a maverick army chief


With a Government determined to put India on song, can Chief-Designate Gen Dalbir Singh make a difference for his Army?

After much controversy, ill-informed speculation and brouhaha, the current Vice Chief, Lt Gen Dalbir Singh Suhag, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, VSM, ADC has been cleared to take over as the next Army Chief. He is faced with complex and unique challenges which no past Chief has ever been confronted with. These are in terms of his acceptability to a Government which has just secured an unprecedented mandate to rule India without the ugly baggage of coalition politics coming in their way. Gen Dalbir will thus have Hobson’s choice confronting him from Day 1: He has a brilliant chance to use his military reputation as a hard-nosed, pragmatic, unconventional; in other words a maverick, no-nonsense officer to become an iconic Chief of the 1.25 million strong Army – under a political leadership that promises to dynamically drive India forward. He also has a chance to get consigned to the dustbin of history as a lame-duck Chief who was crippled by the belief that he was not wanted. Instead, both Dalbir and the Modi Government are expected to consign the past to the dustbin and take the nation and its proud and capable Army; its Armed Forces forward. Gen Raj Mehta examines the challenges that lie ahead.

Gen Dalbir Singh – he prefers being addressed by this name rather than by his surname – is all about Honour, Integrity, Flag, a magical cadence that has been the Indian Army’s DNA since prehistoric days. It illuminated the battle-fields of Kurukshetra as much as it illuminates today’s Army. In translation, Naam, Namak, Nishan is the bedrock of what Dalbir is all about. He lives this credo in thought, word and in deed and the time has now come for him to demonstrate its macro application to his Army and country.


This writers’ personal recall of Dalbir is from the time when he was commanding an LC/CI Brigade in North Kashmir from July 2003 to March 2005. This writer was during the same period commanding the flanking Division after which he was posted as Chief of Staff in the Kashmir Valley. Commanders of flanking formations on the LC/CI grid keep in intimate touch and meet regularly not just in deployment areas but also during professional discussions/war games. As Chief of Staff, it was a job charter for this officer to visit key formations and get briefed by their commanders. Dalbir came across as a supremely fit and mentally alert, phlegmatic, cool officer with an air of quiet authority. He commanded his very sensitive formation in a competent, ‘hands on’ manner, doing well enough to be nominated for the NDC course for which only top performing commanders are selected. The remarkable thing is that Dalbir is a non-‘psc’; a coveted acronym signifying ‘Passed Staff College’ awarded to officers on completing this highly competitive course. Those who do not attend Staff College almost always get wasted out early on ascending the promotion pyramid. The fact that he has made it to Top Gun status without this almost mandatory qualification is the clearest indication of his professional calibre as a maverick soldier-General who, unlike other peers who have fancied this prefix will have something special to deliver as India’s 26th Army Chief.

The rest of his story is easily narrated. A third-generation soldier (his father was a JCO), he is a Sainik School Chittorgarh and NDA graduate. Commissioned in 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (FF) in June 1974, Dalbir was posted at the IMA when Op Pawan started. He volunteered to join his Unit, commanding his company with distinction. That he pulled it off is rare as the Army’s Personnel Management Branch; the Military Secretary’s (MS) Branch discourages volunteering. He later raised and commanded 33 RR in Nagaland. Dalbir has done professional courses in USA and a UN course in Kenya and, besides his Brigade command, was GOC of Kargil-based 8 Mountain Division. He later headed the Special Frontier Force (SFF)/Establishment 22; a covert MHA organization with ‘behind-the-lines’ operational capability. On promotion, he commanded 3 Corps at Dimapur and then Eastern Command before moving as Vice Chief. A fitness freak, he rarely misses his 10 km@day regimen, is a keen rider, golfer and a teetotaler. Married, he has a daughter and an Army officer son.

Dalbir will have a 30 month tenure commencing 31 July 2014 and faces formidable challenges that will publicly test his mettle and ability to think through and come out with dynamic, synergized and implementable solutions. This is because the institutional lassitude shown by the outgoing Government has effectively set the Armed Forces 15-20 years or three-four plan periods behind where they should have been. This is a serious strategic void which will need urgent and well thought through solutions.

