The Army Chief General MM Naravane was interviewed on issues of import during the past two years plus of his tenure as the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) by Nitin Gokhale, Editor-in-Chief, Bharatshakti.in. His tenure surely qualifies to be called a roller-coaster ride with the COVID pandemic, Chinese intrusions in Eastern Ladakh and now a war raging in Europe. There is also a deep-seated realisation now in the country as a whole of the need for Atmanirbharta (self-reliance).
Nitin Gokhale: You have been the Chief of the 3rd largest Army of the world for more than two years now. It’s also the Army that stood firm against the designs of the Chinese Army in Eastern Ladakh in 2020/21. You had COVID to deal with initially and from May 2020, the sudden Chinese aggression on the LAC. What have been your takeaways from these two unexpected events?
Army Chief: As a part of our discussions, we used to always say that one should always be prepared for the Black Swan event. But what a Black Swan event could be, nobody could have imagined. And what forms that Black Swan event might take was also unimaginable. Since you didn’t know what that event could be, you could not prepare for it. COVID was one such Black Swan event which nobody had anticipated. When it started, most of us thought that it would be like SARS or any other such thing, and it would peter out in a month or six weeks. The way it has persisted and shaken up the world, I think this is the event from which have to draw a lot of lessons.
Before I talk about all those lessons, I would like to focus on the second part of your question first. The issue of what happened in Eastern Ladakh and unilateral attempts to change the status quo. Of course, we responded to that and the situation is now stabilised. The main lessons to be learnt from both these events are – first, you have to be prepared and be ready for the unexpected. You may plan any number of things, any number of contingencies, but it’s that 100+1 which happens. Invariably, it is the +1 for which you are actually unprepared. Therefore, you need to have a lot of resilience, flexibility and agility to cater for whatever new gets thrown up.
Secondly, whenever something like this happens, you’re alone, like in COVID, because the whole world was grappling with it too. In fact, we reached out to others and helped. But you are alone and have to be self-sufficient. Similarly, when something happens on your borders, you have to go out and fight. Nobody is going to come and fight your battles for you. Either way, the biggest takeaway is to be self-reliant; being able to do it alone – is what is important.
Nitin Gokhale: That way Atmanirbharta or self-reliance in defence is actually synchronised with what you said. Our platforms should be Indian made or Indian design. To that end, the Armed Forces have done quite well and these must have accelerated that policy?
Army Chief: It has always been our endeavour to cut down our dependence on imports, not just that we are importing things, our money goes out. It has always been our endeavour to have more and more indigenous content. It was a work in progress, but these two events have only accelerated that, bringing to the fore the importance of being self-reliant.
To that (atmanirbharta) end we have made a lot of progress. In fact, 85 per cent of the Indian Army contracts are already with Indian companies; we have graduated to that figure over the past few years; both DPSUs and private players like – L&T, Bharat Forge, Mahindras, Tatas – have also got a fair share of whatever we have been doing and we are continuing with this process.
There are various incentives for these companies by the government to make it more user friendly and encourage private industry to participate in the defence sector. After all, this is a new field for them. Sometimes we get a call, how do I enter this field. We reach out to such people and help them out. But, the response from the industry, whether it’s big players or MSMEs or start-ups, has been more than encouraging and I am sure that with the kind of talent we have in the country, all they need is a little bit of incentives, a little bit of financial support and we can really take off.
Nitin Gokhale: I think it’s a good inflexion point in getting self-reliant and becoming independent of the imports. You have also spoken about new technologies, innovative use of drones, counter drones, surveillance with technology. How has been the response from the private sector in India to some of the demands that the Army has placed on this sector?
