[IAF Mirage 2000s]
In the Indian system, political leaders don’t have to know much about anything. The civil servants manning the apparatus of state get by knowing even less but can and do argue the virtues of their generalist background (usually BA or MA in History or in English). So the requisite technical proficiency necessary to make decisions related to national defence has to be mustered by armed services’ chiefs — the designated providers of “professional advice” to the government. And then they can only offer their recommendations, in light of which the prime minister/defence minister-defence secretary combo decides. Except, and this is a very important factor, the armed services chiefs — even though no part of the final decisionmaking — have to sign off on decisions pertaining to their Service before it is sent up to the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) for final formal approval.
Presently everything and everybody, including the CCS, is a sideshow. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants something done, services chiefs play ball. To ensure this, pliable armed services chiefs are the norm. Because a lot of homework goes into carefully choosing them, the political inconvenience of having a chief who disagrees and hence is disagreeable is absent. The fact is the country has not had a strong-minded and strong-willed service chief since the 1980s when General K Sundarji, single-handedly, convinced PM Rajiv Gandhi to intervene militarily in Sri Lanka and, separately, to approve the plan for the last major restructuring of the army. That he was wrong in the first instance there’s no doubt. That the restructuring elevated mobile warfare when it had long since become passe is another story. But he didn’t lack for conviction and that’s the point here. Such officers have been few and far between. The only other service chief prior to Sundarji to fit these metrics was General SHFJ Maneckshaw.
The reason these issues are raised here will become clear soon.
Modi is given to making odd utterances to showcase his supposed insights into technology that often end up revealing a slightly wonky grasp of science. In the service of a mythical India, he famously recounted, it may be recalled, to a flustered audience of doctors of medicine at AIIMS during his first term, the country’s ancient expertise in plastic surgery and cited the example of the elephant-headed Lord Ganesh heading the pantheon of Hindu dieties. Post Balakote aerial strike on 26 February he referred in an interview to radar and cloud cover. “The weather was not good on the day of air strike. There was a thought that crept in the minds of the experts that the day of strike should be changed”, the PM said. “However, I suggested that the clouds could actually help our planes escape the radars.” It created a bit of hub-hub in air force circles.
Troposcatter technology still constitutes some small parts of the Indian air defence system on the western front. Radar based on this technology is, in fact, susceptible to atmospheric disturbances, and indicates security weakness the IAF is trying to address by replacing these with more modern systems. But Pakistan has had for a long time the modern, powerful and now augmented SILLAC (Siemens Low Level Air Control) System for early warning, based in Sargodha, District Miani. As far as is known, there are no vulnerable troposcatter systems in Pakistan’s Air Defence. So, Modi’s contention that his pushing the IAF to strike despite bad weather doesn’t hold up.
What actually happened is this: CAS Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa asked the PM for a delay of two days for the strike mission to go in. He explained that the helmet-mounted targeting system requiring the Mirage 2000 pilot to keep his eyes on target in order to guide the Israeli SPICE (Smart, Precise Impact, Cost-Effective) electro-optically guided bomb to it, would function sub-optimally with cloud cover as the pilot would not be able clearly to see the target. Dhanoa preferred as alternative the original IAF plan to deploy a more accurate munition with a 1 metre CEP (versus 3 metres CEP for SPICE) which too needed better weather. The meterological department said that the clouds would clear starting Feb 28. At this meeting there may also have been talk of Pakistani radars, etc. All the technical details of the strike plans, weapons, radar systems, weather, etc. apparently got garbled in Modi’s mind leading to the confused statement (above), occasioning much mirth on twitter and elsewhere.
If Dhanoa was convinced that delaying the attack on Balakote was best, why didn’t he stick to it, after all it was his Service that would execute the strike and how and when to do it was his call, not the PM’s. Especially because there was no real urgency as postponing the mission by two days wouldn’t have altered its political profile or in any way complicated the diplomatic dynamic then in play. Had the CAS stuck to his guns, Modi would have had perforce to accept it. Maneckshaw firmly diverted pressure by Indira Gandhi to begin operations against the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan in April 1971 because, as he informed the Prime Minister, his forces weren’t ready or mobilized and if Mrs Gandhi still insisted on the early dateline for action, she’d have to find another army chief. The Bangladesh War was a far bigger issue for the then COAS to stake his reputation and career on compared to Dhanoa re: the retaliatory strike on Balakote. And yet the CAS didn’t stand behind his professional recommendation.
