Indian Military Weakness: IAS Has Power – But Where Is The Expertise?

The current India-China border crisis has exposed the shortcomings on the military side – from operational failures to intelligence processing – but the flip side of the picture, which features politicians and bureaucrats of the ministry of defence, is equally disheartening.

Ashley J Tellis, the foremost South Asia expert in Washington who studies military strategy, said, “for all of the Indian military’s weaknesses, the real deficits are on the civilian side” because of a lack of expertise on defence issues.

“You have civilian politicians and bureaucrats with enormous power but not the competence to deal with military issues,” Tellis said during a Stanford University webinar in November 2020.

The webinar titled Is India Losing?’ was moderated by Arzan Tarapore, a South Asia research scholar, who probed various aspects of India’s military and economic policies in a 90-minute conversation with Tellis.

Def Min Needs Specialised Cadre – Not An IAS Officer Lacking Domain Knowledge

The politicians are content to keep sway over the military, using it for any and every domestic problem apart from guarding the border. The IAS officers, who increasingly serve the politicians and not the state, rarely delve deep enough into military matters, strategy, doctrines or weapon systems to be called ‘experts’.

“The first and most important objective (for politicians) is to coup-proof the state; the biggest objective is not to have a highly efficient military that sort of goes and conquers the world for you,” Tellis said. The two exceptions were Jaswant Singh of the BJP and Arun Singh of the Congress party, both of whom served as defence ministers and made it their business to know their portfolio, he said.

What’s needed is a specialised cadre for the Ministry of Defence – not an IAS officer who is working in the irrigation department one day and comparing two aircraft competing for a bid the next.

There are a handful of officers who master their brief to be taken seriously by their uniformed counterparts.

Indian Politicians & Bureaucrats Are Yet To Understand ‘Jointness’ In All Its Intricacies

Tellis called the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff in 2019 “a huge step forward” – but said the decision was still “very preliminary”.

India’s first CDS, Gen Bipin Rawat, is mandated to set up a new joint command of the army, navy and the air force by 2023, to add to the two existing ones. He is also expected to create ‘jointness’ across services in all key areas – defence procurement, training and planning.

Jointness or cross-services cooperation is a term coined by US armed forces for optimal use of manpower and resources. There is a realisation in India, that jointness is sorely needed for all sorts of military reasons – but most importantly for budgetary reasons.

Again, politicians and bureaucrats have to understand the issue of jointness in all its intricacies. Tellis says his experience of talking to Indian politicians for 30 years shows they have “only hazy notions” of what jointness is or what it can do to improve effectiveness.

Tellis said the American experience shows that jointness does not come from below, because the services always prefer and demand to be separate. “Jointness comes because it’s imposed upon military organisations by very perspicacious civilian leaders.”

If the idea was that the CDS would enable genuine joint military planning across the three services, promote joint military acquisitions and create joint war-fighting commands, it is far from coming to fruition. The road ahead is long and rocky.

Source: The Quint


  • Shantanu K. Bansal

    Founder of IADN. He has more than 10 years of experience in research and analysis. An award winning researcher, he writes for the leading defence and security journals, think-tanks and in-service publications. He is a senior consultant at the Indian Army Training Command (ARTRAC), Shimla. Contact him at:

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