Leadership at the Strategic Level: Imperatives for Success

What is Strategic Leadership?
Sometimes during war, the fate of an entire campaign can hinge on a single decision. Military history is replete with examples of how such decisions changed the course of a war or a campaign. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF),had to decide whether to abort Operation Overlord in the face of pouring rain and high tides in June 1943. He would have lost an opportunity to establish a foothold on the European continent after months of preparation. The next time the tides were expected to be suitable was three weeks later.  The alternative was to go ahead and accept the risk of a larger number of casualties and perhaps evenfailureas many of the landings may have had to be aborted. At such times a commander may seek counsel from his subordinate commanders and his staff, but the decision is ultimately histo make. Planned for June 5th, D-Day was postponed. Though the odds were still stacked against a good landing, Eisenhower decided to go ahead on June 6thand took the Germans completely by surprise. 
General of the Army Douglas MacArthur made a characteristically bold decision to launch an outflanking amphibious landing at Inchon during the Korean War in September 1950. He made this decision in the face of stiff opposition from virtually all his commanders and his entire staff. Summing up at the end of a day-long coordinating conference, his Chief of Staff said if there was one place on earth where an amphibious landing ought not to be attempted, it was Inchon. MacArthur stood up, spoke eloquently about why it was necessary to conduct an envelopment to cut off the North Koreans’ lines of communications and then gave his directions: “We shall land at Inchon,and I shall crush them.” In the event, the decision to land at Inchon and outflank the North Koreansturned out to be a masterstroke. 
Both these decisions exemplify leadership skills of the highest order. Similar examples abound: the orderly evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in 1940; Field Marshal William Slim’s courageous supervision of the long British withdrawal from Burma followed by its re-conquest that finally brought the seemingly unstoppable Japanese advance through Southeast Asia to a halt during the Second World War; Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s triumphant march across North Africa all the way to El Alamein at the head of his Afrika Korps against stiff British resistance;  and, closer home, India’s lightning campaign in Bangladesh. Can these successes be attributed to brilliant strategic leadership? When the stakes are high and the uncertainties are deep and numerous, a leader who is resolute and can be persistent in the face of setbacks, yet retain a modicum of flexibility and be willing to take a calculated risk,  is likely to be successful at the highest levels of endeavour. He qualifies to be called a successful strategic leader.
It is a well-recognised truism that leadership skills are critical to organisational success. Good strategic leadership involves the following: shaping the evolution of a sound vision for the organisation, guiding and facilitating the formulation of an effective strategy to achieve the vision, setting a carefully visualised strategic direction in the context of available opportunities and perceived threats and challenges, allocating resources, creating an appropriate organisational structure, empowering people to act independently to execute the strategy, keeping a close watch on the progress and performance of various components and making course corrections where necessary. There is much to learn from the Indian experience in leadership at the strategic level in dealing with the management of national security.While some of the issues have been well handled, many others throw up negative lessons.

