By Bharat Karnad
Gorkha officers with the trademark Australian bush hat at a rakish tilt always evoke a sense of no-nonsense attitude to action, not little because of the fighting lore attending on the doughty hill men in the ranks. The straight forward defence of Major Nitin Gogoi’s lashing of a protester to the grill of a vehicle in Kashmir, and the shrugging off of his comparison with the infamous Brigadier Reginald Dyer of the 1919 Jallianwallah massacre in Amritsar, was Gorkha stuff for the straight talking COAS General Bipin Rawat (5/11 Gorkha).
But his other statement that “The Army is fully ready for a two and half front war” has induced some head scratching. No one doubts that the army can quickly rid the landscape of insurgents at will, if the brakes on its actions in J&K or in the northeast are removed by the government. Even with the AFSPA shackles, the army can do its job of denying the insurgencies the success they crave. So on the half front, there’s no issue.
The Pakistan front too can be accounted for if all the army is called on to do is to continue doing what it has done since the 1971 War — just hold the border. However, should the army for whatever reason be ordered to wage war with Pakistan at full tilt, can it realistically do so? What such a war will entail at a minimum is that a large chunk of Pakistani territory be captured without Indian armour advancing too deep into Pakistan to excite GHQ, Rawalpindi, into believing that India is going for its jugular leading to the possible consideration of the nuclear first use option. But it is doubtful if the Indian land forces can actually achieve even this limited penetration and occupation operation with the three strike corps having significant portions of their tank and mechanized vehicle fleets mothballed. Op Parakram was called off in 2002 in good part because the then army leadership could not assure the Vajpayee government the outcome it sought because of the generally poor levels of the war wastage reserve and war stock. Has the situation really improved all that much in the past 16 years? Given the routine mismanagement of resources and wrong priorities, in many respects it may have gotten worse — but that’s another story.
With respect to China, Rawat found cover, and for good reason, behind Prime Minister Modi’s anodyne statement that not a bullet had been fired in the last 40 years. The army is simply not in a position to fight off the Chinese People’s Liberation Army that is fighting downhill from their Tibetan stronghold. The border infrastructure — road and communications network, remains patchy and is no match for what’s on the other side. The program of infrastructure buildup won’t be completed, by one senior militaryman’s estimate, before 2022 at the very least. By Rawat’s own account, moreover, 17 Corps for offensive warfare in the mountains is still only on paper, and will take another three years before it is fielded. And then, the army will still be two offensive corps short of giving a good account of itself in war in terms of keeping the PLA guessing about what the mobile element in the three corps will do after the first shot is fired. With only one corps to worry about, it is simpler for PLA to tie up the mobile element of 17 Corps once it is deployed. In other words, a single offensive mountain corps will only marginally improve prospects in hard mountain fighting, notwithstanding the fact that the Indian defensive forces along the LAC are now prepared to engage in mobile warfare, rather than make do with positional warfare they were previously locked into.
If this is the state of affairs with each of the fronts taken singly, the simultaneous activation of all the two and half fronts would be much less reassuring. And why is this not possible considering it involves the flowering China-Pakistan nexus?
In the event, isn’t Rawat’s confidence of the army’s warfighting capabilities a bit misplaced, if not entirely erroneous? Indeed, such unduly optimistic statements are misleading and may convince the Modi government into becoming even more complacent—complacency being the hallmark of the Indian policy establishment’s attitude to national security and military preparedness/readiness generally. It will also lull the people into believing that all’s well and there’s nothing to worry about on any count.
The army in a Gorkha officer’s safe hands is a soothing proposition, except when the Chief’s utterances fail to mesh with reality.
Bharat Karnad is a Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.
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