Modi’s deadliest surgical strike so far has been to politicise the Armed Forces

By projecting India’s military capabilities for personal political gain, the Prime Minister has blunted deterrence and encouraged adversaries to take counter-moves

By declaring at an election rally that he had the courage to conduct surgical strikes on land, air and in space, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has demonstrated that he has no qualms in projecting military power for personal gains. His strikes have blunted India’s military deterrence by exposure, alerted adversaries to counter-moves and, importantly, politicised senior officials in these three war domains.

Consequently, the biggest victim of Prime Minister Modi’s three-dimensional surgical strikes has been India’s war-fighting capability. In a multi-party democracy, military preparedness is inversely proportional to politicisation  the strength of India’s military institutions lies in their remaining apolitical.

While preparedness implies capability-building, including military reforms and realistic training for war, politicisation the project that began with the Vajpayee government and was completed with the 2016 surgical strikes  means that senior military leadership aligns its service’s objective with that of the ruling political party (instead of the government), which in the case of the BJP is not the same as the national objective.

Let’s start with India’s least evolved space domain, where Modi claimed on March 27 that with the single Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test India had joined the elite club of space powers comprising the US, Russia and China. The facts first: India fired a missile and hit its own satellite at 300km altitude in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), which extends from 160km to 2,000km  the dividing line between atmosphere and space being 100km above mean sea level.

The DRDO chief, Sateesh Reddy, however, claimed India “has a capability to hit a target as far away as 1,000km in space.” Officials clarified that the low altitude of 300km was chosen to ensure that debris from the destroyed satellite does not pollute space since it would decay and fall-back into the atmosphere faster. Claims were made by former DRDO chief V.K. Saraswat too.

He said that with the ASAT test, India had acquired deterrence; no enemy would mess with India’s space objects; the technology would help in intercepting long-range ballistic missiles (help improve indigenous Ballistic Missile Defence) which could be taken up in phase-two of the ASAT programme. He also said that the technology was ready in April 2012 when India successfully test-fired the 5,000km range Agni-5 missile, but it was the Modi government which gave resources, permission and encouragement to do the ASAT test.

Now, some home-truths. With the successful Agni-5 test-firing, the DRDO achieved ability to make a solid-propellant missile which could reach hypersonic speeds of more than Mach 5 (Mach being the speed of sound). The problem was and still remains the need for guidance and control of the missile in the hypersonic region. For clarity, let’s take the analogy of a sports car cruising at 200km without the steering!

The DRDO has made several efforts since 2012 to get the restrictive and critical guidance and control technologies for hypersonic missiles in addition to high-energy propellants (for higher altitudes) from a friendly nation, but has not succeeded. True to form, all these years, DRDO did not invest time, energy and finance for building indigenous guidance and control technology knowing well that hypersonic missiles with desired guidance and control become ASAT missiles for hit-and-kill of satellites from LEO to Higher Earth Orbit (HEO) or geo-stationary orbit (from 160km to over 35,000km). With the recent ASAT test, it is certain that procuring these technologies from outside would become harder.

Interestingly, Reddy has admitted in his recent interview to the Times of India, that his challenges are (a) “to get high accuracy level”, (b) “improve capabilities to reach a target at a high altitude”, and (c) “to develop a host of technologies that enabled us to identify, track and intercept.” Simply put, DRDO lacks hypersonic technologies, where Russia and China are considered to have outpaced the US. India, in its ASAT test, seems to have made a virtue out of its technology compulsion by killing a satellite at 300km, and by claiming capability of 1,000km range.

Incidentally, all satellites, depending on their commercial and military role, are placed at the altitude of more than 800km, where India has not demonstrated credible assurance level by actual testing. DRDO has a history of making premature and boastful claims. Take Saraswat, now a member of NITI Aayog, for instance.

In an interview with me as DRDO chief in February 2010, he had made the following claims: by 2013, India would achieve phase one of indigenous Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) to protect Delhi, Mumbai and other metropolis cities from hostile 2,000km range ballistic missiles; thereafter DRDO would start phase two to protect these from hostile 5,000km range ballistic missiles in three years (by 2016); and India had all the building blocks to match China’s first ASAT test (done at 850km). If all this was true, what was the need for India to buy the Russian S-400 air defence missile systems and incur US’ annoyance?

Hence, before any more money is put in the indigenous BMD programme, there is a need for a proper, objective technical audit to know what has actually been achieved within the programme and in terms of spin-off technologies. It would also provide the roadmap for research, especially in basic and applied sciences, an area of weakness.

The ASAT test was no more than a Technology Demonstrator (TD), whose announcement should have been avoided. TDs have no deterrent value. If anything, they blunt deterrence, by prematurely showcasing existing technology. Given this, India, as yet, has no role in evolving rules for global space order. For one, the world is still far from reaching there. For another, the gap between space technologies of India and the rest (Russia, China and US) is so huge and unbridgeable in the absence of meaningful research, that India is not likely to be on the scene.