The Indian Experience
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s strategic blunders are too well known to bear detailed recounting and, hence, only a brief mention is made here. Going to the United Nations for the resolution of the Kashmir dispute when the Indian army was knocking on the gates of Muzaffarabad was clearly a mistake. Over the last 70 years it has proved to be a very costly one indeed. Nehru’s government failed to contest China’s takeoverof Tibet in 1950 despite the physical presence of some Indian troops at Lhasa. The implementation of the “forward policy” – the occupation of isolated border posts that were strung out all along the border – against the advice of the army Chief turned out to be disastrous. Asking an unprepared Indian army to “throw out the Chinese” after having neglected its equipping, modernisation and training, was truly a Himalayan blunder. Clearly, despite his sterling leadership qualities and many great achievements, Nehru had a strategic blind spot an, on top of that, neglected matters military and did not heed military advice.
Lal Bahadur Shastri provided outstanding leadership during the 1965 War with Pakistan. He gave the army the clearance to launch a three-pronged attack across the international boundary to relieve pressure on the forces under attack in Pakistan’s Op Grand Slam. For reasons that are still not certain, Shastri frittered away the gains – like the return of Haji Pir Pass – without adequate returns. Indira Gandhi’s leadership during the run up to the 1971 War with Pakistan and the conflict itself was excellent. In Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, she had an outstanding military leader who gave her good advice and provided great leadership to the armed forces. However, rather inexplicably, as part of the Shimla Agreement of 1972, even she showed perhaps undue magnanimity and gave back 93,000 Pakistani POWs without utilising the opportunity to resolve the Kashmir dispute once and for all. 
Another act of sterling, far thinkingstrategic leadership was Indira Gandhi’s decision to authorise the Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) at Pokhran in May 1974 despite the risks involved. And, Rajiv Gandhi, her successor, sanctioned the weaponisation of India’s nuclear capabilities to meet the threat posed by the acquisition of nuclear weapons by China and Pakistan. Succeeding Prime Ministers continued to invest in and support the development of India’s nuclear deterrence capabilities till Prime Minister Vajpayee finally approved the May 1998 nuclear tests at Pokhran and declared India a state armed with nuclear weapons. 
However, keeping the armed forces out of nuclear decision making till May 1998 was a retrograde step.Besides indicating lack of confidence in the armed forces, it harmed civil-military relations by engendering distrust. Declaring a “chemical weapons stockpile” at the OPCW at Geneva, when the armed forces had not even been told that India had such weapons, was another strategic level mistake that can never be lived down. While the armed forces have been deployed for counter-insurgency operations since the mid-1950s, first in the north-eastern states and then in Jammu and Kashmir, they have seldom been consulted in discussions held for dispute resolution. 

