Wednesday, December 21, 2016

On Army Chief Selection, Seniority and Merit

The elevation of Lt. General Bipin Rawat to the post of Chief of Army Staff (COAS) after superseding two other Army Commanders’ senior to him has created the quite expected controversy. There are as many arguments out there against this act of the government as there are in its favor.

The political establishment has hitherto stuck to the seniority principle more out of indifference than any love for the armed forces. Simply put, our political class does not understand the armed forces (with due exceptions) and has never made any effort to do so. Our political and bureaucratic set-up simply lacks appreciation, appetite and mechanism for any long term strategic thinking. This explains lack of strategic foresight and our inability to undertake complex geo-political manoeuvres. Ergo, we’ve never seriously explored use of military power as a means of extending and safeguarding national interests. And this manifests itself in us lacking in higher defense management. Everything else which ails our security set-up from investment in R&D to weapon production stems from this lack of understanding about the armed forces.

We continue to carry forward the dubious legacy of Nehru days.     

Indian armed forces are so far removed from the country’s critical decision making set-up that I doubt it matters to the political class who becomes the army chief. Except of course, if the potential candidate has in some manner rubbed the powers-that-be in wrong manner. So, Indira Gandhi ensured that Lt. General Bhagat never became the Chief through a sleigh of hand. While in case of Lt. General S.K. Sinha, she was more forthright and appointed his junior as the army chief.

This is where the present government seems to have broken the existing protocol of simply appointing the senior most Lt. General as the Army Chief. It has gone for deep selection and has proactively chosen a candidate. Not that I agree with it, but this is where we are.

The government has a certain view about the evolving scenario on our western border and how it is likely to play out in immediate future. As per media reports, the government in its wisdom has chosen to go with a candidate with proven track record in the Kashmir theatre from lowest to pretty high level. Lt General Rawat has commanded troops in counter-insurgency operations (5 Rashtriya Rifles Sector commander) as well as in conventional posture - he commanded an infantry battalion along LOC as and later as Major General, the crucial 19 Infantry Division which overlooks the most sensitive part of LOC.

Government has gone with a candidate who literally knows the ‘lay of the land’ than with others whose understanding stems from staff appointments and that too, at higher level. As per media reports, Lt. General Praveen Bakshi has had two staff appointments in ‘Valley’ – one as Colonel in Doda and others Chief of Staff (COS) in Northern Command.

Some respected ex-army officers have rightly countered this line of argument. 

I quote Lt General H.S. Panag from an article in Indian Express dates 18th December 2016:

“It is the government’s prerogative to select the new Army Chief. It has only happened once earlier that the senior-most officer was overlooked, in the case of Lt Gen S K Sinha in 1983. But the criterion for deep selection by the government is not clear as it knows little about the job of an Army Commander. There is nothing spectacular about serving in J&K. If there is a war tomorrow, it could be fought in plains and deserts. What happens then?” said Lt Gen H S Panag (retd), a former Northern Army Commander, who has taught the three contenders at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, and at the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington.


Ajai Shukla (himself an ex-Armoured Corps Officer) made this very important comment in his article dated 19th December 2016 and posted on this blog:

Separately, the defence ministry spokesperson has told journalists over the phone that Bakshi, a tank man who has spent many years in the deserts of Rajasthan and in Punjab, was ill-equipped to handle the internal security challenges of Jammu & Kashmir and the northeast. Bakshi’s tenures as chief of staff at the northern command and at the eastern army command apparently count for nothing.

Nor apparently does the fact that war with Pakistan would centre on swift tank offensives under the ‘Cold Start’ doctrine. “The army believes peacetime operations are more important than preparing for a real war,” says a senior serving general.


Long story short, the above two observations intend to convey the point that an Army Chief is guided by his army commanders who actually command India’s field armies and undertake battle in their respective ‘Area-of-Responsibility’ (AOR). So, even if Lt. General Bakshi did not have operational experience of the kind that Lt General Bipin Rawat had in Kashmir theatre, he would have been relying on Lt. General Devraj Anbu, the present Northern Army Commander for advice and to handle that sector. Lt. General Anbu is an Infantry officer who’s served earlier in the ‘Valley’, Siachen and last commanded Tejpur based 4 Corps. 4 Corps looks after both internal security and the crucial western Arunachal Pradesh-Tibet border. Lt. General Bakshi would’ve had the advice and counsel of a seasoned infantry officer and old ‘Valley’ hand in the Northern Army commander.

At the same time, as Lt. General Panag (retd.) and Ajai Shukla mentions above, if yellow matter hits the fan with Pakistan, the real action will be in the plains. Ever since 2001 mobilization post Parliament attack, Indian Army has been perfecting the art of quick mobilization and rapid, mechanized warfare under the Cold Start doctrine. The act of bringing Pakistan Army to its knees will most probably be played out in the plains of south Punjab and Rajasthan. Where bulk of Indian Army’s offensive potential will be deployed.

