Defence Capacity and Capability: Not a Conjurer’s Trick….

Sub Title : We should remain focussed on capacity and capability building of the armed forces

Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 2 May – Jun 2020

Author : Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, AVSM**, VSM (Retd)

Page No. : 17

Category : Military Affairs

: May 31, 2020

The shape of the post Covid world is a matter of intense speculation, largely fuelled by electronic and social media prompted by pessimists. There are gloomy forecasts of a looming economic doom. A historical fact check however facilitates a realistic contrarian view. Basis this it is imperative that the higher military leadership does not get overwhelmed by the projected shape of the economy and let it move their focus away from the requisite capacity and capability building on the armed forces. The onus of which is squarely on them

Since February of the year 2020, the global strategic community, as also its Indian component, has demonstrated a frightening fixation or obsession with the COVID-19 pandemic. The world appears to be drenched to the bone (and, alas! ‘to the brain’ as well) in the veritable torrent of predictions about the “post-COVID world” that rage on. In the frenetic and seemingly all-consuming hunt for higher TRPs, the electronic media has neither the time nor the inclination for historical antecedents. Social media appears to be revelling in the exploration of the apparent boundlessness of its power and reach, along with a race for ‘Likes’ that parallels the race for TRPs of its electronic counterpart. There is little room in either media for any sober reflection. These are not, of course, not newly acquired characteristics of either the electronic media or the social media. Their common denominator is a marked tendency to fan fear if not provoke mass hysteria.

That the strategic community in general and the think tank community in particular should have so easily and so willingly allowed itself to be sucked into the maelstrom is quite another matter, and one that is deeply disturbing. India’s defence forces, too, despite the creation of a Department of Military Affairs (DMA) within the Ministry of Defence (MoD), appear to be in danger of positioning themselves excessively within the ‘here-and-now’. On the one hand, the defence forces are, as always, rising admirably to a national challenge that is unarguably current and pressing. They, too, are racing, if not actively competing, to stamp their centrality within the political calculus and to optimise the discharge of what the navy calls its ‘benign role’ and the army and the air force call ‘aid to civil power’. This is unexceptionable and, in many ways, quite admirable.

On the other hand, the three defence forces and the MoD need to be very careful to ensure that the balance between their various roles (insofar as the navy is concerned, these are the ‘military’ role, the ‘diplomatic’ role, the ‘constabulary’ role and the ‘benign’ role) remains heavily skewed towards their respective capacity and capability to discharge their military role. In their rush to be seen as being relevant (even central) to the immediate present, dominated as it is by the many mitigating measures being tried-out by the COVID-19 afflicted State, bureaucrats and politicians charged with future-planning, cannot allow themselves to be seduced by the media-dominated predictions of some unique post-COVID world. They must ignore much of the media-generated noise and heed, instead, the sage and sober advice of the senior leadership of the defence forces, whether in the three Service Headquarters or in the newly established DMA.

It must be remembered that the most accurate prediction always rests on ‘retrodiction’. Retrodiction is the study of historical events to establish certain cause-and effect relationships that can be tested to show that these relationships have, within the domain under consideration, brought about the present state of the world. Once events similar or identical to the ones being considered (i.e., the cause or causes) are shown to have a credible and consistent pattern of ‘effects’, these can then be used to make more accurate predictions.

Military planners occupying senior positions within the national security apparatus, such as those working in the three Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence — still colloquially referred-to as Army Headquarters, Naval Headquarters and Air Headquarters — or in the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), or in the Headquarters, Integrated Defence Staff, or especially those worthies in the DMA, are intimately familiar with the concepts of retrodiction and prediction. They, unlike many media pundits, do not think at simplistic levels. The ability to develop predictive models based upon retrodiction is, therefore the very bread-and-butter of their professional functioning.

In the present case, the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly not the first pandemic to afflict the human race and the several economic, societal and strategic structures established by it. The sovereign and independent nation-state is one such organisational structure that is of relevance to this essay. What does history and the process of retrodiction indicate about the longevity of the economic and strategic effects of past viral pandemics? What do they tell us about the duration of time over which a ‘post COVID-19 world’ might last before reverting to a more well-established ‘normal’ world? These are important questions that merit serious result by institutions that specialise in the social-sciences. Prominent amongst such institutions are the plethora of think-tanks that dot the Indian landscape (India has the second-largest number of think-tanks on the planet and is second only to those of the USA). It is troubling to note that some (fortunately, just a few) of these institutions are generating a great deal of verbiage, but little that demonstrates their ability to explore the lessons of history. As a consequence, policy-makers within the government of the day are denied much that might be of value in the shaping of policy.