Nuclear Decision Making in India: Lessons for the Future
The process of nuclear decision making merits a more detailed examination from the point of view of strategic leadership. The foundation of civil-military relations in India is civilian control of the military. In the case of nuclear weapons, because of their horrendous destructive potential, overarching civilian control is even more important. With the sole exception of Pakistan, in all the other nuclear weapons states (NWS) also, command over the nuclear forces is firmly under political leaders who have the sole authority to order the use of nuclear weapons. (It must be stated that in China the distinction between political leaders and the military top brass is blurred; President Xi Jinping is also the C-in-C.) 
Ever since its inception, India’s nuclear weapons programme has been firmly under the control of the civilian political masters who dealt with the scientists of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Defence research and Development Organisation (DRDO) directly.The leadership of the armed forces was either not consulted at all, or was perfunctorily or inadequately consulted. One Air Chief, Air Chief Marshal SK Kaul, has gone on record to state that he was asked to practice the toss bombing technique, a method used for the delivery of nuclear glide bombs from bomber aircraft. As the Commandant, Army War College, Gen K Sundarji, later COAS, published two Combat Papers on India’s nuclear deterrence policies and forces, but at his own initiative. The two papers examined the impact of a nuclear environment on the future of the Indian army’s battlefield operations but had only limited circulation at the time they were written.Later, Gen Sundarji teamed up with K Subrahmanyam to draw up the initial contours of India’s nuclear doctrine of credible minimum deterrence with a no first use posture. However, it is not known whether they undertook this analysis on their own initiative or if they were asked by the government to do so.
The major aspects of civil-military interaction in the sphere of nuclear weapons include strategy, force structure and operations. Strategy encompasses guidelines that spell out the broad goals and means of nuclear deterrence. It includes the political decision whether or not to opt for nuclear deterrence and commit nuclear forces for national defence and guidelines to govern their use in combat. For example, India has opted for nuclear weapons but with a ‘no first use’ posture. Force structure deals with the number and type of nuclear force units equipped with nuclear warheads and their delivery means. Whether India should develop a triad or rely only on either air delivered nuclear warheads or ground based nuclear-tipped missiles and whether or not thermonuclear and tactical nuclear weapons should be developed, are all force structure related political decisions. Political decisions regarding strategy and force structure are made based on military advice. However, in the realm of nuclear deterrence operations, decisions affecting targeting, deployment, state of alert and readiness and what mix of weapons and delivery systems to use (when the use of nuclear weapons has been authorised by the political executive), are all military decisions and are best left to military professionals. It is the last facet for which the armed forces should be extensively consulted, but were not so consulted till 1998.   Even after that they were only occasionally consulted till a Strategic Forces Command was finally raised in 2003.
The system established for the Command and Control of nuclear forces in India has taken into account the existing system for the higher direction of war and built on the available structure. In India’s Cabinet system of government, based on the Westminster model, the Prime Minister (PM) is the chief executive even though the President is the Supreme Commander of the armed forces. The apex body responsible for all matters impinging on India’s security is the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) headed by the PM. The CCS, constituted by Prime Minister Inder Gujral in 1997, is the modern day avatar of the erstwhile Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) that failed to survive the 1962 Himalayan debacle. Members of the CCS that is headed by the PM include the Defence Minister, the Home Minister, the Finance Minister and the Minister for External Affairs. Other members of the Council of Ministers, the armed forces Chiefs of Staff and the secretaries of concerned ministries may be invited to attend the deliberations whenever their advice is considered necessary. This is a departure from the set-up of the erstwhile DCC in which the Services Chiefs of Staff were always in attendance. It appears incongruous that major issues having a bearing on national security should be discussed without the presence of the Chiefs of Staff of the armed forces. 
There can be no doubt that India’s duly elected PM, as the head of the Cabinet and the CCS, must exercise ultimate control over all nuclear weapons. On January 4, 2003, the CCS adopted and made public the key elements of India’s nuclear doctrine and Command and Control structure.   The PM and the CCS now comprise India’s Nuclear Command Authority (NCA). In the NCA, the ‘Political Council’ headed by the PM, is the ‘sole’ authority for ordering a nuclear strike. The Political Council is advised by an ‘Executive Council’ that is headed by the NSA. The Executive Council provides inputs and advice to the Political Council and executes its decisions through the Chairman, COSC and the C-in-C, Strategic Forces Command.
It is important that in nuclear decision making the Cabinet must get ‘single point military advice’. At present, all three Chiefs of Staff render military advice to the CCS. The confusion in decision making can be imagined if two Chiefs of Staff were to advise the CCS to desist from using nuclear weapons to retaliate against an enemy nuclear strike during ongoing conventional military operations and the third Chief, particularly the army Chief, was to insist that the retaliatory use of nuclear weapons was an inescapable operational requirement in the prevailing circumstances due to the operational situation obtaining on various battlefields. Due to the inter-dependence of each Service on the other in modern warfare and because of the repercussions of the operational activities of each on the other, it is imperative that differing viewpoints among the Services are resolved by military professionals themselves and that the political masters get professional military advice from only one source. Such a source can only be the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) or Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff and not the Chairman, COSC as it is presently constituted. 
India is the only major democracy in which the Services headquarters are still not effectively part of the government, that is, the headquarters have not been fully integrated with the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Experience with this system has not been satisfactory as operational requirements are sometimes not readily understood by the civilian bureaucracy and extensive delays take place in decision making. Also, the rules of business do not permit the three Services to interact directly with various ministries and government departments and even routine correspondence has sometimes to be routed through the MoD. Reforms have been long overdue. 
Defence Minister, George Fernandes, had held out an assurance in the first week of January 1999 that the Services Headquarters will be merged with the MoD within 30 days. However, there has been no tangible progress on the issue since then except that the Services HQ have been re-named; e.g. Integrated HQ of the Ministry of Defence (Army).The Group of Ministers (GoM) appointed by Prime Minister Vajpayee to study the recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee headed by K. Subrahmanyam, had itself appointed four task forces, one of which was on higher defence management. This task force was headed by Arun Singh, a former minister of state for defence. (Earlier, in 1990 also Arun Singh had headed the Committee on Defence Expenditure and had recommended the integration of the Services headquarters with the MoD.) The Arun Singh task force recommended the creation of a new post of CDS, to be held by the three Services in turn on a two-year rotational basis. It also stated that the MoD should be restructured.  This long-pending reform in India’s defence and security threat perception, analysis, decision-making and policy implementation structure will undoubtedly lead to an exponential improvement in the management of national security. The GoM accepted this proposal and put it up for consideration by the Union Cabinet.  However, the Cabinet decided to constitute HQ IDS but deferred its decision on creating the post of CDS reportedly due to the lack of political consensus on the issue and inter-Service disagreement.
More recently, the Naresh Chandra committee recommended the creation of the post of Permanent Chairman, CoSC. The recommendation for the creation of the post of a CDS (preferably, a five star post), needs to be expeditiously implemented if Command and Control over nuclear forces is to be meaningfully exercised. The CDS must be the first among equals though individual Chiefs of Staff may continue to enjoy direct access to the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister on individual service issues. Only then can a truly joint military strategy be evolved and implemented during peace and war. A Vice Chief of Defence Staff (VCDS – a four star post) should also be appointed. He should oversee the functioning of the  specialised tri-Service HQ IDS joint planning staff to assist the CDS to assess long-term threats, formulate and execute joint military strategy to achieve political goals and objectives and independently evaluate budgetary and force projections made by the three Services. 
Finally, there is another dimension to strategic leadership that is not so well known – that of signalling one’s resolve. In this mega-media age, where the social media can inflame passions in double quick time and bring to bear immense pressure on elected governments to act in a certain way, the art of successful strategic leadership lies in maintaining composure and arriving at a duly considered decision after having carefully weighed the pros and cons of all the available options. In the eventuality that nuclear weapons are everused against India, the Political Council of the Nuclear Command Authority will be faced with the moral dilemma of causing a large number of civilian casualties through the implementation of massive retaliation in keeping with India’s declared nuclear doctrine. The ends of nuclear deterrence would be best served if the adversaries were to be convinced in peace time that the Indian leadership would have no hesitation in doing so if ever the need arose. A strategic leader must not only be resolute but must be perceived to be resolute.

