It is usual to introspect after failures and fiascos. But it is good to do so after little successes. After the Indian Navy demonstrated its mettle in anti-piracy operations off Somalia, let us examine a debate that has been taking place in the background. The Navy has sought authority for its chief to sanction action against such pirates. But the defence ministry has been unwilling to accede to this, requiring decisions to be made in South Block.

The Navy’s case is based on allowing its commanders the operational flexibility to employ the appropriate assets to achieve its mission. This, however, need not be inconsistent with civilian oversight over broader strategic and policy issues. There is, obviously, a tension between the two, arising from the grey area between where operational control ends and strategic policy starts. The contention between the Navy and the ministry suggests that there is much to be ironed out, perhaps because unilateral deployments have been uncommon.

But the emerging security environment and India’s increasingly global interests are likely to make the need for such deployments more frequent. Yet the current policy is dogmatic: Foreign deployments are contingent on being part of a UN mission. This is not only untenable, it also opens the door to an abdication of responsibility to protect India’s interests.

India must be ready to act unilaterally, but only dispatch forces to theatres—such as Somalia, Afghanistan or tsunami-hit littorals on the Indian Ocean—where its interests are at stake. Guidelines need to be developed to achieve twin objectives: strategic alignment with India’s geopolitical goals and operational flexibility for military commanders.

The decision of where and when to deploy is primarily a political imperative and should rest with the legitimate constitutional authority: the prime minister, the appropriate cabinet committees and the defence minister. The national security adviser, the defence secretary and the chief of defence staff (CDS) must inform and advise the political authority. Of course, this means the political leadership can task the Armed Forces with a particular mission. The Armed Forces, too, can submit proposals to the political leadership through the defence ministry, seeking mandates for particular operations. The civilian leadership must define the mission, sanction the capacity and approve the rules of engagement.

Thus empowered, the Armed Forces can conduct a particular military campaign with full operational autonomy at almost all levels of conventional warfare. Within the sanctioned capacity and rules of engagement, military commanders will have the latitude to decide on the best way to achieve the mission’s objectives.

There is also a need to change the structure of the Armed Forces. As one of us (Sushant K. Singh) and Rohit Pradhan argue, in this month’s issue of Pragati, it is important to distinguish the roles of military advisers and military commanders. While the CDS should be the government’s chief military adviser, he should not have operational control of the troops in this capacity. Operational control, as K. Subrahmanyam has pointed out, should be vested in theatre commands that combine triservice resources, along the lines of the US model.

Both civilians and the military brass might find it seductive to merely seek “control": But India needs a policy framework that redefines the roles and responsibilities of the top echelons of India’s defence set-up. It needs a restructuring of the Armed Forces. Unless this happens, India’s approach to emerging security threats will remain reactive, ad hoc and suboptimal.

Nitin Pai and Sushant K. Singh are associated with Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. Comments are welcome at