Sunday, July 24, 2016

Let the Army do its job

Last week, Capt Amrinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala, soldier and now politician, wrote a heartfelt piece batting for the Indian soldier deployed in Kashmir and berated the political as well as military leadership. The burden of his lament was: The Indian Army in Kashmir has been de-fanged and is fast becoming an "army of girl guides." The article immediately gained currency and wide circulation, especially among retired faujis, already angry with the government for various alleged sins of commission and omission on One Rank One Pension and 7th Pay Commission issues.

Capt Amrinder had some valid points in his piece, written more as a soldier that he was. However, the politician in him could not resist the temptation of taking pot shots at the current leadership. "The Government of India must allow freedom of action to the Army. The directive must be just one: 'Bring a situation in the state where the writ of India runs and not that of the ISI,' he wrote, hinting that the current government at the Centre which has an alliance with the PDP in Jammu and Kashmir was going soft on militancy in Kashmir. He was being economical with the truth. But more of the status of counter-insurgency a little later.

Coming back to Capt Amrinder’s piece. As a political leader, he has the liberty and right to criticise opponents. The sad part is he has used the Army and its so-called lapses to hit out at the political leadership. "For instance, in Budgam when a car broke through a military checkpoint in November 2014, the soldiers manning the post opened fire, as was their duty. One officer and eight jawans were court-martialed and imprisoned. Penalising soldiers for doing what was expected of them is unacceptable. It is for the Chief and his Northern Army Commander to stand by their men in the difficult duty they are performing and not succumb to political pressures," Capt Amrinder writes in support of his criticism. 

However, as it turns out, no such court martial took place. The Army’s Northern Command which has been at the forefront of the counter-insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir came up with an official denial on its Twitter handle. It said: "No army soldier, officer court martialed/ imprisoned in the Budgam incident of November 2014," giving lie to the good Captain's assertion. However, the clarification notwithstanding, a large number of Whatsapp messages, google groups and twitter handles started taking the army to task for punishing the soldiers once again highlighting the dangers of depending on unverified posts/reports to express opinions that spread confusion among the serving ranks of the military and demoralising them.

Last month, at a seminar on Social Media and the Military at Chandigarh, I have had an occasion to point out to this pitfall. There I cited an example of how some months ago, a senior veteran criticised the Ministry of Defence for deciding to appoint 'outsiders' to sit on promotion boards of senior military commanders. Again, the article was written without bothering to cross-check facts. There was no such decision taken and yet, the article got widely circulated giving false impression and further adding to the already existing negative sentiments against the 'civilian' in military minds.

Other such examples of misleading, untrue posts doing the rounds abound but suffice it to say that veterans--many of whom are active keyboard warriors now--may need to pause a bit and rethink about the propensity of using the stratagem of 'forwarded as received.' It is easy to morph, amend, twist articles, photos and posts because of improved technology and faster communication, thanks to the 'mobile republic' that India has become. A civilian forwarding a post about the military will not be taken as seriously as a veteran's forward would be.

The veterans, I feel, have a great responsibility to support the organisation that they served with dedication and loyalty. Please level constructive criticism by all means. But please also have faith in the current leadership which may be faced with new challenges and circumstances, the old timers never had to face.

The military too needs to reach out to veterans and keep the community informed about various new initiatives and developments concerning the organisations. As I mentioned in Chandigarh last month, every Command and of course service HQ s should think of a 'communication cell' where veterans active in the traditional media and on social media can post their queries and clarify doubts so that gaffes that keep occurring because of misinformation/disinformation are kept to a minimum.

Coming back to the current situation in J&K. The Army has studiously kept itself away from the current law and order issue in Kashmir valley where protesters have been on a rampage in the wake of the killing of Burhan Wani, a self-proclaimed terrorist. In one instance, the Army patrol, when faced with a riot-like situation, followed the standard operating procedure of warning the crowd before firing at the crowd that tried to snatch weapons from the soldiers. Unlike the police and central armed police forces, the army has to shoot to kill which is exactly what the patrol did.

A closer look at figures pertaining to counter-insurgency operations this year is also revealing. According to official figures, since January to 24 July 2016 the security forces have eliminated 85 terrorists as compared to 43 for the corresponding period in 2015 while 17 have been caught as compared to just five last year. That Pakistan has once again ‘opened the tap’ in pushing in terrorists into Jammu and Kashmir is evident from the fact that there have been over a dozen infiltration attempts from January to July.  Ten soldiers have already died defending the country this year so far and this is not counting police and CAPF personnel who laid down their lives during their duty in J&K.

Clearly, there is no let up in Pakistan’s attempt to stir trouble in J&K, especially in the Kashmir Valley.  And of course there is no policy to rein in the Army and appease terrorists. 

The Indian Army has stood firm for over quarter of a century in thwarting this attempt. The military leadership, soldiers and indeed all security forces continue to battle difficult circumstances in Kashmir. Let’s not add to their woes by spreading half-baked stories, factually incorrect posts and inaccurate articles. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Kargil conflict recalled, by a leader on the ground

The month of July always brings back memories of the summer of 1999 when India experienced a range of emotions—pain, loss, anguish, pride, triumph and military victory—thanks to the young men and their not so young leaders who conducted one of the most famous military campaigns in what, till then, was an obscure place: Kargil. Operation Vijay, the official name of Indian Army’s fierce counter-offensive in the rugged terrain of Ladakh’s Kargil-Drass-Batalik area, is probably the most well-known military operation in independent India’s history.

It is rightly known as the first military conflict that entered Indian drawing and bed rooms, thanks to the then fledgling Indian TV news industry. In subsequent years, many of us in the media have written and reported on the heroes of those days, about the victory achieved by the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force against heavy odds. Kargil, 1999 is by now very well chronicled. So why am I writing this piece?

Because, I finally found time to read what is perhaps THE most authentic and comprehensive account of the Kargil conflict. Lt Gen Mohinder Puri, who commanded the 8 Mountain Division—hastily rushed into Kargil from Kashmir Valley—as a Major General in 1999, waited for than 16 years to pen down his memories and his observation on the conflict that has come to define the Indian Army’s image in the 21st Century. His book Kargil: Turning the Tide, published by Lancer Publishers in 2015 can easily be described as the most intimate account of the Kargil conflict simply because it is written by the man who led the Indian charge in that limited theatre.

