The new government can no longer ignore the issues faced by the defence forces
Lt Gen. Mukesh Sabharwal (retd)
Come May 16 and election results are likely to indicate which dispensation shall govern the country for the next five years. Irrespective of who comes to power, the defence forces ought to be prepared to categorically state their concerns and what they expect from the new government. Without going into generalisations regarding the prevailing external and internal security situation, or the probable nature of conflict in the foreseeable future, I shall straightaway discuss salient issues that should be taken up on priority. Although I shall try and confine myself to army related issues, but frankly most of them are so intertwined that they are equally applicable to all three services directly or indirectly.
According to Admiral Arun Prakash, former Chief of Naval Staff, “India’s political establishment has chosen to follow an unusual paradigm in which policymaking is assigned to the bureaucracy, while strategy is crafted by diplomats, and matters impinging on grand strategy, like nuclear deterrence or ballistic missile defence remain in the hands of scientists or technocrats. Uniquely India has not seen it fit to entrust its armed forces with any role in national security decision making”. The new government, therefore, should be urged to define national aims and objectives, issue strategic guidance, revive vital security issues that have remained stagnant for long including national security reforms.
Northern Borders with China Transgressions:
Every year the same story is repeated along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China albeit the location varies. Sometimes it has a Northern flavour of Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), Depsang plateau, Demchok or Chumar and in other months the scene shifts to Sikkim or Arunachal, be it Doka La, Asaphi La or Maja. The government explanation, spoken more often than not from an Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) standpoint and seldom from the defence viewpoint, is that there is a misperception between the Chinese and Indian claim lines and that respective border forces are patrolling areas as perceived by them. In every forum including the Parliament, the ministers or their spokespersons reiterate that the situation on the LAC is generally peaceful and that laid-down procedures for stand-offs are being followed by troops at the local level. When confronted with the question as to how the Chinese patrols have advanced well beyond their so called claim line and have set up temporary abode with pre-fabricated structures, the standard answer is that the issue has been raised with the Chinese foreign office through diplomatic channels. It is also emphasised that the strategic dialogue between the Special Representatives or the National Security Advisor (NSA) and his counterpart is trying to resolve the border dispute holistically. Unfortunately, the process seems to prolong because the Chinese are in no hurry and the Indian government cannot decide on a coherent policy other than appeasement.
Infrastructure on Border with China: The nation has been hearing about the infrastructure being developed along the border with China in the Northern (Ladakh), Central (Himachal and Uttarakhand) and the Northeastern (Arunachal Pradesh) sectors. The China Study Group (CSG) in its deliberations had recommended the construction and improvement of 72 roads in these regions which were duly funded and budgeted over three Five Year Plans by successive governments. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) was tasked to complete these by 2013. Needless to mention, there were delays on several fronts. Land acquisition, seeking clearances from border states, ministries of surface transport and environment have been the biggest impediment, despite clarifications and rulings by the Supreme Court. The BRO had its peculiar struggle with procurement of plant and resources as well as mobilising the additional increment in manpower that had been sanctioned. To add to it, the private sector which was intended to participate for outsourced contractual work in selected areas was not forthcoming in the absence of assurances and protection by way of a specific legislation. The bottomline is that the infrastructure, both road and rail, is nowhere near completion of laid-down targets. There are areas where the progress has been woefully inadequate and as a result, even operational criticalities still remain – such as roads to carry our towed artillery forward so as to be in range to support our troops. The Ultra-light Howitzers (ULH) are nowhere in the horizon despite the promise of their procurement through the FMS route.
Yes, we have landed our AN-32 earlier and now the C-130 Hercules at DBO and Nyoma – this has been a remarkable achievement. But unless we convert these advance landing grounds to forward airfields and subsequently to full-fledged logistic hubs, the forces deployed at the LAC, both army and Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) cannot be supported adequately. Even if we are able to upgrade these airfields, we must realise that air maintenance besides being an expensive medium is constrained by climatic conditions and availability of serviceable aircraft. Despite a few additional aircraft having been procured, tonnages envisaged would require a major boost in the acquisition of suitable air carriers. So let us not fool ourselves, in the long run the answer lies in surface connectivity. The so-called CSG roads are way behind schedule and one of the several reasons offered for its delay is lack of forward movement of resources which is hampered by a very short working season due to closure of mountain passes. It is a no-brainer that the advance winter stocking of the entire Corps in Ladakh takes precedence and hence, the work at the proposed tunnels at Rohtang and Zoji La needs to be expedited on more than a war footing.
Mountain Strike Corps: The mountain strike corps, despite several misgivings, is now a reality. Many external affairs specialists feel that this could hurt our diplomatic relations with China. There are some who even advocate that we should focus on only enhancing our maritime capability to thwart the Chinese designs, not comprehending that land forces duly supported by air capability is the ultimate option when territory is at stake in short, intense conflicts. Although the mountain strike corps may have commenced its raising, it will take an extremely long time for it to become effective. What is needed from the new government in power is to orchestrate the thinking of the foreign and finance ministries with the ministry of defence (MoD), so that no fresh impediments are created. Actions of these three elements should be synergised so as to facilitate making this strike formation into an effective deterrent capability by providing it the necessary wherewithal in terms of manpower, arms, equipment, land, finances and essential resources. Moreover, the corps’ employment is contingent upon availability of adequate surface communications and hence, up-gradation and consolidation of infrastructure must be accorded a higher priority.