Lt. General Praveen Bakshi is an outstanding Armoured Corps officer and he would be the best man to be at the helm of affairs in such an eventuality.

However, the biggest example of an Army Chief’s abilities being not linked to his parent fighting arm or earlier operational experience lies in our near past.

General Sundararajan Padmanabhan or Paddy as he was more affectionately known as, was the Army Chief when mobilization under Operation Parakram happened. It is acknowledged that during initial mobilization immediately after the Parliament attack, army lost dash to the border and hence, the initiative, because one of the Strike Corps, situated deep in the hinterland, took a long time to mobilize.

But it is also a fact that the bold repositioning of Indian Army’s three formidable armoured divisions during mid-2002 in the desert and aimed at the center of Pakistan, had led to serious issues within the Pakistan Army. This is something which had never been done before and led to some serious problems for Pakistan Army. In that one move, General Padmanabhan has turned the traditional way in which Indian Army fought its war on its head.

And General Padmanabhan was an Artillery Officer! He had an outstanding stint as Corps Commander, XV Corps in Srinagar and then as Northern Army Commander.

However, the argument made in support of Lt. General Bakshi and against Lt. General Rawat (lack of exposure to mechanized warfare) can be turned around in equal measure. Lt. General Rawat will be advised by the Army Commander of Western, South-Western and Southern Commands which hold bulk of army’s mechanized assets and will lead the charge into Pakistan.

Present Western Army Commander is from Brigade of Guards – one of Indian’s two mechanized infantry regiments. Southern Army Commander (Lt. General Hariz) is also from mechanized infantry – though he is expected to resign now that his junior has been made the Army Chief.  South-Western Army Commander is another infantry officer.

All the above points to one important fact – beyond a certain point, officers from different combat arms are considered equally competent to lead Corps and Field Armies in battle. Yes, it is preferable that an officer from Armoured Corps or Mechanized Infantry command the Strike Corps but even that does not happen often. At Army Commanders’ level, question about competence cease to exist because an Army Commander leads a heterogeneous mix of formations and capabilities. And his job is to ensure that he maximises their utilization to achieve the best possible result.  

Again, I quote Lt. General Panag (retd.) –

“Though it is good to have a meritocracy, there must be clear criteria for determining merit. Otherwise, generals will start approaching politicians who can promote them to the top, and that will end the apolitical character of the army,” warns Lt Gen H.S. Panag, a former army commander.

Looking at the precedence and the way army functions, the above question has not been satisfactorily answered.

Having said that, there is one very famous example from army’s past which comes to mind and which validates the probable reasoning behind selection of Lt. General Bipin Rawat. During the 1965 Indo-Pak war, Indian Army had its finest hour in the Battle of Asal Uttar when it halted the advance of Pakistan Army’s much vaunted and formidable 1st Armoured Division and its running mate, the 11th Infantry Division. One of the reasons which allowed Indian troops to organize and mount such a staunch defence was the knowledge about the lay of land of the Western Army Commander – the redoubtable Lt. General Harbaksh Singh. The act of breaching the nallas to flood the area to restrict movement of Pakistani armour and channel them in particular direction(s) happened because the Army Commander understood the lay of the land.

Whether something like this is relevant in present scenario or will be relevant as the new Chief discharges his duties, remains to be seen.

Will this decision politicise the army and henceforth, the selection of the Chief? As supporter of Narendra Modi and this government, I think the government has taken the decision with best intention in mind. Even if I don’t agree with it.

The reason I don’t agree with it is because it creates a window of opportunity to play favourites. No institution has been spared from the ill-effects of this disease of favouritism save the selection of Service Chiefs (with some exceptions, of course). Some senior ex-servicemen have opined that selection of COAS only on the basis of seniority has meant that less than worthy candidates have been elevated to the position and deep selection can ensure that this does not happen.

Well, if someone was/is not worthy of becoming COAS after having reached the level of an Army Commander, then it speaks about flaws in the process which allows undesirable officers to reach this level in first place.

Secondly, for every one ‘bad’ Army/Service Chief, if the system throws up 4-5 good Service Chiefs, I’ll take it with all its warts and pimples.

Third – how do we know the next government will not pick up a more pliant or accommodative junior candidate over a forthright and honest senior-most candidate?  

While I support the present government and the Prime Minister, I do not consider the overall political establishment to be mature enough to take a call on deciding the merit for deep selection and discarding the seniority principle. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Attack on Pathankot AFS: Quick Assessment


A quick summary and assessment of events basis whatever I’ve come across in the media. I’ve also added my comments along with it.