In undertaking even the beginnings of such an exploration, it may be prudent to restrict one’s temporal scope to the past 100 years or so, since within this epoch, differences in societal structures and the ease with which large numbers of people could move from one place to another, might be relatively comparable.

1918 Pandemic (H1N1 Virus). Commonly known as the ‘Spanish Flu’, the 1918 influenza pandemic was amongst the most severe viral pandemics to have afflicted humanity in the past 100 years or thereabouts. It was named as such not because it originated in Spain, but rather because Spain, which was neutral in the First World War (1914- 18), was free to report the severity of the pandemic, while countries that were fighting, tried to suppress reports on how the influenza impacted their population, in order to maintain morale and not appear weakened in the eyes of their enemies. It spread worldwide during 1918-1919 and lasted from January of 1918 to December of 1920. Even though the world was far less-connected than it is today, the virus, which originated in the Northern Hemisphere (almost certainly in New York, USA) nevertheless reached extremely remote places such as the Alaskan wilderness and Samoa in the middle of the Pacific islands. It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population of that time became infected with this virus. Estimates of the number of deaths vary extremely widely, ranging from a low of 17.4 million deaths (estimated in 2018) to a high of 50 million deaths (estimated in 2002). However, the latter figure (50 million deaths) is the most commonly encountered estimate. This represents a staggering 2.77% of the world population which was, at that point in time, some 1.8 billion. Even with this humungous mortality, the time that it took for the world economy, which had fallen by six per cent, to recover to ‘normal’ was only one year, as shown in a recent paper (April 2020) authored by a trio of senior researchers of the USA’s National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), who analysed this horrific pandemic in great detail and concluded “the [economic] effects were reversed by 1921”, which is just a year after the pandemic had ended.

1957–1958 Pandemic (H2N2 Virus). Commonly referred-to as the ‘Asian Flu’, a new influenza (H2N2) virus emerged in Singapore in February 1957 and spread very rapidly through South-east and East Asia (afflicting Hong Kong in April 1957, and coastal cities in the United States by the summer of that very year), triggering a pandemic. The estimated number of deaths was 1.1 million worldwide, representing 0.038% of the world’s population, which numbered 2.87 billion people at that point in time. In the USA, where the estimates of mortality vary between 70 to 100 thousand people, the USA’s GDP growth rate dropped to a low of ‘Minus 10%’. By the end of 1958, however, the growth rate had surged back up to over 9%. Likewise, the world GDP, which in 1956 was US$ 12.40 trillion, rose to US$ 14.62 trillion by 1960. In other words, once again, it took only two years after the pandemic for a full economic recovery. This economic recovery took place in a world in which the global trade in goods had a much greater impact than had been the case in 1918.

1968 Pandemic (H3N2 virus). The 1968 pandemic was first noted in the United States in September 1968. It caused an estimated 1 million deaths worldwide, which represented just under 0.03% of the world population of 3.55 billion. Once again, the ‘post pandemic economy’ recovered to normalcy within a period of two years, despite the fact that the H3N2 virus continues to circulate worldwide, albeit seasonally.

2009 Pandemic (H1N1 Virus). Commonly known as ‘Swine Flu’ due to its close association with North American and Eurasian pig influenza, this pandemic began in Mexico. It rapidly spread around the world, infecting 74 different countries in all six continents within five weeks. The WHO declared a pandemic on June 11, 2009. The rate of spread of the pandemic was far more rapid than previously observed, enabled by high volumes of international air traffic, and it ultimately reached more than 200 countries and infected hundreds of millions of people. However, mortality was relatively low and in June 2010 the WHO reported over 18,000 confirmed fatalities from this pandemic. Economic recovery occurred within a year.

