operates.

Industrialization of a society suggests that it would prefer industrial solutions to national security, while remaining averse to risky human-intensive security solutions, on which an agricultural society traditionally relies. The advent of armed drones, unmanned submarines, and stand-off precision guided munitions are all manifestations of this thought. Western industrialized nations developed heavily-armored tanks to save soldiers, while in poor nations, brave men laid down their lives, saving expensive tanks. In warfare involving developing nations, courage is sometimes viewed as the ability to accept great risks, while an industrialized society prefers minimizing them.

The armies of major industrialized nations like the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and Israel are much smaller than those of China and India, two agrarian societies, currently undergoing industrialization. Industrialized nations with much smaller populations rely more on advanced weaponry like modern fighters, missiles, tanks, ships, and submarines, and less on large infantry formations. As an example, the Israeli Army, with only 133,000 active troops, approximately ten percent of the size of the regular Indian army, is equipped with over 2,422 modern Merkava tanks, and more than 550 self-propelled howitzers.

For the national security of a nation, the phenomenon of industrialization has far reaching implications, as it fundamentally alters the relative distribution of resources between different armed services of a country. The U.S. Army receives a 31 percent share in the U.S. defense budget, whereas the U.S. Navy and Air Force get a 23 and 22 percent share, respectively. According to the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), the Indian Army receives 53 percent share of the Indian defense budget, while the Indian Air Force receives 24 percent, and the Indian Navy gets 17 percent. Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), the research arm of the Indian defense establishment, receives 5 percent of the defense budget.

The industrialization of Indian society poses various daunting challenges for the army leadership. First, as the chief of an army which has traditionally maintained a very large manpower for decades, it is very difficult to reduce troops to afford more expensive and advanced weaponry. Secondly, reducing force size will also affect the morale of the fighting men and new recruits, as heavily populated agrarian societies traditionally have all-volunteer armies. Third, while in agrarian societies the military is considered a lucrative and prestigious profession, an industrialized society opens new vistas for other lucrative and less risky professions, such as the IT, financial, and banking sectors. This implies that the armed services can no longer rest assured that they will receive the best of manpower, and now have to compete to attract the best minds and bodies. Fourth, in order to sustain large budgetary allocation against stiff competition from other military services, the army has to develop doctrines, strategies, tactics, and operational plans which can justify large funding, and help sustain large and well-paid manpower. Fifth, and the most onerous challenge for such an army, is to operate in a nuclear rather than an exclusively conventional environment. Currently, most large industrialized powers are either nuclear powers, or enjoy the nuclear umbrella offered by the United States or NATO. Today, India’s military leadership faces all five challenges. Thus, it will have to convince both its political leadership and the increasingly rich and risk-averse tax payers, why maintaining a large army equipped with conventional weaponry is useful—despite the fact that both China and Pakistan have advanced nuclear arsenals, useable in a variety of scenarios.

The Indian army has succeeded in persuading its leadership that despite the presence of nuclear weapons across a common border, it can fight a limited conventional war. One wonders whether the powerful political leadership and influential bureaucrats in the world’s largest democracy would ask tough and logical questions of its military leaders—why does India need to maintain such a large army and spend billions of taxpayers’  dollars on it, when both Pakistan and China possess battlefield nuclear weapons? Moreover, in the contemporary era of rapidly growing aerospace and cyber technologies, achieving surprise in a limited conventional war is no longer possible. In addition, amassing huge military formations on the border and spending huge sums of money  on conventional weaponry impedes Prime Minister Modi’s goals of rapid growth, regional economic integration, and developing a shorter land-based trade route with Central Asia, through Pakistan.

General Suhag, the Indian Chief of Army Staff, while protecting and pursuing his organizational interests, should not lose sight of the Indian national interests. In its attempt to impress the ambitious Indian political leadership, subdue Pakistan, and secure hefty funds to sustain a large army despite stiff competition from other services, the Indian Army should not unwittingly ignite a nuclear war in South Asia. Courage is essential for a soldier, but wisdom is compulsory for a general. A wise general needs to win the confidence of his leader, inspire his men, and keep them well-armed and well-fed. However, he also knows which war can not only make him lose his command and the trust of his leadership, but also destroy his army, and harm his country’s national interest. After the advent of nuclear weapons, like the famous American strategist Bernard Brodie pointed out, the job of a general has changed, from wining to preventing wars, which requires wisdom more than courage.


Image: Virendra Singh Gosain-Hindustan Times, Getty

Posted in , India, Internal Security, leadership, Military

Syed Muhammad Ali

Syed Muhammad Ali

Syed Muhammad Ali is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for International Strategic Studies (CISS), Islamabad. Pakistan. Earlier, he has taught Dimensions of Modern Strategy, Foreign Policy Analysis and Comparative Politics at the National Defence University and served as a Course Coordinator and member of the disciplinary committee. He also teaches at the Foreign Service Academy of Pakistan and has a rich and diverse international exposure of both government and multinational organizations. He has served as a correspondent/producer at the Voice of America, Washington, D.C. and Pakistan Television Ltd.; Islamabad, respectively; Controller at Cross Media Ltd., London and consultant at the PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

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5 thoughts on “Indian Army Chief’s Dilemma

  1. Well done Prof. Syed Mohammad Ali.
    I think now SouthAsianVoices has increased it pool of publishing brilliant pieces. I think Prof. Ali has written some good points to ponder on Indian Army Chief’s Dilemma. Prof. Ali has applied Organization theory on the challenges face by the Indian Army chief in a very lucid and cognitive manner.

  2. Indian Army has no power to ignite any nuclear war because it is under tight control of its elected government. It is the Pakistani Army which wants to and threatens to use its nuclear weapons, over which elected government has neither control or oversight. Propaganda cannot change facts.

  3. Cold start is Indian Army’s dangerous attempt to launch a conventional attack against a nuclear power. There can be no easier way to start a nuclear war in South Asia. I hope the Indian political leadership can see through this dangerous Indian Army plan.

  4. Daruwala, Please read NCA Act of Pakistan, you will find out the truth. Indian Political leadership must keep a check on the dangerous military plans driven by its organizational interests.

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