The terrorists entered India on the intervening night of December 31 and 1st January. Some news reports have claimed that the Innova was ARRAINGED to pick-up the terrorists from across the border. It was after the vehicle broke down/had a flat that terrorists hijacked the SP’s vehicle and made way away with it.

[Comment: Now, this is the FIRST most curious part of the whole event. And IMO, points towards the use of drug smuggling network to facilitate the strike. It is quite possible that the Innova was arranged for picking up the terrorists by facilitators on Indian side. When the Innova broke down, the terrorists made a call to their handlers and appraised them of the problem.

It was because of this call that SP was activated. I’ve convinced that the SP is a key player in the drug smuggling network. He was most probably asked to facilitate movement of some ‘smugglers’ – the fact that he decided to use his own car shows that instructions came right from the top on Indian side. One of the news report talks about a local political leader involved in harbouring the terrorists. I would not be surprised that the same person activated the SP and got him to personally facilitate the movement.

And that is why, while the terrorists killed the driver of the Innova car, they did not kill the SP, which should’ve been the normal course of action. That is because they were confident that he would not give away their plan. But it seems when the SP realized that the people he had picked up were not your garden variety smugglers but terrorists, he fabricated the story of ‘army personnel’ having kidnapped him and all that…I think he tried to send across the message as clearly as possible w/o compromising himself. And this is where we lost the crucial time.

This act of arranging the second transport after first broke-down and that too by activating a very high value asset like SP again points to the fact that Pathankot AFS was always the target. Unlike earlier Gurdaspur or Sambha attack, focus was maintained and every effort made to reach + attack the target. Here I would like to go with the theory that since Mi-25 to be gifted to Afghanistan are from Pathankot based squadron, Pakistan Deep State wanted to really drive home the point]

The SP was ‘kidnapped’ at around 3:30am on January 1st and the base was attacked 24hrs later at about 3:30am – 4:00am on 2nd January.

[Comment: While no news report talks about where exactly the SP was ‘kidnapped’, the road distance could not have been more than 50km by any stretch. In fact, it should’ve been lesser. The million dollar question is where did the terrorists hide in the intervening 24 hours? 

Again, I refer to news report about some local politician giving support to these men. It is highly likely that terrorists moved as close to the target as possible before the alarm had gone off. And the SP vehicle was off the road pretty soon after the ‘kidnapping’ drama. 

As I said earlier, the road distance is low, the roads are very good and the vehicle would’ve been at the hiding destination in under an hour. It is quite likely that SP himself drove them to a pre-designated point where someone else took over. And terrorists hid for next 18-24 hours.]

The base was attacked from the southern end where a river/canal exists the base.

[Comment: I request people to have a look at Google Earth map of the base. This place is 6+ km (as the crow flies) from the National Highway 15 which links Gurdaspur to Pathankot. And to reach this point, you need to navigate village roads (if coming by vehicle) or navigate open fields/ground between villages in the area. 

I would wager that someone dropped them as close as possible to this point – this is because the assault point seems to have been chosen with lot of planning and powers-that-be would not have wanted the terrorists to lose their way and end up assaulting from some other position. GE shows there is a gate and entry point to base from this side and road leading up to.

I think these fellows were dropped not more than 1 km away from this point. Again, points to deep local help and the sheer desperation from Deep State to launch this strike. Another important point – the first set of targets to come up when you enter from this point is the magazine area, the hardened aircraft shelter (HAS) lie further ahead. Quite possible that these terrorists had planned to take hold of one of these and make large fire-work]

Security being beefed up at the Base and presence of Army SF and NSG.

[Comment: After the alert was sounded at around 4:00pm – 4:30pm on 2nd January, it seems NSA had moved the Army SF and NSG components to Pathankot AFS. But my assertion is that this was done not from the purpose of securing the base but for AFS to act as node for reacting to situation anywhere else in the region. 

The actual act of securing the base consisted of inducting 2 x infantry platoons to secure the technical area. The big question remains – why was not a whole infantry battalion inducted to secure the entire premises? I know we used TA battalions during 1999 and Op Parakaram to secure bases]  

High casualties on our side.

[Comment: I think the terrorists used the same tactic as used in the attack on army base in Uri. They might have attacked in two teams. While the QRT reacted to the first set of attackers, the second set could’ve ambushed the QRT or follow-on forces which rushed to the spot. I would not be surprised if DSC and Garuds were caught in a cross-fire. 

Loss from NSG could be because of throwing men at the problem to quickly take out the terrorists. Again, it is plausible that terrorists took hold of one of the magazines and had to be neutralized quickly. No news about involvement of Army SF – quite possible that NSG was asked to lead the operation with Army SF on standby as back-up or for handling other contingency, if required. 

And the C-130J in the air could’ve been the same aircraft which ferried NSG from Delhi to Pathankot – So, the brave chaps got it airborne even as fire-fight was happening on the base!]