Military rule erodes military professionalism.

One of the important lessons taught by the study of  military dictatorships is that when the military rules as an institution, such as in the case of the military-bureaaucratic regimes of Southern Europe, Latin America and East Asia in the 1960s through the 1980s, organisational professionalism is compromised. Having military officers sitting at desks as Ministers and department chiefs of non-military portfolios keeps them away from the training grounds and deployments in which military leadership is honed and exercised. Having soldiers patrol the streets and suppressing domestic dissent takes them away from the combat tasks that are supposedly their reason for being. Prolonged tenure in government makes both officers and enlisted personnel susceptible to the temptations of unchecked authority, from material corruption to unethical personal behaviour.

The very nature of military organisation is incompatible with governance. Whether it be collegial or Prussian style or some variant thereof, the military is a pyramidal organisation in which orders are passed from top to bottom and duties are delegated without question. There is no cabinet made up of ministerial equals. Instead, there is either one Military Commander or there is a High Command or Joint Staff comprised of similarly ranked chiefs of different armed service branches, and even then there is a first amongst equals. The further down the chain of command the more immediate and tight the degree of control of superiors over subordinates.

The rationale underpinning the organisational ethos and structure is to promote discipline under fire. There is little room for compromise and stakeholder consultation such as that which is the norm for most public agencies. There is no public consultation and few feedback loops other than after action reports and what soldiers tell their superiors in a chain of command. Superimposing a military organisation on the State apparatus may impose discipline (or at least fear) on the public bureaucracy, but the price paid for that is the softening of the military organisation in question.

The situation is compounded by militaries that use foreign peacekeeping missions as a substitute for combat exercises and as a source of remittances (since UN pay tends to be much high than local military pay in most of the world). Whatever dangers exist in peacekeeping, and there are many, keeping the peace is not, nor can it ever be, a substitute for combat training.

When taken together these factors erode the professional competence of the military as an institution. In countries that have military rule and conflicts with neighbours, this is often seen as a sign of weakness by adversaries. After all, pushing pencils and having long working lunches is not quite living like in a tent eating rations in between live fire exercises. Thus, somewhat ironically, prolonged military rule invites attack by hostile states in which the military does not rule and instead focuses on its combat role.

The capture of 45 Fijian Army peacekeepers in the Golan Heights by the Al-Nusra Front is a variant on this theme. The Fijians were part of a detachment that included a similar number of Filipino soldiers. When the al-Nusra rebels surrounded and attacked their jointly held UN outpost, the Filipinos, who have years of experience fighting Abu Sayyaf  rebels in the southern Philippines,  staged an armed retreat that allowed all of them to escape capture. They laid down suppressing fire as they drove their armoured column out of the compound at speed, and prevailed in the firefight occasioned by their escape. They suffered no losses.

The Fijians, on the other hand, although being similarly armed and equipped, surrendered without a shot. They are now waiting “divine justice” at the hands of their al-Nusra captors. Neither the Fijian military nor the military government can do anything about the situation, and instead have to reply on UN negotiators for the safe return of their soldiers. Other than appeals to the captors, the only response evident in Fiji is threats to the local Muslim community made by some Fijian nationalists.

The difference between the two outcomes in the Golan Heights is attributable to relative military professionalism. The Philippines Army does not govern and fights on a regular basis with the Abu Sayyaf rebels. They are battle hardened and disciplined as a result. The Fijian Army, in contrast, has ruled Fiji since 2006. Senior military leaders from the rank of major up have held managerial positions in the civilian administration, and the military spends most of its time engaged in domestic repression rather than training for combat. As part of the sanctions levels against it, Fijian military officers were denied admittance to Western military colleges and the Fijian military does not participate in multinational exercises. In spite of a limited military exchange program with China, the Fijian military has not engaged in the types of corporate training that makes for an effective fighting force against other armed adversaries. Instead, it has sent hundreds of soldiers on UN peacekeeping missions, but this is more due to the domestic importance of remittances from Fijian soldiers to their kin (especially in the villages) rather than securing the benefits of operational experience in conflict zones.

The result is that what used to be considered one of the more professional military organisations in the South Pacific is no longer capable of defending itself when attacked by irregular forces abroad. It lacks the leadership and discipline required to engage in organised violence against such armed opponents because it has spent too much time focused on ruling rather than serving its compatriots.

