With the Chinese virus sweeping through the globe, causing death and ravaging livelihoods and economies, many countries like India may have to downgrade budgetary allocations (including in Defence) going forward. Although there will be cuts, they shouldn’t be so deep as to compromise our entire national security framework, says Army Chief General MM Naravane. Speaking exclusively to BharatShakti.in Editor-in-Chief Nitin A. Gokhale, Gen Naravane says expenditure on defence should be seen as an investment and only when a nation is secure it prospers. What should also be kept in mind, as the General says, is that there are two neighbours that are inimical to our country. And that India is a security provider for the whole of South Asia. Gen. Naravane, who recently visited Jammu & Kashmir, says if Pakistan’s strategy has been of death by a thousand cuts, India’s strategy will be of death by a thousand and one cuts.
Nitin Gokhale: Hello, and welcome to BharatShakti.in. I’m Nitin Gokhale. And I’m privileged to have with me, the Chief of the Indian Army General M M Naravane talking to us on the Army’s contribution in combating COVID-19 pandemic across India, and of course, his future plans for the Army’s restructuring and modernising.
Gen Naravane welcome to this programme.
Army Chief: Thank you very much, Nitin.
Nitin Gokhale: You’re about to complete about four months into being in this chair to go on 31st of December 2019. How has been the experience so far? What have been the main challenges?
Army Chief: Well, the experience so far has of course been very nice. When I had taken over, during the Army Day press conference outlined some of my guiding philosophy, which was allegiance, belief, contiguity, integration, training personnel and quality and I’m trying to build upon those. When I took over, at two years and four months, as my tenure as the Chief, these four months as you have pointed out, I have used it to go around to various formations, see the situation on the ground. And based on that, to try and formulate what should be the roadmap for the two years to come. These have been very interesting for months because I have visited places where I have not been since my days as a Second Lieutenant, that’s long ago. So, this refresher was required, so that I can take a holistic view of the entire Army, see the inputs from the ground so that we don’t go wrong. As we go ahead.
As any Chief would want, he would always like to further improve upon whatever he has inherited. And further enhance the operational standards, the operational readiness and make this force more fighting fit. So, we are working towards that. We have identified how we can further enhance our standards and that will be as a result of a combination of different post structuring or post structures. Once we decide upon that, how to manage this new force in terms of equipment, arms, mining staffing levels, and once these two things are in place, then what would be the way that we strategize or changes strategy in keeping with the changing times and our amendments to our tactics, techniques, procedures.
So, keeping all this in mind, I am in the process of formulating certain goals short term, medium term, long term and I hope that should be able to achieve at least a majority of those. These goals will address all these issues without leaving anyone behind. It will address all arms and services. It will address equipment, modernization issues, HR concerns, and so on and so forth.
Nitin Gokhale: That’s great to know because you’ve actually encapsulated your vision and planning for the force itself. But in the middle of all this, we have been hit – the world has been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s unprecedented in its fury and spread. I know that the Indian Army is at the forefront of this battle. Give us some idea about what the Indian Army is doing and how it is helping the national effort?
Army Chief: The COVID crisis has certainly been a very disruptive influence. We always have been talking about Black Swan events, and theorising about that but we never really expected that to actually happen.
Therefore this has come as a disruptive influence. Seeing it at a larger level, it is going to make a difference in how we operate in the future, in our way of life and I’m talking beyond the army also.
True test is something which we will have to factor in not only COVID but similar kind of things. Whenever we do anything in the future, we will have to do it under this kind of overhang. So that we don’t get taken by surprise ever again.
As far as the COVID battle is concerned, we have been monitoring the global situation and the internal situation. And based on that and the inputs that we were getting, we had taken some remedial measures as early as middle of February. I had made a point that post preservation is my main task. My post are absolutely fighting fit. Unless my Army is fit and free from infection, I will not be able to do the full justice to the entire gamut of roles that have to perform both guarding the borders, looking after the counter insurgency, counter-terrorism grid, both in the north and northeast as well as to come to the aid of the civil administration as required.
Fortunately, we have not had too many cases. We have had 14 cases so far only and out of that, two have already recovered and back on active duty. That part is well under control. As far as the assistance to the civil administration are concerned, we were the first one to set up a quarantine camp, which came about at Manesar, that is where the first lot of people came over evacuated from Wuhan. After that, we made two more camps as Jaisalmer and Jodhpur, both catering for about 700 and 500 each. Where evacuees have come from various parts of the world. And after having done their mandatory quarantine and testing, and so on and so forth, even send them back to their home states. And that strength in those camps has now come down from 400 to 500 to about 100 and 150.
Nitin Gokhale: But the COVID is also altered many of the old notions, old training methods, and doctrines. What is new that you have done or some innovative methods or have adopted for adjusting your training, transporting personnel? Give us some ideas on that?
