Tuesday, February 8, 2011

INS Vindhyagiri Sinks - What V Should Be Doing

A forthright & hard hitting article!
URGENT INTROSPECTION By Maj Gen S.G.Vombatkere, VSM (Retd)
Today, January 31, 2011, a frigate, INS Vindhyagiri sank. It was not in battle nor was it a terrorist attack. It was anchored at the naval jetty in Mumbai. True, it was involved in an accident with a merchant vessel yesterday, and there was a fire on board when it sank. Mercifully there were no personnel casualties, but the casualty of morale is still to be estimated. There will doubtless be an inquiry and the reasons for the accident and for its subsequent sinking will be determined. But it is also doubtless that some personnel at some level will blamed and punished for the accident and for the subsequent events that ended in the warship sinking, while there will be no institutional blame assigned.

The sad part is that such things happen in all the three Services. Just for example, the army has had several fires in ammunition depots and the air force has lost many aircraft. Such failures, accidents, untoward incidents and huge losses invariably result in lowering of morale in general. There is no attempt here to suggest that any one Service has more or worse losses or is better than another sister Service; all are in similar circumstances as far as institutional efficiency and accountability are concerned, and the lack of institutional capacity to learn the true lessons from failures and implement them so as to minimize failures.

Command and control
Particularly when officers are seen as the cause(s) of failures, the morale of junior officers and of the rank and file is adversely affected. This is especially true when the personal integrity of the officer is in question and the damage is proportional to the seniority of the officer(s) concerned. Here, the word 'integrity' is used in its broadest sense and not concerning just money and material, but includes professional integrity.
Every soldier is watched continuously or at least continually by his subordinates. By this, I do not intend to convey that he is being watched only for his faults, mistakes and failures, though that certainly happens, especially by disgruntled persons, usually of lower rank, but also for his strengths and successes. That is how every soldier from Jawan / Sailor / Airman upwards to the top flag ranks in the three Services makes his role model and sets his standards of functioning both in peace and in war, just as he makes note of his pet dislikes, competitors and rivals. Today, and I have it from middle level officers whom I have met and conversed with, there are too few real, living, senior-ranking role models for young soldiers; sadly, the system appears to promote the mediocre, while the role models leave the service in the rank of Colonel or Brigadier and equivalents for various reasons.
This is not of course to say that the majority of senior ranks are mediocre, but that when mediocre officers manage to attain senior rank and many have obviously done so, they will naturally tend to promote the mediocre from among their juniors. Over time, this will fill the senior ranks with more and more mediocre officers. Just take a look at the higher judiciary in our country. When the number of mediocre senior ranks crosses a certain threshold, there is a loss of long-term vision and perspective because mediocrity is about short-term, self-serving goals. In these circumstances, merit becomes subservient to influence and ceases to count. Over time, this inevitably leads to runaway erosion of values, morale, self-image and faith in the organization; the sure recipe for peace-time disasters and war-time defeats and shame. Please recall the 1962 debacle.

Scams and Corruption
In the past few years, senior officers have been in the public eye for misdemeanours and crimes, bringing embarrassment and shame to both serving and retired military personnel of all ranks. The candid or unguarded comments that one hears from serving personnel and veterans, especially from the junior ranks, is sufficient indication that there is a perceived failure of command to prevent such incidents or to hold accountable the individuals who are seen to be responsible, when such incidents occur. Today, no honest soldier or perceptive commander will deny that politics concerning postings, assignments, promotions or punishments, which was always there, though in small measures, is now glaringly evident in service life in a very big way, and that it is affecting the fair name of the military and doubtless affecting its morale and thereby its battle efficiency. Today, influence is openly peddled within the Service.

Five Star Culture
Five-star culture, which was restricted to a few in the past, has permeated the officer cadre today. For example, the tradition of officers playing “troops games” with the troops is virtually dead, as more and more officers play no games at all (this is no commentary on their proficiency but on simply playing for fun, exercise and spending time with the troops), or play individual games like squash or tennis which provide exercise, or golf, which provides more opportunity for “networking” than exercise for a young officer. This observation is supported by the fact that many senior officers have huge waistlines and are obviously physically unfit, getting their medicals cleared by cooperative medical officers in a mutual back-scratching, synergistic association.
I am certain that my views will be hotly contested by several people, but that may serve to demonstrate that many officers are in denial about the actual state of affairs obtaining.

Failures of weapons and equipment and even weapon systems do happen, and procedures and drills have been developed over decades to obviate or minimize them. But failures of command and control, including incompetence, lack of focus, loss of integrity, laziness, neglect, negligence, etc, at all levels of functioning cannot be tolerated especially when they impact on unit morale and functioning. This is based on the maxim that the “man behind the gun” is at least as important as, but usually much more important than, the “gun” itself. It is usual for some person in lower or middle management to take the rap for failures, though of late even very senior officers are being exposed and even punished.
The point here is that blaming and /or punishing individuals does not automatically give rise to systemic changes to prevent or at least minimize recurrence of similar failures. And here lies a very important function of command - acceptance of a share of the blame for failures at lower levels of command, and drawing lessons from failures and implementing them in the best interest of the system. No individual or unit or formation ever learned very much from successes; military history shows that the best lessons are learned only from failures. And if lessons are not learned from failures, that would be a failure of the command function.
Especially in the military field, there are two books, both studies, which every serious career officer should read, especially early on in service and “again and again” after every decade of service. They are, “The Psychology of Military Incompetence” by Norman Dixon, and “Crisis in Command” by Gabriel and Savage. The first is British, covers a couple of centuries of warfare and deals with the individual, while the second is American, covers the US forces’ decades-long engagement in Vietnam in the last century and deals with systemic issues.

The way ahead
If India’s Armed Forces are to learn from the failures of their personnel, and from the systemic failures peculiar to each service, and take urgent action to stem what appears to be a progressive failure phenomenon, we would have to introspect like the US military has done “Crisis in Command” and act on the findings. This would not be merely in the interest of the Armed Forces but certainly in the national interest as well.
My suggestion is that for a start. Select four retired officers of the rank of Col, Brig, Maj Gen and Lt Gen, and equivalents of each Service form a Study Group, with concurrence from the Army, Navy and Air HQ, to look at uncomfortable or awkward facts and trends, and analyze them service-wise in a frank and forthright, no-holds-barred manner, taking an institutional, holistic view. The recommendation of retired officers has been made since serving officers cannot undertake this task without prejudice to their careers. This group may have a “mandate” to complete its work in say, 12 months after commencement, and present its findings to its respective service HQ. Needless to say, such work should be entirely honorary and done for the love of the uniform and loyalty to it. Recommendations for further work will have to be made after wider consultation within IESM. The IESM is well-poised to take an initiative in this matter without prejudice to pursuing its original focus of OROP, One Rank, One Pension.
This note, written in a hurry and influenced by my present, immediate proximity to the sinking of INS Vindhyagiri, is directed at senior serving ranks and veterans who can influence policy and decisions, brings out my thoughts and ideas as a critical view of the actual problems on-the-ground. I realize that many of my statements are contentious, but I believe that understanding the state of affairs as they actually are on-the-ground, no matter how unpalatable, is necessary. This note should not be considered as a pessimistic or negative, and it definitely does not aim to demean the great effort that the three Services have put in over the decades or to trivialize their achievements. It is merely an honest personal effort to analyze a serious problem, which in my opinion, if not addressed expeditiously and seriously, would have grave consequences for India’s military and the Indian nation.

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