Army Chief: The issue of technological improvement is not something that is static. We are always looking for better and better things. Towards that end, the start-ups and MSMEs are also doing their bit. This also got a boost when we started engaging with them. We started the Army Design Bureau (ADB) in 2016 and that became a single point of contact for them. That helped a lot to reach out to them. We explained our requirements and they understood what was expected of them. We facilitated visits to forward areas, showed them the equipment in action in actual conditions; the conditions in which the equipment will be operated. So it’s been a very dynamic and two-way process. And because of that, the order that we have given for UAV has gone to a start-up; a brand new player in the field. And they competed with well-known players and still won. It has been a shot in the arm to all the others. They feel they can gain entry into this field.
Nitin Gokhale: The army is also getting more technologically savvy in that sense. How do you think that new stand-off weapons, even the use of technology in terms of surveillance have improved? Has this crisis helped you improve in these sectors?
Army Chief: I wouldn’t put every development that’s happened as because of these crises. A progressive and continuous scan of the environment is undertaken every six months and we have our discussions. We see what has happened, and what is the international situation, the regional scan and based on that we continue monitoring and re-assessing our threat perceptions. When we do that, obviously new requirements come to the fore. These new requirements will have an advanced technological component. Let’s say we felt that there is a threat and so need to be able to look deeper. Moment, we want to look deeper, we need more advanced technology. So, it’s a very continuous process. We are, as an army, looking to move towards a ‘Technologically Empowered Army’, year on year, not always being a manpower-intensive Army.
Nitin Gokhale: One of the intangibles, unexpected thing that’s happening in the Russia – Ukraine conflict, or Russia’s attack on Ukraine. There was in the past three-four years this notion among military enthusiasts, if not military planners, that now only drones and Azerbaijan – Armenia kind of fight, will take place. But it now shows us that what’s happening in Ukraine is that conventional forces cannot be done away with. What’s your take on that?
Army Chief: Definitely. When the dust settles on this latest conflict, a lot of lessons will emerge. Even at the outset, two very important lessons have emerged. One of them is ‘Conventional Warfare’ will still happen. There was a feeling over the last few decades or so that large scale conventional war will not happen especially when there are nuclear powers involved. There was a feeling, as you said, that only standoff weapons, will be used, and not what we call close-quarter grinding combat. All those fallacies have been demolished within no time.
Yes, you have to move to incorporate technology. But that does not mean that you won’t require boots on the ground. You have to see what the optimum mix of these is. You can’t have one at the cost of the other. Everything will come in together, but definitely what this has shown is that these violent conflicts and their resultant aftermath, the refugees, damages to properties, loss of life, urban warfare innocent bystanders getting caught in the fray, all that you thought went away with World War II, is all come back again.
Nitin Gokhale: Talking about all that, the mix of futurist and conventional strength having to be combined for any conflict happening, there is this observation among lots of people who watch the Indian military that its reorientation towards northern borders, essentially a work in progress, maybe a slow process, has got hastened. Would you say that because of the crisis, future threats are larger from China and that we are now reorienting more towards northern borders?
Army Chief: As I just mentioned, we keep carrying on this routine scan of what are the emerging threats. Then, based on that, we lay down our priorities. Obviously, with what has happened in eastern Ladakh, the priority shifted from the western to the northern front. When I say northern front it doesn’t mean only eastern Ladakh or Northern Command, it’s Leh, Ladakh right up to Kibithu in Arunachal Pradesh; the whole of the Northern Command, Central Command, Eastern Command. Obviously, there was a need to look at it in a different manner. And to that end, yes there was a requirement to reorient some forces to cater for this enhanced threat perception.
Nitin Gokhale: Also talking about your COVID experience, the military has really risen to the occasion. How does the military prepare for that? I think you did really well in terms of self-reliance and reaching out to people.
Army Chief: In fact, when the COVID pandemic was still in its initial stages, we had anticipated that it might not go away so fast, and obviously we couldn’t place a time frame to it. Therefore, we had taken a lot of steps for force preservation and force sustenance. As far as force preservation is concerned, we were very strict in screening personnel. In fact, we must have done twice or thrice the amount of testing which was done for the rest of the country. But we made sure that anybody who is coming back from leave or courses, before getting deployed in the border areas, got screened at least twice or thrice, and because of that on the borders, we were always 100 per cent fit.
