Saturday, April 25, 2015

Fiscal reality truncates Mountain Strike Corps

A raging debate has ensued in the defence fraternity on issues raging around the Mountain Strike Corps (17 Corps) and its size after Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar stated that the originally envisaged plan cannot be implemented since there is very little money available at the moment. I have been a supporter of the MSC right from the day it was announced in 2013 but had flagged concerns about its proposed funding as these two articles in 2013 ( would testify. 
Earlier this year my doubts about the previous government's perfidy in clearing the raising of the Mountain Strike Corps without allocating dedicated funds were confirmed. ( 
So if Defence Minister Parrikar now says Army will have to be prudent, he is not off the mark. My latest piece, published three days ago in is pasted below, where I argue resizing the MSC is the correct decisionunder the circumstances. Read on and join the debate.
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has made an unambiguous statement that the Mountain Strike Corps for the Indian Army will be frozen at the current level -- which is to say at about 50 per cent of the originally proposed strength of over 80,000 troops because of a funds crunch.
Army HQ is about to order an internal assessment on how to adapt to the political directive and at the same time beef up the capability against China.
The ongoing Army commanders conference in Delhi, where the army's topmost leadership gathers twice a year, had a preliminary discussion on ways to balance the need to acquire an offensive capability against China and the fiscal reality.

Informed sources said the army's top brass will look at the possibility of internal accruals by tweaking its ORBAT (Order of Battle) against Pakistan.
In simpler terms, an assessment is likely to be ordered to relook at the three existing strike corps (1, 2 and 21) ranged against Pakistan.
Similarly, a review of the deployment of some of the dual-tasked formations like the 39 Division and 6 Division is on the cards.
The armour- and mechanised infantry-heavy strike corps are all deployed on the Western Front. They are considered essential for the 'Cold Start' doctrine -- designed for lightening strikes against Pakistan in the event of a war -- that the Indian Army propounded after the experience of Operation Parakram in 2002, when the strike formations took a long time to mobilise, forcing the then government to go slow on its plan to punish Pakistan in the wake of the attack on Parliament.

Since both the political executive and the army brass agree that India must move from a dissuasion posture against China to a credible deterrence to maintain the power equilibrium in Asia, the necessity of a Mountain Strike Corps is well understood across the board.
The problem is in implementing the intention. The previous government sanctioned an ambitious Mountain Strike Corps with a proposed strength of 80,000 soldiers costing Rs 64,000 crores (Rs 640 billion) to be spent over a seven year period.
The catch was: The Mountain Strike Corps remained only on paper since the requisite funds were never allocated by Dr Manmohan Singh's government.
The army nevertheless went ahead and raised the flag of the new corps -- numbered 17 -- on January 1, 2014 by cannibalising reserves from existing formations.
During a review after taking over as defence minister, Parrikar discovered that the War Wastage Reserves -- WWRs -- of the army were being diverted to the new corps. He first ordered a halt to that process and told the army to tweak its plans for the 17 Corps.

In a way, the resizing of the Mountain Strike Corps is a blessing in disguise for both the Northern and Eastern Commands, ranged against the Chinese. Neither command currently have the requisite infrastructure to base new formations in the difficult terrains of Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim.

A gradually accretion in the strength of the 17 Corps which eventually will have dual tasking in the Eastern and Northern Commands, will follow once the infrastructure is in place.

Till then, hopefully, the Indian economy will have enough heft to spare the required funds for the full-fledged Mountain Strike Corps.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Cut your coat according to your cloth, Manohar Parrikar's message to the military

Cut your coat according to your cloth. That’s the loud and clear message Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has sent out to the three armed forces. In less than six months after taking over, Parrikar has studied various complex issues dogging the Defence Ministry and has come to his own conclusions on what needs to be done. By his own admission, Parrikar spent the first four months as defence minister taking inputs from a range of experts both within and outside the MoD before making up his mind.

The first thing he said he realised, was the mismatch that existed between various acquisition plans of the three armed forces and the availability of funds. “Many grand plans were made without taking the budget into consideration,” he told me.

During a couple of on-camera and off-camera (but on record) conversations, Parrikar talked to me about how the planning for the much-touted Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) was faulty. “The need for acquiring an offensive capability against the Chinese was projected (and sanctioned) but not the funds. I will not go into who is responsible for this faulty planning and projection but the fact is, they (the army) was using war reserves to equip the Mountain Strike Corps. Fortunately, we realised the mistake early and I can assure you that the reserves have not depleted to a level where it can be termed alarming. After a review, we have realised that the MSC will have to be frozen at a point where it is now..”

Later, in another interview to Hindustan Times, he confirmed the actual figures. “I have frozen the cost at Rs 38,000 crore over the next eight years. It will consist of 35,000 men,” the Defence Minister said. So from 70,000 men and Rs 88,000 crore, Parrikar has made the Army cut the size of the MSC down to almost 50 percent. And rightly so, since funds are not infinite.

