Thursday, 25 July 2019
Salute, April-May 2019 issue
Consequences of operational decisions
A trial balloon was floated recently in the media that the government has asked the army to dispense with services of the commanders of the bases that were attacked by terrorists. Three bases found mention in the media report: Uri, Nagrota and Sanjuvan. Rightly, the army has reportedly pushed back, citing the negative effect on aggressive leadership any such move is likely to have.
While the veracity of the report is not known, the media source being largely credible, it bears reflection as to what the political minders and bureaucratic henchmen imagined when they sought to prevail on the army to take such action.
It is well known that the military has to be on perpetual alert in counter insurgency beset areas, whereas the insurgents/terrorists have to be lucky but once. Therefore, for a base to be attacked as part of an ongoing insurgency/proxy war is only par for the course. It is the immediate reaction and response that is consequential in determining the showing of the outfit attacked.
By this yardstick, it can be argued that even the seeming setback suffered in the Uri terror attack needs moderating. The deaths of a dozen jawans owed not so much to terror action but to an accident resulting from the situation in which the tent they were sleeping in burnt down. The three terrorists were neutralised with just about double the number of own dead, which is reasonable considering that terrorists are no pushovers themselves and their advantage of surprise had first to be negated.
The army transferring of the commander out of the area then was therefore justified, but going any further now would amount to being stampeded by an unrealistic expectation in the minds of civilian desk warriors in Delhi.
They need reminding that friction is endemic in conflict. Friction is the military equivalent of Murphy’s law. As Clausewitz illustrated it, all actions in conflict zones are akin to walking in water. Its effects must be factored in when envisaging operations and their consequences. The fog of war serves to compound fluid situations.
This phenomenon is true for crisis also. The heightened tensions can result in unintended and inadvertent actions, such as in the unfortunate case of fratricide in which an air force missile unit shot down an own helicopter at Budgam. The friendly fire incident owed to the spike in tension and uncertainty – the fog of war – resulting in the tragedy, an instance of friction.
Though the air force is considering legal action against the involved officers and weapons handlers, it bears reminding that the situation was one of an ongoing armed attack. Insisting on standard operating procedure implementation is fine, but the human element in combat needs taking into account in any such consideration. The air force must not be overly zealous in attempting to impress its political minders by taking legal recourse in relation to an operational action.
If this advice is valid for the air force that lost air men in the accident, it holds doubly true for the army when confronted with unreasonable demands on how its handles its internal inquiry systems. It needs maintaining its autonomy and having military considerations prevail.
It is strange that this suggestion has been bandied when there has been no accountability in relation to the Pulwama incident. Pinning of responsibility would have reckoned with at least two heads to have rolled of the Indian Police Service brass, namely, the ones who planned the convoy that was targeted and the intelligence supervisors who missed the car bombing in the offing.
Protecting internal turf is a command responsibility. The army chain has let the government know that the necessary action has been taken. Any further push by civilians is therefore only intended to push the military into a corner and keep it there, in a travesty of civil-military relations. Appropriate democratic civil-military relations entail the military professional sphere being off limits to political muddling.
The theory that has it that civilians are always right even when patently wrong is viable only in states where civilians have a modicum of sensibility for what the military domain implies. The idea broached of sacking commanders instead has fingerprints of amateurs all over it.
Fortunately, the brass shot down – for now - the sentiment likely originating in the national security bureaucracy that over-lays the defence sector these days. Only by standing up will the military continue standing tall.