Bottomline | All Eyes on the Chief

General V.K. Singh has onerous tasks ahead

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

An awesome challenge for any defence services’ chief, especially the Chief Of Army Staff (COAS) as he has boots on the ground, is to balance what needs to be accomplished and what can possibly be achieved. Reason: in the Indian dispensation, the political and diplomatic imperatives invariably side-step and overwhelm the military calculus, rubbishing the truism that unlike intent, capabilities require time to evolve. The chief’s task becomes extra daunting as he is catapulted overnight as a strategic level player, in stark contrast to his demeanour where he had in over 38 years progressively graduated to being a good operational level commander from a tactical level minion. With a few exceptions, confident army commanders (GOC-in-Cs), on promotion, transform into undecided army chiefs because there is no probation period (it is the same tale with the other two defence services). The new COAS, General V.K. Singh’s challenge is not what he can do, but what he will be able to do in the corridors of power insensitive to military appreciation. Discerning observers and the media, unfortunately, without giving allowance for the peculiarity of his office, will assess his tenure by his contribution to the three big issues confronting the army.

The first is the two-front military threat from Pakistan and China.

Senior military officers that I have spoken with believe that a war with China is at least 10 years away. What is glossed over is why China, that equates itself with the US, would want to go to war at all with India, when its purpose is served well by wholeheartedly supporting Pakistan, and by its aggressive nibbling of Indian territory because of little consensus between the PMO, MoD and MEA on how to handle PLA’s intimidations. In his previous appointment as GOC-in-C, Eastern Command, General Singh had headed an exhaustive study on ‘Transformation in the Army’, which dealt with the doctrinal and organisational needs to meet the twin military threat.

Against China, the army needs good infrastructure and rapid reaction forces. For Pakistan, credible conventional deterrence is needed to combat the regular and irregular war simultaneously. The doctrines against both adversaries are still not validated; the work in progress could have been faster. The new army chief will need to assess their operational viability by exercising test-bed formations in the eastern and western theatres in the air-land battle concept with the air force. This is the easy part. The difficult part is to get the political leadership onboard, especially regarding China.

Modernisation of the army for effect-based operations has been a priority since many years. Yet, the neglect stares in the face; most combat and combat-support services especially armour, artillery, and air defence are woefully equipped for the new war-fighting doctrine. There is snail-pace progress on acquisition of surveillance means and net-work centricity critical for effect-based operations. The Special Forces are neither special nor well-employed. Notwithstanding enormous deficiencies, the annual capital budgets are unutilised, and would continue to be so until the Chiefs of Staff Committee works in unison to reach its case directly to the political leadership. That the COSC is not a fruitful forum has once again been said by the chief of air staff, ACM P.V. Naik. While taking over as the Chairman, COSC from the outgoing army chief, General Deepak Kapoor, he reiterated the need for the Chief of Defence Staff.

Just as push is sought for modernisation, the army chief will need to ensure that the already overstretched troops are not flogged further. The army and the air force are involved in training and logistics respectively of Paramilitary forces for Naxal operations, and it should stop at this. Considering that anti-Naxal operations have both political and military implications, the possibility of the army providing direct support to the perplexed Paramilitary forces, at the behest of the government, cannot be ruled out. This, however, will be a disaster if it ever comes to pass. Yet another possibility of army’s involvement could be in Afghanistan to protect Indian assets and interests there. The writing on the wall is evident for all to see. Given the imminent exit of the US forces, for peace in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai will need to go as well. The Taliban (supported by Pakistan) and Karzai cannot co-exist; it is wishful thinking to believe that the Taliban will agree to power-sharing with Karzai. With Taliban in the saddle, Indian choices in Afghanistan will constrict. While retaining existing presence in Afghanistan will need more and better-trained and equipped Paramilitary forces, leaving Afghanistan will diminish India’s regional stature. A situation is not ruled out when the government may seek the army’s help to protect Indian assets in the Taliban-ruled country. It is not being suggested that this will happen, but that this should not happen under any circumstances. It will require a firm army chief to say so.


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