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He had everything, but Modi missed a brilliant chance to fix the messy Indian military

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Modi government had a rare chance to reform and modernise India’s military. But it blew the opportunity and settled instead for tinkering.

Everybody is entitled to make a few genuine mistakes. That defence, however, is not available for deliberate inaction. A missed opportunity is an indefensible and unwise blunder.

As is the Modi government’s missing out the opportunity to institute fundamental reform in Indian military and defence structure. A full-term government with a full majority after 30 years, with a strong leader and a military-friendly image had a rare opportunity for reform, desperately needed but delayed for decades. There is no point blaming previous governments. They all lacked majorities, time, or political capital. None had all three at any time for 30 years. That’s why more was expected of the Modi government. In no other area of governance has its failure been as disappointing as defence reform.

A picture of Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of ThePrintA government with an opportunity to revolutionise the fourth largest military machine in the world, and propel it into a modern, new orbit, is reduced to playing the usual God of small things in its last year, still hunting for a basic infantry rifle and half-decent boots for its troops. For the Air Force, it is proudly giving one more “upgrade” to the Jaguar, 40 years after the first was inducted.

Equipment and hardware lags are important but a much bigger loss is the opportunity for structural reform. The Chinese underlined this to India cruelly by asking a trick question: We know who will man the hotline at our end, of course our theatre commander for all of our India frontier, from the east to the western extremity, through the centre. Who will be his counterpart at your end?

See it this way. The Chinese have just one commander for all the forces confronting India. Commanders of all these forces answer to one man, and one headquarter. India, on the other hand, offers a diversity of options that might look quaint in story-telling, but is a military embarrassment in the 21st Century. In Arunachal and Sikkim-Bhutan, the Eastern Army Commander is in charge. In the Uttarakhand (central) sector, it will be the Central Army Commander. Himachal-Tibet border is the domain of the Western Army Commander and all of Kashmir and Ladakh further on, the Northern Army’s. Of course, the IAF will also operate through at least three of its commands, Eastern, Central and Western, and there will be the Navy too.

Effectively, therefore, an array of at least eight ‘three-star’ commanders will be arrayed against one Chinese. This is no way to run a modern military. This is almost a 1962-style chaos for a formidable and modern military. No wonder, as Sujan Dutta of ThePrint revealed in his story Thursday, the hotline is now stuck in protocol issues. Who speaks to the Chinese theatre commander, as troubles have a habit of erupting at distant points along a 3,488-km borderline of continental dimensions? If it is the Director-General of Military Operations at Army HQ on the Indian side, the two militaries run into a protocol-equivalence issue. Does our entire Army’s DGMO talk to a “mere” theatre commander in China?

It isn’t merely about protocol and it isn’t funny. Modern warfare is about speed, execution, mobility, firepower and concerted action. Our fundamental military structure has remained (fundamentally) on the same pattern as inherited from the British, with regional commands—irrespective of the different adversaries, and spread over Colonial-era Cantonments. My moment of epiphany came in a recent conversation with former Navy chief and a brilliant military mind, Admiral Arun Prakash, who pointed how, if “stuff hit the fan in Doklam” five different Indian commands will likely get involved and much will get lost in transmission and coordination if not translation while the Chinese PLA will act from one command, under one commander. Can we afford such chaos now, when wars are likely to be sharp and short?

He also underlined how Indian armed forces are now divided in 19 different commands and “no two are co-located or co-purposed”. It takes a pause and some thinking even for a student of militaries to figure out this irrationality.

Take a few illustrative examples. The Eastern Army Command, handling the China, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar frontiers, along with the northeastern insurgencies, is located in Kolkata. The Eastern Air Command, which should be co-purposed with it, is in a place which has never had an airstrip, nor will ever have one: In the beautiful green mountains of Upper Shillong. Even to fly quickly between Kolkata and Shillong you need to overfly Bangladesh. Why is it there, and not in Kolkata with its Army counterpart, ask the British. Eastern Naval Command, for sure is way south, in Visakhapatnam.

The eastern sector may be a starker example, but it is no anomaly. The Western Army Command is in Chandi Mandir, on the outskirts of Chandigarh, while its counterpart, Western Air Command, is in Delhi. Why should it be so, and why should the IAF have both its chief’s headquarters and its largest command in the same city, five miles from each other, ask the British again, probably. I bet there are liaison officers from complementary Army, Navy and Air Force commands in each other’s headquarters, but that’s a far cry from commanders working close together.

