Irrespective of the vigour of the new Defence Minister and an emphasis on Make in India, several developments over the last few months have made clear that the army modernisation programme, at least, is turning into a train wreck. This is not to say that all is well with the modernisation of the Air Force and the Navy, but just that the Army modernisation programme stands on far shakier ground, with minimal scope for results.
This modernisation effort ostensibly foresees our World War II-style Army morphing into an ultra-flexible ultra-networked force that can act rapidly as opposed to the two-week-long build-up that became Operation Parakram. Much of this is based on acquiring new technologies – night vision goggles, new bull-pup rifles, software-defined radios and the list of such long-winded techno-mumbo-jumbo goes on.
Essentially, it feeds into a concept called the ‘revolution in military affairs’ which saw technology improve the precision targeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation countries so significantly, that it eliminated the need for tactical nuclear weapons (which, as simulation after simulation showed, were completely ineffective anyway). The belief in India is that the adoption of these technologies will rectify the massive conventional imbalance that exists between India and China, or worse still, against a China-Pakistan pincer movement.
The problem is that the Nato revolution in military affairs was based on three factors that seem to have completely eluded our leadership. First, rule of law; second, operational autonomy; and third, doctrine and mindset. Rule of law is probably the thorniest question here, given India’s societal norms. As a simple example, has anyone come across a fatal motor accident in India, where someone is not charged and sentenced, unless, like the BMW hit-and-run-case, one has crores of money to bribe witnesses and supposedly bump-off the non-cooperative ones? Another example – the simple measure of guilt on Delhi roads is that the fault in an accident (irrespective of who violated the rules) lies with the larger vehicle (unless, of course, you’re blessed with CD plates). The culmination of this dysfunction came a few weeks back, when the Prime Minister, speaking at an election rally, claimed that the Army had finally admitted its mistakes.
But let’s be clear: There are accidents – even fatal ones – that are blameless, at least, the fault does not always lie with the bigger vehicle or non-diplomatic vehicles, just like the Army doesn’t always whitewash its crimes. So long as standards and procedures are followed, irrespective of the gravity of the act and the public outcry (lynch mob mentality) that follows, the officer or soldier needs to be protected. We have clear examples of this in the US.
After USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air flight 655, resulting in the loss of 290 civilian lives, the crew members were found to have followed operational procedures and the tragedy did not impact their careers. Similarly, in the case of the Ferguson shooting, as reprehensible and disgusting as it may seem, the officer followed his training and stuck to the standard operating procedure. Therefore, he had to be acquitted by a jury, irrespective of the riots and the public sentiment. Now US officers, and by extension, Nato officers, are rest assured that so long as they follow the rules and their training, they will not be scape-goated.
On the other hand, in the India justice system, scape-goating is the norm. India does not follow the rule of law, but rather, the rule of order. In other words, the rules are damned in the interests of public order. This means Indian officers and soldiers rarely have the confidence to use the freedom of actions that their new gear gives them. In that sense, the fancy technology is almost insulting – like giving a deaf person an IPod.
The second issue of operational autonomy is basically one of control. Our civilian and political leaders are obsessed with controlling the Army’s freedom of actions. As a rule, even calibre-for-calibre retaliation on the India-Pakistan border has to be cleared at the highest level, which, in this case, is the Prime Minister’s Office. Even during the recent escalation on the Line of Control, it was the Prime Minister who had to authorise heavy retaliatory shelling. Why? Why can’t the Government trust the soldiers to escalate shelling in self-defence?
There are two reasons for this – given the symbolic and broken military justice system, and the scapegoating described earlier, an officer can be court-martialled for not escalating shelling as well as for escalating the shelling, depending on what is politically expedient. But more importantly, the civilian leadership has such an acute trust deficit with the military that it needs to micro-manage even tactical details which they should never be in a position to do. If a soldier is not given the leeway, the control over his actions, and is not assured that civilians will trust his actions, what is the point of these new hi-tech toys?