Monday, January 16, 2017

Military competent to do self-correction; leave it alone

Last week saw a spate of video messages by soldiers across Army, BSF and CRPF complaining and highlighting what they felt was supply of bad food, lack of good facilities and demeaning treatment because the leadership in these forces—according to them—is involved in corruption and has feudal attitude towards the men they command.

While the men may have genuine grievances and perhaps felt that existing channels of redress are not sufficient, I am aghast at the extrapolation done by a section of the Indian media portraying these complaints as catastrophe that has overtaken the Indian security forces and that the time-tested officer-men relationship—especially in the Army—is no longer as robust as it used to be.

As someone who’s had an opportunity to be a media practitioner across web, print and broadcast mediums for over three decades, I am aware of the pressures of ratings and compulsion to be ‘first with the news,’ that often overtakes sound judgement. And that is what has happened over the past week. In the mad race to boost circulation and viewer ratings, a section of the ignorant media has, in one go, sought to tarnish and destroy one of the last institutions that has stood rock solid in defence of India.
Ill-informed—I would in fact go the extent of saying ‘uneducated’ (in military matters)-- star anchors and reporters are out to create divide within the army where none exists. The officer-soldier relationship has certainly undergone a change over the past couple of decades thanks to the churn in the Indian society at large but it is still the bedrock of the Indian Army’s day to day functioning. The bonding between officers and men is evident in the hundreds of daily counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations carried out by the Indian Army. Indeed, without that bonding officers will not be able to lead--and men will not willingly go into--operations that can lead to death of brothers-in-arms.
It is easy to sit and pontificate from the confines of the studio and reduce the issues to binaries of good and ugly but the reality is more complex. Yes, there is a problem. But the problem is not as disastrous as made out to be. In fact these issues are an outcome of a combination of factors: erosion in the soldiers’ status in the society; prolonged deployment in monotonous and thankless counter-insurgency jobs; crippling shortage of officers in combat units; and, ironically, easier communication between families and soldiers!

A psychiatric study by Army doctors some years ago on ‘Evolving Medical Strategies for Low Intensity Conflicts’ revealed the huge range of issues soldiers in such situations have to confront, contradictions between war and low-intensity conflict situations, and, particularly, the concepts of ‘enemy’, ‘objective’ and ‘minimum force’. Some other findings were:
• In general war, the nation looks upon the soldier as a saviour, but here he is at the receiving end of public hostility.
• A hostile vernacular press keeps badgering the security forces, projecting them as perpetrators of oppression.
• Continuous operations affect rest, sleep and body clocks, leading to mental and physical exhaustion.
• Monotony, the lure of the number game, and low manning strength of units lead to overuse and fast burnout. 

Operating in a tension-ridden counter-insurgency environment does lead to certain stress among the jawans, but that is only one of the factors. The main worries are the problems back home: land disputes; tensions within the family; rising aspirations.
During my travels in counter-insurgency areas, I have often come across company commanders telling me how, for many soldiers, tensions at home create unbearable stress. Often, a land dispute back home or a family feud weighs heavily on the soldier’s mind. For the ordinary soldier, the smallest patch of land back home is the most precious property. Again, I have frequently come across a common thread where soldiers say there is no tension in the actual work of counter-insurgency. The main problem for the fauji comes from his domestic situation.

Add to it the fact that the society no longer respects the soldier and his work in protecting the nation. A local politician, a thanedar, etc., seem to command more clout in the society today. This has often led to loss of self-esteem among ordinary soldiers. A recent movie—Paan Singh Tomar—depicted, in some measure, the humiliation that a soldier faces in the civilian environment, both while serving and after retirement from the armed forces.

Senior officers point out that most suicide and fratricide cases take place after soldiers return from a spot of leave. And yet, the Army must look within too. Fortunately the leadership in the Army is as acutely aware of the need to change with time and adapt new practices in daily functioning.