Policy With Respect to Pakistan
Border Violations: Indians were infuriated when they heard the news of the beheading of the soldiers on the Line of Control (LC) in Poonch, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Many reasons were cited as the defence minister was at his defensive, apologetic best in Parliament and offered to hold the inevitable inquiry. The reality is that border violations will continue to occur in tactically disadvantageous areas despite the ceasefire promulgated since November 2003 and generally holding firm. It is not that our soldiers are incapable of retaliating – far from it; at the local level, retribution is a norm and full justice is done by commanders of the Indian Army at the battalion/sector level.
Then why is there a perception that we are at the receiving end of the bargain? The answer is not difficult to seek. It is the defensive policy that clearly affects the mind-set. Strategically the biggest challenge is ‘maintaining the sanctity of the LC’. Loss of territory is just not acceptable even temporarily. This imposes a huge constraint in terms of deployment as well as measures to dominate inaccessible areas, especially in winter. Any intrusion on the LC has to be evicted on priority. The other restraining policy is that of ‘No Hot Pursuit’. This implies that any group of terrorists fleeing back to Pakistan or POK cannot be pursued across the LC when they are retreating.
Political Objective: The army has to seek clear answers from the new political bosses as to what exactly is the political objective. What is the end state that they have in mind? What is the level of passivity vis-a-vis aggressiveness that they would expect the country’s soldiers to display? This is not to suggest fool-hardiness or a Don Quixote approach but a positive and morally ascendant attitude. The signal obviously has to come from the helm. Threat of cross-border terrorism will continue unabated irrespective of the dispensation ruling Pakistan. There is an urgent necessity to enunciate a policy to tackle state-sponsored terrorism from across our borders. Measures must be instituted to force Pakistan to re-think its proxy war policy by making it cost ineffective. The intent must be unambiguous so as to formulate a distinctive doctrine at the national and military level and create wherewithal to execute the same. One thing is certain and that is the Indian Army’s professionalism and commitment to follow and deliver successfully whatever policy is laid down.
Siachen: Our presence on the Saltoro ridge in Siachen keeps our two adversaries apart and prevents the Nubra and Shyok Valleys from eventually turning into a collusive playground and a zone for future exploitation by them. Yet, there are opinion-makers who would have the area converted into a zone of peace to reduce casualties, maintenance costs and halt the so-called futile conflict. For this they would like to demilitarise the area without understanding either the significance or the process involved, despite the Pakistanis refusing to agree to authentication of current positions. The level of mistrust between India and Pakistan, more so between their security forces is so deep rooted that it will take a very long time to reverse. The present tone, tenor and unresponsive attitude of Pakistan, especially with respect to acknowledgement of the Mumbai terrorist attacks and showing no inclination to cease cross-border terrorism exude no confidence or trust. The army’s advice would be to tread into talks on Siachen with utmost caution and not let any strategic advantage slip away as it happened with Hajipir.
With regard to J&K, whether the country looks for a debate on re-visiting Article 370 or otherwise is not what the army is concerned about. The new government must clarify their stand on two salient issues as it relates to the army -demilitarisation and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
Demilitarisation: Contrary to general belief, 70 per cent of the army is deployed on the LC to ensure its sanctity in a No War No Peace posture and also to cater for a quick employment of forces in the event of a conventional conflict. This also includes troops for combat support, combat service support and headquarters at various levels located in the cantonments/military stations within J&K. These forces are mandatory for the defence of the country and there should be no compromise in their dilution. Demilitarisation is a misunderstood term and is often confused with a call for removal of troops from the hinterland. This is normally justified on the grounds that violence levels are at an all-time low, numbers of terrorists have dwindled and that normalcy has been restored. Thinning out of troops from the hinterland is a dynamic process and would be dictated by the prevailing security situation as assessed by the security advisors in the Unified HQ functioning in J&K.
AFSPA: As regards AFSPA, the army’s view has been propounded unambiguously at various levels and forums – it is an enabling provision in an Act passed by the Parliament that provides legal protection to soldiers who are operating under difficult and sensitive situations. Repealing will result in severe limitations to the army, for instance proactive operations will be severely affected and will result in the initiative being passed to the militant. Absence of legal cover would be detrimental to the morale of the soldiers on ground, whereas it would bolster the will of anti-nationals and provide an opportunity to tanzeems to fuel militancy. In the last two years, a “partial removal of AFSPA” from four districts of the State, including Srinagar and Budgam, is being proposed. Conceptually, partial withdrawal from certain areas suffers from the same drawbacks that prevent a total repeal of the Act. Politics in an election year may lean towards fulfilling election promises and bank upon people’s sentiments but without being objective and rational. Low levels of violence and fewer army operations do not justify repealing the Act. The army would welcome the incoming government to clear the air in this regard.