All of this illustrates the point that, beyond the negative impacts of military rule on society at large, the military as an institution is adversely affected by military rule. This is why “enlightened” militaries that stage coups try to relinquish direct control of government as quickly as they can. But others, perhaps safe in the knowledge that they have no immediate adversaries and enjoying the perks of governance, tend to linger in power. In spite of their lofty nation building rhetoric, the longer they retain power the more likely that the military will begin to lose the combat leadership and soldiering skills essential for survival in battle. And should that military ever find itself in battle, it stands a poor chance of victory when confronting hardened soldiers.

That has been proven sadly true for the Fijian Army in the Golan Heights.

29 thoughts on “Military rule erodes military professionalism.

  1. In the 2008-9 Gaza war, around 200 Hamas fighters were killed to six Israeli soldiers, an “exchange rate” of 33-1. In the 2014 war Hamas fought Israel to a stand still and lost 500 or so fighters to 66 Israelis, a butchers exchange rate of 7-1. Maybe that is because Hamas, like Hezbollah in South Lebanon, has learnt how to fight. Or maybe the IDF, by being primarily an army of brutal domestic repression, has compromised it’s organisational professionalism?

  2. While peacekeeping operations may degrade the ability of an army to fight a conventional war, for militaries that have no need to fight professional wars, this is no real loss.

    I’m happy for the NZ army to lose its ability to fight conventional wars of national defense if this is the price of peacekeeping. Peacekeeping is a real necessity, while the need for the NZ army to defend itself against battlefield threats is zero – although sadly our so-called leaders disagree.

  3. Stepan:

    I agree that peace keeping operations have utility and that the NZDF is configured the wrong way given its threat environment and strategic outlook (I think it should be much more naval oriented and less Army-centric, but that would cost money and money for defense is a hard sell in NZ).

    The larger point I was trying to make is one that NZ need not worry about–the military in power, and the deleterious effect military rule has on military professionalism regardless of force composition, strategic doctrine or tactical deployments.

  4. Well, if they are real professional soldiers, they probably won’t start a coup in the 1st place & end up ruling anything! It is unprofessional to challenge the civil government and replacing them. Hencefore we can never regard the Thai is professional and most South American armies are only go at shooting civilian & broke as soon as they face a real professional force like the Argentinian found out in Falkland Island in 1982
    Also in the case of Fijian, one must remember that most of the better & experience soldiers they have are either poached by British Army (most British infantry Regiment beside the Gurkha have at least 10% Fijian, and in the case of any Scottish infantry, they are 1/3 Fijian) or working in the world of Private Military Contracting, who would stay in the Fijian Army for a few hundreds a month when they get US$500 a day doing security in Iraq or on a ship transit through Somalia coast?

  5. also can we really can we really said Fijian peacekeeper is any worst than the Filipino, given that the UN commander in chief of the operation ordered everyone to surrender their weapons?
    I think there are a lot more to do with command culture of those forces that come from rather then professionalism (detail order to obey vs mission command, democracy vs dictatorship)

  6. Pablo’s observation about the deleterious effects of ruling a country on a military certainly bear repeating. Fiji is but one recent case. Examples from the same region as that of Fiji’s recent embarrassment abound. As an example I would not put substantial money on the chances of the Pakistani military in a standup fight.

    Stepan’s observation that “peacekeeping is a real necessity” strikes me as a commonplace divorced from reality. It has long struck me as curious that kiwis who object to a foreign / military policy entailing engagement with foreign allies and their conflicts nevertheless see nothing wrong with promoting an interventionist foreign policy entailing the deployment of military assets to foreign shores, provided a UN flag is affixed to the equipment.

    As such, Pablo’s observation that “peace keeping operations have utility” is much more nuanced. I may be over-reading, but the reference to utility implies a certain usefulness to NZ itself. Essentially by enhancing NZ’s embeddedness in the international system.

    As for Pablo’s navalist suggestion; from your keyboard to the cabinet’s ears. The emphasis on ground-forces has only ever made sense for NZ in the context of a need to maintain alliances with those having far-off conflicts (UK, USA). Oh, and an absence of local threats capable of reaching out and touching NZ. As such it typically implies a certain level of free-riding on the naval power of another state.

