If the average Indian was asked to name one organization that continues to do the nation proud after about 62 years of independence, the answer would probably be the Armed Forces. This institution has remained secular, apolitical, insular and superbly efficient; unlike the general deterioration of virtually every other establishment of the same vintage. Be it in their primary role of defending against external aggression from five fronts, handling internal security duties in different regions or helping civilians during natural or man-made disasters, the Armed Forces have conducted themselves exemplarily each time they have been called to action. This track record is reflected even in global theatres where the Forces have won admiration and accolades for the country.
Despite their incredible role in nation building, the Armed Forces have remained an enigmatic organization to most people. Most nations teach their population about their army, the history of eventful battles, organizational structures and some basics of civil defence. Bookstores across the world are stocked with volumes on military history and operations. Yet, even educated Indians would probably be unaware of the basic structure of the Forces. Our country’s ignorance of its defence forces is possibly by design rather than indifference. One of the theories is that after independence, the newly minted government took deliberate steps to undermine the importance of the army, downplaying its role in consolidating the various princely states, including Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Perhaps there was a fear that the well-oiled and well-led machinery would replace the British.
But for a democracy of our size and given the times that we live in, it is important for every citizen to know more about national security, especially since it is the citizenry which eventually contributes to and is most affected by the state of the nation’s security. I hope this series of articles would give readers an insight into security-related issues that affect all of us. In the first of this series, I want to discuss the challenges that our Forces are facing.
The Indian Armed Forces (I include the Border Security Force, Central Reserve Police Force and other border security elements, though the “million-strong” Indian Army constitutes the largest component by far) are responsible for guarding a border across traditional and nuclear enemy nations (Pakistan and China); hostile and/or disturbed nations (Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka) and disputed areas like J&K. The latter alone uses up half a million troops (or roughly three times the size of the British army) as part of regular deployment in the conflict that has been raging for the last 20 years. The same army is also required to tackle insurgency in the entire north-eastern region and train regularly for conventional battle scenarios in the western theatre against Pakistan and the eastern theatre against China and Bangladesh.
This army could also be called upon, and therefore trains, for overseas operations in Sri Lanka or Maldives (both have happened in the past), jungle warfare in some of the thickest jungles of the world, desert warfare in the second largest desert of the world and ultra-high altitude warfare in Siachen glacier.
The Forces also have about 3,000 troops kept operationally ready for United Nations deployment. In addition, fighting units are expected to send officers to other paramilitary units and establishments such as the National Security Guard, Assam Rifles, Rashtriya Rifles, Research and Analysis Wing, Intelligence Bureau, Defence Research and Development Organisation and for appointment as aide-de-camp (French for camp assistant) to the President and senior military officers.
The problem is there simply aren’t enough leaders for the job.
A critical factor influencing the calibre of any army is leadership at the combat level. It is these combat leaders (lieutenants, captains and majors) who lead troops into battle, grow into experienced veterans and rise to occupy operational positions as colonels and then move to strategic levels as brigadiers and generals to shape strategy and doctrine. A typical fighting battalion consists of about 750 soldiers grouped into four companies of about 180 men and led by about 22 commissioned officers. These are leaders who join the army as lieutenants and work their way up the hierarchy. But the tap is drying at the entry level.
About 20 years ago, an army career was considered a close second to the civil services and hence attracted commensurate talent. Today, it’s near the bottom of the totem pole. We can talk about the reasons till the cows come home, but that doesn’t change the fact that both in quality and quantity, fighting units are facing up to 30% deficiency of junior leaders. Even the recently rediscovered NSG executed the Mumbai operations with these deficiencies.
It is obvious that the army cannot fight this dual challenge of increasing responsibilities and decreasing number of leaders—and something’s got to give. The signs of stretch are showing on the organization, and it is only the incredible tradition of leadership in the Armed Forces that is holding the fort. But they need participative help from rest of the society. And perhaps the first step is to understand the issues of national defence and our role in that.
Raghu Raman is chief executive of corporate risk consulting firm Mahindra Special Services Group that advises companies and organizations on threat assessments and risk mitigation strategies. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org