General Bikram Singh enjoys an excellent reputation as a professional soldier and will no doubt lead by personal example to arrest and correct the downslide in the moral standards of the Army's higher ranks, says Gurmeet Kanwal
General Bikram Singh has taken over the reins of the Indian Army at a time when this great army -- often referred to as the 'last man standing' -- is passing through a rough patch in its history.
The higher leadership of the Army has been facing criticism for putting 'self' before 'service', contrary to the Chetwood motto that is ingrained into an officer's psyche while undergoing training at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun: 'The safety, honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time.' (From a speech delivered by Field Marshal Sir Philip W Chetwood during the inauguration of IMA in 1932.)
The latter half of General VK Singh's tenure as COAS was marred by unseemly controversies that have dented the image of the Army as a first class fighting force. These controversies are too well known and too recent to bear recounting. While individually none of them have amounted to much, collectively these have severely undermined the reputation of the Army in the eyes of the public. In this mega-media age, the Army's image has also taken a hit internationally.
A dispassionate SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis reveals that up to the level of combat units, that is infantry battalions, armoured and artillery regiments and other arms and services, the Army continues to remain a first rate fighting force. The combat-level army is as cohesive a fighting force as it has ever been and its operational ethos is marked by professional excellence and devotion to the nation well beyond the cause of duty. In this regard, the armed forces are the only organ of the state that is worthy of the nation's trust.
However, a small number of officers comprising the Army's leadership ranks from brigadier onwards appear to have lost their moral compass and strayed in their approach to right to wrong. These officers have been involved in dubious and shady ventures -- such as faction fights and land and housing scams. They have quite obviously failed in their judgement of what constitutes impropriety. These officers have apparently forgotten the line in the prayer of the National Defence Academy, Khadakvasla, that exhorts officers to choose 'the harder right, instead of the easier wrong.' Perhaps they have fallen victim to the ills that plague India's civil society, which spawns them.
This is a serious development with grave long-term consequences for the Army's operational ethos. The armed forces have always held their officers to higher moral standards than the civil society that they come from. Corrective action must be taken immediately to put an end to declining moral standards. General Bikram Singh enjoys an excellent reputation as a professional soldier and will no doubt lead by personal example to arrest and correct the downslide in the moral standards of the army's higher ranks. Restoring the trust of the nation in the Army and the confidence of the soldiers merit his highest consideration in the months ahead.
The new COAS must simultaneously take stock of the Army's preparedness for war and internal security challenges. General VK Singh's leaked letter to the prime minister spoke of 'critical hollowness'. The CAG's recent report revealed that the state of defence preparedness is a cause for serious concern. Parliament's standing committee on defence has noted these developments with concern. Weapons, ammunition and equipment shortages have persisted for long and several Chiefs before General VK Singh had written to the PM and the defence minister for help to remove these. During the Kargil conflict the nation had heard the then COAS, General V P Malik, make the chilling statement on national TV, "We will fight with what we have."
Another issue that needs the Chief's immediately attention is the continuation in service of obsolescent weapons and equipment well past their operational life and the stagnation in the process of military modernisation aimed at upgrading the army's war-fighting capabilities to prepare it to fight and win on the battlefields of the 21st century. Among other areas, he will need to concentrate on upgrading the artillery's firepower potential, the 'night blindness' of the Army's infantry battalions and mechanised forces, and the fact that the air defence guns and missile systems are almost completely obsolescent. Simultaneously, he must also help the MoD to restore civil-military relations to a healthy level.
Perceptions matter and the new Chief must take action transparently on recent cases of indiscipline, corruption and 'botched up' counter-insurgency operations. He must follow up quickly on his assurance during his first media interaction on June 1 that nothing will be brushed under the carpet. Only then will the nation's faith and confidence in the Army's war-fighting capability be restored.
The author is a Delhi-based defence analyst