The Army is under fire for offences it did not commit

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Recently, the army has come under severe flak for things beyond its control. Unless a fair rebuttal is issued, it would be accepting guilt by default. Unfortunately, the army is not issuing a rebuttal so it is left to a veteran to do so.

Defence journalist, Praveen Sawhney has, in a recent article, made several accusations, directly and indirectly. This rebuttal is purely professional, on those specific allegations.

The first charge is that the army lamenting lack of modernization and war preparedness and expressing anxiety towards it is misplaced. Well, if being bothered by the lack of war preparedness due to lack of funds (as was the context here) is a charge, the army should happily plead ‘Guilty’ and leave it to the judge to decide if that constitutes an offense.

The second charge is that the army is doing all it can to force the government to perpetuate the tit-for-tat manner of fire exchanges on the LOC. Were it not for the pressure of the serving and retired officers, the government would not be using this tit-for-tat response. This is too removed from ground realities. Of course, tit-for-tat is the wrong strategic response. But if Indian army is not seen by Indian public as returning each LOC violation by an even bigger one, will the present macho government last even a month in Delhi? That would make it lose its ultra-nationalistic sheen so fast that the PM would have to go. If so, the Chief would go much before the PM. Of course, no one wants to go so the shelling goes on. Further, is it even right to expect that the army will really be given the right to do as it pleases on the line of control? Are we handing over the power to start wars to brigade commanders or better still, to post commanders?  If really so, we need to think twice. The claim of the government that it is the first one to give the army a free hand to do as it pleases on the border, would be an invitation to disaster. Of course, that is not the case, nor should it be.

The third charge is that a two front war (or two and a half front one) is nonsensical. Well, a threat perception is just that – a perception. Of course, it is everyone’s wish that India doesn’t have to fight even on one front but then, wishes are not horses! A threat perception is not a statement of what we should be aiming for but one we should be prepared for. And, in any case, what exactly is the role of army in finalizing a threat perception that the nation faces? A threat perception is a holistic assessment based mostly a diplomatic reading of the geo-political situation of the world, coupled with some inputs from the army. Basically, it is the Foreign Affairs ministry that has to assess as to how many potential adversaries and their allies will they be able to hold off by means of diplomatic and economic pressures. The others will have to be dealt with by the militarily. Based on this, the army is handed over the threat perception and told to prepare for it. In any case, expecting a two-front war doesn’t seem too far-fetched from any angle.

Then comes the charge that military preparedness comes from better planning and jointsmanship (which the army is loath to) and not by making up for equipment and ammunition shortfalls. Well it comes from both. So, asking for equipment shortfalls to be made up does not result in any compulsion to neglect planning and jointsmanhip. That resolved, let us focus on that charge of neglecting planning and preparing for a quicker and more effective response. That one is true to a large extent. However, a major contributor to a quick and more effective response is surely better equipment. In one and all circumstances, labeling of a demand for better equipment as a strategy to not take planning seriously is not just wrong but downright illogical.

Next comes the charge of the army not allowing the nation to go ahead and place the air force in its rightful role of the next battle winner. I daresay that Indian army is not Pakistani army that imposes such large decisions on the government. In a scenario where notes signed by army generals are returned unactioned by joint secretaries of defence ministry, this is too ludicrous a charge to be taken seriously.

The reason ascribed to the increased importance of air-force in future battles is that the next one will be fought in the mountains only and the air force has a larger role in the mountains as compared to the plains. Without downplaying the role of air force in a future war, it is against basic military sense that the air force will have a larger role in the mountains than it will have in the plains. Ask any Lieutenant. In any case, the exact scenario of the next war cannot be dictated, either by journalists or even by the army. Some possible and likely scenarios will have to be imagined and plans made to counter them.

Then there is the belief that the present level of cross border terrorism is enough justification for India to start a war with Pakistan and all that is holding it up is its lack of capability to do so. It is alleged that once the army acquires that capability, cross-border terrorism will stop. This is naïve. Pakistan has very smartly kept the level of provocation low so as to avoid a conventional war. It will always do so. International community does not pardon countries that go to a full-fledged war on the levels of these minor swipes being taken equally by both sides. Do not forget Indian surgical strikes and the case of Cdr Kulbhushan Jadhav being held by Pak as a spy and terrorist from India. It is only the USA and its allies that can get into a full shooting war without a big enough excuse. India and Pakistan are nowhere near that status.

It is also charged that the army is finding virtue in counter-insurgency operations. Well, on a day-to-day basis, counter-insurgency operations are the only operations taking place since the Kargil war, so there is  nothing abnormal if the army is trying to do a good job there. In fact there is an angry feeling among officers that a good job done in counter insurgency operations counts for much less for future promotions than is warranted.

It is also charged that the army is not keen to improve its tooth-to-tail ratio. Well, I wonder if ensuring that is the job of the defence ministry or the army? The Shekatkar Committee report on manpower reduction, ordered by the ministry of defence and not by the army, is already under implementation. However, it has been ensured by the ministry of defence that the implementation is being done quite selectively. While the recommendations of the report concerning jobs to be taken off combatants and handed over to the private parties have already been ordered, those of the committee regarding enhancing the defence budget from under 2 % of GDP to 2.5 or 3% of it, appointment of a four star officer as the joint commander, setting up of tri-service theater commands, setting up of a cyber command and above all, institution of a roll-on plan of defence budget to the next year has all been blocked by the defence ministry. No one doubts as to who is the boss between the army and the defence ministry, so why rap the army?

It must also be accepted that resources must be provided to match the threat perception. Threat perception must not be downplayed to refuse providing resources.

The greatest charge is the senior army officers, serving and veterans are advising the government to not prepare for a conventional war. One really wishes the government listened to army officers, serving or retired. Had that been the case, veterans would not have been beaten up at Jantar-Mantar and the words of the Chief would have had weight over at least those of a joint secretary of the defence ministry.

Let us get to the big picture. Who is in charge of Indian defence – the Defence ministry or the army? Most Indians would say that it is indeed the defence ministry. The system is clear and is being followed meticulously in India, as it should be. Too meticulously, some would say but better the excess than the defect. In this scenario, blaming the army for punching above its weight is, at best, irresponsible journalism. If the nation indeed is to wrest the initiative from Pakistan, it is clearly the job of the Defence ministry, or even the PM of India, than the Indian army.

It is patently unfair to hand over all the power to the politician and the babu, but seek accountability from the army.  The army in India is meant only to die for the sins of others, which they have been doing quite faithfully.  Much too faithfully, some would say.


Also published on Medium.

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Col Alok Asthana (retired) served 3 instructional tenures in the top training academies of Indian army. He raised one of the early RR bns and commanded it in Manipur and then in J&K. After taking premature retirement from army, he got trained in TRIZ (a form of Innovation) at IITB and is now a consultant on innovation and leadership - http://www.innovatorsandleaders.com/. A believer that we should care for governance, not politics, he has recently started Sushaasan - http://sushaasan.in/wp - which aims to empower citizens to seek good governance for themselves. He is keen that we 'reclaim our democracy'