Reforming the Organization

Soldiers these days are better educated and, consequently, better aware of their rights.
As the armed forces are in themselves a microcosm of India, the rising education and awareness levels in recruits is easily perceived. A sea change from yesteryears is now visible in the hordes of young men who crowd recruitment rallies across the country. Most hopefuls are the educated unemployed youth who turn towards the military for acquiring early financial and social security. Their educational qualification is Class XII on the average, many being graduates too. The stereotype of an innocent, less educated but hardy soldier is now a thing of the past. The officer base has also shifted predominantly to the middle class. This has further narrowed the gap between the ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’.

An acute shortage of officers at the cutting-edge level is the other big factor contributing to an limited bonding between soldiers and officers. Against an authorized strength of over 22 officers for a combat battalion, there are at best eight or nine officers available to the commanding officer these days.

Very often, young officers with less than two years of service are commanding companies! Even in the battalion headquarters, one officer ends up doing the job of three, given the shortage. There is no time to interact with soldiers. In the old days, a game of football or hockey was the best way to get to know each other. Not any longer.

What, then, is the way forward?

Embracing Change

The average Indian soldier remains as hardy as before but he is certainly confused with the pace of change occurring all around him. It is here that the leaders—the officers—will have to adapt themselves to the new reality. The age-old system of regimental traditions and values is robust, and serves to develop camaraderie and loyalty between the led and the leader even now. The new fashion to dismiss them as outdated ideas must be arrested. Military ethos is not developed overnight and is certainly not imbibed by pandering blindly to the changes in society.

However the leadership needs to take cognizance of a new challenge: Proliferation of social media. Access to improved technology and means of communication has meant that soldiers are now tempted take a short cut to air their grievances—genuine or otherwise. The new Army chief has done well to issue a legitimate warning that misuse of social media will lead to consequences while at the same time, providing a new avenue of grievance redress through his office. However, the top leadership will have to be careful in not short-circuiting the traditional chain of command. 

The change must come from the top.

A former Army Commander, Lt. Gen. C.S.K. Sabu, had encapsulated the desired change in view of altered socio-economic conditions at a seminar on ‘Leadership Challenges in an Era of Turbulence’ at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi, in June 2010. He said: ‘Such a change needs to be top-down, and be backed by the force of institutional ethics, tradition, peer pressure and group dynamics. While the Chetwode motto of the Army is everlasting, it loses focus once a soldier is beyond his CO—it lacks the guiderail required for a codified, value-based ethical conduct on the part of senior officers, which must be set right.’
Certain changes which can be considered and deliberated are:
• 360 degree assessments in the context of Annual Confidential Reports (ACRs).
• Inculcate the warrior ethos in the Army.
• Embrace the soldier’s code—Veer Senani must be codified.
• Encourage scholar–warrior ethos for the officers.
• Promoting ethics and probity in military life.
• Norms for conducting welfare activities must change—it is a command function and must be restored to the same. 

Finally, if the led are to believe the leader, the leader must walk the talk. Officers must believe in themselves and the system that they work in. They must take pride in the fact that the military is essentially different in its work culture, ethos, traditions and values from any other entity. Soldiering is the only profession in which a man voluntarily chooses to enter into a contract that entails death if the occasion so demands.

The Indian military, despite its recent problems, remains a very fine institution. To be relevant and effective, it must, however, embrace change with discretion. Therein lies the trick in meeting the increasing challenge posed to the military leadership. However, let the change be driven by the military itself rather than pesky anchors and upstart reporters hectoring soldiers on a matter that they have very little idea about.

Monday, January 9, 2017

All you wanted to know about the Shekatkar Committee Report but didn't know where to look

Lt Gen DB Shekatkar (retd) presenting copy of the report
to Manohar Parrikar
The Lt Gen DB Shekatkar Committee—appointed by the government to enhance the combat potential of the armed forces and rebalancing defence expenditure—has recommended a number of measures to trim, redeploy and integrate manpower under the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in a gradual manner to meet the objective of an agile but effective military to meet current and future threats that India faces, BharatShakti has learnt after speaking to multiple sources including some members of the panel.