There is no point going over the entire list, one-by-one, because the same messy pattern repeats itself. The Southern Army Command nestles deep inland in Pune while its operating area will largely be the Gujarat-Rajasthan desert with Pakistan. Its complementary IAF command will be South-Western, in Gandhinagar. There is, by the way, a Southern IAF Command in Thiruvananthapuram as well but its domain is more the peninsula. The Army’s South-Western Command is in Jaipur while its complementary Air Force HQs are in Delhi (Western) and Gandhinagar (S-W) if not sometimes the one in Allahabad (Central) too. If you look at the entire list, you’d find no exceptions to the “no two commands are co-purposed, co-located” rule. The only such is the tri-service command in the Andamans. Or the new integrated commands, strategic and the nominal integrated defence HQ in Delhi.

It was in the middle of all this hotch-potch that a new Mountain Strike Corps under the already overstretched Eastern Army Command was planned, and has now been put in abeyance. It is welcome that defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman held a press conference Friday following this revelation (also in a Sujan Dutta scoop in ThePrint). She said the decision was left to the Army. If so, I believe the chief has shown courage and wisdom in preferring thoughtful consolidation over mindless expansion. More significant, however, is her response to basic organisational issues.

She said the government was favourably inclined to the idea of joint theatre commands. Now, how many times have we heard that before? Earlier governments didn’t have the political capital to move on this no-brainer. What stopped Modi’s over four years?

That theatre command-based reorganisation and jointmanship are very close to the prime minister’s heart, as the defence minister says now, is a wonderful thing. That it’s been left so late in his government’s tenure is not quite so. The minister says it’s taking time as the government believes in a “bottom-up” approach, not “top-down”. In which case it should have started four years ago, with the setting up of an in-house ‘think tank’ and an execution office in mission mode as it took over. These problems with India’s outdated military structure were well-known.

Its rivals could say with justification now that the Modi government blew an opportunity after promising much. At the very least, it is guilty of playing like a cricket team that complacently wasted its power-play overs and is now frantic in the last phase. Governance, in a democracy, is ultimately a limited overs game.

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  1. If we go as per Shekhar Gupta’s views , now press reporter like him should be made the Chief of the Defence Services , because as per him knows better how to deploy Army with China.It is not possible to put whole Chinese frontier under one Commander from Siachen to Arunachal. Regarding giving extension of life to Jaguars , what is the choice with the Government ? Privious Govt’s didn’t purchase the Aircrafts and now’Congress is not letting the Modi Govt to purchase and our worthy media has let loose it’s propaganda to mis lead the Nation on Rafael. I advise Shekhar Gupta to rise from pretty politics and behave like a Media man and not Congress Man.You must keep the Nation First’.

  2. Location of HQs may be for administrative convenience. But when it comes to operations, digital networked solutions ensure optimal coordination of effort.

    Co-location of high value assets is a great liability and should be avoided. The author may have understood the Admiral inaccurately.

  3. Indian political Babu higher defence organisation still beleves in the army fighting a brigade or division size battles and skirmiches only will take place and expects the Americans Russians European nation’s to impose a ceasefire .The slow slumbering armed forces are dissipiated with command HQ all spread all over. As a war time measure the war HQ of army Navy airforce wherever possible must be combined and built at new locations in specially hardened underground nuclear shelters.from 19 at least six or seven combined all arms HQ must be built in mountains with small airfields and helicopter bases. The existing peace time HQcan remain where they are or feappropiated for other uses.

  4. So one interview with Admiral Arun Prakash, and Mr Gupta is sold. The logic is perplexing. Why should Eastern Army Command be in Kolkata? When 9/10ths of the border with china is across the Siliguri corridor in the North East? At least the eastern air command hq is correctly located. And no… Command hq do NOT need to be where there is an airfield. That was one among many imbecilic points made by the author.
    Also, why must the Army have four commands facing Pakistan? Pakistan has all its Corps facing India reporting directly to its GHQ (Army HQ). Why must our Corps have so many Army Cdrs between them and Army HQ?
    But I don’t think Mr Gupta thought this through. He merely regurgitated what some military mind told him.
    Please correlate with varied opinions. Then make up your mind. And if you aren’t sure, then don’t speak on topics you know nothing about.

  5. I have same feelings.
    And this govt may have lost initiative or forgot commitments due to a thing called rajyasabha..