Although Gen VP Malik has written a detailed account of Kargil 1999, his was a take as seen from the strategic level. Many others too—soldiers and journalists included—have described what happened in Kargil, but I recommend Gen Puri’s book for the simple fact that his is the on-ground report. While the first nine chapters clarify many doubts that students of recent military history may have had about the conduct of operations, the initial mistakes, the setbacks and the recovery all along the front line, to me the most important part of this book are Chapter No. 10 and 11 titled Principles of War and Reflections, respectively. The entire essence of Operation Vijay is encapsulated in these two chapters and contains many lessons which I am sure, Gen Puri’s successors deployed in this sector have imbibed in the later years.

The 8 Mountain Division, rightly called ‘Forever in Operations’ since it has never had a moments respite after its raising in 1963 (in the north-east), is now entrusted with guarding the entire Kargil-Drass-Batalik frontage of the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan.

Gen Puri has been frank in admitting some of the pitfalls and mistakes that inevitably happen during a hot war but he has also shed light on how innovative tactics—employment of Bofors gun in direct firing role, for instance—helped the Indian troops turn the tide. He also gives due credit to the Indian Air Force and points out that restrictions imposed by the political leadership in not allowing crossing of the LoC, actually created more problems for the air warriors since they did not have enough depth to launch their attacks and instead of approaching the objective from south to north, the air attacks had to launched in east-west direction, restricts the IAF’s options. The Army too suffered because of the restrictions. As a formation commander he wanted limited permission to cross the LoC for purely tactical purpose but the terms were unambiguous. As Gen Puri says: “Exercising...the options to cross the LC would have meant faster operations, lesser casualties without much loss of credibility. It would have shown us as a nation which applies restraint but cannot be pushed around. Wars if thrust upon a country must be fought on enemy’s territory; unfortunately in military terms we failed to achieve this objective.”


That despite this major restriction and many other adverse factors such as difficult terrain, critical equipment shortages and intense public scrutiny, then Maj Gen Mohinder Puri and his officers and men of several units finally evicted the intruders and regained Indian territory , albeit at very heavy cost, cannot be forgotten. As the nation gears up once again to celebrate the anniversary of the Kargil victory later this month, those interested in what actually happened in those summer weeks in a remote border area 17 years ago, must get hold of Gen Puri’s honest account of the Kargil conflict, if only to understand what it takes to stake your life to protect the nation.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

India and US defence ties: Well-intentioned, not yet on the same page

 This is what I wrote for India Abroad magazine: (http://www.indiaabroad-digital.com/indiaabroad/20160610?pg=46#pg46 and http://www.indiaabroad-digital.com/indiaabroad/20160610?pg=50#pg50 


Admiral Harry Harris, the Commander of the Honolulu-headquartered US Pacific Command is a blunt man. As a military leader who reckons China poses the greatest threat to world peace in today’s context because of its reckless actions in East and South China Seas, Adm. Harris doesn’t pull punches when it comes to commenting on China’s ‘adventurism.’
And so it was this March in Delhi when he created ripples by his remarks that “in the not too distant future, American and Indian Navy vessels steaming together will become a common and welcome sight throughout Indo-Asia-Pacific waters, as we work together to maintain freedom of the seas for all nations.” It was a dare to China but more importantly, it appeared to be the clearest signal yet from Washington that it wants India to be part of a coalition against China. India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar promptly rejected the proposal saying, "As of now, India has never taken part in any joint patrol; we only do joint exercises. The question of joint patrol does not arise.”

This public exchange encapsulates, the state of Indo-US Defence relations: Well-intentioned but not on the same page yet. That both New Delhi and Washington recognise the need to deepen their defence partnership is an acknowledged fact. The point of dissonance is the way to achieve it. India, despite a right of the centre government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is not inclined to join the US camp, much to the dismay of US strategic community. Instead, New Delhi wants to follow the principle of multi-alignment. So, even as it seeks to get US Defence technology and is willing to collaborate on some key projects like aircraft carrier, India simultaneously wants to keep its complex relationship with China on an even keel by following the ‘collaboration-with-competition’ approach, a policy followed by Washington with Beijing for a couple of decades now.

So, when US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, considered to be the most India-friendly US official in recent years, came to India in early April, he knew that India will not accede to all demands that US makes on the defence front. He was quite contended to announce—with Manohar Parrikar—that the US and India had made substantial progress on one of the three ‘foundational agreements. The Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), rechristened as Logistics Exchange Memorandum of  Agreement (LEMOA) as an India-specific pact, is still a work in progress despite the United States pushing for it. It will eventually be signed, may be even during Mr Modi’s upcoming US visit but the time taken over finalising its content demonstrates India’s reluctance to be seen as an American ‘groupie.’

It must be noted however that LEMOA is the easiest of the three agreements that the US is keen India should sign. The other two--the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Understanding (CISMOA) and BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for geospatial information)—are politically sensitive issues and even the Modi government, despite its political heft, will be wary of agreeing to their provisions. The CISMOA for instance, may inadvertently lock the Indian military into technology regime driven by the US. About the BECA, Indian authorities have concerns about collection of data by the US private sector that does its job on behalf of the US military.
The LEMOA on the other hand, has its roots in the Access and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACAS), which was signed by the US with its NATO allies and permitted the alliance partners to access supplies, spare parts, servicing from each other’s land, air bases and ports. In the era of Cold War it was essential for allied forces to operate seamlessly anywhere in the world to support possible military confrontation with the Warsaw Pact nations. It provided the legal framework for operational flexibility while ensuring constitutional autonomy of member nations. Since platforms and equipment in the alliance countries had their origin either in the US or Europe, the positioning of spare parts for servicing of these platforms while transiting through any of these alliance nations, provided legal protection against local taxation provisions and adverse public opinion.
As Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, former Commander-in-Chief of India’s Western Naval Command wrote last week: “However, the bilateral relations of US with number of other countries became strategic in nature with changing geopolitics which necessitated similar agreement for more reasons than just the transit access. Slightly modified agreements were signed with Singapore, Afghanistan, Philippilnes and Sri Lanka. None of these countries have lost their strategic autonomy. They deal with China and rest of the world with equal ease. Sri Lanka has often provided logistics support to Chinese submarines and naval vessels at its ports. In fact, they have all benefited by acquiring US hardware, logistics and spares support...”
The discussion on the basic agreements apart, US and India are currently busy operationalising the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI). Four pathfinder projects, agreed to during President Barack Obama’s visit in January 2015, are in various stages of finalisation but are yet to fructify. Similarly, India and the US conduct several joint exercises across the three services. The Indian Air Force (IAF), very recently participated in the ‘Red Flag’ Exercise in Alaska; the Indian and US Armies regularly have Exercise Yudh Abhyas while Exercise Malabar, initially a bilateral arrangement between Indian and US navies has now expanded to become a tri-lateral exercise with Japan. In fact, last week, four ships of the Indian Navy have sailed to Malacca Straits, an area of maritime interest to the India. They will be deployed on 75-day long operational sojourn in the South China and North West Pacific. During this overseas deployment, the ships of Eastern Fleet will make port calls at Cam Rahn Bay (Vietnam), Subic Bay (Philippines), Sasebo (Japan), Busan (South Korea), Vladivostok (Russia) and Port Klang (Malaysia). In addition to showing the Flag in this region of vital strategic importance to India, these ships will also participate in MALABAR-16, a maritime exercise with the US Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Forces. This is in keeping with the new spirit of cooperation between Pentagon and the Indian MoD. Remember, a joint statement by Carter and Parrikar during Carter’s latest visit to India in April announced a new Maritime Security Dialogue and discussions on anti-submarine warfare and submarine safety. These flow from the path-breaking 2015 Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region issued by Obama and Modi.
So where are Indo-US relations headed?