Army Chief: If you see the effect of the COVID there are certain positives and negatives by virtue of being in the army. If you look at the positives, positives are that we are in our military camps and our cantonments, which are as it is isolated from the general populace. So that has been an advantage and of a benefit to us in trying to keep ourselves secure. That has definitely helped and I’ll come to that a little later. But the negatives is that we have to operate in close proximity with each other especially in the border areas, when we are doing our operations in the hinterland if you’re in an ambush, you have to be close together, you can’t stay 5-5 metres apart.
Certain things we can modify, adapt, certain things, we have to be together. Being together, it has been of a benefit to us that we have been segregated from the population – especially in the border areas – in J & K-at high altitude. They can continue operating as per the teachings. Therefore, it has been a positive in that sense.
Nitin Gokhale: In terms of training, your personnel must have been on leave, you had to need to run some military specials. In that sense, Army, of course, has a great ability to do logistics under adverse circumstances, but in this case, did you have to go out to get the planning done – worked with the civil administration, the Railways, how have you managed to do that? About two lakh personnel had to go out and come back is what I heard or read somewhere. Is that correct?
Army Chief: When the lockdown was announced and we came to know that so many of our personnel will have to remain wherever they are, whether boys on course will have to remain where they are undergoing training – whether it is Mhow or Bangalore or Ahmednagar wherever they are. Plus another category was on leave. Now, as far as the people who are well training institutions are concerned, they were as I said, as it is isolated. So, we could say in a sense that they are already green. So, for them to be moved out was not really a problem. The problem was how to move them out. For which then we went in for these military specials, which were of course themselves sanitised. So that was a Green component moving with a mode of transport, which is green, and getting down at the other end, which is also a green area. Our designated units are transit camps. So the entire routes were green channel where they can move around.
Now you come to personnel on leave. When they start coming back, we will first have to quarantine them for 14 days. It is only after that that they will be declared green and then the same system can start. While in the first phase, we are moving out the people on courses, but they’re already safe. Simultaneously we’ve asked people to start re-joining at the nearest army unit. So that again they can go through this period of 14 days quarantine and testing if required.
The first phase is over, then the phase two we will be able to start. We have such things put into motion right after force preservation. The next task comes is force regeneration. When we bring this task as we cannot do it endlessly. The other lot has to go on leave. This is a continuous cycle. As I said, you will have to now make our processes, assuming that this COVID threat is not going to go away, anytime soon.
Nitin Gokhale: Apart from the immediate things that you have done, I also want to look at the larger issue. I remember talking about asymmetric threats, non-traditional security threats. Now, it’s clearly proved that a pandemic like this is a possibility. It’s a real possibility across the globe. In that sense, the army is the best prepared force, anywhere in the country, most of the country rather. So your doctors have done tremendously well, in terms of protocols, in terms of giving help to civil administration and all that in the future. When you look at force structuring and force preservation that you have spoken about also, you have doctrines. You will have to factor in all this? How will you do it? And that’s the question? Because you’ve just postponed your army commanders conference. I’m sure you’re still talking about it, how to go about it. Can you give us some idea on that?
Army Chief: As a result of this, of course, we will have to rethink on how we will be fighting in the future. And we have, in fact, doing some brainstorming on this as we speak. We’re taking inputs from our regional commands, and trying to draw out a roadmap. But that said, we’ve always had capability to fight in a NBC environment – nuclear biological chemical warfare environment. It is not that we do not have any capacities or capabilities at all, but probably we will have to build further on them may not be to that high intensity as classical NBC environment is concerned. But lower intensity to cater for such kind of pandemics, which may not be that serious as far as mortality is concerned.
Nitin Gokhale: So, CBRN which used to be like, you know, one of the peripheral issues will take centre stage in the future planning and future doctrines and tactics that will come. That’s what I’m guessing as you mentioned just now. But let me come to the more mundane issues like you have had this plan your predecessor had made this plan about IBG’s Integrated BattleGroups, and the restructuring of the army, making a leaner and meaner, the ShekatkarCommittee report. How will that now get factored into all this? How will that get affected?
Army Chief: This restructuring is the one get affected in that sense, as I mentioned right at the beginning, when you’re going for more efficient, try to enhance the effectiveness of the force. Those three-four factors come into play, and one of them is post-restructuring. That is very much still a work in progress. We have identified the formations which will undergo this change in the first phase. It is only that things have now got delayed because of not being able to move out and actually put that into motion. But that is something which is going to happen. The IBC concept will happen. The restructuring of the Army Headquarters will happen. That is the way for the future. There is no doubt in my mind that future wars will be going in that direction.
Nitin Gokhale: So in that respect, one more concern that is being expressed across the specialist field of defence and defence analysis is also about the pressure under which the defence budget will come given the precarious economic condition that is going to be staring just not at our country, but all the countries across the globe. Probably in that sense, will lower defence budgets or squeezed defence budgets affect your modernization plans, your replenishment plans, how are you looking at that challenge going forward?