Not for nothing, the world refused to take notice of the ASAT test. China kept quiet. Russia offered a politically correct comment. The US, not willing to comment on the test, expressed appreciation at India’s sensitivity about satellite debris. And Pakistan, whom Modi probably wanted to convey the message by calling the test Mission Shakti after the 1998 nuclear tests Operation Shakti, remarked, “Boasting of such capabilities is reminiscent of Don Quixote’s tilting against windmills.”

In the realm of politicisation of constitutional institutions, the breach in research organisations was preceded by the military, the most recent of which was the Indian Air Force, when the government used the service on February 27 to score political points. Of course, the declaratory motive of the air surgical strike on Jaish-e-Mohammed’s training camp in Balakot was to avenge the Pulwama suicide bombing attack, but the cat jumped out of the bag within days.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s election posters came up in several places with motifs of the Pulwama attack and IAF strikes in Balakot forming the backdrop. Wing Cdr. Abhinandan, who was taken prisoner of war by Pakistan (released two days later), also started figuring on election publicity material.

To remove all doubt, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa made political rhetoric a part of his speech. Speaking at the induction ceremony of Chinook heavylift helicopters in Chandigarh, ACM Dhanoa told the media, “When the Rafale comes… they (Pakistan Air Force) will not come anywhere near our Line of Control or border.”

Surely, the air chief understands the difference between war and show of war. The singular conclusion of the two-day air spat was that while Pakistan and its armed forces were ready for an escalation (war), India’s agenda was limited to the show of war, since after conceding that the PAF’s strike was an act of war, India did nothing. The obvious conclusions were that (a) India did not have the political will and military escalation capabilities, and (b) the Modi dispensation had exposed the IAF’s war-fighting capabilities by using it for electoral gains.

India needs a strong military, but the BJP has shown preference for a military which can be employed for successfully projecting the right-wing agenda of a muscle-flexing India. Unfortunately, like the army, the IAF also seem oblivious of the cost this politicisation is going to extract. Since Balakot, the PAF has strengthened its air defence network. It has deployed more Chinese HQ-16 surface to air missiles on the border.

It is using more CH-4 and CH-5 surveillance drones; it has purchased strike-capable Wing Loong-II UAVs; it would certainly be the first overseas customer of Chinese CH-7 long range, high altitude, stealth combat drones. It already has more useable cruise missiles than India. And the interoperability between the People’s Liberation Army and the Pakistan military would be further strengthened in accordance with the public pledge made by China that it would protect Pakistan’s sovereignty. Meanwhile, India is yet to operationalise Rafale and S-400.

Why has Pakistan taken these steps? Because it is determined to maintain conventional war-fighting (operational) level parity with India in order to obviate the need to move to the higher nuclear level. The unambiguous message for India is that the use of air power will get an equal response from Pakistan. Serious observers know that the IAF lacks even local superiority capability, and Pakistan is much better placed to plug its war-fighting gaps. This is what makes ACM Dhanoa’s statement political.

When the chief of air staff speaks the language of the political leadership, it is time to worry. Both deterrence in peacetime and  if it fails  the outcome of land-war would be determined by IAF’s preparedness. An air force with blunted capability spells disaster, especially when the army succumbed to the pressures of politicisation in 2016, when, towing the government line, it labelled cross-Line of Control raids as surgical strikes.

The politicisation of the army started well before Modi came to power in a rather innocuous fashion. In the mid-1990s, when the BJP was still some distance from power, it created a defence cell by recruiting ex-servicemen. The ostensible idea was twofold  to understand the concerns of the uniformed class and to evolve some sort of a national security policy which could inform its eventual defence posture when it came to power.

At the time, Lt Gen. J.F.R. Jacob, the hero of 1971 who humiliated Pakistan by getting its top military commander in East Pakistan to surrender to him, headed the BJP’s defence cell. Explaining the reasons why he joined the BJP, he told me that it was the only political party willing to listen to ex-servicemen’s viewpoint on how to make India militarily strong. Clearly, this was a clever move.

By endearing itself to army veterans, the BJP gradually aligned them to its thinking. Some got on the BJP bandwagon for ideological reasons and some for the alternative career option that it offered. This helped fulfil BJP’s unsaid agenda of converting the ex-servicemen community, numbering hundreds of thousands, into a potential vote-bank.

Till then, this was a completely untapped resource as no political party had ever thought of manipulating the military community, both out of lack of foresight and the inherited moral code of letting the military be apolitical. Interestingly, after the February 2019 Supreme Court judgment, even serving military personnel can now register themselves as voters and participate in general elections. Hence, all the more reason for political outreach to this section of the society. Waking up late, even the Congress has now started reaching out to ex-servicemen.

Perhaps, this was bound to happen. But the worrying part is that this political alignment is happening at the cost of national security. As long as the Modi government was keeping ex-servicemen happy by announcing schemes like One Rank, One Pension (howsoever imperfect), it was fine; but by formalising counter-terror operations as the primary role of the army  something that the generals who had spent decades honing their skills in it wanted  it has politicised the institution.

Today, most serving and retired army officers go all out to praise the Modi government. Few remember that the cardinal job of the Indian Army remains preparedness for war, to defend the military lines with two powerful adversaries. And this has been the biggest surgical strike that Prime Minister Modi has dealt to India’s military institutions.

The writer is editor of FORCE newsmagazine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.