  6. After reading this, doubts increase as to what is in Sekhar Gupta’s head! Rahul’s speech ???!!!! Nothing more than Blah blah.

  7. Insert cricket everywhere!!! Is there no other sport that can be used as analogy? Mindless obsession with cricket continues.

  8. India can be thankful that Shekhar Gupta and The Print have the courage to tell us that in defense, at least, our Emperor lacks clothes.

    I had great hopes when the new government came to power. The neglect of the armed forces starting in 1991 started us on the road to perdition. But the new government has proved as incompetent as previous ones.

    I have hesitated to criticize our Emperor because he has done many good things. In the overheated partisan atmosphere existing today, people assume ANY criticism of the Government is a personal attack on our Prime Minister. The reality is that defense policy is not being run by the Prime Minister, but by the Finance Minister who thinks 1.56% of GDP on defense is too much. The Defense Minister does not advocate for the military because she, like everyone else in the Government, has no clue about the military, and she is concerned with following the party line that we cannot afford more money on defense, No one is asking her to fight out the issue in public and embarrass the Government. What is needed is for her to push for a 4% GDP defense budget, quietly.

    Incidentally, as I have discussed in my latest book (“Analysis of India’s ability to fight a 2-front war”) which Shekhar has not yet reviewed, the truth of the matter is not that we are losing ground to China, we have already lost. I suggest the Indians resign themselves – and we are very good at resigning ourselves – to becoming vassals of the Emperor of All Under Heaven.

  9. Sir, you have very rightly brought it out. The military structure is indeed outdated and requires rewiring and upgrade. In fact this is just part of the bigger problem: our government as a whole starting from the high seat of the President to the Patwari we are colonially structured. The President (a replacement for the the monarch as the British saw it) is a waste in modern vibrant democracy because he has no powers and is basically titular, why have it if it is not serving any constructive purpose. Next we come to how we conduct business in our Ministries and the various departments of the government. It is absolute colonial. Now come straight down to your District Administration and below. Your Deputy Commissioners or District Magistrates function and behave like the Gora Sahibs of the British Raj, below them as well the entire hierarchy is full of people who are answerable to nobody. There has been no attempt to bring any change because the bureaucracy is so comfortable with the status quo that they block any attempt to change it.
    The lack of reform in the defence is a corollary to this larger lack of reform. I am with you sir but will there be a leader in this country who will have this kind of vision and understanding – I don’t see any. Modi as you said gave us that hope and prior to that it was somewhat Rajiv Gandhi but then both turned out to be chimeras. Given the complexities that the country faces internationally as well as internally, the need for the ability of a government to act fast and in the best interest of the Nation has become inescapably important. The earliest we address it the lesser harm we will have to suffer. But frankly I still haven’t given up on Mr Modi. I will not call it foolish illogical optimism, because it isn’t an easy task!

  10. If more could have been achieved in the recent past, one big reason would be the talent crunch. That thought struck home after seeing Shri Shiv Shankar Menon on Walk the Talk.

  11. Agree 100%. Waste of precious time, opportunity and resource. Never has there been a govt in India with this disdain for national defence, security and ultimately national interests. Sad!!

  12. The incumbent had the world at its feet in 2014. So much could have been attempted, initiated, substantial portions of it seen to fruition, others seen by the electorate as sufficiently successful to hand a second term as a matter of course. The power play overs could have yielded an unbeatable score.

  13. If some one says that OROP for the Defence Forces has been accepted by the Government in full ,then all the Services persons demonstrating at the Jantar Mantar should be jailed.If it had been implemented then the former COAS should have said so and challenged the demonstrators.He had been in the thick of this proposal while in service and the controversy could rest. He is a selfish person who demeaned the Army by seeking change in date of birth;accusing a Lt Gen of bribery and not substantiating it.His presense with Modi on rallies in 2014 made the Ex Servicemen believe Modi. I consider him to be below a comment. That goes for all liars and the person who made the Jumla a house- hold word.

  14. CM/PM Modi likes to do small small things as he often says it himself, neem-coated fertilisers, banana fruit technology or so from Japan, soil health cards etc whatever some of the initiatives he took as CM in Gujarat; while we need not underestimate him, he could keep big ticket vote bank measures for the last moment like starting Ramayana train, GST reduction on Khakras, etc etc

    He has done visas on arrival in foreign policy major initiative; met Nawaz Sharif while it is forbidden for others to take the Pro-pak peace talks line etc, a prerogative of the Hindu Rashtra band wagon to speak and decide things on Pakistan. With all the encouraged vigilantism and utterances of go to Pakistan at the drop of a hat, one cannot say we will become Hindu Pakistan-two nation theory. Surgical strikes over Pakistan indeed is a major initiative of the Modi government to be written in golden words for decades to come, a good preparatory step, showing the red eye by the 56″ PM we could be proud of.