    But for anyone who feels NZ should not be involving itself in the affairs of others (which is what peace-keeping is by the way) but instead taking responsibility for its own defense, spending scarce defense dollars on a capable navy, and air-force capable of reaching out, finding, and touching someone would make a lot more sense. But good luck finding the money for that. Of course by the time you need a navy it is usually far too late to obtain the necessary infrastructure, vessels, or personnel, if you don’t have them in place already.

    Lest we forget, it was not the Argentinian army that made the British effort to recapture the Falkland Islands as close-run an affair as it was.

  7. Thanks Wilson and Markus, for the good comments. The fact that an Indian general ordered both the Filipinos and Fijians to surrender to Al-Nusra displays his incompetence and quisling attitude. The Filipinos know what happens when you surrender to Islamicist extremists and was not about to suffer that fate. The Fijians will now get to experience it first hand.

    Since the first duty of the national contingent commander in a multinational mission is to protect his own troops (regardless sod the PC rhetoric of the mission), it is his duty to disobey a patently absurd order in face of the realities on the ground. Thus the Filipino commander did good IMO, and the Fijian commander–probably as familiar with fine whisky as his Indian counterpart–did not.

    Wilson’s point about Fijian soldiers serving in other militaries and/or as PMC contractors is a good one. It shows that the most professional or competent soldiers may prefer to leave than serve under a highly politicised command.

    Markus and I clearly share the same basic orientation regarding the composition of the NZDF, but we also share the realistic assessment that a force re-orientationand reconfiguration is not possible given the current political climate.

    If it is to persist with its Army-centric look, I would prefer the NZAF to have a CAS capacity (be it rotary or fixed wing). That way, when NZDF “peacekeepers” in places like Bamiyan come under fire and there is no allied air cover, it can be Kiwi pilots who come to the rescue.

    Which of course raises the point as to when peacekeeping or humanitarian operations morph into something else (think East Timor, among many other examples).

  8. people that think it is good that armed force should lose their war-fighting capability & just being a peacekeeping force is not living in the real world.
    The truth is peacekeeping can turn nasty in a very short time as this incident had shown, it is often in those area of conflict that one have to be able to switch between the different role. or as US military doctrine of the 1990s – 2000 the “3 block war”. And we haven’t even talk about the need to fight a war of some sort due to alliance commitment!!
    Back to this case here, the Fijian is caught in the classic ROE restriction situation which even most professional force in the world often would left in an embarrassing outcome. I can recalled that it happen twice in the space of 10 years for the Brit where troop on the ground end up surrendering & captured because of following the RoE, they’ve been given by the government back in London. in 1999 the Royal Irish Ranger patrol surrender to the West side boy rebel in Sierra Leone, that because of the no shoot policy against child-soldiers at the time. And then again in 2007 the Iranian revolutionary guard detained 15 Royal Navy sailors in the full view of the HMS Cornwall which the captain was ordered to allow the sailors to be seizure instead of engage the Iranian to stop hose men & women being captured.
    It is very different since for us men on the ground & the expectation of beheading from fighting Tablian or Jihadists as the saying goes these date “rather judge by 12 then carry by 6”.

  9. Wilson:

    Remember that my main point is twofold: military rule “softens” the military as an institution, and when a military loses its combat edge, it ceases to fulfil its basic role and makes itself vulnerable to armed adversaries 9as opposed to unarmed civilians at home).

    A professional military with a combat orientation can perform well in peacekeeping missions, but it does so because it can fight. Your examples do not disprove my point because it is not the ability to fight that forced the British to surrender in both instances. It was the ROEs involved, and those are more political decisions than they are born of tactical realities, especially in grey area, irregular conflicts.

  10. “As an example I would not put substantial money on the chances of the Pakistani military in a standup fight.”

    Wouldn’t you? I would.

    In their most recent conflicts the Pakistani army performed pretty well. Military rule may erode warfighting capacity but it is obviously not the decisive factor. There are plenty of examples of occasions when ruling militaries achieved military successes.

  11. Stepan:

    The war fighting record of modern military regimes is mixed (remember: I am talking about military-bureaucratic regimes like in Fiji where the military rules as an institution, and not other types of dictatorship such as one party authoritarian states where the military is part of the ruling coalition but is not the foremost member of it).

