Traditionally, the address to the nation by the Prime Minster on the occasion of Independence Day sets a clear agenda for the entire country. It is a charter of action not only for the Government of the day but all citizens. This year, it was no different. He highlighted some of the pressing problems that the nation must resolve, say the population explosion.

The Prime Minister also announced the creation of the “post” of a ‘Chief of Defence Staff’ for the armed forces, a kind of Supremo who will command the three services, a five-star general who will ‘coordinate’ the Army, Navy and the Air chiefs, and report directly to the Cabinet. He will be more than a primus inter pares, for ‘single point’ advice to the nation’s highest civilian authority ~ the elected Cabinet ~ in a constitutional democracy. The Supremo will not be a part of the Cabinet though as he will not be elected.

The Prime Minister has not been correctly advised on this issue. A military Supremo has serious ramifications for the future of democracy in India. Paradoxically, he will upset the delicate balance between the civil and military authority and the present tenuous civilian control, already tilted somewhat in favour of the armed forces. It will further damage the fine architectural design of the Government whereby the armed forces of the nation report to the Union Defence Ministry headed by the elected Defence Minister. The Ministry, like all other ministries is manned by the permanent civil service which assists the Defence Minister in his Parliamentary duties, simultaneously ensuring the accountability of the armed forces.

Most importantly, and which has the gravest implications, it is an unsound proposal from the point of view of military strategy alone. More so in the present context where India and its potential adversaries to the west and the east are declared nuclear powers armed with nuclear weapons capable of wiping out entire cities in a flash. Millions of people will just evaporate even if a single nuclear bomb were to be exploded over a city. A single bomb over Hiroshima instantly wiped out a lakh of people. Today, a similar bomb will wipe out millions in the blinking of the eye.

A Supremo will be a total misfit in the basic architecture of the modern state. The Union government in a Constitutional democracy is organised into departments and specialized Directorates. The military comprises three wings, i.e. the army, navy and the air force, each a separate directorate reporting to the Defence Ministry headed by the elected Defence Minister. The Ministry, manned by civilians ensures the eventual accountability of the directorates to the Parliament. The ministers head the ministries, not the directorates.

As the specialised directorates are subordinate and attached offices of the ministries, the heads of directorates, i.e. military chiefs are supposed to report to the permanent civilian head of the Ministry, the Defence Secretary. It is a basic norm of modern organizational functioning that the head of the ministry should be in a scale higher than the heads of the directorates. But in the Government of India, it is just the reverse. The heads of the directorates are paid more than the head of the Ministry in pay alone, let alone the countless perquisites. As a result, the status and the authority of the Defence Secretary has been seriously diluted over time. To dilute the authority of the Secretary is to dilute the authority of the Minister. With a Supremo in position, the authority of the Defence Minister will be further diluted. The champions of the Supremo concept argue that he will report directly to the Cabinet; he will, in effect report to no one in particular. He cannot be a part of the Cabinet, not being an elected member. And if he does not report to the Defence Secretary, he can be more accurately designated as an extra-Constitutional authority.

Carl von Clausewitz is arguably one of the greatest military strategists of all times. A distinguished 19th century Prussian General, he was a veteran of many a battle. His classic, On War has not been surpassed in brilliance and insight. He defines war as “continuation of politics by other means.” Even in war, the overall political objective should never be lost sight of, which is the prerogative of the elected cabinet, not the military. “War is only a branch of political activity, that it is in no sense autonomous”

The champions for the Supremo argue that he will ‘coordinate’ the working of the three wings of the military. This is a very dangerous proposition. Once all the three wings of the military are placed under a single command, the temptation to commit all the three services in battle could have disastrous consequences in the nuclear age. It could spark a three dimensional conflict, and the government could lose all control over the forces. The political objective would be virtually subordinated to the military, a veritable war for war’s sake.

The political leadership has proclaimed times without number that India has no extra-territorial ambitions. We are a peaceful nation and covet no foreign assets. Our forces are organized primarily for defence of the borders and maritime security for trade and the country’s off-shore assets. An all-powerful Supremo commanding the three services affects our standing in the comity of nations, and erodes our credibility. It makes our traditional friends a little weary of us, and our adversaries a little wary. In the global context, all three services now under a unified command convey a message which is discordant with our professed policies.

Clausewitz understood the traditional military mindset very well, professionally trained as it is in fighting and winning at all costs. “The soldier, trained to revere offensive spirit does not feel comfortable with the argument that the defensive is obviously the stronger form of war, and he especially does not like being told that the military aim must always be subordinated to the political objectives laid down by the civilian leaders.” The Supremo concept is the antithesis of a defensive force that the Indian military is consistently projected by India. The entire orientation of the Indian military may undergo a shift from a defensive force to a more trigger-happy one.

Clausewitz is matchless in his wisdom: “Nor indeed is it sensible to summon soldiers, as many governments do when they are planning a war and ask them for purely military advice. But it makes even less sense for theoreticians to assert that all available military resources should be put at the disposal of the commander (Supremo) so that on their basis he can draw up purely military plans in a war.” The last three dimensional conflict was the Second World War, in the pre-nuclear age three quarters of a century ago. (To be concluded)