From July 31, a new army chief takes over the reins of the 1.3 million-strong Indian army. As General Dalbir Singh Suhag wears his rank badges and the fourth star appears on his staff car I can revel in the thought that he is a batchmate, a good friend and someone I have worked with on many a course of instruction and command assignment. The army’s time-tested esprit de corps dictates a prudent sense of loyalty among batchmates, but these buddies can also be the best umpires of performance. The hallowed office of army chief does not come easy and personalities who occupy it are inevitably aware of the responsibility they carry, the critical scrutiny they remain under and the necessity of having a clear vision about what they wish to achieve and where they intend to take their organisation. Suhag has almost 30 months, a long time by recent standards, to achieve institutional and thereby personal glory. Where must he start and what areas must he emphasise? A generalist approach, instead of a focused one, is unlikely to pay dividends. He must articulate his vision and resolve very early, taking a leaf out of the new government’s book.
Some years ago, the army adopted the concept of “transformation”, borrowed from the US lexicon. The equipment challenges of the army and setbacks in the acquisition process have prevented the progress of transformation, which must also be a comprehensive change in thinking, doctrine, concept and execution. Given the lag in human and technical resources, any pursuit of transformation will at best be departmental, not comprehensive. It may therefore be prudent to debate this extensively in the first few months. The second piece of advice is related to the growth of ideas. The modernisation of any army is such a complex process that without a range of ideas it will not progress beyond a point. Therefore, it would be good if the army’s public interface were given a boost. Suhag needs to tell the ministry of defence that the archaic system managed by its public relations office cannot meet a modern army’s information and interface needs. The MoD needs to accept this early.
It is usual to commence all discussions about modernisation with references to equipment and technology. Managing manpower is the less glamorous of responsibilities. Suhag would do well to call his adjutant general (AG) and military secretary (MS) to demand deep thinking on the quantum and quality of manpower. A gamechanging innovation, such as the veterans cell under General Bikram Singh, could set the tone for energy and dynamism in this particular sphere. Suhag needs to examine how to ensure that the potential capital budget of the army is not eaten into by undue expenditure on manpower through the revenue route. For the AG-MS combine, it is also necessary to start reversing the current ratio of main to support cadre of officers, which leads to low promotion percentages. This can only be done if the recommendations of the Ajay Vikram Singh Committee on the “peel factor”, such as vacancies in government for exiting Short Service Commission (SSC) officers, and other terms and conditions are actively pursued to make the SSC more attractive. For the manpower vertical, the new chief needs to make it clear that officer shortage is simply unacceptable, even if he has to resort to drastic measures such as an emergency commission.
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The “one rank, one pension” demand among veterans and the standoff with the bureaucracy on this will be an issue that the chief will be expected to intervene in. His powers of convincing the political leadership about the imperatives of this demand will be a major test. If he is successful, it will boost his image and thereby his ability to deal with more intractable issues. The Seventh Pay Commission will probably finalise its recommendations during his stewardship. The experience with the last pay commission was a bitter one. Without a service representative on this one and with the services not having pushed for a separate pay body, the onus of obtaining a favourable deal will lie with the three chiefs who inherited the decisions of their predecessors.
On the equipment front, there is already an urgency, unlike with manpower. The chief needs to overcome the tardiness in implementing the procedures of the Defence Procurement Manual, recognise the criticality of drafting realistic GSQRs, conducting speedy trials and ensuring sufficiently experienced personnel to oversee the entire exercise. He can even consider an embargo on the movement of experienced officers from critical appointments in the equipment-oriented directorates until the situation improves. However, this is best delegated to a competent team under an empowered vice chief, who in this case, fortunately, is an experienced hand and will have a reasonably long tenure. One or two big-ticket criticalities must remain under the chief’s gaze, such as artillery and air defence.
The revelation that the army is down to less than 50 per cent of its war wastage rates holding of critical ammunition, and that 100 per cent holdings will be available only by 2019, places considerable pressure on the war-fighting capacity of the army. Special budget allocations for the import of selected ammunition may just be necessary, though expensive. A realistic assessment of the dilution on combat potential must be made, although I am certain it will have been done already.
Dealing with China on the LAC, the jihadist-Pakistani combine on the LoC, the role of the army in Jammu and Kashmir’s flagging militancy and the future of the Rashtriya Rifles are all issues that must draw the new chief’s attention in the operational sphere. None of these is in the realm of pure tangibles and a range of response options must be drawn up. The area in which to seek greater effect is coordination with other agencies, the ministry of external affairs, intelligence organisations and the National Security Council. The opinion of the army must carry weight in the final decisions.
Two other issues would need the chief’s attention, in order to continue his predecessor’s emphasis. The army’s sociology, which has been undergoing rapid change, needs continuous attention. This includes dealing with officer-men relationships and alleged graft in some aspects of logistics and acquisition, recognising the happiness factor of a new generation with a mind of its own and the development of intellect in a world that is rapidly changing the contours of national security. These areas need short studies and recommendations to maintain dynamism. Finally, the management of senior officers, would need complete review. Longer tenures of command and longer periods in senior ranks to acquire the necessary experience are a must. The current system of rapid movement through flag ranks provides little confidence. Even if some drastic personnel management decisions have to be taken, so be it, for the sake of overall organisational effectiveness.
I have not even mentioned jointness, theatrisation, drawing up vision documents such as a national security perspective, budgeting, enhancing the voice of the army in national security decisions, etc, because I expect that these will be in the continuum of the decision-making pipeline. The pipes and drums, guards of honour and other ceremonials will soon be over and a tough regimen of hard work will begin. Knowing his stamina and propensity for hard work, there is no doubt that Suhag will stand tall among his illustrious predecessors.
The writer is a former corps commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, visiting fellow, Vivekanand International Foundation and senior fellow, Delhi Policy Group