The potential for collaboration in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations between Indian and US forces is immense but there is unlikely to be any joint patrol or joint operations by the two militaries given India’s abhorrence to be seen as a US camp follower. India will always try and nurture its defence relationship with Russia and other European countries such as France by keeping a slight distance with the US which, India’s policy makers feel, has been an unreliable partner in the past. The continued patronage extended by Washington to Pakistan is a reality India cannot ignore despite the recent reports about Washington asking Islamabad to pay for the F-16s it wants from the US.

It is fair to assume therefore that India-US defence ties will be marked by some areas of convergence and some divergence in approach. Fortunately, leadership on both sides is pragmatic enough to understand that their worldviews do not always match and therefore neither expects the other to support blindly. Within that constraint, Pentagon and South Block are doing fine in taking defence relations between US and India to the next level. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

India and Vietnam: Going beyond Brahmos

As India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar winds up the Singapore leg of his two-nation, south-east Asia sojourn and heads to Hanoi, the oft-repeated talk about India seeking to sale the Brahmos missile to Vietnam is once again making headlines. Only, unlike in the past, there is a distinct possibility that both India and Vietnam will finally bite the bullet.
All indications now point to the fact that New Delhi has overcome its reservations and dare one say, fear about annoying China in supplying the cruise missile to Vietnam. After years of hesitation and obfuscation, South Block is now set to move forward in finalising the sale of Brahmos missiles to Vietnam. Apparently, co-developers of the missiles, the Russians have also agreed to proposal in principle. While the actual delivery is some distance away, the very fact that India is now openly talking about exporting weapons platforms to friendly countries is in itself a paradigm shift. So far, the squeamish Congress-era decision-makers shied away even from talking about such a possibility. Among potential customers for the Brahmos systems are South Africa, Chile and Philippines besides Vietnam.
Defence Minister Parrikar will of course have much more to talk about with his Vietnamese counterpart than just the sale of Brahmos missiles. Singapore, Vietnam besides South Korea and Philippines are important nations that India is reaching out to aggressively in South Asia . As part of the tweaked Act East policy a more robust military-to-military partnership with important nations in south-east Asia is also underway.
Vietnam and India of course have some things in common. To begin with, both have borne the brunt of Chinese aggression -- India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979. Both India and Vietnam, who have long-pending territorial disputes with China thus decided to unite against their common adversary,. Although India refuses to directly intervene in the South China Sea dispute, it indirectly supports nations like Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia on the stand that they take with regard to the South China Sea.
Moreover, the collapse of the Soviet Union, for long a security guarantor for both India and Vietnam in Asia, left New Delhi and Hanoi without an all-weather, all-powerful friend in the 1990s.
Both New Delhi and Hanoi had traditionally sourced majority of their military hardware from the erstwhile Soviet Union. That commonality has meant that both can share expertise and resources available with their respective armed forces in terms of handling and maintaining the Soviet-era weaponry.
India, for instance, has repaired and upgraded over 100 MiG 21 planes of the Vietnamese Air Force and supplied them with enhanced avionics and radar systems. Indian Air Force pilots have also been training their Vietnamese counterparts. The Indian Navy, by far larger than the Vietnamese navy, has been supplying critical spares to Hanoi for its Russian origin ships and missile boats.
High level political visits between India and Vietnam have also been more frequent.  In September 2014, President Pranab Mukherjee was in Vietnam, 24 hours before Chinese President Xi Jingping was due in India. Within a month of Mukherjee’s visit Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was in India within a month to take the bilateral relationship to the next level. Parrikar’s visit is in continuation of that process.
The Defence Minister is accompanied by Defence Secretary, G. Mohan Kumar, C-in-C, Eastern Naval Command, VAdm SCS Bisht, DG Air Operations, Air Mar Anil Khosla and DG, DRDO S. Christopher, besides others. High level visits apart, the Indian Navy has been quite active in its friendly forays in South-East Asia. Meanwhile, a flotilla of Indian warships is on a 75-day deployment to the Indo-Asia-Pacific.
The Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet is ‘Acting East’ with four of its ships en route to the seas east of the Malacca Straits, an area of maritime interest to the Indian Navy. In a press release, India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) said that the four ships, the INS Satpura, Sahayadri, Shakti and Kirch under the command of the Flag Officer Commanding Eastern Fleet Rear Admiral SV Bhokare had sailed out on 18 May 16 on a 2½ month long operational deployment to the South China and North West Pacific. During this overseas deployment, the ships of Eastern Fleet will make port calls at Cam Rahn Bay (Vietnam), Subic Bay (Philippines), Sasebo (Japan), Busan (South Korea), Vladivostok (Russia) and Port Klang (Malaysia). In addition to showing the Flag in this region of vital strategic importance to India, these ships will also participate in MALABAR-16, a maritime exercise with the US Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Forces or the Japanese navy.
Parrikar is expected to reiterate India’s position on freedom of navigation as stated in the Indo-US joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) which affirms the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.

The Vision Document, released during President Obama’s India visit in January 2015, also calls on all parties to avoid the threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a position that Vietnam too subscribes to. Beijing may be unhappy with the growing closeness between New Delhi and Hanoi but it can do little on this front except issuing occasional statements. In that sense India's effort to deepen engagement with Vietnam and goes much beyond just selling a deadly missile to a friendly nation.