Burying Past Controversies
At the outset, it must be reiterated both for the incoming Government and Chief-designate that past controversies must be buried even before taking charge. In the run of history, these controversies will probably not even matter provided what is now delivered makes the past akin to a blip not worth recalling. In this context, the current Chief has rendered yeoman service in refusing to be bitter/revengeful; focusing instead on revival of the Army’s core DNA of Service Before Self. Dalbir has thus been provided a stable platform notwithstanding that this was achieved by Gen Bikram Singh despite the Government’s inept defence contract handling, and low priority for defence preparedness/infrastructure and indifference towards keeping soldiers motivated in matters of pay, allowances and the One Rank One Pension (OROP) demand that, though accepted in a pre-election rush of adrenalin, still languishes in bureaucratic wrangling.
A Blue Ribbon Commission Needed for the Army
This writer has pegged for this critical need for several years now, but without being heard or acknowledged. All progressive countries in the world, including America, the UK, Israel to name a few have carried out re-assessments of their Armed Forces. Surely 67 years down the line, the Indian Armed Forces and certainly the Army also need a serious review. History provides empirical evidence that a military system is too loaded with biases and mindsets to ‘auto-correct’ itself. When America, for instance, felt that Jointmanship between its Services was needed and the Armed Forces had neither the skill-sets nor the resolve/desire to get going, what did get going for them were two politicians; a Democrat and a Republican who walked a long mile to get the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 passed; a law that makes Jointmanship central to American warfighting. This is the only approach that will work for India too and which Dalbir can drive as the key gainer, since no Army, Navy or Air Force can structurally reform themselves; Constitutional oversight is needed.
Preferably headed by a distinguished, retired Justice/eminent non-military hence hopefully unbiased intellectual of wide-ranging experience and stature, this eminence, assisted by the Army Chief as part of its charter, must relook at the Army externally from A to Zee and make suggestions that rewire the Army for an India that aspires for unchallenged regional if not world status by 2030-2035.
This review must start with the basic brick – the induction/selection norms for the NDA – a tri-service institution that is visibly declining from its once respected world-class status as a top officer-cadet provider. The Commission should also examine why the DRDO, itself is in need for major reworking, should call the shots for officer selection through its antiquated DIPR laboratory and why HQ IDS cannot take over this critical responsibility. Along with the NDA whose product Dalbir is, equal time must also be given to the OTA, IMA and NCC/University entry schemes as all of them are working below par.
That is not all. The Army has a staggering shortage of almost 10,000 officers which the MOD hasn’t resolved for decades. This issue needs macro resolution because tucked inside its complexities yet never discussed is its archaic, understaffed, entirely opaque personnel selection system for officers; its MS Branch which works the way the Chief of the day wants it to. There is otherwise no reason why so many highly qualified and capable officers; not just non-psc but even psc officers get wasted out with around 15 years service and leave prematurely/with minimum pensionable benefits or assigned to low grade jobs till superannuated. The ‘Mandalisation of the selection process for promotion and career courses on the basis of ‘quotas’, not merit is also a retrograde ‘protect my turf’ anachronism that results in these highly qualified officers getting sidelined. The adverse impact of such arbitrary policies on officer morale and work ethic is severe.
The fact that makes Dalbir a maverick Chief-designate – an independent, unconventional thinker and doer – is that being a non-psc, he can get things done that others could not, being part of the ‘psc’ system as it were. Link the Army’s current training system to this – the Army’s Training Command, ARTRAC, which is in desperate need for a serious relook at what it does and does not do (it ‘trains’ officers; hardly ‘educates’ them which is a valuable battlefield need) – and you realize that it is only such a Commission which can redress the wrong practices and mindsets that have accumulated over 70 years.
Not the least, questions need to be asked why we are producing officers of mediocre capability whose only merit seems to be conforming and compliance instead of producing maverick, fire-in-the-belly oriented doers who provide transformational out-of-the-box leadership whose net worth is assessed by a 360 degree review of capability instead of the linear and outdated confidential three point reportage that we have dogmatically followed unchanged since 1947.
Gross deficiencies in Warfighting Equipment; Absence of Indigenization; R&D
Readers will note that this writer has deliberately placed “brains” over brawn/military muscle for the reason best epitomized by wartime Chief VP Malik who, in the midst of the Kargil War had grimly stated that his Army would fight with what it had, if Governance could not provide adequate warfighting wherewithal. We won that war but had over 2000 bravehearts dead and wounded. Sadly, even as China rapidly increases its warfighting capability and defence infrastructure, we remain worse off than we were during Kargil.

Dalbir also therefore has to address this largely MOD void proactively. While Naam, Namak, Nishan will always be honoured by the soldier it is time MOD is woken up from its slumber by a maverick Chief aided by a Government mandated to exponentially improve our defence preparedness. That this will include a serious relook at the DRDO and defence R&D; at far wider Public/Private partnership for defence production; simpler and superior high-end equipment procurement norms ex-import and a desire to ensure that TOT norms are loaded in favour of indigenization; all placed on a tight delivery-cum quality timeline and oversight.

Internal Health of the Army

Recent outbreaks of serious and sometimes gross violation of discipline, financial impropriety, senior officer professional and social conduct, poor implementation of operational norms and declining officer-man interpersonal relations as well as low morale emanating from flawed personnel management policies that are defended vociferously instead of being made open for review are issues that affect the internal health of the Army and for which Dalbir needs to look inwards. He must start this exercise on Day 1 without looking over his shoulders as the hitherto unexploited Governments ‘Rules of Business’ provide him the leeway of doing so.

Inter-Service and Inter Ministerial Synergy

Dalbir has to have the skill-sets to drive home the point that whether it is a review of our NFU nuclear policy, diplomacy anywhere where military stakes are involve infrastructure, internal security or other nation-first developments, the military must be part of the apex level decision making instead of being left out in the cold; the sickening prevailing norm.

In conclusion, while Government may take time to settle down, the Chief-designate will be well advised to use his waiting period to finalise his redux plans for the Army in terms of facing a daunting future with competence, confidence, energy and equanimity.

1800 words (less title and preamble)
Maj Gen Raj Mehta (Retd)
21 May 2014


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