The challenge for this generation of commanding officers
The first commanding officer (CO) of a Rashtriya Rifles (RR) battalion of which I was once a member passed away this week. We had heard of the challenges he and his team had faced, not only in raising the battalion, but also in its simultaneous operational employment. Arguably, the first set of RR COs had perhaps the roughest – if the most professionally exhilarating – time of the generations of COs of the Indian Army thus far.
Though battalion level command is taken as the epitome of command in the army, there would be strong votaries of the company command level as offering a sterner test of leadership. The argument shifts easily in favour of the latter when the environment is of intimate, close quarter battle, such as on the Kargil heights. Even there, COs were not only equally salient - recall Joshi, Rai and Thakur – but junior leaders – as Batra and Pandey – effortlessly snatched the crown.
Even if in battle company commanders figure prominently as the key leadership rung – judging from examples as of Zaki in 1965 and Hoshiar Singh in 1971 - COs are never far behind. Dewan Ranjit Rai in 1947, Tarapore and Hayde in 1965, Hanut in 1971, Khan in 1984 and Santosh Babu of Galwan fame are examples. Close quarter battle too has seen COs upfront, though mostly in counter insurgency or on the Line of Control (LC). Nair, Sarna and Vasanth readily come to mind. Of Nair’s feats, it’s not an easy pick between his Kirti Chakra-meriting one as a young officer and his Ashoka Chakra-winning one as a CO.
The film Thin Red Line shows up the inter-se salience of the three leadership rungs at the tactical level – battalion, company and platoon. Bana eclipses Varinder, even if there could not have been one without the other. The moral is that none of the leadership rungs is dispensable, one or other coming to fore as the battle progresses or its fog and friction throw up imponderables.
Be that as it may, the battalion level takes the cake in the leadership hustings presumably due to operations being the less usual preoccupation of the army. The Kargil War came about some 30 years after the preceding war and even then, only involved - hands-on - merely nine battalions of the army. The rest of the army was only partially mobilized. Operation Parakram that soon followed saw the entire army on war-footing though no part of it engaged in battle itself. The LC has intermittently seen small scale cross-LC operations, the recent well-known one christened ‘surgical operations’.
The profession of arms is one in which participation in the real thing is not always possible. Not all countries are hyper-powers looking for the next country to invade. Once the neighbours are deterred and the internal security situation steadies, professional effervescence settles to a peacetime rhythm. So is the case with the Indian Army more engaged in preparing rather than partaking in operations. Even its participating in low intensity operations has been so extensive to almost be routine. The ‘intensity’ of these operations varies with the political context and location, even when part of the same campaign.
Given the preeminence of the battalion command level in the Army’s scheme of things, what does the future - strategically appraised - hold for this level of command?
Command experience is a combination of preparation and luck – luck meaning being at the right place at the right time. It can be that a combat opportunity does knock on the door, and find the commander with his pants by his ankles. Since combat opportunities are fast and fleeting, being caught flat-footed means dishonor if the enemy gets the better of one, or waiting indefinitely for the next knock.
Peak preparedness cannot be maintained forever. Socks are to be pulled up and belts tightened on receipt of strategic warning. In India’s case, that is a consistent deficit. The battalions pitch-forked into Golden Temple in 1984 required to be bailed out by tanks taking down the façade of Akal Takht. The initial assault on Jaffna – from a ‘cold start’ as it were – found some battalions at the wrong end of the Tamil Tigers’ stick. 13 Sikh Light Infantry is forever a stern reminder. Similarly, the battalions along the Kargil front were surprised by the intrusion. Since information is scarce and contradictory, the case of Galwan should find unbiased study at the war colleges.
The command challenge at battalion level therefore appears to be to keep the pot of preparedness boiling, without having it boil over prematurely. Or to put it in another way, the commander has to ‘Cry, Wolf!’, but with a straight face. However, a perennial hurdle with this is ennui. It is never easy to cook up worst case scenarios and keep the battalion tuned-in. As peace station commanding officers well know, the organization ‘conspires’ against battalion’s keeping focus. Now there are five colonels in the division headquarters, looking to distract, where once there were two. The situation has likely only worsened.
India has a mass army and no existential threat. It is also not an expansionist power, howsoever much a politician or a pseudo-cultural politico might like to strike a Napoleonic pose calling for Akhand Bharat. The Pakistan front is now in cold storage. A spent case, its proxy war is at ebb. Even though redoubtable Minister Amit Shah has thoughtfully kept the Valley alienated, Pakistan is too internally preoccupied – economically, socially and politically – to profit. Further, we have incentivized it by diverting our west-centric military power to the China front. Pakistan no longer needs proxy war to undercut our conventional advantage. It stands proven Kashmiris were only rhetorically, a jugular. The Pakistan front ameliorated, we can afford the dilution.