Whatever the consequences of this strategy and counter-strategy, one thing is sure: The Indo-Asia-Pacific region is poised to become the new playground for the 21st century version of the Great Game in the years to come.

(http://www.abplive.in/blog/india-and-vietnam-going-beyond-brahmos)

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Theatre Commands and CDS: The debate continues

Exactly a week ago, I wrote this piece ((http://bharatshakti.in/create-theatre-commands-usher-in-military-reforms-quickly/). It evoked varied reactions that I have detailed here (http://nitinagokhale.blogspot.in/2016/04/theatre-commands-cds-and-debate-around.html).

Today I am putting up more observations. 

One is from a middle-ranking serving Indian military officer. He in fact sent a long note on the subject which is worth examining. as I said, more opinions will mean more debate and more discussion which should be welcomed by everyone.

Here's is his opinion:

Your case for military organisational reforms is well made. 

However,the proposed approach (existing Commands to be made 'theatres' headed by four stars etc) appears too radical. In military planning we have a term 'Situating the Appreciation '!

In my view,first and foremost,we need to have a clear political level consensus of what sort of a transformed military organisation we want at the end and then draw a road map to achieve it. There are prominent administrative, legal,operational and financial dimensions to the process. Not sure whether we have a team in place to look at these nuts and bolts.


In the present set-up the respective Chiefs draw their powers from the law of the land, mainly the Army,Air Force and Navy Acts,which gives them administrative and operational powers. A change in their charter will mean changing the law.That will have to be the start point for any lasting change. Without legislative backing no organisational reform will stand the legal test.


Secondly,an incremental,less destabilizing approach could be adopted by making it incumbent on existing Commands(all Services) to dedicate resources for certain category of contingences when called for by the Joint Commander(CDS/Your case for military organisational reforms is well made. However,the proposed approach (existing Commands to be made 'theatres' headed by four stars etc) appears too radical. In military planning we have a term 'Situating the Appreciation '!


Once we achieve confidence in this model of contingency driven joint operations, we could look at integrating structural blocks,viz. Logistics, Financial Managemnt, Military Law etc to usher in more integration. In this manner we could move from enhanced jointness to credible integration over say,a ten year time frame. It has to be a gradual,incremental approach. 

Remember,the bottom line for the Govt is economy. All govts which pushed jointness and integration  (both are qualitatively different terms) were primarily interested in saving money. Rightsizing, avoiding duplication of expenditure-going for a lean and mean military.  


Global Examples in Integration of Military

Major military powers across the world have steadily integrated their militaries for enhancing efficiency and rationalize defence spending. In the United States, which maintains the largest military organisation in the world, the institution of Joint Chiefs of Staff has been in place since 1947. However, in 1986, following efforts of Congressmen Goldwater and Nichols towards defence reforms, a new legislation (named after them) was passed to ensure closer integration of the US military, leading to evolution of the present structure based in Unified Commands. In the UK, a Chief of Defence Staff was designated as the professional head of the armed forces and the Principal Adviser to the government, following the Strategic Defence Review of 1998. In Canada, integration of the Canadian Defence Forces was achieved during 1964-67 by former Defence Minister Paul Hellyer, who brought together the political will, legislative backing, institutional wherewithal and cooperation of the armed forces to usher lasting reforms. In Australia the Theatre Command concept was introduced in 1997 with the establishment of HQ Australian Theatre (HQ AST), under a Chief of Defence Staff. The aim was to separate the Australian political strategic level from war fighting, discontinue the adhoc approach to co-ordination and control of operations, institute unity of command at the operational level and provide a standing capability for planning campaigns, operations and other activities. In Russia, four Strategic Commands were created in 2010, by a Presidential decree, with appropriate allocation of resources from the three Services and independent arms directly under the Centre viz. missile, space and airborne forces. The Chinese model also appears to have evolved on similar lines, with re-organisation of the seven Military Regions, under a regional commander, which control the allocated resources of the three Services and the Logistics and Armament departments, for operations. To evaluate a suitable model which is better suited in the Indian context, it would be in order to take a closer look at the US and Australian approach to Theatre Commands, which have endured and evolved with time, having undertaken operations at home and overseas.

Theatre Commands in the Indian Context – Evolving a Viable Model

Exploration of an appropriate Theatre Command (TC) based model for re-organisation of Indian military structure should begin by understanding the diversity of the existing organisation. The Indian Army is divided into six operational commands, the Northern Command (NC) with HQ at Udhampur, Western Command (WC) at Chandimandir, South Western Command (SWC) at Jaipur, Eastern Command (EC) at Kolkata, Southern Command (SC) at Pune and Central Command at Lucknow. The IAF has five operational commands, namely Western Air Command (WAC) at Delhi, South Western Air Command (SWAC) at Gandhinagar, Southern Air Command (SAC) at Trivandrum, Central Air Command (CAC) at Allahabad and Eastern Air Command (EAC) at Shillong. The Indian Navy is organised under three area commands; Western Naval Command (WNC) at Mumbai, Southern Naval Command (SNC) at Kochi and the Eastern Naval Command (ENC) at Vishakhapatnam. Interestingly, none of the operational command HQs of the three services are co-located. It bears note that in 2001, following the KRC Report, the Andaman and Nicobar Command was established at Port Blair as the first Unified Command with an operational mandate. The success of this ‘experiment’ in integration has also spurred more aspirational debate on the subject. The options for unified command structure which have been discussed in professional circles include developing Joint Theatre Commands at the Army Command HQ level or developing geographically based Theatre Command structures or evolving a Theatre Command at the national level that provides a unified command structure that integrates the operational employment of the three services as part of a National Command Theatre. Ideally, the chosen structure should be such that it requires bringing about minimal changes to the existing organisations and yet achieves the desired integration to actualise joint strategic planning at the operational level. The broad Five-Point Terms of Reference(TsOR) that could govern the formulation of a suitable model are suggested as follows:-

(a)          It should result in institution of an empowered CDS or Permanent  Chairman COSC while largely preserving the current operational and administrative powers of the Chiefs of Staff the Services, enshrined in respective laws of the land (Army Act, Navy Act and Air Force Act).
(b)          It should not result in reorganization of existing commands or destabilization of well entrenched administrative/operational structures.
(c)          It should permit adequate autonomy to extant Commands in terms of air space management, maritime domain awareness (including surveillance), coastal security and geographical/territorial jurisdiction, without any alterations in areas of responsibility (AoR) of various Commanders-in-Chief.
(d)          It should accord adequate authority/legislative backing at the apex hierarchy of the integrated structure (CDS or Permanent  Chairman COSC) to demand from Service HQs human and material resources for OOAC and other Joint operations, including nomination of a Sub-Theatre Joint commander, from amongst the C-in-Cs, for executing such operations.
(e)          It should facilitate qualitative enhancement in jointness by establishment of localised arrangements for joint planning and conduct of operations by inter-service Commands with overlapping operational mandate (including overlapping AoR).

