Indian Army 2024 : the Known Unknowns

On India China Line of Actual Control cum McMahon Line the Army Chief indicated the situation as, “stable but sensitive”.

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Chief of Army Staff General Manoj Pande addresses a press conference ahead of Army Day, in New Delhi, on Thursday, January 11, 2024. PTI

The pre-Army Day press conference with interaction by the Army Chief with the media in an open forum provides a glimpse of the concerns of the service in the year gone by and preparedness for the challenges ahead.

Indian Army Chief General Manoj Pande has very aptly covered some of the concerns that emerged during 2023- from spike in militant incidents in the Rajouri-Poonch sector of Jammu and Kashmir leading to a high toll in terms of casualties in the Army particularly officers and serious rights violations with reported incident of Death in Custody.

“My guidance to soldiers and commanders is unambiguous — in terms of respect for human rights, there will be zero tolerance for any actions on that account,” he said. “We have clearly laid out guidelines spelling out what you (Army personnel) must do and what you must not do in those areas and for the soldiers to be able to (operate)in a professional manner,” Gen Pande said.

On India China Line of Actual Control cum McMahon Line the Army Chief indicated the situation as, “stable but sensitive”.

“The situation on the Northern border is stable yet sensitive. We continue to talk both at military and diplomatic level as per established protocols and procedures to find resolution to the balance issues,” he said. “Our operational preparedness in these areas continues to be of a very high level. The deployment is both robust and balanced,” he said.

“Currently our attempt is to continue to talk to go back to the status quo ante which existed in the middle of 2020. And once that happens we can look at the larger issue of troop reduction. Till the time, whatever forces are required to be deployed along the LAC, we will continue to do that,” he said.

Another issue of concern that has emerged during 2023 is the insecurity in the North Eastern State of Manipur which had graduated from an ethnic crisis into an insurgency which the Army Chief General Pande assured was being tracked closely.

“The situation across the Indo-Myanmar border is something that we are closely watching,” he said. “That, combined with the situation in Manipur, is something we are keeping a close watch on,” he added. The Army chief said 30 per cent of the weapons looted from security forces in the state have been recovered. This still leaves over 4000 arms with militant groups and radical civil society elements indicating the nature of the challenge.

Known Unknowns

What is also important is to highlight the Known Unknowns which were left unsaid by the Army Chief but may be of significance to the Indian Army in the year ahead –

Firstly, on the modernization front, for the past many decades the Indian Army is facing the challenge of modernizing while being actively deployed operationally be it on the borders or counter militancy operations. Overcoming this dilemma requires some hard decisions in terms of prioritization. One area which can be of help is enhancing reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities for early warning, another is creating rapid response capabilities.

While the diplomatic and military process of negotiations for retraction of the troops on the LAC is on as per the Army Chief, it is evident that this is expected to be a long one. Adopting effective training and restructuring modules is thus called for.

Secondly, the conversion of the Army formations to integrated groups, the progress is expected to be ongoing, how much has been achieved remains to be seen, for this is one of the most crucial reforms for the army for any future multi-domain operational profile.

Thirdly, transforming to a multi domain profile is another challenge with a clear road map required incorporating lessons of the War in Ukraine without diluting the significance of the primary task of the military to conduct kinetic operations.

Fourthly, managing deteriorated situation in states as Manipur due to political mishandling needs hard wired preparations where intelligence is the key. Working beyond the political narratives by keeping the eye on the ground assumes importance for military commanders.

Fifthly, is the commitment to human rights. At least three excesses in conduct of counter insurgency operations have come to light in the past few years – the Nagaland ambush in December 2021, the Amshipora fake encounter in Jammu and Kashmir 2020 and the DIC cases in Poonch Rajauri this year.

While the Army chief has sent a clear message to the troops during his visit on the ground followed by that of the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh – follow up legal action in terms of the ambush in Nagaland and the Amshipora killings remains a work in progress.

This is sending a wrong message to the practitioners on the ground that they can get away through the legal process. Taking these cases to the logical conclusion requires exercising of legal acumen and follow up which needs consideration.

Sixthly, making the Agnipath scheme work without having long term impact on operational readiness on military manpower is significant. With almost a years’ experience on this scheme examining how it is working on the ground and course corrections will be necessary.

Seventhly upholding professionalism vis a vis political bias is expected to be at a premium in 2024 – a general election year. The window of cultural nationalism should not result in political biases which will erode professional standing of the military especially one that is closely involved in internal security dispensations as the Indian Army.

Thus there is more in the Army Chief’s media briefing that was unsaid.

Rahul K Bhonsle

Brigadier (Retired) Rahul K Bhonsle, MSc, MPhil, MBA is an Indian army military veteran with 30 years active field experience in counter militancy and terrorism operations. He is presently Director of Sasia, a South Asian security risk and knowledge management consultancy which specializes in future scenarios, military capacity building and conflict trends in South Asia.

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