Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd) Writes :
The tragic loss of Col Ashutosh Sharma, the Commanding Officer (CO) of 21 Rashtriya Rifles (RR) along with Major Anuj Sood, two jawans and a Sub-Inspector in North Kashmir on 2 May was a grim reminder of death stalking our heroes in uniform. This incident follows on the heels of the tragic loss of five jawans of the elite 4 Para SF also in North Kashmir on 4 Apr. These incidents herald the likelihood that the summer could witness increased levels of violence. More importantly, post-abrogation of Article 370 and the dissolution of the erstwhile state of J&K, reduction in support from the people for the fight against terrorism was on the cards. The silver lining is that the Armed Forces are prepared and is determined to banish terrorism that continues to be abetted by Pakistan.
Col Ashutosh will not be the last of the select group of officers to make the supreme sacrifice as they epitomise an institutional legacy referred to as the ‘CO’. Just a kilometre away from the present encounter site, but nearly twenty years ago, an earlier CO of the same unit, Col Rajinder Chauhan, was killed by an IED while moving with the brigade commander, Brig BS Shergill who was on his familiarisation rounds, having taken over, just a couple of days earlier. It was later learnt that the terrorists had got the word from their top that the CO must be eliminated, presumably because of a string of successful operations orchestrated by him. Across the structure of Armed Forces, there is unquestioned acceptance of the critical role of the CO, in fostering and maintaining military effectiveness at the tactical level which could also occasionally produce strategic effects.
There is no doubt that junior officers like Major Sood, JCOs and NCOs are the backbone of the battalion in Counter Insurgency (CI) operations. They are the cutting edge. But their effectiveness depends significantly on the CO, who is an individual but represents an institution. It is that level of command where institutional accountability is concentrated, and on his shoulders rests the responsibility for fulfilling the tasks allotted while protecting the lives and limbs of the men/women under his command.
In the ultimate analysis, the military effectiveness of the battalion is dependent on the ability of the CO to create, direct and unleash the human potential that is imbued with determination, sacrifice and a ‘never say die’ spirit. For the main weapon of the soldier in combat is not so much the guns and grenades he carries but the power of the human spirit that is generated within the chain of command he operates under. His practical identification is not so much with that higher entity called the nation but nests instead in the group embodied in a name (e.g., 21 RR) and is called his unit. The main individual instrumental in generating that spirit is the CO, because he alone can create the desired esprit de corps within the tightly knit structure of a unit. It is therefore not uncommon, that the performance of units could wax and wane, when the COs change. The highlighting of the COs role might sound banal when it is historically well known, but such acceptance should not blind us from the challenges ahead.
The perennial challenge is to keep the COs young. This does not refer only to keeping just the COs of combat units young. Such an approach misses the trend; counter insurgency has no fronts; in the future, as sub-conventional operations increase, the idea of ‘fronts’ as we know it now, will keep morphing; there are going to be fronts all over, resulting in rendering the notion of conventional fronts, meaningless or at least in substantially altering their connotation. Understandably, such a transformation will have different forms across the three Services but that does not take away the trend line. COVID-19 has demonstrated that the conceptual framework of the front can shift. As time advances, it could be cyber warriors or up further in the future, space warriors. The major takeaway from this trend is that a CO, of any Arm, Service or Branch, can find himself in the front and that would demand sufficient experience, maturity and a high level of physical fitness. Any ideas of extending the length of service, not only for the CO’s but for all ranks, which today looks inviting for financial reasons must be tempered with the possibility of ‘no front’ trend.
All Services expend a lot of resources to train the future commanding officers. However, it is mostly directed within a narrow band of providing specialised skill sets for supporting ‘fire power on target’. This is necessary but insufficient. What requires to be incorporated as part of the Professional Military Education (PME) is the exploration of the connection between fire power and the diplomatic and political effects. It will facilitate better understanding of the Clausewitzian notion of the military being an instrument of politics. This is an extant deficiency that demands to be addressed and can only grow in necessity as the surface area of interface of the military with the civil entities expands, especially because of shift from conventional to sub-conventional operations.
Creating an understanding of diplomacy and politics at the COs level must not in any way be misconstrued as changing the texture of an apolitical institution. The COs are not diplomats, and do not play politics, but an understanding of it is essential for better performance in a diplomatically and a politically charged environment that tends to fashion the combat space into an amphitheatre which is under intense media scrutiny. Such requirements will grow while ascending the military hierarchy.
The young profile and enlarged perspective of COs must be undergirded by a selection system that is just and merit-based. The hierarchical nature of the military will certainly leave behind several deserving cases. One of the ways to accommodate the large numbers that is superseded is the introduction of the NFU system that is presently under litigation due to opposition from the MoD. The MoD should not look at it as an issue of emoluments but should instead perceive it as a necessity that promotes military effectiveness.
The death of CO 21 RR or any CO, especially during operations is a blow to the unit morale. It is therefore heartening to know that the Army has acted swiftly, to select among many volunteers, an experienced officer who willingly forgoes a prized posting in the Military Operations Directorate. It is reflective of the organisational sensitivity to the importance of the appointment of the CO and the keenness of individuals to take up the challenge. CO’s may die but ‘Long live the CO’, must continue to echo through the corridors of our institutional ethos.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd) , is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institute, Bangalore. He commanded a battalion, brigade and CI Force in Central, North and South Kashmir. He was also MGGS Northern Command, Comdt NDC and Military Adviser in the National Security Council Secretariat.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.