Towards a National Theatre Command

In keeping with the above TsOR, the most viable option for ushering structural integration would be to create a Unified Command structure at the national level, viz the National Theatre Command (NTC). At the apex level of NTC would be the CDS or Pmt Chairman COSC, assisted by his staff at HQ NTC. The broad contours of the proposed model are as follows:-

(a)          Geographical Scope.        Like the Australian model, it would consider the entire national territory (including Air Defence Identification Zones and Maritime Areas of Responsibility) as a theatre and could be named as National Theatre Command (NTC). HQ IDS would need to be re-designated as the Joint HQ NTC and it would have suitably enhanced joint planning staff under the CDS or Pmt Chairman COSC.

(b)          Operational Mandate.        Operational forces would not be permanently under the CDS or Pmt Chairman COSC but would be allocated by concerned Service Chiefs when so called for by CDS, based on Joint Planning process. Assigned forces will be mobilised for specific campaign/operations and reverted to the control of parent Service, on termination.

(c)          Planning.      While detailed planning would be undertaken by at JHQ NTC, suitable representatives of Service HQ would be co-opted in the joint appreciation and planning process. In this model, retention of strategic focus would be easier and response in terms of OOACs and emergent threats, including terrorism, could be tackled better.

(d)          Logistics.      A steady movement towards integrated logistics in the military becomes imperative in the long term, for the Theatre Command model to be financially viable. At present, the logistics mechanisms of the Services are separate and bear limited commonality. This aspect will need to be addressed by introducing incremental changes towards commonality in logistics functions. Most advanced nations of the world have integrated this aspect in their military organization.

Relationship of CDS with Service Chiefs.       The CDS or Permanent  Chairman COSC would be senior to the Service Chiefs in protocol and functional terms. His position is envisaged to be of a single-point advisor on military matters to the political leadership. However, the CDS would not be responsible for routine, day-to-day administration of the Services. The Service Chiefs would continue to remain responsible to administer, train and develop their respective Services, and employ them for regular operations. However, they would provide expert advice on all important matters concerning their Service to the CDS or Permanent Chairman COSC, when called for. This arrangement would thus provide flexibility to tackle threats that encompass the entire conflict spectrum from asymmetric to nuclear. It merits consideration that though the proposed model is considered the least disruptive to the existing arrangements, evolution of structures to achieve to integration would not be an easy, natural process. It would need a ‘top-down’ approach by the political leadership with legislative backing and sufficient mandate provided to the CDS or Pmt Chairman COSC.  

Conclusion


The prevailing state of affairs concerning reforms of higher defence organization in India could be described as ‘cautiously interested in enhancing jointness but reluctant for integration’. The situation could be given a transformative turn by putting forth a model that is least destabilising to the existing arrangement yet sufficiently reformative to bring our apex level military management structure in tune with global trends. Establishment of a National Theatre Command, headed by an empowered CDS or Permanent Chairman COSC, to command and coordinate operations entailing inter-service participation, is considered an appropriate step to begin the process of ushering credible integration in India’s higher defence organisation. As the evolving organization settles and gains more confidence in joint ethos, the powers and mandate of the CDS or Pmt Chairman COSC could be reviewed and strengthened to enhance integration in substance and scope.

Another reaction came from a reader who despite giving out his name, is unknown to me so will, like others before him, remain unnamed! He says:

Yes we do need integration of Services for Operations. This can be best achieved by reverting to concept of C-in-C as existed in 1947 with proviso that he will be subordinate to the Cabinet through Defence Minister. Service Chiefs be made responsible for Training and Administration. Operational Logistics be responsibility of Theatre Commanders. Civil Wing of MoD be responsible for Inter-ministerial Coordination. Defence PSUs and Ordnance Factories be hived off to Ministry of Industries. DGDE and MES be subsumed in QMG Branch of the Army Headquarters. CDA be answerable to Defence Minister and Service Chiefs for Capital and Revenue parts of budget. 

Let's have the observations/reactions/criticism coming. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Theatre Commands, CDS and the debate around it

Last week, writing my regular weekly column I decided to look at the perpetual question that pops up every now and then (especially when a Service Chief is about to retire): Will the government appoint a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS)? Will the Naresh Chandra Task Force recommendation of appointing a Permanent Chairman Chief of the Chiefs of staff Committee be implemented?

Since governments in India traditionally do not believe in open public debate (the Naresh Chandra Task Force report has not yet been made public), I thought of using my own imagination sprinkled with a bit of experience in interacting with the military and put down a proposal, aimed at generating the debate on the need for a CDS and more importantly, creating theatre commands integrating the three services in true sense. 

What I said here (http://bharatshakti.in/create-theatre-commands-usher-in-military-reforms-quickly/) is neither novel not original; it has been proposed in various forms in the immediate and distant past;at least half a dozen officers claimed they had authored similar reports/proposals during different assignments they have held in the military; others wrote back their initial observations; some were skeptical; some were apoplectic (one retired three star in fact asked one of his deputies to tell me verbally that he was furious!). Clearly, this a subject that evokes extreme reaction and demonstrates how challenging it will be for any government to implement what, by all accounts, will be a paradigm-changing decision.