    How can we forget the major step-reform of Re-monetisation of black money coming into the economy, making patriotic Indians stand in ques for days together, day and night, young and old, including the PM’s Rev Mother, some of them giving balidan within the national frontiers if not on the borders, while crores of new notes were available through the bankers to the capitalists but no money in the ATMs for the poor Indians to meet their day to day needs.

    And the vibrant Neethi Ayog, whose CEO chose to leave finally alike Raghuram Rajan, while there is a witch hunt for the mistakes of Rajan; and while Yogendra Yadav’s Sisters’ Hospital could be raided to teach him a lesson, and nip his leadership in the bud as a political chanakya strategy, just as Arvind Kejriwal has been shown his place through the LG, disrespecting the 67 seats he could win inspite of Modi in Delhi, sans the spirit of democratic Statesmanship, federal competitiveness, Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas?

    Being with the Chinese President on the swings of Sabarmati Riverfront while Doklam incursion happened was a major diplomatic show, diffusing it with the softness required as boldly claimed. Nirmala Seetharaman bravely flew the fighter plane a good photo-op doing proud to the country of having a women Defence Minister alike Hillary Clinton, where the time for major Defence Restructuring strategic exercise, may be will do after the 2019 elections before 2022. Nothing is impossible though.

    International Yoga Day is a major Hindutva achievement placing India on the world map, while Yogi Adityanath installed as CM of UP is a major symbolic step, where 300 babies die in the Gorakhpur Hospital owing to lack of oxygen cylinders, for which it was difficult to fix Leadership Accountability immediately, asking the Principal to resign as the scapegoat.

    Winning Karnataka with majority vote is significant, making tainted Yedurappa one day CM, while the parliament was stalled now and again during the Congress Regime for 2G/4G etc, for which A Raja alike Mayaben Kodnani has been acquitted surprisingly against the national conscience – the secret games when it suits perhaps, PM meeting DMK Chief, merely a small courtesy visit to say so.

    Triple Talaq for Muslim women is a major master-stroke in non-appeasement. Men sent straight to the jail again non-appeasement. Double dividends.

    The country’s GDP has grown despite Re-monetisation with the revised GDP-GVA formula to suit, though some two notches below; sans manufacturing vibrance and sans jobs which is difficult to collect data by the helpless NSS/Neethi Ayog etc, permissible in good national governance, why project the negatives affecting brand Modi and brand India.

    Turning the Chaiwala comment into an election tactic, Chaipe Charcha is indeed creative politics, and so with the Neech comment. Congress can never tthese homegrown political creativity, except offer Right to Information, Right to food etc; while one does not get ration without Adhar Card, a good step in good governance, while Amartyasen can be set aside for his views on economics for the poor.

    We are a poor developing country with crumbling bridges in Mumbai railways, and pot holes all over the cities in the country, and it is wrong to expect great things merely in 6+4 years of BJP Rule by the CMs and the PM, except ban films like Padmavat which could become poison for the social fabric of this country, and Prasoon Joshi is incompetent to handle it himself as Chief of Censor Board, needing a historic Parliamentary Board, Creative Governance indeed to handle creative films, unique Karnisena situations indeed the country has witnessed, alike the 1984 and 2002 riots which could not have been avoided or handled better, choosing not to wear the skull cap, lest one is asked to go to Pakistan, and could become an anti-secular step in appeasement of non-hindus, leading to the making of Hindu Pakistan.

    As PM says, all PMs and Governments have made their own unique contributions to the nation, and so the trend continues – unique historical moments of intolerance, Award Vapasee, BJP-PDP rule, etc which cannot be avoided, while Mangalyaan and the Kashmir Tunner and Narmada Dam could be inaugurated proudly by the incumbent governments.

