The new Indian Army Chief expectedly, has much on his agenda. The most significant item is how to progress “transformation” in the million-strong army. He led a study into this issue, over the past year and he is best placed to implement it. It would be a challenging management exercise involving questioning verities, unlocking the status quo, realigning the organisation and then fixing the change. The details not being in the open domain, this article deals with what could figure on that agenda.
First, the Indian military has been so committed in sub-conventional operations over the past two decades that the engagement has possibly impacted its conventional preparedness. Equipment shortfalls have found mention, but of greater importance is the operational orientation. While the earlier thesis was that sub-conventional shortcomings were attributable to a conventional orientation of the military, today the reverse is possibly true. This may require attention in case the promise of ‘Cold Start’ is to be achieved.
The commitment in holding terrain and deployment on counter-insurgency grid is manpower intensive. Given the relative ‘normalcy’ in both, there are dangers of routine, stasis and fixity. Nevertheless, that these are ‘field’ and have challenges from altitude etc, there is a need for recharging when in peace locations. Thus, peace tenures have served as interregnums between deployments, particularly for the crucial component, the Infantry. While commanders with shortened time to prove themselves have been busy driving offensive and pivot formations in peace station, that such tenures serve as ‘rest and recoup’ for consequential deployments later, limits their efforts. Therefore, transformation requires reorienting the major portion of the Army to conventional operations once again.
The sub-conventional experience has been useful in ‘blooding’ the force and getting it attuned to small team operations. The sub-conventional dimension set to emerge in occupied territory would be easier to tackle. However, the preceding conventional operations would require attention. While armoured formations are likely to be readily off the block, having internalised the changes to a proactive and offensive doctrine, it is uncertain that the Infantry can make that switch as easily.
In cantonments, it is usually imposed in myriad ways that do not require spelling out here. In particular, cantonments all over the country are gaining the appearance of fortifications brought on by the terror threat. This is further evidence of the Pakistani aim of its proxy war – to tie down and tire out India’s military – being met in some measure. Deployment in penny packets on CI grids or on LC has already done its wrought. With the cantonment tenure taken as a breather, the challenge of injecting mental agility and cohesion exists. As an Infantryman, the Chief has the insight and empathy to bring about the change.
Second, though useful as an energiser for change, “transformation” has its limitations. The Army remains a ‘mass’ one, given the commitments. Current security demands need a rethink. Where troops can revert to barracks, such as for instance from Assam, the shift needs to be made. While some formations have been de-inducted from the south of Pir Panjal, this can be affected to the north also. The vacating RR needs to be demobilised in case they are not being considered for redeployment in Central India. Currently, it appears that institutional momentum and interest in appearing relevant to the end game in Kashmir is keeping the Army reluctant to disengage. In case the Chief is serious about transformation, rethinking the Army’s size and its levels of commitment in operations needs to be done.
The aspect of size is not one that the Army can engage with autonomously, being at present a combination of threat-dependent and capabilities based. The absence of resolution to the border problem with the neighbours and the final settlement of the Kashmir issue are immediate problems. The additional security problem ahead is that of China being, in the Prime Minister’s words, more ‘assertive’. Deployment in Central India is not ruled out, since it is inconceivable that the paramilitary can wrap up the Maoists. The totality of this would be an increased reliance on the ‘mass’ aspect of the Army, making “transformation” not only more important, but equally more difficult. The ambitious way to address this would be at a national security policy level in resolving border issues and internal security problems politically. This would help the Army draw down its operational commitments, down size where possible and modernise not only in equipment and organisation, but more importantly in ethos. Until that happens, “transformation” would remain a useful catchphrase to lend focus to an initiative, but would not be able to fulfil its promise or potential.
Lastly, the Chief has already indicated the direction of his thrust while in command in his exceptional stand on the Sukhna land issue. The inference is that he apprehends that things have come to such a pass that a stand was needed. A mature follow through would bring back the balance in the organisation that had seemingly moved away from an institutional-transformational to a managerial-transactional ethic. The Chief has the nation’s good wishes.