Indeed, the biggest example of Parrikar’s dictum is the decision on the purchase of 36 Rafale combat jets from France. “The Air Force may want 126 Rafales and I may want to give them 500 but where are the funds? We have to be realistic. So why not go for LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) Tejas, Mark II made in India which will save us some money and give a boost to the indigenous aerospace industry? At the same time, we understood that the IAF needed the Rafale jets, so I went to the Prime Minister, who took a very bold political decision. This proves that important acquisitions have to be made at the government-to-government level,” he said.

Rafale and MSC are two big ticket items that have been cut down according to the availability of funds, but in his review, Parrikar also found that the bureaucracy in the ministry — both civil and military — was sitting on some 400-odd big and small projects that are critical to the three armed forces. Without getting into details, he said, “The first thing I did was to look at projects that are stuck at various stages of clearances since the most common complaint across the board was ‘nothing moves’ in the MoD.” A thorough review revealed that nearly one-third of the 400-odd projects were now irrelevant. So they were discarded. About 50 projects were accelerated since they were of critical importance.
The next step was to prioritise the projects. Over the past month, Parrikar and his closest aides have managed to identify critical schemes across the three services that needed immediate funding and implementation. The purchase of 50,000 bullet proof jackets, for instance, was sanctioned on a fast track basis once it was realised that troops involved in counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency operations were facing a severe shortage. Similarly, a small bureaucratic standoff had held up supply of Extreme High Altitude Clothing (for soldiers posted in Siachen and similar terrain) for more than two years. Parrikar personally intervened and resolved the issue, he said.

But more than anything else, the former Goa Chief Minister seems to have brought in a sense of purpose in the notoriously risk-averse MoD. Without directly criticising India’s longest serving Defence Minister AK Antony, Parrikar said that the ministry was rudderless for a long period. “There was no control over the system. There were no reviews, no feedback and there was no fear of punishment for non-performance. An important ministry like Defence cannot run like this,” Parrikar remarked. Elsewhere too he has spoken on how ineffective supervision led to the mess that the three armed forces find themselves in. A case in point is the freedom and impunity with which the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) operated in recent times, not meeting deadlines, obfuscating performance and delaying critical projects for the IAF. Under Parrikar however, HAL and other leading defence Public Sector Undertakings are now subject to fortnightly reviews and so is the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Perform or perish is the new mantra in the defence ministry.

The bottom line, according to the minister, an IIT Powai graduate and a voracious reader, is that people elect politicians to take a firm decisions. “Out of let’s say 10 decisions I take, five may be good, two may be average and three may turn out to be big mistakes but as long as the decisions are taken in good faith, I am willing to take them,” Parrikar told me. It’s an attitude that is not only refreshing but also reassuring. But his job has only begun. As I wrote earlier, the defence minister has a steep mountain to climb. He has only taken the first few steps towards ascending the summit.

(First published here:

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Big breakthrough in Rafale deal likely

India is likely to buy between 60 and 63 Rafale combat jets from the French aviation major Dassault in a government to government deal that may be finalised during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's talks with French President Francois Hollande, in Paris later today, top government sources have indicated.​

The decision to buy nearly three and a half squadrons of Rafale jets for the Indian Air Force (IAF) was taken at the highest political level hours before Prime Minister  Modi embarked on his three-nation tour on Thursday, the sources added. 

Under the new proposal, the entire process for procuring 126 combat jets would be scrapped, sources revealed. A new G-to-G (government-to-government) contract is likely to be negotiated between New Delhi and Paris to buy 
the​  Rafale jets in flyaway conditions.​

​Worried at the fast depleting combat jet fleet and concerned over the impasse in the nearly three year long negotiations on pricing, the top political leadership has decided to go for this compromise. Moreover, finding over Rs One Lakh Crore (around 18 billion dollars) to be allotted over a seven year period to buy the 126 jets as originally envisaged was proving to be difficult. But the government is confident of finding between 40 to 45,000 crore over a seven year period (around 7 billion dollars) needed to fund the purchase of about 60 Rafales.

By going for a G-to-G contract India is also likely to drive a hard bargain with the French and lower the price of the aircraft. By ordering 60 aircraft to be manufactured in France itself, the government is also hoping to skirt the tricky issue of guaranteeing quality of work under Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), designated as the Lead Production Agency in India.
According to top sources, this approach is being adopted for two primary reasons: one, it is imperative that the IAF gets these jets as soon as possible in view of the fast depleting numbers and two, because the entire procurement procedure for the combat jets had turned into a chaotic process thanks to the indecision on part of the political leadership in the previous regime and some loopholes in the negotiations itself making it impossible for the government to arrive at a satisfactory solution, the sources revealed.

