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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 31, New Delhi, July 17, 2021

Inter-services rivalry amongst armed forces: why it is bad? | Bhartendu Kumar Singh

Friday 16 July 2021, by Bhartendu Kumar Singh


Inter-services rivalry amongst armed forces is ubiquitous in most countries and India is not an exception to this competitive politics. Numerical predominance of Army in national defence architecture notwithstanding, modern warfare is mostly about optimising different services towards a joint warfare strategy. Therefore, when the Indian Air Force was recently described as a ‘supporting arm’, it amounted to reassertion of ‘army being the mainstay of modern warfare system’. Such archival wisdom, however, not only militates against historical facts but may also affect the ongoing military reforms, most notably the proposed Theater Command System.

There could be many background mis-constructs propelling such fallacious perception about the Indian Air Force. First, the Indian Army still outnumbers the combined strength of Air Force and Navy by 4:1 ratio. Its sheer size alone is responsible for India boasting the third largest armed forces in the world. Also, many war-like activities like counter-insurgency operations in J&K and northeast are the sole prerogative of Army. But the combat experiences of land forces with reference to non-state warfare has been, at best, a mixed one, taking concurrent toll on their own combat efficacy. It is also true that large defence forces are losing relevance in contemporary warfare scenario and there is a consequential reduction in army’s numbers all over the world, though India is quite slow to this military adaptation! Second, unlike the US, where the threat sources are away from its continental expansion, leading to consequential prominence for Air Force and Navy; India is a different ball-game altogether. Here, China and Pakistan are bang on the door as two hostile neighbours, often conniving together. Since India shares long land borders with them, Army has a self-perceived notion of centrality. But this self-perception may be problematic since futuristic contours of Sino-Indian war or India-Pakistan war may proliferate to the triad, including air and naval war. Third, the Theater Command System is in advanced level of conceptual discussion. Several alternate proposals are floating about the actual numbers of integrated commands along with service stamp. Service manpower along with assets are up for regional distribution. The chain of command is also likely to be rationalised. Consequently, each service would like to optimise the benefits for their own organisations. The Army, having numerical preponderance, would like to consolidate its conventional centrality in the scheme of things along with better prospects for its cadre. The logic of integration, however, places more premium on technology, terrain and resource optimization.

Whether in historical or theoretical terms, it is difficult to prove if the Army is superior while the Air Force and Navy are supporting force! Britain and other colonial powers who converted their mercantile policy into state authority over Afro-Asian countries, were primarily ‘maritime’ powers. American subjugation of Japan in 1945 came primarily through air power. The Gulf War of 1991 that ushered the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), was premised on air power. Even in India’s case, the 1962 loss is attributed to, amongst others, non-usage of air power in combat operations. Operation ‘Cactus’ in late eighties saw the best of Army, Navy and Air Force in jointly rescuing the Maldives Government. And Balakot was all about air power! The RMA trends indicate the decline of land forces since technology benefits has mostly been leveraged by air and naval forces. All great powers are essentially air and maritime powers. Probably that speaks why China has made huge investment to metamorphose itself from a continental to maritime power! The new forms of warfare like space and cyber wars are about the highest levels of technology where even the Air Force itself may not have a say!

Why this tussle then? Apparently, organisational biases, prejudices and distinct military personalities and sub-personalities instigate inter-services rivalry. The Indian Air Force and the Navy are cosmopolitan, have a pan-India recruitment sourcing, and also have less distinction between officers and other ranks (ORs). In fact, ORs in these two services are encouraged towards attaining higher educational qualifications. Some of them quit early leading to a higher attrition rate in these services. On the other hand, there are several fault lines in the Army. Apart from the great wall between Officers and the ORs, we also find a psychological divide between NDA vs non-NDA, infantry vs support arms, permanent vs short service commission officers, and even men vs women officers wherein the latter often become victims of traditional prejudice. The inter-services rivalry is just the end product of these multiple levels of fault lines. However, India is not the only country to have suffered ‘pangs of jointness’. Despite the institutional spirit of jointness forged by the Nichols-Goldwater Act of mid-eighties in the US, inter-services rivalry continue to challenge Pentagon’s field operations.

Protracted inter-services rivalries have consequences. First, whether it was the 1962 War, the failed IPKF mission in the late eighties or the Kargil War of 1999, coordination gaps between and amongst the armed forces were evident either in form of non-involvement or non-cooperation. Second, the Andaman and Nicobar Command, the maiden experiment in jointness, has been unable to position itself as a successful and mature institutional model, despite over two decades of existence. Officers in this Command have been subjected to pulls and pressures of inter-services rivalry. This does not help in proliferating the Andaman experience to full-fledged Theater Command System. Third, the services also compete for budgetary resources. While the Army has been walking away with more than half of defence budget every year, the other two services have been consistently and persistently pushing for more and more budgetary share, highlighting their in-built service advantage for capital expenditure. Fourth, the decision making processes are often swayed away by organisational thought process and loyalties. Rational decision making, thus, often suffers. Interestingly, when the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) position was at discussion stage, the Indian Air Force had apprehensions about its small size and Army’s possible domination of decision making process in CDS.

The perception of one service being superior or main arm and others being ‘supportive’ is at best a ‘political construct’ that would certainly perpetuate inter-services inequalities. Many research studies prove that inequalities within armed forces have adverse battlefield consequences. Given the enormous defence modernisation costs, India cannot afford such tribal cultures masquerading as organisational differences. We, therefore, need to graduate to a new work culture based on institutional maturity rather than remaining ‘victims of organisational thinking’.

(Author: Bhartendu Kumar Singh, PhD, is in the Indian Defence Accounts Service. Views are personal).

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