In tandem: military and civil bureaucracy

Issue 20 - Nov 2008

Sushant K Singh & Rohit Pradhan

A new civil-military relationship must be based on the following premise: it must be recognized that the area of activity encompassing defence planning, preparedness, administration and management is distinct from technical aspects of military operations and military training. The civil bureaucracy has no role to play in the latter while the military commanders have no statutory powers in the former.

Modern democracies see the armed forces as technical arm of the state—to carry out the policies of the elected government. It is important, therefore, to understand that the military commanders are not part of the government set-up in any modern democracy.

When the interim Indian government under Jawaharlal Nehru came to power in 1946, Field Marshal Auchinleck continued to be the Commander-in-Chief and head of the three services, but ceased to be a member of the Governor General’s Council. Thus, he remained an operational commander but was divested of his role as a military advisor to the government. This was further reinforced by the recommendations of Lord Ismay on the higher defence set-up that were accepted by the Indian Cabinet in September 1947. While the nomenclature of the erstwhile Commanders-in-Chief of the three defence services was changed to the respective service chiefs of staff in 1955, they continued to function as operational commanders of their services. In other words, they remained theatre commanders in continuation of the tradition of an Indian theatre commander of the British military during the colonial era.
For service chiefs to be integrated in the institutionalised government set-up, they would have to function purely as military advisors with no operational command of the Indian armed forces. It is this failure to separate the advisory and executive functions of the chiefs of staff, which has denied the top military brass their rightful place as professional military advisors to the government.

It would also be illustrative to look at the structure of the United States defence forces. In 1986, the US Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Act to address the growing problem of inter-service rivalry and multiple lines of command. The act strictly separated the advisory and command functions of the military top brass. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff became the principal military advisor to the government. The chairman, in consultation with chiefs of staff, was entrusted with the responsibility of policy formulation, strategic planning, evaluating command preparedness and similar functions. However, neither he nor would other members of Joint Chiefs of Staff exercise any military command. All forces were assigned to combatant commands with chain of command running directly from the President to the Secretary of Defence to Commanders of the combatant commands, completely bypassing the Chiefs of Staff.

The perception that the civilian bureaucracy has conspired to deny the military brass its seat at the high table of national security discourse is misplaced. It is a simply a function of the failure—whether by design or providence—to separate the command and advisory function of the military brass. Indeed, there have been instances where the administrative actions of the civil bureaucracy have impinged on operational readiness of the services. It needs a strong political leadership, in addition to a well-defined charter of duties, to prevent the military and the civil bureaucracy from causing destructive interference in each others’ domains.

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