If the CAS didn’t act on his expert assessment, neither did the army chief General Bipin Rawat do the honourable thing when several months back the then defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman ordered the “opening” of military cantonment roads to all manner of civilian traffic in the teeth of COAS’s strong advice against such move. Rawat could have threatened to resign and right there and then stopped the defence minister’s harebrained scheme — that newspaper reports alleged would personally benefit her owing to a school run by her family and located on the edge of a cantonment — from taking wing. But he didn’t do any such thing and the effect is there for all to see. It may not take very long for terrorist outfits to consider the ease of just motoring into cantonments to launch their attacks. Then, Sitharaman, now safely ensconced in the Finance Ministry, will happily disavow any responsibility for it. A terrorist strike is what it will take to reverse this perfectly idiotic decision taken under Modi’s watch. As Gujarat chief minister, he actually wanted the cantonment in the centre of Ahmedabad to be moved to the outskirts of the city, making nonsense of the whole idea of “peace station” where frontline troops are rotated to charge their batteries, as it were. Modi sought this military land for “public use”. (It is an episode detailed in my book ‘Staggering Forward: Narendtra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’.) If it is the opening of cantonment roads today, who is to say the proposal to sell off military lands to private developers, something mooted by Sharad Pawar when he was defence minister, won’t be revived in the cause of serving “public good”?
Resignation is the most powerful weapon armed services chiefs have to not do what’s not in the nation’s interest and in the individual service’s interest but which elected political leaders persuade them to do. It is the brahmastra that curiously has not been used by the Chiefs of Staff, considering just how many patently wrong decisions are pushed through by MOD/GOI, and how much wrong doing and plunder takes place under their noses to which they are parties, courtesy their silence. Thimayya raised his stock when he resigned to protest defence minister VK Krishna Menon’s untoward interference and then besmirched his reputation by withdrawing it on Nehru’s say-so. The mere threat of resignation by a COS can keep the politicos on the straight and narrow path. The pity is our military leaders don’t use it and instead are content with merely complaining about it.
Visit any cantonment, and they are a mess with the traffic and the attendant habitation taking over military roads, negating the very notion of a “peace station” where frontline troops are rotated to charge their batteries as it were. Sitharaman, perhaps, took her cue from Modi who as Gujarat chief minister wanted the Ahmedabad cantonment shifted to the outskirts of the city so that the vacated and very valuable land could be used for public purposes (an episode discussed in my book ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’). Who is to say that with the cantonment roads thus forcibly expropriated for “public use” — a political decision facilitated by an unresisting army chief, cantonment lands in the future won’t be? And more, what’s to prevent terrorist outfits from now quite literally motoring into cantonments to attack them? Having moved to Finance Ministry, Sitharaman will happily not be blamed for it.
Then again, pliable armed services chiefs are political assets to any government, less because the Indian military can win laurels in war, than because they do the government’s bidding on any and every issue.
In terms of rewarding rectitude, the Modi government, however, did the right thing by trashing the seniority principle and selecting Admiral Karambir Singh, a helicopter pilot, as the new Chief of the Naval Staff. Hope he will show the grit and “spine” in his dealings with MOD/GOI that he did, for instance, as a lowly Lieutenant Commander on the staff of a Flag Officer Commanding in Chief when he did not waver in the face of immense pressure to “modify” the requirements of naval aviation he had worked on, and otherwise refused to compromise offering, in fact, to resign if his recommendation was overturned. His willingness to stand up for what he believed was right so impressed, he made a fan of that particular FOCINC, much as he did his other superiors in his upwardly progress. Indeed, the Admiral’s career record is a warning to the government to not trifle with him.