​The decision of course raises two fundamental questions: one, how will the IAF make up for the numbers since buying just 60 aircraft is not sufficient to augment its combat fleet. And two, what happens to the offset clause and technology transfer?

According to top sources, besides buying Rafales, the government will push HAL hard to deliver at least three squadrons of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), Mark II as quickly as possible​, procure more Sukhois  from Russia and also support the FGFA project in a big way to make up for the 12 squadrons of fighter jets which are likely to retire over the next four years.
As for offsets and ToT, given the precarious numbers in the IAF combat fleet at the moment, the government had no choice but to compromise on these two vital issues as a one-time exception, top sources have indicated.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

End the turmoil in the Army quickly

On Friday I waded into a raging debate currently on in the Indian Army over its promotion policy quashed by the AFT, by writing this:  (

As expected, it generated huge debate with people calling me names (Comments ranged from "You have done it to please your contacts in the Army," to "Wonderful article on AFT judgement," and from "Your research is sub-optimal. You have fathered someone else's line," to "I don't think any other journalist could have put it in more simple and understandable terms. Once again to the rescue").
Some comments are available below the first piece.
Today, writing more for a non-military audience, I have explained the issue a little more. Only one observation in addition to what I have written: In commenting upon the merits and demerits of the case, most people are either unaware of or have chosen to ignore the fact that the those who implemented the "Command Exit Model," were bound by the conditions laid down by the AV Singh Committee. The first 750 vacancies were allotted in accordance with the old pro-rata system but in implementing the 2nd tranche, the Army HQ had no choice but to implement the Command Exit Model. But read on. And keep the comments coming.

The Indian Army is going through fresh turmoil. 

Some observers have blamed past mistakes and personal prejudices of a couple of chiefs for the peculiar situation where the Army’s promotion policy for officers in the rank of Colonels has been quashed by the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT), a quasi judicial body that is equated with a High Court for military justice. The judgement has brought forth the deep divide that exists between various arms of the Army. The reality is that the MoD had mandated implementation of a new policy within strict parameters and a tight timeframe. But more of it a little later.

The tribunal in its judgement has held that the 'discriminatory' army promotion guidelines of 2009 denied 'equal opportunity of promotion to officers of all corps of the Indian Army,' and ordered the reconvening of all promotion boards to the rank of colonel held since 2008. This has held up the promotion of the current lot of Colonels and also forced the government to go to the Supreme Court seeking dismissal of the AFT judgement. The hearing is slated for 15 April. Meanwhile, all the hidden differences between various arms of the army have spilled over into public domain with strong and sometime vitriolic arguments put forward on both sides. 

So what exactly is the issue? 

Before getting into specifics, for the benefit of the non-military audience, it needs to be stated that the Army is broadly divided into three main categories--combat arms (Infantry, Armoured and Mechanised Infantry), Combat Support Arms (Artillery, Army Air Defence, Engineers, Signals and Army Aviation) and Services (Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps and the Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers).

The bulk of the Indian Army consists of the Infantry with over nearly 450 battalions, including counter-insurgency specific force like the Rashtriya Rifles deployed in J&K. Consequently, the number of officers in the infantry is also larger than the other arms.

Fifteen years ago, when foot soldiers of the infantry ably supported by the artillery and other arms, evicted Pakistani intruders from the Army, the entire nation hailed their exploits. In the euphoria of the victory, the Army leadership realised that the Commanding Officers (COs) of the infantry units which did exceptionally well in combat were in their early forties, not an ideal age to keep pace with the young and fit soldiers fighting in difficult terrains. Incidentally, the COs in the Pakistani Army during Kargil were between 35 and 37 years of age!

The Kargil conflict, as is well known, forced the decision makers to constitute a group of ministers (GoM) to review India's defence and intelligence set up. One of the many follow up decisions that flowed from the GoM report was the appointment of the AV (Ajay Vikram) Singh Committee that studied the cadre management of the armed forces. The recommendations by the Ajay Vikram Singh Committee resulted in the creation of additional 1484 vacancies for colonel rank officers. The main aim was to bring down the average age of the COs from 42 years during Kargil to about 35 years.

Implementing the recommendations was easier planned than put in practice. So the next best thing was to prioritise. The distribution of vacancies had to be within the number (1484) allotted by the ministry. The Ministry released the additional vacancies in two lots with a caveat that they be implemented within five years of the allotment. So the only variable that could be applied was to adjust the tenure of COs of various arms. 

A 'Command Exit Model' was thus applied in 2009 wherein Infantry COs were to have tenures of two-and-a-half years, Armoured and Mechanised Infantry COs  (the other two combat arms) were given three year tenures while the Combat Support Arms except Artillery were given four years at the helm. COs of Services (ASC, AOC and EME) were consequently were given five years at the top.  