The Committee, which submitted the final report to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar on 21 December 2016, has noted that if majority of its recommendations are implemented over the next five years, the government can save up to Rs 25,000 crore from its current expenditure. The Committee has however warned that the implementation cannot be selective. As the report has apparently noted: the redeployment of manpower from and downsizing of some of the organisations under the MoD will have to be across the board and ruthless to be effective. Moreover, the Shekatkar Committee has made it clear that the saving made as a result of its recommendations must be redeployed in enhancing the combat capabilities of the Indian armed forces and not be merged in the general budget.

After taking into account the nature threats that the country is likely to face in coming decades, the committee has in fact recommended that the defence budget should be in the range of 2.5 and three per cent of the GDP. This would however require a substantial change in approach and outlook of the government towards the armed forces. For the last five years for instance, defence budget has remained below two per cent of the GDP. 

One of the major recommendations of the committee is to review the definition of ‘Capital’ and ‘Revenue’ budget heads in the funds allocated to the three armed forces, particularly the Indian Army. The panel notes that the Indian Army—unlike the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force—will have to remain a manpower-intensive force because of its major deployment in the mountains against both its major adversaries, China and Pakistan. As a result the sustenance budget of the Indian Army will be higher than the other two services leaving very little money for capital acquisition. The panel has reportedly therefore recommended that a ‘roll on’ plan for fresh acquisitions be introduced so as to overcome the practice of ‘surrendering’ funds at the end of every financial year.

The panel has also suggested a review of the financial management system of the MoD in which the defence finance wing is seen to be more of an impediment in clearing projects and has recommended that the financial powers of all the three chiefs and vice chiefs be enhanced further to quicken the pace of acquisitions.
As for redeployment and rationalising of manpower, the Shekatkar Committee has recommended that the role of non-combat organisations paid for and sustained by the defence budget be subjected to a performance audit. Some of these organisations mentioned in the report are Defence Estates, Defence Accounts, DGQA, Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), DRDO, and the National Cadet Corps (NCC). Once a professional and objective review is carried out, the committee said, substantial savings can be achieved by downsizing or rationalising the manpower in these organisations.

The committee has also suggested the establishment of a Joint Services War College for training for middle level officers (the higher command course for instance), even as the three separate War Colleges—currently at Mhow, Secunderabad and Goa—for Army, Air Force and Navy could continue to train younger officers for their respective service. Similarly it has recommended that the Military Intelligence School at Pune be converted to a tri-service Intelligence training establishment.

Another aspect highlighted by the committee is the increasing reluctance on part of the state governments to renew lease of land for crucial firing ranges for the troops. Increasing urbanisation and pressure on land has meant that the armed forces have to battle political and bureaucratic pressure to retain the existing firing ranges. The panel has therefore suggested better coordination between the MoD and state governments to overcome this problem.

However the Committee has also suggested that the armed forces ramp up the quantum of training on various simulators. The new recruits can do about 60 per cent of their firing training on simulators, resulting in substantial savings to the tune of Rs 20-25 crore per annum in expenditure of training ammunition, the committee has suggested.

There are several other suggestions to improve efficiency of Border Roads Organisation (BRO), re-orienting the training staff of NCC by utilising more ex-servicemen and Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) to free young serving officers for more mainline jobs and even recommending the possibility of shifting NCC under the Human Resources Development (HRD) Ministry.

Like the previous such reviews ordered by the government, notably the Naresh Chandra Committee, the Shekatkar Committee too has said a 4-star Chief of Defence Staff (CDS)—or a Permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee—be appointed as a ‘chief coordinator’ between the military and the Ministry of Defence. It has however stressed on retaining the primacy of the three service chiefs in operational and administrative roles even while suggesting establishment of three or four integrated commands in medium to long term.  This aspect will however need further deliberation at the highest level, the committee has suggested.

The entire report, it appears is focussed on shedding the flab in the MoD and make India’s armed forces more agile and technology-oriented to meet current and future national security objectives.