The country became aware of deficiencies in the army when Gen V. K. Singh’s letter to the Prime Minister leaked in the public domain. Those knowledgeable about military affairs, however, were not oblivious to the gradual decline in the quantity and quality of major weapon systems in almost all departments of the army. Its modernisation plan is in total disarray with next-to-no major procurements, whether artillery guns or air defence systems, having taken place in the last decade. State-of-the-art surveillance systems permit wider employment of artillery platforms over extended ranges but unfortunately the army lags behind in procurement of either. The ability to fight at night continues to be hampered due to lack of quality night vision systems for all combat arms viz the Armoured Corps, Mechanised Infantry and the Infantry. The modern assault rifle, the basic weapon of the army, especially the Infantry is still a pipe dream. Indigenisation is critical for the country to become self-reliant so that the defence forces do not have to depend on imports as they were forced to at the time of Kargil conflict. However, waiting for technology to catch up by way of indigenisation must be weighed against making up critical shortages in weapons, equipment and ammunition through limited procurement. This is a decision that the new dispensation will have to execute in consultation with the army.
National War Memorial
One of the long outstanding demands of the citizens of this country has been the creation of a national war memorial. The army has been spearheading this crusade for over five decades. It is indeed unfortunate that a nation that has since Independence fought four large scale wars, several small scale conflicts and undertaken counter-insurgency operations for many years does not have an official memorial at the national level to honour its martyrs. It is a travesty that concrete proposals that have been approved at various levels, assented to by politicians and ministers over the years have been scuttled by red tape of the urban development ministry, home ministry and the like. Is it too much to ask from the incoming government, to deliver on this account and restore the pride and dignity of soldiers? A number of times the proposal has been put off with a comment that such a memorial could be established in Delhi Cantonment. Let us not forget that monuments already exist in military stations where the defence forces care for their men who have sacrificed their lives. The defence forces belong to the nation and it is for the PM and his cabinet to find a suitable place for Indian citizens to pay homage to their war heroes.
Human Capital Management
When it comes to human capital management, the wish list is rather long, but the few areas that are significant to be brought to the attention of the new government are covered briefly.
Anomalies of the Sixth Pay Commission have not been resolved and the Seventh Pay Commission is already upon us. Inclusion of service representatives as a member in the new commission is a genuine demand that must be heeded to.
Corrigendum Pension Payment Order (PPOs) have yet not been issued to most veterans and this will only exacerbate calculation of pensions delegated to banks by the Controller of Defence Accounts (Pensions).
The cadre review of Joint Commissioned Officers (JCOs) and Other Ranks (ORs) was last carried out almost 30 years ago. This must be cleared quickly and not linked to the next pay commission.
Lack of will by the MoD, coupled with inexplicable procrastination by the bureaucracy to push through critical projects, are at the root of delay in most issues. For instance, it has taken well over seven years to consider proposals to overcome the serious problem of shortage of officers. Yet, execution of measures to make short service commission (SSC) more attractive or peel factors has not seen the light of day. Capacity building in training establishments and service selection boards is the key and the new government will have to focus on clearing projects that have been marred due to lack of decisiveness. Lateral absorption is also something no government has shown conviction to implement.
A related area of concern is the attitude of the MoD in not upholding the decisions of the Armed Forces Tribunal and the honourable courts. In spite of clear directions, the ministry chooses to go into appeal even when the services are willing to implement the courts orders. This issue needs attention at top priority.
The veteran community which is 2.4 million strong and growing steadily with 50,000 added every year is a neglected section of society that needs attention and care. Hereafter, any government that ignores them and their genuine concerns will do so at its own peril. Rather than exploiting the potential of this motivated, dedicated and disciplined cross-section of society, successive governments have paid lip service to their welfare – be it pensions, disability, health care or dignity. One rank one pension (OROP) has been accepted only in principle, perhaps as an election sop. Not complying with its implementation in letter and spirit will undermine the credibility of the government.
A significant proposal that the army would like the new government to consider is the restructuring of the Department of ex-servicemen welfare (ESW) and inducting service officers to play a decisive role in its functioning. Issues related to pension, welfare and health, especially ECHS which is the contributory health scheme, are currently being neglected by the Department as the views of the stakeholders are constantly being ignored.
It is the charter of the Election Commission to encourage voting by all sections of society and create ways and means for making that happen. For some strange reason, in the case of defence services, the commission insists that they should follow the age-old norm of postal ballots despite being fully aware of the difficulties involved, delays due to accessibility and communications, the likelihood of tampering and the marginal outcomes that finally accrue. Legislation provides for soldiers to vote at their place of posting after having duly registered in time, but implementation of this is being discouraged possibly by the influence of politicians indirectly through the defence ministry. This democratic right must be revived and a fillip should be provided by the new government coming into power, more so with the Supreme Court having given its nod.
Putting it Across Emphatically
The suggestions stated are not unknown either to the military or to the government. The need of the hour is to take advantage of this opportunity and put across these views emphatically to the new dispensation in power and hope for a move forward. It is for the three service chiefs to act in unison on common issues to derive maximum benefit.