2020 Pandemic COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2 Virus). That brings us to the current pandemic, commonly known as COVID-19 or (somewhat less accurately), as the ‘Corona Virus’. Once again, the issue is of the period of time that the ‘Post COVID World’ will last, in terms of global economic activity. How long will the economies of various countries take to recover? A recent study (April 2020) by the globally-respected, Professor Steven E Salterio, Professor of Business in Queen’s University, Ontario, has established that “the economic costs from the coronavirus pandemic will cause a one-year decline in global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 3.7% to 6%”. Far more relevant to this article is his assertion that “The average predicted time to recovery based on the evidence reviewed is one to two years.” In other words, the period of economic-existence of the much-vaunted “Post-COVID-19 World” is a mere two years.

What the foregoing very brief historical analysis has to offer to senior military and security echelons within India is the realisation that within two years of the COVID-19, the ‘world’ will be back to ‘normal’ and the defence forces had better be ready and prepared to discharge their primary military role and functions. This means that under no circumstances can the senior leadership responsible for the country’s territorial integrity permit themselves the luxury of forgetting the existential security threats that India faces and to which the defence forces will be required to respond. Nor should they allow themselves to develop an insular inward-leaning mentality. India’s ability to shape the probable battle space will remain a prime one and this will require India to have both requisite capacity (by way of material wherewithal) as well as the requisite ‘capability’ (by way of the many intangibles that will, in aggregate, enable the defence forces to maximise the effectiveness of such capacity as they possess). Questions of military balance will very shortly rise once again to great prominence and the steady shift towards centrality of the maritime domain will impose upon this leadership an inescapable need to lift its level of intellect at the geostrategic level.

With an outlay of Rs 3.37 lakh crore, the country’s defence budget for the current fiscal year (2020-2021) is grossly insufficient to obtain, in a planned manner rather than a spasmodic, knee-jerk one, the capacities that will be required. With a growth in fiscal allocation for defence of just 5.8% over the previous year and given the continuing dependence upon the import of military hardware, this defence budget will not even cover global inflation. The increase in capital outlay in the revised estimates (RE) is negligible (Rs 0.07 lakh crore) and the outlay of Rs 1.15 lakh crore will not even cover all committed liabilities, leaving no scope for modernisation.

The situation of the Indian Navy, which is the ‘lead-service’ insofar as the geostrategic shift from land-centricity to a true oceanic-focus is concerned, is especially grim. On the one hand, we have the Indian Navy Chief courageously demanding the restoration to the Navy of an 18% share of the defence budget (up from the current level of 13%).

On the other, there is the apprehension that the defence budget as a whole could be slashed by 20 to 40 per cent, with a consequent saving to the exchequer of between Rs 40,000 crore and Rs 80,000 crore! This would make a mockery of the country’s defence preparedness and reduce the defence forces to little more than couriers for the delivery of flower-petals on the COVID front. That having been said, the recent involvement of the Indian Navy in the form of Op SAMUDRA SETU is the correct path for a capacity-beleaguered navy. It provides invaluable lessons and generates naval SOPS that are as relevant to the discharge of its military role as they are to the discharge of the navy’s diplomatic role. While sincerely discharging its ‘benign role’ these military and diplomatic spin-offs contribute to the Navy’s shaping of its probable battle space.

However, naval nimbleness apart, it is difficult not to conclude that some policymakers, influenced perhaps by media generated hype, are beginning to believe that defence capacity and capability can somehow be ‘magically’ conjured-up once the COVID pandemic dies down, even if the ‘normal’ period of the pandemic is some two years. Once the pandemic does die down, economic recovery will, of course, begin. However, it will not begin solely for India, but for India’s potential adversaries as well.

China is clearly outplaying India at the strategic table — in fact, it is not particularly clear whether India is playing at the strategic table at all. It seems to be quite content to reduce its defence forces to some expanded form of St John’s Ambulance — full of noble intent but little else. It is prudent to remember that building capacity is a hard and expensive process. Capability-enhancement, however, is a far less expensive process. It requires top class leadership and military (rather than political) will. This is well within the ability of the senior military leadership, which needs to calmly and resolutely retain the primacy of ‘Aim’ as the first ‘Principle of War’, even amidst the shrill and strident COVID-induced warnings of economic doom.

This is what is needed if we are to rise above the current fixation.