General Bikram Singh should take the middle path
General Bikram Singh took over as the chief of army staff (COAS) on May 31 under extraordinary circumstances. His predecessor, General V.K. Singh took exceedingly much from the army as its chief than he gave back to it. He publicly pitted the army against the government and took the latter to court on the issue of his age for which he alone was responsible. More than blaming a few senior officers for wrongdoings, he floated the impression that most of the officer class had gone to the pits. Towards the fag end of his tenure, he informed the nation that the army lagged behind in terms of modernisation, something he should have done at the beginning of his innings. He gave so many insinuating media interviews that he sounded like a stuck record. While certainly an upright officer, he used the institution to exhaustion. So much so, that it would be long before the army recovers enough to look normal.
Against this backdrop, the COAS would require an extended period merely to put his house in order. He would need to repair bridges with the defence ministry, push modernisation, punish the guilty, and remind his officers that men come first, always and every time. He would prefer to do all this away from media glare. For this reason, he has instructed his media mangers to discourage media interactions in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast, two areas with enormous scope for army bashing. The flip side is that cleansing his stables should not become an overextended exercise. This will be the anti-thesis of transparency providing fodder to rumour mills. After all, the massive public information structure at the army headquarters and below was created in the Nineties to facilitate media once the army started operating among the people in a big way. If this organisation which has matured over years is put into hibernation for long, it will lose its sheen. As long as the army continues to hold to its hardened position on Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the directorate of public information and its media cells across the army should not be under-utilised. Even if the COAS prefers minimum media interaction, it would be wise not to pass gag orders on senior command officers. What the army needs is the middle path to regain normalcy.
While modernisation is essential, General Bikram Singh should ponder over the fundamentals. Modernisation for what purpose? Are the army war doctrines sound enough to achieve military aims against Pakistan and China? Are the military aims compatible with national security objectives? As the head of the largest defence service, and given the disputed borders, the COAS should step forward and talk both with the government and other defence services. This alone will make sense of modernisation and bring synergy among the services.
The army’s enunciated ‘Cold Start’ or ‘Pro-Active’ doctrine and ‘Transformation’ need to be revisited. Is Cold Start, which has worked to Pakistan Army’s advantage, sound and doable? Merely providing equipment (modernisation) for fulfilment of the doctrine will not be enough. The requirement for infrastructure, forward movement for troops, and gauging the sense of political leadership are equally important. Similarly, is transformation really a sound capability-building strategy given that the two adversaries’ capabilities are defined, and area of operations well chartered. Wouldn’t threat-based capability acquisitions be more appropriate?
This is not all. The COAS will have to contend with three more challenges which stare in the face. If a war breaks out with Pakistan, what will the 80,000 strong Rashtriya Rifles do? A recently retired army chief told me that they would go back to the primary task on the Line of Control and their duties would be taken over by the paramilitary and state police forces. But has this been practiced? All indications suggest that this remains a paper exercise.
The next challenge, which I would like to underline as a top priority is cyber security. One has to read ‘Cyber War’ by Richard Clarke and ‘America The Vulnerable’ by Joel Brenner to get the frightening assessment about Chinese cyber capabilities. The army, which is embarked on network-centricity like the other services, has not given due importance to this emerging threat; just about little is being done at the Integrated Defence Headquarters. There is a need to upgrade the existing army cyber cell headed by a brigadier rank officer into a full-fledged directorate under a three star general; someone with understanding of the subject and willingness to work with civilian cyber agencies both in the public and private domain. Not surprising, much work in this area is being done in the private sector.
And last not least, the army could do more about utilisation of space. Progressively, the entire command, control, communication, computer and intelligence (C4I) capabilities will need to be space-based moving away from land based and airborne radars. This indeed would be the ‘Transformation’ for which the army needs to be prepared. The task cannot be left to a directorate; all stakeholders should be educated on what this would entail and the roadmap for accomplishing it. The work should begin now.