So, I intend to continue for some days this platform as a forum for different voices and opinions on the subject that I have received and hope to receive. So here are some initial reactions: 

From a serving two-star:

1.  First change Govt Business Rules which assigns responsibility of Def of India to Defence Secy. Change should be effected as under:-
A. Def of India should be responsibility of CCS through RM.
B. Def Secy to be principal Civ Advisor to the CDS.
C. Simiarly, there should be an Addl Secy each as Civ Advisor to three Service Chiefs (Secy Army, Secy Navy, Secy AF).
C. Besides service offrs on staff of Theatre Cdrs, there should be two Addl Secy level offrs on staff of each theatre cdr - IAS as civ affairs advisor and IFS as foreign affairs advisor.
D.  Foreign affairs advisors in theatre comds should be concurrently seconded to Ambassadors/ HCs in tespective countries of concern of each theatre comd. Similarly, DAs/ MAs on staff of embassies/ HCs should be concurrently seconded to respective theatre cdrs.
2. Next, MOD and IDS to be merged with each hierarchical layer being mix of civ & mil experts. Here civ experts must not automatically mean IAS. Job profile having been defined, these positions must be held by domain experts from amongst technocrats/ bureaucrats or retd mil men on contract. A separate Central Allied Service Cadre (on lines of IRS, IPS etc) could be ideal.
3. There should be NO 'lead service' for any theatre comd. Organisation structure and staffing to be purely commensurate with roles, tasks and composition of theatre force. As regards appt of Thestre Cdr, this too should be done from amongst candidates compiled by CDS, recommended by RM and appvd by CCS. Competing candidates must present themselves at the CCS Hearing and be grilled by CCS members and chosen members of NSAB on theatre strat scenarios, strat assessments, strat options, operational concepts etc. Further:-
A. Panel (from which theatre cdrs to be chosen) for Bi-Service Comds or Land-Air Comds should comprise of offrs from Army and AF. No rotation rule to be applied.
B. Similarly, for Tri-Service Comds or Maritime & Coastal Comds, the panel should comprise of offrs from all three Services.
4. Number of Theatre Comds. In principle and the concept of 'theatre geometry' requires that One Thratre must holistically addres one complete 'competing/ threatening entity' as well as its collaborator, if geographically contiguous. Hence, logically there should be only fwg:-
A. Unified Theatre Comds (5 only) : NW Comd (whole of Pak); Northern Comd (whole of China); Eastern Comd (Myanmar & Bangladesh); SE Comd (Eastern Seaboard incl Island territories, SriLanka, Eastern Rim countries of Indo-Pacific);  SW Comd (Western Seaboard, Island Territories, Western IOR Rim countries of Pak, Middle East & countries of African East Coast). ANC should remain a joint operational comd under the SE Thestre Comd. Each Theatre Cdr to be 4 star
B. Trg Comds should continue to be under respective services HQ. Cdrs of these to continue to be 3 star. However, the three War Colleges and NDC should be brought under INDU under overall control of HQ IDS/ CDS.
C. Integrated Functional Comd (1) : Unified Logistic Comd. To be commanded by 4 star.
D. Strategic Forces Comd (1) : As hithertofore. To be upgraded to 5 star. Staff control to be exercised by CDS but operational comd by CCS.
E. Jt Spl Ops Comds ( ) : Spl Forces Comd (NSG to be brought under it for all purposes including trg & equipping, to be placed under MHA when released for IS tasks); Cyber Comd; and Space Comd. These to be hesded by 3 star rks.
5. All above reforms to be preceded byestablishing a National Comd Auth headed by CCS as under:-
A. NSC with NSCS with spl secy of PMO as Secy NSC.
B. RM's Security Policy Gp comprising CDS, Unified Theatre Cdrs and Unified Lgs Cdr. Others as invitees on as reqd basis.
C. NSA.
D. Crisis Mgt Gp.
E. Members of NSAB as invitees on as reqd basis.


From a retired Chief: 

Just a few short personal comments & then the debate can follow later:
- CDS is an absolute must but not a Permanent Chairman, COSC. Many Chiefs have held the post for 2+ years in the past - seen any changes?
- Theatre Commands with the resources we have?
- Theatre Commands with two live & hostile borders?
- The Pakistan sector, willy-nilly, is one big Theatre of War...Land, Air & Sea!!!
- The only Theatre Command that is required is for our island territories - the A & N Command with adequate Air, Sea & Land resources including Expeditionary capabilities.


From a serving one-star: 

I am with you on this one, have been for a long time propounding something like this.

Well written! Hope the government takes into account this viable input of yours!



There are at least a dozen more such reactions which I hope to share in coming days. 

Please feel free to give feedback on: nitinagokhale@gmail.com

Monday, February 8, 2016

Keeping the supply chain to Siachen uninterrupted: How India does it


‘Here the hepter, doctor and porter are our real Gods’

As the financial year draws to an end in March, every other government department and organisation in India is busy finalising and reconciling the accounts. In Leh, the headquarter of 14 Corps, two brigadiers in charge of ordnance and supplies however have much more important issues than balancing the credit and debit columns. As winter shows first signs of receding and the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) engineers get down to the task of opening the two passes—Zoji La and Baralalcha La—that connect  Ladakh to the rest of the country, the two brigadiers in Leh start monitoring the movement of supplies that are contracted for the coming year. Although the Zoji La and Baralalcha La do not become viable for heavy traffic until middle of April—they are under 8 to 10 feet of snow for over six months in the winter—a meticulous timetable is already in place to ensure a convoy of trucks starts flowing into Ladakh carrying all kinds of provisions ranging from tents and snow clothing to ammunition and from fruit juice to high calorie chocolates.

Given that the window for stocking up for the rest of the year is only between April and early November after which the passes close and the fact that a full-fledged Army Corps is now deployed in Ladakh, the challenges of maintaining the logistics chain have increased manifold. The planning actually begins 18 months in advance, the two brigadiers tell me explaining the complex operation. The Army has established ‘ordnance echelons’ at key locations along the long supply chain. The trucks bearing various items begin to move after receiving an indication that the passes are open and repaired to take the load. The sequence of travel and loading unloading is all decided a year in advance.

As the convoys begin their journey from the plains of Punjab, enter Himachal Pradesh or Jammu, depending upon their ultimate destination and then traverse the high passes, officers in the Army’s ordnance and supply branches get busier. They have to keep a tab on the progress of these convoys on coming into Ladakh either on the Manali-Baralalcha La-Leh road or the Jammu-Banihal-Srinagar-Zoji La-Kargil-Leh route. The long distances and difficult, narrow roads add to the challenge that the truck drivers face. In the summer months, tourists travelling by these roads often encounter these convoys and many of us would instinctively curse the truck drivers for slowing down or sometimes even blocking traffic. But next time any one of the readers come across these trucks, give a little thought to the vital tasks they are performing. Without these uncomplaining truckers who take tremendous risks driving in the high altitudes, soldiers deployed in the harsh terrain across Ladakh would not feel comfortable!

