“When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled”
In a recent article posted on his website, the venerable ‘conservative strategist’ Bharat Karnad deduced that professional and personal animus between two key officers led, in part, to Indian Navy’s rejection of the LCA.
Mr. Karnad is one of India’s foremost national security experts (You can read more about him here). His blogs are a rich source of contemporary wisdom for many aerospace and defence aficionados like me. But here, his mighty pen seems to have taken a wrong loop.
Although the navy didn’t issue an official rebuttal, the accusation was stoutly rejected by naval officials, serving and retired, through various channels. As a former navy test pilot, I have known both officers singled out by the author. They were already senior test crew when I was growing up in the ‘Tester’ circles of Bangalore. In my opinion, both are aviation professionals of the highest calibre available in our navy today. As test crew, actions and decisions emanate from experiential learning, critical analyses and sound homework, not petty squabbles or heresy as pictured in the article.
But they are humans. So are others involved in the decision-making chain. In a navy that is turning increasingly technical by the day, professionals of their stature sometimes attain cult status. We all know about the ‘Halo Effect‘. The navy is not immune to it. While you may disagree with Mr. Karnad’s specific example, the issue merits a larger question – are our decision-making systems in defence management sound enough to trump the ‘halo & horns effect’?
At the centre of Mr. Karnad’s hypothesis are two ‘White Tigers’ handling crucial aspects of the program. One is a man whose hands-on expertise on LCA Navy is beyond contest. Nobody comes close. He has been shaping the business end of this aircraft for many years. However, he has never worked in Headquarters as Staff. On the other side is an accomplished official who, after doing his share of flying, now occupies a high chair in NHQ and is ordained for higher responsibilities. Both are towering personalities in the niche field of experimental flight testing and hold rare combinations of experience and expertise.
Those who toil at the ground level and those who manage programmes at apex headquarters grapple with a different set of challenges. They bring to the table varying perspectives which together enable a 360-degree appraisal of any issue at higher levels. In many respects, a tenure at service headquarters signifies the end of innocence. Call it the big picture, dirty picture or what you will; often tough decisions have to be taken, including letting go of projects that have become untenable. It may not always be possible to carry every foot soldier along in such decisions. It is not a popularity contest. Some hearts will inevitably burn.
But when you have two ‘superstars’ playing crucial roles in such debates and things become far too technical or personal for higher rungs to resolve, it takes somebody with the right balance of seniority and knowhow to mediate their professional differences. Unfortunately, such stalwarts are either retired or fallen from grace to moderate or separate ‘jasbaat’ from raw facts. Long gone are iconic ‘White Tigers’ like Pasha and Arun Prakash who could have resolved professional differences (typical of this fraternity, fighter pilots tend to be highly opinionated and refuse to back down in any debate unless umpired by one of their own!) without even a whiff of the so-called ‘bad blood’ spilling out into public domain.
Every single case in service headquarters starts with preparing a ‘file’. The available information or facts about the case are put on the right. A blank, yellow file noting sheet is pinned up on the left side. The staff officer initiating the case writes his noting and slowly the file is escalated up through the hierarchy – directorate, service headquarters and then the ministry. At each level, individual staff officers are expected to do their due diligence. It is a terribly slow and tedious procedure that has not changed for years. Mountains of files pile up on PSO’s tables on a daily basis. Indeed, senior officers with ‘slower processors’, are known to take home trunk-loads of files in the evening. In such a system, moderating disparate views and highly technical discussions can be an intimidating task; not everyone’s cup of tea. Again, a dependency is built towards ‘subject matter experts’ or domain experts. How can you discount individual biases from creeping into such an archaic system?
In debates ‘on file’ in higher headquarters, senior officers often have their views ‘prepared’ by junior staff, whose own opinions are sometimes stifled in the process. This was never intended to be but has increasingly become the norm. Ideally, opinions should go up and decisions should come down. But it does not always happen that way. Unfortunately, in our scheme of things, issues can be given a spin through various informal mechanisms and protocols. Individuals with the ‘halo effect’ can have a free run because there is, as it is, a serious dearth of professional competence and domain knowledge in decision-making circles when files escalate to the ministry. This way, the file-based system can sometimes breed faulty decisions.
We have been lucky that in most situations straddling personal and technical differences of opinion, it is usually ‘well fought both of you, but Navy is the winner’. But, the ‘halo effect’ and ‘superstar syndrome’ can sometimes cause entire directorates in HQ to move like a herd. We should rely on organisations and not individuals when it comes to projects of this magnitude. Indian Air Force has the Aircraft & Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE), its own premier flight test organisation that presides over all flight evaluations on behalf of Air Headquarters. The Navy has no such organisation of its own, so entire projects pivot around a few good men who have to withstand innumerable pressures & challenges, both from within the navy and the entire DRDO-HAL community. Again, this leaves us vulnerable to dependence on individuals and their pet peeves.
Then there is the setting sun syndrome. It is said that nobody worships a setting sun. In a debate that is sequentially fought on file under a pyramidal hierarchy, it is very difficult and counter-intuitive to actively contest the views of somebody whose star is on the ascent. Voices of lesser mortals or those who ‘missed the bus’ seldom carry beyond their four walls.
So my friends, two sides to every story. Don’t miss the wood for the trees.
As ‘superstars’ and ‘rising suns’, encourage professional dissent in letter, spirit and ‘on file’. Even if you are reborn seven times, you can never know all there is to know about ships, aircraft and submarines and all that they entail. Before we pat ourselves on the back and claim that all decisions are collaborative and consultative, please open those files and see if all views are free, frank and devoid of one-upmanship in the true sense of the word.
Don’t ape the west. They have long dumped file-based decision-making systems, while we are still holding on to ours. Don’t expect to induct modern, fly-by-wire deck-based aircraft with decision-making mechanisms that are rooted in the colonial era. Improve the decision-making apparatus by building & empowering institutions, encouraging dissent and reducing reliance on individual streaks of brilliance. Let each idea or opinion be evaluated on its own merit regardless of who proposes it.
The grass that gets trampled when elephants fight may hold seeds of the future.
© KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017-19. All rights reserved. Picture: Light Combat Aircraft by Aatish Pillay. A lightly edited version of this article was published by The Quint. You can access it here.
Views expressed are personal and written with a view to introspect and encourage positive changes. Feel free to debate and contribute to the discourse. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.