118 years of Trust A Soldier's Diary THE TRIBUNE
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Sunday, September 27, 1998

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Combat worthiness of the Army

By K.S. Bajwa

THERE has been speculation about the Army’s capability to meet threats to our security likely to arise due to the fragile nature of our geo-strategic environment. The Chief of the Army Staff has also, reportedly, expressed his concern to the Defence Minister. A retired Lieut General has claimed, in a newspaper article, that the combat worthiness of the Army was suspect. Such reports should be of grave concern to the nation.

Why has the Army, which had in the 51 years of our Independence earned the nation’s admiration and trust over and over again, become suspect as far as combat worthiness is concerned? Is it ill-prepared to effectively perform it’s vital role of defence of the nation ?

The combat power of an army is developed by an effective combination of men and machines. Weapons and equipment adopted by an army are designed and rated for a desired capability. Their performance in battle is a fairly well known asset. It is possible to reasonably quantify the fighting potential inherent to an army through its weapons and equipment. On the other hand the human element, the man behind the machine, is the intangible element.

His performance in combat depends largely on his professional calibre, his morale and above all his will to fight. The impact of these elements is so profound that a force high in these qualities may get the better of an adversary armed with superior weapons and equipment.

A case in point were the Indo-Pak operations in the Khem Karan Sector of Punjab in 1965. The Patton tanks and artillery of the Pak forces on the ground and the Sabre in the air, were superior in rated performance to what we had. Yet our more effective handling of our weapons, combined with a determined will to defend our land, inflicted crushing losses on the Pak forces. The grave-yard of Pattons near Bhikhiwind has become a byword in our military annals.

In 1947, our Army had undergone a virtual upheaval in the process of Partition. Its capacity to undertake sustained high intensity operations could not be rated high. Despite heavy odds, the upsurge of national fervour was such that the soldiers fought with outstanding grit.

By 1962, the Army had suffered years of deliberate neglect by the government led by Nehru and was poorly equipped. It was ill-prepared to undertake operations against the Chinese in the very demanding high altitude terrain of the North-East. The motivation provided by a combat focus which emerges out of a clear-cut and vital national purpose was lacking. Despite these negative factors, the soldiers would have fought (as they did in some pockets) if their leadership in the field had not failed them.

For instance, 4 Infantry Division, holding virtually impregnable defences on the heights of Se La, could have fought on even when the Chinese had infiltrated round its flanks, only if the General Officer Commanding of the Division had not abandoned his command as soon as his badly sited headquarters came under hostile fire. It is reported that while doing so, he ditched his mobile radio and lost all touch with his command.

Compare this with Saragarhi in the North West Frontier in September 1897, where a handfull of soldiers of 4 Sikh, led by Havildar Ishar Singh, when surrounded by pathan hordes, fought to the last man. From these pages of our military history, it is amply evident that in the final analysis of the equation of men and machines, it is the human will to fight which is the denominator of success or failure in battle. Only a negative estimate of the likely human response can cast a shadow of doubt on the combat worthiness of a force.

What has given rise to the suspicion that the Army may no longer be adequate in combat? The present state of our weapons and equipment gives us the capability to develop just sufficient combat power to counter likely threats from Pakistan through Punjab-Rajasthan and from China across the restrictive barrier of the Himalayas. There is an urgent need to modernise and develop a power that is a more effective deterrent.

In respect of human resource, much is wrong. Leaders and men of the desired quality and numbers are not joining the Army. There is neglect and belittling of the soldier by the ruling nexus. There is injustice in pay and perks. Discrimination in the rehabilitation of dependents of soldiers killed in the line of duty vis-a-vis the police and the para military forces is another factor that causes discontent. The litany of soldiers’ grievances is long. Instead of being addressed, it is constantly growing. In reality all these are symptoms and not the malaise.

The problems of the armed forces, especially the Army, emanate from a lack of strategic security vision by the government leaders and their failure to comprehend the importance of this powerful instrument of state policy. Armed forces are being taken for granted. The need to develop a sustained will to fight is not appreciated. Incumbents of the defence portfolio, so far, have been either run-of-the-mill politicians, who were not aware of the sophistication needed in handling the armed forces or some of those, who (with their pipe-dreams of moral righteousness) considered armed power redundant.

Even then, the damage would not have been far reaching, if we had a suitable organisation to assist and advise the Defence Minister and the government. The present octopus-like Ministry of Defence lacks professional vision and is more disposed to muscle over the defence forces. The committee of the three service chiefs is prone to a clash of egos and narrow individual service interests. More often than not, short-sighted defence ministers, abetted by bureaucrats, have invariably emasculated this august group.

The failure to craft an institutional set-up, that is professionally competent to handle national security and it’s primary instrument, the armed forces, has been absent. This has been due to an inability to evolve the scope and realistic modalities of civilian control over the defence forces. One of the most damaging fall-outs of this hotch-potch has been an utter confusion in spelling out the role of the Army.

The primary function of the Army must be to ensure security and integrity of the country from foreign threats. Unfortunately, after Independence, the vote-catching gimmickry has encouraged divisive forces. Dissidence, often abetted by forces from abroad, has been growing. Police and paramilitary forces have shown disinclination to handle these hard tasks.

As a result the secondary role of internal security and coming to the aid of civil power, (inconsistent with the basic operational philosophy of the Army) has been burgeoning year after year.

The Army has been saddled with such secondary tasks for decades. It is vital that the Army should primarily remain an instrument of state policy initiatives astride and across our borders. For internal security and aid to civil power, the paramilitary forces, including the BSF, should be merged into a national force under a non-police leadership to effectively take on this function.

It is essential that major political parties carefully select and groom their potential defence ministers. Fortunately, George Fernandes, has demonstrated a promising capacity to not only grasp the lacuna but also to act firmly to apply the correctives. There is much for him and the government to address themselves to. There is an urgent need to restructure the whole set-up of the Ministry of Defence and the three service headquarters.

Although the necessity for a national security council has been accepted by the present government, recommendations of the committee to give effect to this decision are still hanging fire. Added to the already existing lacuna , is now the urgency to spell out a viable nuclear doctrine and to create an infrastructure to effectively integrate our nuclear capability into our state policy and the security apparatus.

The other aspects that need attention are, a joint planning staff, comprising service professionals and defence educated bureaucrats; a chief of the defence staff under whom the three services are integrated; a comprehensive and attractive service package to attract suitable leaders and men to service; a trimming of bureaucratic flab; a national paramilitary force for internal security and aid to civil power; clarity in defining the role of the Army and modernisation to develop a more convincing deterrent.

These reforms will cut across well entrenched vested interests. They will require political will. If our leadership does not address itself to these urgent aspects of our security, the battle worthiness outlook developing in the Army, bears many similarities to the pre-1962 situation. Can we afford another debacle?


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