The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.

 J. M. Stagg, Forecast for Overlord (New York: W. W. Norton & Co. Inc., 1971).

 William Manchester, American Caesar (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1978). Also see:“The Landing at Inchon”http://www.history.army.mil/books/korea/20-2-1/sn25.htm

 Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of around 350,000 British, French and Belgian troops from Dunkirk, France (May 26 to June 4, 1940) enabled the Allies to continue the war and was a major boost to British morale. Bruce Robinson, “Dunkirk”.http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/ff2_dunkirk.shtml

 The hard-fought Burma Campaign has been evocatively described in Field Marshal William Slim’s remarkably good autobiographyDefeat into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-45 (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).

 Alan Moorehead, Desert War: The North African Campaign 1940-1943 (London: Penguin Books Pvt Ltd, 1959).

 “Strategic Leadership: The Essential Skills”, Harvard Business Review, January-February 2013 http://www.harvardbusiness.org/sites/default/files/HBR_Strategic_Leadership.pdf

 K. S. Sundarji (ed.), Effects of Nuclear Asymmetry on Conventional Deterrence (Mhow, India: College of Combat, 1981); K. S. Sundarji(ed.), Nuclear Weapons in Third World Context (Mhow, India: College of Combat, August 1981).

 Almost every analyst working in the field of nuclear deterrence has bemoaned the fact that the armed forces were not in the nuclear decision making chain. See, for example, Verghese Koithara, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2012), p. 192.Vice Admiral Koithara quotes K. Subrahmanyam: “In India the armed forces… were kept out of the (nuclear) decision making loop.”

 When the CCS was constituted, General Shankar Roychowdhury, Chairman CoSC and COAS had pointed this out to the Prime Minister and sought rectification of the Gazette notification, but no action was taken on the DO letter.

 “The Cabinet Committee on Security Reviews Operationalisation of India's Nuclear Doctrine”, January 4, 2003, Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi http://www.indianembassy.org.ua/english/news10.htm
Government of India, Reforming the National Security System: Recommendations of the Group of Ministers, February 2001, pp. 100-103. http://mod.nic.in/newadditions/rcontents.htm

 Among other reports, see Nitin Gokhale, “Naresh Chandra Task Force’s Report on National Security: An Appraisal”, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi, July 16, 2012.  http://www.vifindia.org/article/2012/july/16/naresh-chandra-task-force-s-report-on-national-security-an-appraisal

 Former Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, had told this writer in April 2015 that he had been convinced of the need for a CDS and undertaking other allied reforms. He had also said that he would put up his recommendations to the CCS after the monsoon session of Parliament. Apparently, forreasons that are not known, he was unable to do so.