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Why military is more for asserting political will, not just about controlling territory

No matter what tactics, doctrine, or weapon system is used, the objective of any war is to control territory, argues Gen. MM Naravane (retd). But it's politics that matters most.

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Right at the outset, a dollop of gratitude is owed to our recently retired Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Manoj Mukund Naravane, for kicking off a debate on what India can and should learn from the war in Ukraine. In his lead article in The Times of India, he’s been wise, candid and realistic.

What’s most important is that he’s given the entire strategic community more than one thing to debate over. That is what makes the ideal opinion piece. Especially as in this case it comes from an eminent person who isn’t just a topmost domain specialist, but also as contemporary as it gets. I am sobered by the near imprudence in a mere civilian joining the argument with him. But you know what, at least this argumentative Indian is a few years senior to him. Of course, we are only talking of age.

Gen. Naravane lists four essential takeaways:

Battlefields have been changing and evolving through history. If you begin with World War 1, the tank was invented to break the deadlock of trench warfare. Before that, the machine gun had been invented to neutralise (horse) cavalry, sending troops into trenches.

The 20th century then saw a see-sawing contest between the tank and anti-tank systems. Ukraine saw it reach another level altogether.

Drones of some kind or the other first appeared in the late 1990s and it didn’t take very long for military scientists and industry to modify them into instruments of war. Of course, Ukraine has now taught us how deadly these can be.

The latest in modern warfare, particularly as seen in Ukraine, raises larger questions on the future of large armoured formations, big warships and manned fighter/strike aircraft.

We can examine each in somewhat greater detail, particularly as Gen. Naravane also argues that technological change usually comes first and the military leaderships then follow and respond to it in the course of time. Has it always happened that way? The answer is, not always. The history of World War 1 is replete with painful stories of generals, especially British, still hurling horse cavalry into machine gun barrages. Never mind that the troops that suffered in most of these battles were from their colonies, especially India.

Also read: 3 cheers for INS Vikrant & 3 questions for India’s leadership on naval doctrine

It was a series of such blunders by the brass (mainly British) that was too averse, lazy, arrogant, or maybe plain insensitive to change, that resulted in a series of military disasters from the Crimean War (1853-56) to the Boer War (1899-1902) and the two World Wars, which inspired Norman Dixon’s classic On the Psychology of Military Incompetence.

Since he was only talking about the somewhat more open British, Dixon didn’t get charged with treason. His book is now a text taught in military academies worldwide, including in India. My own copies were bought at a military bookshop in Dehradun. I have kept additional copies to gift to the bright young people who keep coming into my newsroom, starry-eyed about covering defence.

Of course, this isn’t the only thing I give them to read. This is just to ensure they get to understand ‘both’ sides. Because honest debate is what makes a great country, and an all-conquering army. The central takeaway, if I may say so humbly, is that armed forces can be sometimes so tradition-bound and intellectually drilled that they are slow to change, not always quick.

Take the second point about the tanks. Snehesh Alex Philip, defence editor at ThePrint, wrote this deeply researched piece on what Ukraine teaches us about tank warfare.

We can extend it to how it exposes a disastrously outdated old Russian (Soviet-era) doctrine of assaulting across the European plains with massed armour and humongous bodies of troops. Open source intelligence confirms the loss of about 1,500 Russian tanks and about twice as many other armoured vehicles with photo and video evidence.

This, when no major tank-to-tank battle has taken place. The Ukrainians have been cautious never to get within visual range. They’ve mostly hidden from sight, and either used drone+satellite communication to identify targets and hit them with very long-range artillery or anti-tank missiles, or visually with very small guerrilla-like bands armed with the American Javelins or British NLAWs. The Russian massed armour that the world feared for seven decades has been shown up as dated.

Another updated edition of Norman Dixon is now called for to analyse the Russian generals’ failure — or laziness — to see this writing on the wall. They got a warning more than a year before when Azerbaijan used the same Turkish drones to defeat Armenia, devastate its armour, artillery and radars in about 72 hours without exposing any sizeable body of its troops. It wasn’t even too far geographically.

Both are former Soviet republics, using the same-source equipment, training and doctrines. Plus, the Armenians were under some kind of Russian protection and continue to be so. It is just that the Azerbaijanis had the smarts to see the change and move their fighting from the ground to the skies, and almost entirely through unmanned drones or loitering munitions.

The Russian generals had more than a year to chew on this. Did they learn or change? They again did what the British generals had done about a hundred years ago. The short point is, the armies change, but often take too long changing. After much has been lost. Remember that old line: Sab kuchh luta ke hosh mein aaye toh kya kiya… (what’s the point of accepting the reality after all is lost)? This could be the song of the Russian GHQ today.

Also read: Fifty years after: War of mutual incompetence

The fourth point now. It was more than 40 years ago that the vulnerability of the big warship to the nifty new, low-cost missiles was demonstrated in the Falklands War. The missiles have got niftier since, as the sinking of the Moskva, the Russian flagship in the Black Sea, tells us.

And now the marine drone attack in Sevastopol, which must be the Russian Navy’s most protected naval base. Ships, capital assets of any kind, are going to be very vulnerable and far from cost-effective if not liabilities unless you have the wherewithal to secure large bodies of water and land to protect these from missiles.

The same applies to manned aircraft. If in doubt, ask the Russians why their mighty air force isn’t even daring to venture into Ukrainian airspace anymore? Because your electronics aren’t strong enough to fend off the missiles, nor do you have enough stand-off weapons to deliver them from a safe distance. Again, for more detail on this, read this story in Snehesh Alex Philip’s series. His third, on the experience with missiles on both sides, will be published early next week. The lessons on the seas and in the air, however, are the same as on land. The Russians, with all their vaunted academies and warlike history, had failed to embrace change.

In conclusion, Gen. Naravane makes his central point. That no matter what tactics, doctrine, or weapon system is used, the ultimate objective of any war is to control territory, land. “If war is a means to achieve political ends,” he writes, “then that translates to territory.” To illustrate his point, he brings back to us the Chinese helplessness in not being able to stop Nancy Pelosi from visiting Taiwan. If only the Chinese controlled the land. We dare to make three short points:

• If only Mao and his PLA had decent naval and air assets, would Chiang Kai-shek have been able to escape to the island?

• Unless the Chinese build a navy so powerful it can deter the Americans, an air force that can wrest the skies from Taiwan and allies, can they ever conquer the island?

And finally, could Chiang and the Kuomintang have escaped to Taiwan without US help? Could Pelosi have landed without the US and its allies’ protection? Would China shoot down a plane carrying the third most powerful person in the US? The consequences that would deter it won’t be just military.

Our conclusion: In today’s world, or during the Chinese revolution, the politics between nations and alliances matters most. The military is an instrument of asserting political will, which may not always be about land.

Also read: Why it’s obscene to tell Ukraine to give in & how war-upended global balance of power brings openings for India


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