Army Chief: Firstly, as far as the budget is concerned, I would like to make one point that it is government’s responsibility to provide for his citizens a safe and secure environment.Only when you have a safe and secure environment, can the country flourish. So, expenditure on defence will be seen as an investment. We also contribute through the armed forces. And if you see past incidents which have taken place, whether it is 26/11, Doklam or the Parliament Attacks – whenever such incidents have happened, invariably the stock market has gone down. It shakes investor confidence. Keep a strong Armed Forces no matter what! And it is because the country is strong and it is able to face these challenges that the economy remains robust. So, we have to continue investing in national security. I’m not just saying army or armed forces. When the nation is secured, the nation prospers. So, therefore, investment in that has to continue, no matter what the circumstances that cannot be allowed to decline.
We have two neighbours which are inimical to us. That is not going to change. Once again, we have to face the facts that you have to no matter what, even though there will be cuts, they cannot be so deep as to compromise our entire the national security framework. After all, we are not only looking at our own security, but we are a security provider for the whole of South Asia which is a pillar of stability.
Nitin Gokhale: Very well put there Gen Naravane. Talking about neighbours- you recently went to Jammu and Kashmir and you also mentioned there that the Western neighbour Pakistan is continuing with its attempts to send in infiltrators and continuing with the proxy wars. What is your sense? I mean, after having come back from there and even otherwise, why are they doing this? Are they not in a precarious or more precarious condition than India is economically and otherwise?
Army Chief: Well, yes, it is. And in fact, this is a strategy which they’ve been pursuing for more than two decades now. And the strategy which has not borne fruit, and why they’re persisting with the strategy was failing really beats the imagination. First thing that we are taught in the army is that don’t reinforce failure. But this just seems to be doing that. Their strategy of death by 1000 cuts, our strategy will be death by 1001 cuts. That’s the one always be with us.
They realise that it is a failed strategy, the sooner they realise that it augur well for both countries to have peaceful borders, both of us can grow. I can only leave it at that, that good sense has to prevail. Otherwise, it really beats me that they should continue with the strategy which is not paying any dividends to anybody. That’s right.
Nitin Gokhale: So let me move away from the Jammu and Kashmir situation or northeast or wherever. There is one thing that I spoke about the budget and you actually answered it very well, that it’s an investment in national security, any budget that is given or money that is spent. One of the complaints that have been there, even before you took over from the Indian defence industry has been that while there is big talk, by the government and by the armed forces, especially by the Army also that Make in India will be our mantra, we will give as many orders as possible to Indian defence companies. The sense that I’m getting – I’m doing a series on BharatShakti.in by speaking to industry leaders, and they all seem to complain that they don’t get enough orders or they don’t get enough quick orders in order to sustain themselves. How will you overcome that challenge or that complaint from the Indian industry?
Army Chief: To answer the first part of the question, actually, about the budgetary constraints – there is no doubt that there will be some cuts. We are not denying that. We’ll be able to absorb that by cutting down on a few other essential things which we would normally be doing, like our exercises with troops, which involve move of large units and formations, which is an expensive proposition. One month plus lockdown which has happened since movements have not occurred during this month. This automatically resulted in some savings. Through this, we will be able to manage the budget.
I don’t think our modernization programmes would suffer to a large extent. Moreover, whatever modernization plans we had, at least, in the coming year, where mostly Make in India or orders going to Indian companies. That is one another way in which the expenditure that we do will kick start our economy because the orders are going to Indian companies and they, in turn, are giving suborders to the smaller MSMEs.
Surely, the downstream flow of this expenditure will actually help all our citizens and all these other enterprises. And as far as the number of orders is concerned actually, as well as the Army’s orders book – almost 75% both by cost and by volume, the number of orders have gone to Indian companies. It includes, of course, the Ordnance Factories and the PSUs.
So, it may not be so bad. For the private industries as such- they have perhaps a point that they are not getting adequate orders. We are working on that. We are working towards trying to make the procedures more favourable to the private industries and companies can also participate. This is a fledging we are still experimenting with this. So, obviously they’re going to be teething troubles. But as we go by, I’m confident that more and more orders will start going to them. And PSUs and OFBs will have to compete on a level playing field.
Nitin Gokhale: Yeah, I think that’s the way forward and you put it very well that the moment, the defence expenditure is put out in the market or you start expending money that will have a cascading effect on the entire industry and thereby on parts of the economy, which I think should be the case. And it reminds me of what happened in the American scenario in 1941/42, when they were drawn into the Second World War, and then they had to really ramp up their production that really boomed into a great economy after that, so war economy is sometimes always becomes a major factor in the country’s booming economy. But we’ll see whether that will happen or not. But Gen Naravane thank you very much for your time and being so frank about whatever the Army is doing and is planning in the future. Hopefully, we will all come out of this COVID-19 crisis unscathed and, with our health intact, but we hope to see you sometime again on this programme, but for the moment, thank you very much.
Gen Naravane: Thank You. Always a pleasure to talk to you.
Nitin Gokhale: Thank You