This brought down the age of COs in every arm but created a massive rift between the Combat arms and the Services. Some Service officers went to the AFT which has now ruled that the policy be scrapped and all promotion boards since 2008 be reconvened. The basic argument of the petitioners is to revert to the age-old model of 'pro-rata' allotment of vacancies based on the strength of each arm and retain the 'equivalence' that existed pre-2008. 

The AV Singh Committee had reviewed the old pro-rata system and had observed that officers in the Services were becoming COs at least three years ahead of their counterparts from the combat arms (which meant older COs in combat units and younger officers in the Services)--not a desirable situation for an army that is perpetually engaged in one form of combat or the other.

Officers from the services, peeved at the reversal of the earlier policy, went to AFT which has ruled in their favour. The government has rightly decided to appeal against the ruling. If the MoD loses the case in Supreme Court, the government will be left with no option but to create additional vacancies for colonels, once again raising the average age of commanding officers which would basically mean going back to the pre-Kargil situation.

One other long-term solution is course to increase the intake of short service commission (SSC) officers who serve for 5, 10 and 14 years and leave the army thereafter. Unfortunately, so far the response for the SSC scheme is lukewarm, mainly because the exit benefits are almost non-existent. Now, after a long deliberation a new, attractive severance package is being prepared so that the more short service commission intake is made possible and retain the young profile of the Army.

Whatever the outcome of the case in Supreme Court, the Army and the MoD will have to move quickly to find a solution to this tricky situation otherwise the cracks within will widen to the detriment of national security.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Of promotions and equivalence in the Army!

The new age tendency to find equivalence and parity in the name of justice and equality seems to have percolated down to quasi judicial bodies like the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) too. The judgement by the Delhi bench of the AFT in early March striking down the Army’s 2009 policy of promotion for colonel rank officers stems exactly from this new fad.
Every organisation is made up of different arms with varying skills, roles and responsibilities. And so it is with the Army. All parts—infantry, artillery, armoured, engineers, signals, supply and ordnance, not to forget the RVC (the Remount Veterinary Corps)—make up for the sum total of the Army. But some, like infantry, armoured and artillery are more equal than others simply because of the nature of the job they have to do.
Although many of my friends in the non-combatant branches may want to strangle me for what I am going to say, the fact is in one stroke the AFT has tried to initiate a policy that orders parity between a combat arm officer and supply or logistics branch officers or between an armoured corps officer and an RVC officer for instance. No organisation can have that luxury, least of all the army. Let me try and give an analogy which may not be wholly appropriate but may be demonstrative.  
In a television news company for instance, there is an editorial team and then there are technical departments. The reporters and desk hands decide on the news content but the technical hands--camera persons, news producers, video editors--give the news the final shape. Reporters become Editors in due course, camera persons become senior camera persons and eventually rise to become heads of department as do video editors and news producers. But when it comes to choosing Chief Editors/Managing Editors/Executive Editors, as a rule only reporters and desk hands (turned editors) are considered, not the technical people, no matter how brilliant they are in their jobs simply because their training and experience is not geared towards doing the job at the very top.
Or to take an example from the government itself. All aspirants write the same exam for entry into civil services but once they get selected for the respective verticals (Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Revenue Service or the Indian Police Service), the officers compete between themselves within that particular vertical and depending on merit and available vacancies rise or not rise to the top. No IRS/IPS Officer demands or more appropriately, can demand equivalence with the IAS officer, notwithstanding individual brilliance or achievement.
While the contribution of combat support arms and services is acknowledged and well-known, the Indian army will perforce remain a pre-dominantly infantry and artillery oriented force given the nature of threats and challenges India faces. Other arms will remain in supporting roles. 
The tribunal in its judgement has held that the 'discriminatory' army promotion guidelines of 2009 denied 'equal opportunity of promotion to all officers of all corps of the Indian Army,' and ordered the reconvening of all promotion boards to the rank of colonel held since 2008. 
For decades, the infantry has had more promotion opportunities given the sheer number of battalions it has in the Indian army. In my view for the AFT to now say each of these services must be given equal opportunity for promotion, is to encroach upon the Army leadership’s prerogative to decide who it should promote or how it should run the force. That the Army needs to keep the age profile of the Commanding Officers in the infantry low is undeniable. That it needs to take the entire army along and not allow disaffection to set in in other arms is also accepted. May be the government should take a re-look at increasing the number of vacancies in the support arms to resolve the issue?
The Supreme Court is set to hear the government's leave petition on 15 April. The verdict might as well go against the Army. If that happens, the Defence Ministry can release more vacancies for other aspirants without diluting the need to keep the Infantry and Artillery fighting fit and without letting the rancour seep too deep within.
Once the matter settles down, everyone should let the Army decide how to run the organisation, based on threat assessments.