EDITS | Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Army chief must lead from front
Ashok K Mehta
While the new Army Chief, Gen VK Singh, has set his own priorities, he has received a fair amount of advice from military veterans and newspaper editorials. On their own, Service chiefs can’t do much by way of introducing change: They can tinker — which they usually do — or they can make grand resolves. But somewhere down the line it dawns on them that the system is too deeply entrenched and vested interests so embedded that it is not worth trying in the first place.
Still, some have succeeded in creating a spectacular mess in the name of change and innovation. One Army Chief started his innings with what was described as “reaching out to officers” with a personal letter encapsulating his vision of an Officer and a Gentleman. When he realised his ethical guidelines could not be implemented he forgot about it. The last incumbent discovered unpleasantly that the Army Chief, if he wishes to oblige, can be pushed around by his Minister to the detriment of that high office.Gen Singh’s first task is to restore the image of his office allowing no one to interfere in his chain of command and ensuring the principle percolates down the line.
He must make known that he will protect and promote the health, prosperity and operational effectiveness of the Army whatever the stakes.
Most issues are best addressed collectively. Strength is in numbers too, as the Services discovered from the unified approach to the Fifth and Sixth Pay Commission. Why should the three chiefs allow the Ministry of Defence to divide and rule? A priority task for Gen Singh is to get hold of Admiral Nirmal Verma and Air Chief Marshal PV Naik to forge a united front.
This will be easy as all three are of the same vintage and identical professional background.
Following the Dantewada massacre last week, the Army and Air Force Chiefs made some relevant professional comments on the CRPF-Maoist encounter in response to questions by the media. They were in good company as a couple of Ministers had also made critical remarks. Promptly the Cabinet Secretary issued a directive authorising only the Home Ministry to speak on the Maoist problem, forgetting that the Army and IAF are already involved in training and logistics support of the State and Central police forces.While exercising care in what is said, the chiefs must not allow muzzling of legitimate views (including dissent) especially in relation to operational readiness, morale and welfare of troops.
It was heartening to learn that Air Chief Marshal Naik has no objection to the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff provided the model is appropriate. This is a breakthrough of sorts as in the past, it is the Air Force which has blocked the creation of the CDS’s post. The Group of Ministers approved the appointment of a CDS in 2000 after the Kargil intrusions, but the Government has stalled the appointment, saying there is no political consensus.Gen Singh and Admiral Verma must settle with Air Chief Marshal Naik over single malt whisky on the right model for CDS.
The blueprint is there. All that needs to be done is for the Service chiefs to accept one model, take it to the Prime Minister and President, and tell them this is what they want.The Big Three must similarly attend to the festering sore of underutilisation of capital budget for defence modernisation.
Over the last decade, around Rs 60,000 crore could not be spent (and an additional one-fifth was misspent at the last minute to beat the March syndrome) due to a variety of reasons.
Very recently, Vice-Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal PK Barbora, stated at an international conference that politics was hurting India’s defence and that political parties use defence procurement deals to settle political vendettas.Defence Minister AK Antony, who has set saintly standards in probity, has ensured that one-fifth of capital funds go unused and back to the treasury to balance the fiscal deficit.
The Service chiefs must ask for a Group of Ministers to end this farce. A separate committee, headed by a professional/strategic analyst
— as was done recently in the UK through the Bernard Gray report — should be established to energise defence acquisitions, ensuring operational readiness supersedes probity and lengthy procedures.
As Eastern Army Commander, Gen Singh chaired a multi-faceted study on the operational preparedness of the Army so that he could implement the recommendations when he became Chief. In the Army’s Military Operations room and its think-tank, Centre of Land Warfare Studies, impressive power-point presentations are made about the two-and-a-half front doctrine and cold start with the entire spectrum of conflict compressed on to two slides.
Such intense professional orientation to conventional and nuclear conflict in a network-centric environment underemphasises the nature of battle that the Army has been and will be fighting for the foreseeable future. It is Low Intensity Conflict where the stellar role is played by the Infantry soldier whose modernisation has been ignored since 1985 when the first 15-year Army modernisation plan was drawn. India has not fought a conventional war since 1971 though the Army, notably the Infantry, has not ceased fighting since independence. The infantry modernisation (‘Infantry Vision 2020’) was approved only last year and Gen Singh has to put this on fast track.
The Service chiefs who are accountable for the actions and outcomes of their warriors have not had a matching role in decision-making. This too, needs to be corrected and their access to the political leadership must not stop at the door of the National Security Adviser or the Cabinet Secretary. Gen Singh must lead the way in reopening access to the Prime Minister for institutionalised meetings as was the practice in the past.In the mid-1980s the triumvirate of Gen K Sundarji, Admiral R Tahiliani and Air Chief Marshal D Lafontaine functioned admirably as a tri-service entity. The Army and Air Force accepted voluntary cuts to accommodate the Navy’s requirements for additional funds, such was inter-service cooperation.
No opportunity was given for bureaucracy-induced discord. It was boom time for the Services and requires to be reinvented.
As the primus inter pares, Gen Singh has to help build the triumvirate of Service chiefs speaking in one voice for the greater good of the armed forces and the country.