The ethos of ‘Responsibility, Authority and Accountability’ is central to the performance of the Armed Forces

by A K Singh

A recent print media report suggested that the government has asked the Army to take action against commanders in whose jurisdictions the terrorist attacks took place i.e. at Uri, Nagrota and Sunjuwan camps, with considerable loss of lives. This is speculation at the moment, there being no corroboration from official levels. Nevertheless, the issue highlighted by the report is important and sensitive, with serious ramifications.

Before writing this piece, I consulted a number of well-informed veterans, across the rank structure to feel the pulse. A number of issues were thrown up, with near unanimity on most and divergence on some.

Responsibility - Authority - Accountability

This is one of the most important ethos on which the Armed Forces function. Whilst this should be the basis for all government functioning, it is not so in India, where accountability is rarely owned/established. Though one must add that things are changing under the present regime and we may see a greater focus on Accountability under Modi 2.0, both at the political and bureaucratic level. In the Armed forces, it can be no other way.

Where do we stand? My sense is that the Armed Forces are quick to act against any act of personal misdemeanour/violation of Army Act including at senior levels, and stringent punishment has been awarded depending on the seriousness.

Yet, it is also true that we have been reluctant to establish professional accountability for acts of omission/commission and even incompetence. At best, such officers have been removed from command/sensitive appointments and their further advancement sealed.

In World War 2, the American Army was ruthless in sacking senior commanders who were not found up to the mark, though the long duration of the war gave some the opportunity to make a comeback and redeem themselves. Yet after the war, in the 1950s and 60s, they stopped enforcing professional accountability, resulting in the debacle of Vietnam War. A costly lesson had been learnt!

The Indian Army is a command-oriented army and every officer in the General Cadre has to tenet a command billet, though some may not be suitable for the rigour of command. A staff stream has been tried with little success; officers being classified on the basis of merit rather than suitability. There is also a tendency to sometimes, put extra focus on management at the expense of leadership, thus skewing the selection system.

There are issues in the Air Force and Navy too, with professional accountability being owned/established, albeit sporadically. There have been a number of air crashes in recent times, but one is not aware of follow up actions to establish accountability. We have been flying vintage aircrafts without long due upgrades; who is responsible and should be held accountable? These are complex issues which need to be brought to the fore, so that precious lives are not lost, for lack of accountability for delays in urgently-needed operational upgrades/procurement.

The Operational Environment

The counter insurgency environment we operate in is complex and the challenges of operational command immense. The insurgent/terrorist mostly has the first mover advantage, more so when he is in a suicide mode. Commanding Officers (COs) and Commanders have to maintain a balance between resources that are deployed to secure the bases and what they use to dominate the operational environment, their main responsibility.

It is also worth mentioning that our perimeter/ base defences are still largely bereft of modern technology and rely largely on manpower which is always scarce, keeping in view the multiple operational tasks entrusted to a unit. It is high time we empower the units with technology assisted solutions for defence of their bases, so that fighting strength can be directed at their main operational tasks.

Many studies have been undertaken, but the implementation has been tardy. The task beckons the attention of our Defence Minister, whose appointment has aroused many expectations.

The Army hierarchy also needs to review the load on the troops, as fatigued troops are more likely to commit errors on their watch. Whilst taking action against commanders at various levels, we have to also guard against creating a psychosis that binds them to their bases and curbs their initiative. In the complex environment of counter insurgency and proxy war, there will be reverses and loss of lives; we have to minimise these, without losing our operational focus and initiative.

A tendency of senior commanders to push their subordinates, beyond a point, can be counter productive. Lives of officers and troops are precious, and it is the onerous responsibility of senior commanders to minimise losses. In the 21st century, our motto cannot be – ‘at any cost’ but has to be – ‘at least cost’. Commanders who achieve their operational objectives at excessive cost, will have to be reviewed by the hierarchy.

The Nuances of Establishing Accountability

The first issue is that each case has to be judged on its merit, within the established procedure in the Armed Forces. In extreme cases, where prime facie it appears to be a gross failure of Command, the hierarchy is within its rights to move out a commander, which in itself is a very serious indictment. However, further action should be based on legal framework, with an opportunity for defence being provided to the indicted officer.

All such actions need to be taken within the ambit of the service concerned, directions from outside the service are not desirable and will lead to resentment and showing the service hierarchy in poor light. Our internal mechanisms are robust enough to establish appropriate accountability and ensure corrective actions. We should ensure their impartiality and fairness.

At what level should such accountability be established? To start with, the direct command channel of COs and Commanders will always remain responsible and accountable and there are no two views about it. But beyond that, indirect responsibility and accountability is equally important. Has the hierarchy responded and taken note of issues raised by subordinates? Someone needs to answer for failure to provide requisite wherewithal for troops.

Why wasn’t the Philip Campose study acted upon with urgency? Are we loading subordinate commanders with too many KRA’s, administrative tasks and visits? Are the short command tenures putting unnecessary pressures? I’m sanguine the hierarchy is seized of such issues, for there are no easy answers or templates.

An important yet complex issue has been raised. The Indian soldier trusts the hierarchy implicitly and will risk his life willingly based on this trust. The officers of the Indian Armed Forces have always led from the front and walked the talk. There are aberrations, but these are few and far between, for such a large organisation. The result is that the Armed Forces have always responded and performed, earning the respect of the citizens across the board.

The ethos of ‘Responsibility, Authority and Accountability’ is central to the optimum performance of the Armed Forces and they should never be shy of enforcing personal and professional accountability, even if this remains alien to the rest. But such accountability has to be established in a fair, transparent and judicious manner based on the internal mechanisms of the Armed Forces. We must guard against creating an impression of outside pressure on such sensitive issues.