For Siachen, the trucks have to cross another hurdle, the formidable Khardung La (at 18,380 feet it is considered the world’s highest motorable pass) and then travel another 200-odd km to get to Siachen base camp or the farthest base in the Turtuk sector. Not every truck has to go up to Siachen base camp though. Over decades, the Army has established various nodes where depending upon the importance of the equipment or provision, stocking is done. Every three months, the stocks are pushed forward either for their final destination or are kept in transit.  An estimated 1,80,000 tonnes of provisions are needed in a year in Ladakh.

After years of bureaucratic jostling, special rations are provided to troops in high altitude. In Ladakh, two categories of High Altitude Ratios exist. The first category is for those living in altitudes between 9,000 and 12,000 feet.  The second for those stationed above 12,000 feet. In Siachen, it must be emphasised, the base camp itself is at 12,000 feet! After a detailed study, it has been decided that every soldier who gets deployed on Siachen must get a 6,000 calories per day diet. So specially selected food items that include, chocolates, beverages, eggs and dry fruits, are specially flown into the glacier. In fact, soldiers have an option to choose from over a dozen special items to eat in addition to those available at the base camp and lower altitudes.

For every battalion that gets deployed in Siachen, fresh supplies have to be provided.  At the very least 12 units get rotated in a year on Siachen. Then there are personnel from other arms. So on an average about 15,000 to 20,000 troops get deployed by turns on the glacier in a year! The highest priority however is to supply Category I and Category II items. They include snow clothing, gloves, three pairs of socks, Jacket Down, triple-layer snow suits and survival essentials like the ice axe and crampons. None of these are supposed to be reusable.

For the logistician, there is no room for error. When the trucks are unloaded at various points the stocks have to be divided into ‘air portable’ or parachute compatible weights. They have to be stored in accordance with the priority of dispatch. Come blizzard or avalanche, the loads have to be carried every day.

Once the provisions are sorted out, stacked and ready for dispatch at various locations, helicopters take over. The larger, sturdier Russian built Mi-17s carry the heavier loads. They are not able to land at every small helipad on the glacier. They also have limitations of ‘hover’ at those altitudes but they are indispensable in dropping, guns, ammunition, tents, snow scooters and spare parts since equipment failure is frequent on the glacier. After all, despite their best intentions no defence manufactures would have anticipated the extreme conditions that prevail on the Siachen glacier. The Mi-17s with their ability to carry heavy loads are as indispensable as the lighter Cheetahs. The Mi-17s operate from three places—Leh, Thoise and Base Camp—and have a busy scheduled throughout the year.

A helicopter at Siachen
Then there are the old but reliable An-32 transport planes which are based in Chandigarh in the planes. From the very beginning of Operation Meghdoot, these planes have contributed immensely to the supply chain.  An-32s carry the heavier loads and drop them by parachute over the glacier. While the dropping both by the transport aircraft and the Mi-17 helicopters is a pretty sight, for the soldiers on ground, it is a major task to keep track of the loads and retrieve them. As Lt Gen (retd) Ata Hasnain, who commanded his unit (4 Garhwal) on the Northern Glacier in 1995-96, reminisces: “On the northern glacier, there are no porters. All the haulage is done by soldiers. The drops used to begin early in the morning. That time (in the mid-Nineties), the kerosene jerry cans apart from the other heavy stuff needed for heating used to be dropped by Mi-17s or An-32s through orange or red colour parachutes as near the posts as possible. At the posts there was an entire arrangement to keep a close eye on the drops. Once the Mi-17s and the transport aircraft had departed, the work for the ground soldiers would begin. They would fan out to the spots already noted, some on snow scooters, most on foot, roped to each other, locate the parachutes, haul the loads on the sledges, tie them up to the snow scooters or start pulling them to their pre-determined storage points. That’s the time the soldiers were most vulnerable to the dangers of crevasses, especially in summer month when they open up in large numbers.” 

Snow scooters are indispensible on the glacier for the mobility they provide. They were inducted into the glacier operations as early as 1984-85, according to the initial notes of the Northern Command.  But the infamous Indian bureaucracy, instead of facilitating their easy acquisition, delayed purchases on absolutely flimsy grounds. As Lt Gen VR Raghavan noted: “The army found that snow scooters can greatly help...and reduce both time and effort...snow scooters are based on a simple technology, are cheap, and easily available in the world market. They do not require the complex processes involved in the acquisition of tanks or aircraft or submarines. Snow scooters are meant to operate on snowfields and not glaciers. Consequently, their parts get worn out faster on glaciers. Nonetheless they are not required in large numbers and an annual purchase of couple of dozen would have more than met the needs on the Saltoro. This simple matter was turned into a tortuously complex operation by officials in the Ministry of Defence.

“It first questioned the veracity of the breakdown rates, then the quality of training imparted to users, then the cost-effectiveness of the machines against porters and finally, the need to have them altogether. On one occasion, when a few snow scooters were sanctioned after some years of denial, the troops on the glacier asked that special prayers of thanks be offered to the regimental deity. The story may be apocryphal, but it shows how gallant soldiers are reduced to seeking divine intervention against an insensitive official process.”

Me at Khardungla top
In fact, it took personal intervention of George Fernandes, defence minister in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government (1998-2004) to speed up the process of acquiring the snow mobiles. Fernandes, who earned the sobriquet of ‘Siachen Minister’ because of his frequent—and as soldiers say, morale-boosting –visits to the glacier, administered a shock treatment to the civilian bureaucrats by ordering them to visit and stay in the Siachen area in 1998! An international news agency report in June 1998 said:For more than a year, three Indian bureaucrats ignored a request for snowmobiles from soldiers stationed in an icy border wasteland. Now, the angry defense minister is reportedly sending the officials to the country's equivalent of Siberia.

“The Pioneer newspaper, quoting anonymous defence sources, reported Wednesday that Defense Minister George Fernandes, returning from a visit to the Siachen glacier in April, was displeased to find that the bureaucrats had been sitting on the request for 10 snowmobiles. Fernandes ordered that at least 10 snowmobiles be sent to Siachen every year and directed the Defence Ministry officials to spend at least a week on the glacier to familiarize themselves with the needs of troops there.

“The Times of India added that such familiarization postings could become standard under the energetic Fernandes, who became defence minister when a new government took over two months ago.”