The China front sees much shadow boxing but it’s unlikely the gong will sound for the real thing. There would be instances of a repeat of the occupation of the Kailash range to spook the Chinese, but not having rolled down to Moldo-Rudok then, we can be sure we are unlikely to be doing so now. And this is not because Chinese have bolted any doors left untended, but because there is no stomach for it. The excuse is that we are catching up with the head-start the Chinese have over us and shall keep our powder dry till we do. That the gap is increasing – China is putting together a new bridge at the Pangong Tso and cutting a new road alignment - is a contradiction the ‘let’s play catch-up’ strategy is understandably very quiet on. What this bespeaks of is that there will be much ‘kadam taal’ but no assault as such from the line-of-march. Perhaps on this count, a sage has it that our military might shall remain untested, fated as we are according to his lights, to lose the next war against it within 10 days.
Where does all this leave the current generation of commanding officers?
They have the pre-1962 War and post-1971 War generations to look to. The former period was described once as the heyday of cantonment soldiering. The latter period witnessed India at its strategic peak, having exorcised the ghosts of 1962 with its 1971 vanquishing of a kin-foe. That the two periods respectively ended rather abruptly in a reckoning – with 1962 debacle and a reckoning in Sri Lanka – has the lesson. Whether, when and where a denouement will precipitate is uncertain. What commanding officers have to deliver on is that the army is not scalded when it does. They carry an inter-generational responsibility.
The official line is that there is a ‘two front’ threat. That’s been on now for some 12 years. That Pakistan did not take advantage of India’s discomfiture in Ladakh could be attributed to the Covid pandemic. But it could equally bespeak of a more stable strategic environment than the ‘two front’ hype lets on. With appeasement on both fronts, the two-front threat stands allayed - for now. The key piece of evidence of an eternal peace dawning is the Agnipath scheme. Surely, the enemy would know our defensive and non-expansionist intent by seeing how we are hobbling ourselves. His security dilemma dissipated, he would not incite ours. They can receive the message loud and clear in India continuing without a Chief of Defence Staff that we don’t mean business, strategically.
So, does the partial mobilization in the Ladakh theatre and stepping up of alert levels along the China front show seriousness or obfuscation? China is a satiated power, having gained its 1959 claim line at little price, even if one includes our figure for its dead at Galwan. It never had a claim on rest of Ladakh and is not about to take ‘South Tibet’, which is not quite Taiwan.
This leaves the latter impulse standing: obfuscation. Inactivity would betray the policy of appeasement operational. Admitting to it is not possible since appeasement – though a legitimate strategy – acquired a bad name since Chamberlain was accused of it. Therefore, the show of seriousness, while pointing to alleged Chinese upgrades in its strategic posture. An exercise with Chinese bête noire, the Americans, is due this autumn in high-altitude Auli, a day’s drive from a disputed site on the Line of Actual Control, Barahoti. Alongside, acclimatization concerns force units even in peace tenures to keep a proportion of troops on field stations. The catch-up policy could backfire in the interim. This may be not so much from any inherent weakness, but from unfathomable internal politics at Zhongnanhai. National security could suffer as much as it did in 1962. Then, Nehru had the decency to bear the brunt, at the cost of his life. Politics has deteriorated since. The military may end up the fall guy.
Even on the Pakistan front, Cold Start levels of alertness necessitate having a proportion of peacetime units stationed in field conditions. Cold Start - let out of the bag by General Rawat – entails integrated battle groups on the start line. This compels a small quantum of troops in a trip wire role on the border since Pakistan too could bite off an equivalent portion. With terrorism being our one-track foreign policy, we could be hoist by our own petard by but a bunch of terrorists.
Commanding officers of this generation thus have their task cut out: manage ennui from inaction and pseudo-action. Emulating he recently departed RR CO may provide a hint on how to navigate the interim: “He later raised and successfully commanded a Rashtriya Rifles Battalion in a highly active area of Poonch-Rajouri in J&K, during which time, he had rubbed enough seniors the wrong way. They reciprocated by making sure that he was curtailed in terms of rank. He did not care. The only thing he cared for was his loyalty to professional ethics.” Such an officer must no longer be ‘a military leader of a rare breed’.