    Military regimes tend to do well when in conflict against weaker authoritarian regimes. But their record against democracies is poor, and their record against domestic insurgents is so-so.

    As you noted, there are many reasons for this–size of forces, weaponry, nature of military organisation, geopolitical and other strategic factors, tactical opportunity, etc. But the negative impact of military rule, especially when prolonged, is pretty clear.

    It may simply be the case that it is too much to govern an entire society (via control of the state) and simultaneously run a tightly focused military organisation with the requisite skills and commitment to prevail in combat.

  12. Pablo:

    I was thinking specifically of the Pakistani military. Pakistan was absolutely a military regime for long periods, and yet during these periods its military performed well against the armed forces of democratic India.

  13. Stepan:

    That does seem like a bit of an outlier, although perhaps Indian military incompetence could explain things. I shall leave it for others with more knowledge than I to argue the point as to whether Pakistan has performed well in its conflicts with India, but if so, I will have to go and review if it did so while under military or (however briefly) democratic rule.

  14. Well, let’s look at the statistics.

    India and Pakistan have fought four major engagements.

    In 1947, on partition
    In 1965, over Kashmir
    In 1971, over Bangladesh
    And in 1999, over Kashmir again

    In 1947 Pakistan won a qualified victory, in that it was able to take control of some of Kashmir. At the time, Pakistan was a democracy.

    In 1965, the war was a draw. Pakistan was a dictatorship under General Ayub Khan, and had been for seven years.

    In 1971, the war was a loss for Pakistan. Pakistan was a democracy under President Zulfikar Bhutto.

    In 1999, the war was a draw. Pakistan was a democracy under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

    So, Pakistan recorded its biggest loss under a democracy, but also its biggest success. The two wars fought under dictatorships resulted in draws.

    This is obviously just a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it seems that, if there is a general degradation in warfighting capacity under military rule, it is not a decisive factor. (For example, when considering the causes of Pakistan’s losses in 1971, it would be naive not to note the massive internal uprising)

  15. Stepan,regarding the Pakistan’s military performance in its series of wars with India it is worth looking a little more closely at the circumstances of the outcomes. Having said which, there is always the danger of introducing special-pleading in such a discussion, but I’m going to push on regardless.

    1971 is probably the most relevant example to Pablo’s basic point about the military effectiveness of military-bureaucratic regimes.

    As an aside, it is also interesting in terms of highlighting the propensity of military governments to get themselves involved in disputes with neighbors that they can’t handle.

    The first key point about the 1971 war is that it was actually initiated, fought, and lost under a military government that was replaced as a direct consequence of its battlefield defeat. Bhutto took up leadership of Pakistan 4 days after the surrender of Pakistani forces. In passing it is probably worth noting that the ineffectiveness of military rule was probably a factor in the Bangladeshi uprising that led to the war.

    The 1999 Kargil conflict, which war is perhaps too grand a term for, was again initiated by Pakistan. It is interesting just how much dispute there is over who was responsible for the operation to seize territory in the Kargil region that led to the conflict. PM Sharif, has claimed, and been supported in his assertion, that he had nothing to do with it and that it was instead an independent action by the Pakistani army. It was failure in this conflict that directly contributed to Sharif’s deposition at the hands of General Musharraf.

    In this context it is worth noting that there is little to suggest that civilian governments in Pakistan have exercised any significant control over the activities of the military, or for that matter the intelligence services, in a very long time.

    More recently, the efforts of the Pakistani military to impose central control on the tribal territories has not exactly been an edifying spectacle. They have suffered significant losses and failed to achieve their goals to the extent that they have been obliged to negotiate a series of unfavorable agreements with the local militias.

    Finally, it is worth noting that the Indo-Pakistani conflict has been strongly bounded at all times. By external powers during the Cold War and since the mid-90s by the open introduction of nuclear weapons.

    Ultimately there is an argument to be made that the Pakistani case is particularly interesting in so far as it involves a military run state that actually has significant military threats confronting it, both external and internal. As such this could put it in a different situation than say, Argentina or Brazil in the 1970s (though I don’t claim especial knowledge of the foreign relations of either of these countries during this period).

  16. It’s true that the Indo-Pakistani conflict has had limits on its scope, but I don’t see how that changes my basic point.