Fernandes in fact made almost three dozen trips to Siachen during his tenure as Defence Minister. Describing one of his visit to the glacier, Manoj Joshi, writing for India Today in October 1998, says: “The schedule would be punishing for a 40-year-old but George Fernandes, Union defence minister who celebrated his 69th birthday this June, wouldn't know it.

Take his last trip to Siachen, a place avoided by the healthiest at the best of times. Up at Udhampur at 4.30 a.m., Fernandes was at the airport an hour later for the flight to Leh, which he reached by 7 a.m.

A visit to local officials, the Doordarshan Kendra, a quick lunch, and he was off by road to Khardung La. There, atop the highest motorable pass, he held an impromptu press conference with accompanying journalists, even while army officers pleaded with the party to move on because of the danger of hypoxia.

By evening, he reached Partapur, the headquarters of the Siachen brigade. Throughout the journey, he made it a point to stop the convoy to talk to locals and jawans. At Partapur, his first assignment was to inspect the base hospital, which he did, taking notes in a small book.
After dinner, he chatted with friends till 12 midnight, worked on his files till 2 a.m. and was up again at 6.30 a.m. for a helicopter ride to the higher reaches of the glacier.

Special privileges were at a minimum. On the road he was, as always, upfront, next to the driver, minus any special security. Arrangements were not ostentatious the jawans he dispensed with the special table and tucked in with the jawans.”

George Fernandes’ tours and his special interest in Siachen ensured that acquiring snow mobiles at least has remained a smooth affair thereafter.
In fact, in 2010, the Ministry of defence claimed: “The Defence Ministry has signed a contract for procurement of 20 Snow Mobiles with M/s BRP, Finland in December 2010. The complete set was received, inspected and deployed in Siachen by March 2011 in a "record time frame of three months."

Before Fernandes made it a habit to visit the glacier every six months, ministers and Army Chiefs visited Siachen infrequently. Lt Gen PC Katoch who commanded the Siachen brigade between December 1997 and December 1999 tells me: “When I took over the Siachen Brigade (1997), I was told that periodicity of visit by the Defence Minister and Chief was about once in 2-3 years. While I was still on attachment, Mulayam Singh Yadav came on his last visit. He presented four INMARASATs to the formation and next day national dailies flashed this news with heading “Communication Problems in Siachen Resolved”. Siachen was actually a neglected sector till then.” He too credits Fernandes with bringing Siachen into focus.

“On his second visit, in 1998, he (Fernandes) witnessed three bodies that had been recovered from a crevasse in Central Glacier after many months, when the crevasse opened a little more. Skin from the bodies was peeling off and Fernandes was visibly shaken. He was a Defence Minister who visited ‘every’ post on the glacier where helicopter landed, understood the difficulties and ensured due priority to this sector including its equipping,” Gen Katoch told me in 2013.

In the first two decades of Siachen deployment, bureaucratic procedures seem the main hurdle. Remembers Gen Katoch,: “Every winter, the special clothing came much after the winter started setting in (I saw this during onset of winter in 1997, 1998 and 1999). Of particular concern were lack of socks and gloves. Delhi had a stupid system of an Annual Provisioning Review (APR) that commenced only in the new financial year, that is April. By the time the troops got the stuff, it was late September, at times even October. There was no system of reserves at Army/Command/Corps/Division level despite knowing the quantum of troops on the glacier and extreme weather conditions. At times it was painful to know that imports had arrived in Delhi but clearance from DGQA (Director General Quality Assurance) was being delayed on one pretext or the other while troops suffered cold injuries on the glacier. On protested like hell including to all the visiting VIPs but nothing much happened. Now, I am told the situation is much improved.”

The supply chain is now indeed much more efficient and the priority accorded to Siachen, perhaps one of the highest across the Indian Army.

The trucks, the Mi-17s, the An-32s all brought the goods right at the doorstep of the glacier but in final analysis, the life saver for troops perched on the Saltoro are the Cheetahs and their magnificent pilots. Light, versatile and flown by pilots of the Indian Air Force and Army Aviation, the Cheetahs have been synonymous with Siachen from the first deployment. When flight operations begin at day break, a Cheetah, with a full tank, is barely able to carry a 20 litre jerry can in the first trip. So suppose the Cheetah is going to the highest posts at Amar or Sonam,  it would take one jerry can and may be a mail bag containing letters for soldiers from their families.

On the return leg, having shed a 20-litre jerry can and burnt some fuel, a rucksack of a soldier about to go on leave and therefore needing a lift back to the base camp would be brought back. In the second trip, two jerry cans would make their way up and the soldier, whose rucksack had been brought down in the first trip back, would get a lift down to the base camp. And so it would go on till noon, the official cut off time for helicopter flights in the Siachen. So nearly 20 sorties would take place to evacuate or transport half a dozen soldiers! Such is the difficulty in flying in the rarefied atmosphere on the glacier. In the summer months when temperatures rise, it is doubly difficult to strike a balance between the need to carry as much load as possible and the safety of the helicopter since the heat makes the already rarefied air at high altitude thinner, greatly reducing helicopters’ power.  And yet the pilots take risks, going beyond their normal duties, always game to save a patient, evacuate an injured soldier or transport an essential spare part in an emergency.

As a young officer posted on the glacier told me in October 2013: “Sir, in Siachen, the Hepter (helicopter), doctor and porter, are our real Gods!”

Truer words have never been spoken!

Initially of course, helicopters were a scare resource. Sitting in South Block, the Army HQ, it was difficult for the Staff Officers to understand the criticality of helicopters to sustain the deployment in Siachen. As Gen Raghavan, who also commanded the Siachen sector in the mid-1980s, has written: “A stage was reached when every helicopter hour was measured. Army and air headquarters were locked in interminable sessions to decide on allocation of sorties to Siachen...a couple of dozen hours of helicopter allocation was a cause for celebration or despair on the Saltoro. On occasions local commanders were reduced to petitioning senior officers for additional helicopter hours not as an operational necessity but as a personal favour. It took some years and not a few close calls with military disasters before a full understanding evolved on the indispensability of helicopter support...” 

Much has changed since those difficult years. Today, apart from the IAF’s 114 Helicopter Unit, the Army has two aviation teams based in Leh, one of them a squadron of indigenously developed and manufactured Advanced Light Helicopters, Dhruv, boosting India’s ability to keep the supplies to Siachen uninterrupted.

(Extracted from my book Beyond NJ 9842: The Siachen Saga, Bloomsbury Publications, 2014)