    Proud moments to invoke Mahatma Gandhi and Swacch Bharat, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Jai Jawan-Jai Kisan, Sardar Patel Statue, Ambedkar Constitutional debates, etc to retain national integration; while Lenin Statues can be falled at will in Tripura, Periyar in Tamilnadu and so on, doing a disgrace to historical leaders at times. Ram teri ganga mailee ho gayee, while Nitin Gadkari does his job of building national roads at fast speed, an achievement in national governance, while we await the bullet train to be watched by Pather Panchali, a zero interest loan train for the capitalistic business and political class as being perceived.

    A visionary articulate visionary creative PM doing small and big things for the party and the country, paying homage to the Constitution of the country, having to helplessly and tactically keep quiet with long spells of silence in moments of vigilantism, lynching cases, and communal comments of partymen like go to Pakistan etc.

    Mohan Bhagwat has clarified at Nagpur that all born in India are Hindu Indians by DNA, will the party follow this RSS line, will be a major social engineering achievement, if the dignity of all Indians can be respected at all times by all people of the country, not needing Hindu Ekta Manch to protect in Khatua type case.

    It is the Modi Era, Modi-Modi-Modi, Modi is India and India is Modi, the pride of 130 cr Bharatvasi holding the saffron flag.
    Historical moments in the life of the Hindu Secular Nation, Shashi Tharoor fears Hindu Pakistan? the nation to ramble upon,
    through the ballot boxes ahead, choices to be made, just as people chose to flee to India and Pakistan during the historical partition
    which the Mahatma could not prevent sadly. We have national leaders from Lahore too. while the Babri Masjid fell under the so called tolerant Hindus saying Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, for which crocodile tears were claimed.

    Hope the likes of Anna Hazare and Yogendra Yadav are able to keep the conscience of the nation, making Swaraj people’s movement, for good governance, democratic participation, citizen’s charter, Lokpal etc etc, a non-corrupt secular patriotic and clean tolerant nation with universal brotherhood and peace, with a great history and high happiness index and development vision, sans farmer’s and student suicides, with roti-kapda-makan-health-education-entertainment and right to information etc etc for all, the aspirational india, tired of caste and religious and corrupt electoral politics confusing the conscience of the nation with limited political choices combining good governance smartly and deliberately with hindutva, Ram Mandir, Ramayana Train, etc

    Governments need to keep out of religion, merely provide every religion to follow and ethically propagate their religion with equal freedom and non-interference etc. This will be great achievement for Indian politics, not playing with the emotions of the people and banking on their economic necessities and need for survival, serving goodies before elections, or jhumlas as we call now.

    Garibi hatao has yet remained a slogan in the context of aspirational India, sans good houses, good roads, sanitation, food inflation, costly education and health, etc. Jan Dhan Yojana could have several zero type accounts. 15 lacs yet to be deposited, may be when 2019 comes with a surprise. Health for all is expected at Rs 20 per person budget?

    May be only 15 paise will reach the poor as stated by Rajiv Gandhi, roads built and re-built again and again and washed away in a month or two, the politics-contractors nexus making hay while the sun shines at all times. This happens in every village-town-city of India perennially. Only PM/CM’s bungalows have good roads and sanitation, a great achievement of free India, free from British rule, but not free from VIP Culture. Netas voting immediately for their own salary rises and perks, stalling the parliament for all other business agenda.

    While it is crime for Sushma Swaraj to clear passport for Hindu-Muslim couple, and transfer the erring officer. Sushma trolled by her own staunch partymen – the state of the evolving society and nation today, sans tolerance for all, tending to hindu appeasement, not envisaged by the secular Indian constitution to which all of us pledge by. All Indians are my brothers and sisters? Overcoming this psyche will be a great socio-political-economic achievement, enhancing ease of doing business and GDP, unleashing the creative energies of the people of the nation, sans fear and prejudice.

    Vande Mataram, Maa Tujhe Salaam!! Jai Ho Modi.

    • As highlighted, So much of work targeted with good intent by single individual in a Federal Structure. Great. People who work can only be criticised for not getting it done on time, so what if the Character/Upbringing of majority Bhartiya is now corrupted on different planes despite rich sanskriti.

    • Man – what a RANT ! TLDR of course but such a long incoherent rant is worthy of a hat tip for sure.

      I’m amused by this fascination with these jholla JNU wallas and their “solutions” like Yogender Yadav’s “communist” ideas of free everything and taxing the competent till they run away or Anna Hazare’s Lokpal -as if adding one more bureaucracy to check the other bureaucracies will solve anything ? Unless the Lokpal is going to be manned by some divine beings – it will be corrupted just like any other as human beings are easily corruptible.

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