I could not afford a whole platoon, picket or a post to suddenly go down. We were very strict in that aspect and I think not only commanders, but I would like to give full credit to the men for complying, and not just complying but during the lockdown, for almost six months no one could go on leave or come back from leave. All our men bore the additional hardship with fortitude; the fortitude that they are known for. There were no complaints from anyone. Men missed out on their own marriages, of their sons and daughters and nobody complained. As an Army, we draw our strength from our men; extremely hardy and willing to bear those additional burdens and risks.
Nitin Gokhale: It’s been more than two years of change in status of J& K in terms of State to UT and removal of Article 370 and 35 A. What has been the general feedback on how you have dealt with the challenges from Pakistan? Have they been trying, or are they really not interested, or they will wait for an opportune time?
Army Chief: Well, as you know that in February last year we renewed the ceasefire understanding between the two countries. There was always an understanding in place since 2003, but it was followed more in the breach. There were violations almost every day. In fact, in 2020, there must have been more than 4000 violations. But post-February 2021, the ceasefire along the LoC, has been holding. So, that is a positive sign. But what is worrisome is that terrorism hasn’t stopped. The terror modules, the launch pads, the infrastructure on the other side continues to exist.
From all the intelligence inputs/sources, we are aware that terrorists are still waiting and trying to sneak across. We’ve been able to eliminate a number of these attempts to infiltrate. Almost every day there is an encounter somewhere in the hinterland. In the first three months, if I remember correctly, we would have neutralised 30-35 terrorists. There is no real let up from that point of view.
There has been an increasing trend of targeting soft elements just to spread a feeling that the situation is not normal. But those incidents, though sporadic, nevertheless vitiate the whole feeling of normalcy. It’s not indigenous, it’s fomented and supported morally, materially and financially from outside. Only then can an insurgency or activities like this be sustained.
Things are much better now. If we see the overall parameters, the number of stone-pelting incidents, the number of IED blasts or the incidents of grenade throwing here and there, all those have come down. So, when we say that the situation has improved, it’s not just for the sake of saying, it’s based on quantified parameters that we can state the situation has actually improved. And, in fact, in Gulmarg, there is no hotel room left vacant to be hired by the tourists and the prices of rooms have doubled and tripled. So, this shows the situation has improved and an odd sporadic event should not cast a shadow or drive the narrative.
Nitin Gokhale: India has had 14 rounds of negotiations on the situation in eastern Ladakh. You spoke in the past about how all the earlier agreements have now been thrown out of the window or not completely observed by the Chinese and therefore the things that happened. Do you think after the current negotiations and resolution of the remaining friction points, and how many of them you can tell us, there needs to be a new arrangement on LAC? How do we maintain peace and tranquillity there?
Army Chief: We have been having these talks now and then and 14 rounds have happened. By virtue of talking to each other, we have been able to resolve most of the issues, especially those which were post-May 2020. What is important is that we have been able to talk to each other and as we keep talking, the differences keep narrowing down and that is how out of the six friction points, we have been able to resolve five. And I am hopeful that going ahead, we’ll be able to resolve the other areas also.
From the Chinese side also, they have made some very positive statements that we need to resolve the differences between the two sides. But, at the end of the day, all these have happened because of non-adherence to protocols and agreements that were existing. If they’d been followed in letter and spirit, this won’t have happened. The protocols are there and it is just that you have to enforce them in totality, and by both sides. You can’t follow them selectively. You can’t interpret them to your advantage, suiting your convenience. You can’t follow it in Ladakh, and not follow in Sikkim. I think the realisation is there that it’s in the interests of everyone that the protocols and agreements which were in place need to be revived and perhaps with the lessons learnt, the experience which we have gained, maybe we fine-tune so that these kinds of incidents don’t happen.
Nitin A Gokhale