    Similarly, it’s true that Pakistan initiated these conflicts, but again, the argument isn’t about whether military governments are more likely to start wars, it’s about whether they’re likely to win them.

    The tribal conflict is, as Pablo will tell you, a very different type of conflict to a stand-up war against another nation-state. Although it’s worth noting that democratic Pakistan has fared no better than military Pakistan.

    It’s true that the Pakistani military remains tremendously influential, but Pablo is not talking about militaries having influence, he’s talking about serving military officers having direct responsibility over what would normally be areas of civil government. This is what is meant by the term “military-bureaucratic” regime, a term which has a long and studied meaning in academia.

    So basically, my point stands.

  17. The Pakistan discussion raises an interesting question. “Democracy” in Pakistan has always been more rhetorical than real, and the military and intelligence services have always held veto power over elected governments (when not coup mongering). Thus the military remains eminently politicised in nature yet does not permanently assume direct control of government. One would assume from the studies of militaries that rule that such a condition of permanent politicisation would hinder professionalism and hence war-fighting capabilities.

    An example along these lines is the Thai military. They tend to serve as an arbitrator rather than ruler military, but its frequent interventions in politics make its war-fighting capability suspect. Remember that it cannot defeat a long-running Islamicist insurgency in the south, and its air force did not respond when MH370 veered off course into its air space (the Thai military issued a statement saying that the plane did not appear to be a threat although its course was erratic and unannounced).

    So the question arises as to whether so-called arbitrator militaries as well as ruler militaries suffer erosion of professionalism because of their constant preoccupation with exercising their veto or oversight power over elected government, and if so, how does that impact on their war-fighting capabilities? I ask because that is exactly the situation the Fijian military will find itself in after next weeks election.

  18. And if arbitrator militaries do suffer an erosion of professionalism, is it lesser in degree than that of full-on controlling militaries?

    I will point out though Pablo that putting down an insurgency on the scale of the Islamist uprising in South Thailand is very difficult. The Filipino government hasn’t been able to put down a similar insurgency despite being, as you pointed out, totally removed from politics.

  19. Speaking of MH370, Pablo, do you still believe the aircraft was the victim of a terrorist attack?

  20. You are right about the problems of domestic insurgency for all types of military.

    As for MH370, no, I do not believe it was lost due to a terrorist attack, nor did the CIA use its secret powers to take it over after secretly gassing the passengers in order to fly it to Diego Garcia for some back ops mission (as I have heard claimed on more than one occasion).

  21. Not sure what you are on about but insurgency should presumably be easier to defeat if the armed forces are subordinate to civilian government and ideologically supported.

  22. I am loathe to continue on this tangent but can say that I have not changed my mind regarding MH370. I never thought it was terrorism related. I am not sure how you got that impression.

  23. How about the Turkish military? Never far removed from politics, although it seems in recent years to have been stepping back. I don’t know how you’d characterise its involvement in Cyprus, but it has been fighting a long-running insurgency in the east against PKK. Similarly suspect to Thailand, or still reasonably formidable like Pakistan?

  24. Back in March you said.

    “My first inclination was to see the stolen passports as being coincidental to the crash, with the passports being used by unlucky criminals. Now I am not too sure.”

    Seems like at the time you were leaning towards the stolen passports being used by terrorists boarding the flight with malicious intent.

  25. Chris:

    The Turkish military has been pretty good about staying out of politics over the last 20 years, although Erdogan is changing that for the worse by interfering with officer promotions and trying to institute Islamic teaching into military curricula. They have had trouble with the PKK (who have cross border havens) but by and large are considered to be very competent.

    Dostoevsky’s character: You read too much into the statement. I never said or implied that they were terrorists. My comment about not being entirely sure was due to my not having first hand knowledge of what the investigators were looking at and thus leaving open that there might have been a hijacking attempt that went wrong. Hijacking a plane is, of itself, not a terrorist act.

    In any event, had you considered the entire context of my remarks to the media in the day or so after the disappearance, I repeatedly stated that I did not think that it was terrorism related. So no, my mind has not changed on the matter.

  26. OK Pablo, I guess I misunderstood.

    Re: Turkey, the military’s performance against the PKK hasn’t significantly improved since they gave up power.

    Also, I think you’re overestimating the Turkish military’s clean hands – they tried to stage a coup as recently as 2003.

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