Kerala, ‘God’s Own Country’, and the land of my ancestors saw the worst floods in a century recently. Even as I write, armed forces, NGOs, volunteers and civil administration (in that order) are toiling day and night to bring succour to the affected. The operations will go on ceaselessly till the flood waters recede and people return to their homes.
A similar bout of unusually heavy rains and flash floods swept away large parts of the hill state Uttarakhand in June 2013. Natural calamities cannot be wished away in this part of the world. Neither can we hide the fact that the havoc wrought upon us by many disasters like these are manmade. But for the armed forces, the state was doomed to suffer incalculable tragedy.
I am raising a different point. Who will save the saviours?
Indian government calls upon the armed forces in each and every Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Relief (HADR) situation without ever pondering if they are suitably equipped. And when the dust settles, they are quietly returned to the barracks and hangars, a few gallantry awards are pinned up, and the state goes back into deep slumber till disaster strikes again.
This to me is a bigger disaster than our abject failure to scale up to the challenges. An anecdote is in order.
In Dec 2004 a disaster of the scale never witnessed in living memory struck Asia. I was a young Executive Officer (EXO) aboard a naval missile corvette. The Indian Navy, ambassador of India’s ‘disaster diplomacy’, faced a peculiar quandary. While thousands of our own citizens bore the brunt of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, MoD and MEA were busy drawing up plans to despatch naval assets overnight to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Maldives, and other tsunami-affected countries in neighbouring SE Asia.
When we reached Meulaboh, Indonesia, a tragedy of unimaginable proportions faced us. There was nothing standing almost 3 kms inland from the shore; as if a giant earthmover had pummelled everything to the ground. More than 40,000 people had perished in Meulaboh itself. No jetty or pier was standing. The stench of rotting flesh pervaded the air. Debris and flotsam bobbed on the waves many miles into the sea.
To respond to this scale of tragedy, our small but potent, 100-metre missile corvette was stocked up with relief material totalling over 20-tons. We had to redo stability calculations. Every inch of free space was stockpiled with tinned food, blankets, medical supplies and the like. Our missile tubes were turned into messiahs of succour overnight, filled to capacity with biscuits. A lone Alouette (Chetak) helicopter embarked the deck of a survey ship in company.
All that we had onboard to deliver the relief material ashore was the 2-ton Chetak helicopter and a small inflatable raft. I don’t need to narrate further sequence of events because we are masters at ‘jugaad‘.
True to our style, we pulled out every trick in the bag and still managed to make some impact. Alongside us, stood mighty assault ships (USS Bonhomme Richard) and aircraft carriers of the US Navy. High-speed assault craft and Sea Knight helicopters of the US Navy undertook day and night operations. Advanced Landing Ships of Singapore Navy, a country about 4000-times smaller than India, were better equipped than us. Does that strike you as odd? Or is it just me?
India learnt much about HADR from that operation. A veritable tsunami of changes were brought in, including induction of INS Jalashwa (former USS Trenton) and six refurbished UH3H helicopters. The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) was constituted in 2006. They have done some great work. But take away the armed forces component and it’ll all crumble like plaster of Paris in an earthquake. Armed forces continue to be the mainstay of all disaster response in India.
We don’t lack in gallantry or bravado. It’s the equipment, and timely upgrades to keep up with our rising mandates, that fail us each and every time.
It is 2018 and all of India is still cheering for the Indian Armed Forces as they pull out all stops. This time it is Kerala. Helicopters come into their own in such tragedies. But has anybody cared to ask how many do we have and of what vintage? The Navy doesn’t have enough to field for their own ships. Fortunately, we have no real battles to fight.
In civil aviation, we have less than 300 helicopters. In a country of 1.3-billion, that’s a peanut-sized capability. Imagine how many lives could’ve been saved if there were thousands of them with the right equipment, training and crew. In this country, highly-skilled Aircrewmen (Divers) who have undertaken audacious over-sea rescues have to ‘upskill’ after early retirement and become fire managers or take to the farms to survive.
Limiting the discussion to Indian Navy, between 2004 and 2018, all that we have added to our fleet are six antique UH3H helicopters dug out of an aircraft boneyard in USA. Hundreds of gallant aircrew cool their heels in briefing rooms, getting no younger or better. For them, a normal ‘chilled out’ day can suddenly be pushed into an HADR overdrive on ‘war footing’. IHQ MoD continues to be under a ‘case is being progressed’ coma, waiting for ‘death by powerpoint’ and now uploading pictures on Facebook or Twitter handles when they should be beating down the doors of PMO for better helicopters.
In such a scenario, it’s not surprising to see naval Seakings (decades old that haven’t even seen an upgrade) land on rooftops or kick-up the spindrift so lives can be saved. Looking back, i feel we haven’t really come a long way from the Indian Ocean Tsunami.
Every Independence Day & Republic Day, gallantry awards, commendations and citations are handed out (most deservedly). These soldiers, airmen and sailors represent those who do what it takes with what they got; whether it’s 30-year old Seakings or half a century-old Chetaks (with the same rescue strop). Aided and abetted by successive governments, the glaring mismatch between aspiration and capability is covered by a huge bandaid of awards.
Don’t mistake me. I am not for a moment grudging them their awards. Far from it. When the balloon goes up is a bad time to do your homework. The Kargil War of 1999 couldn’t have been won by writing service papers or completing risk assessment matrices. But we have the unique trait of turning every mission, even HADR, into a warlike scenario. What’s worse is the chest thumping that follows.
I think there are three aspects to this malaise.
Firstly, our global aspirations have outstripped our capacity in real terms. I speak for helicopters. I am sure submariners and shippies have their stories to tell. Governments, both at state level and at the centre, have displayed nothing but apathy and disdain for helicopters. Yet they helplessly run into our arms when calamity strikes. We happily oblige because it’s the correct thing to do. Where’s the fire anyway? There’s no war going on. But can we rule out an HADR contingency when forces are committed to operations elsewhere?
Secondly, when drawing up the numbers for potential replacements and new inductions, have the numbers for HADR been considered? It’s time to move on from the simplistic arithmetic of ‘number of hangars + maintenance reserve + strike-off wastage’ when computing future capabilities. Our present fleet may require an actual maintenance reserve of 100%. Yet we continue to be conservative in our estimates for the future. This leaves us perennially short of helicopters.
Thirdly, all of armed forces must stop falling for over-the-top media reportage and publicity stunts. I am afraid, our decision makers are playing into the arms of politicians and their cronies by their over-enthusiasm and penchant for optics. As per a rescued victim’s account “they (navy) brought medicines for my wife and a colouring book for my son” (Times of India, Mumbai, 19 Aug, Pg 8). Real wars and rescues are not fought on Facebook or Twitter, even if it feels like so in these times.
Every year, teams of civil services probationers, parliamentary teams, ministers and their lapdogs, visit armed forces units, border outposts and frontline warships. These are the powers-that-be who will one day sign-off deals on the dotted line while servicemen watch from the sidelines. The forces are forever rolling out the red carpet for them, sparing no efforts to make them feel like royalty, beating up age-old Chetaks and streaking across the skies with fighters that have no teeth. How about sitting them down and explaining how the numbers weigh against us? How about taking them to the hangars and showing them the ‘leaking Seaking’ menstruating small patches of oil & fluid? How about showing them the frayed rescue strops and L1 quality flying boots, two different sizes of which were found on the feet of an aviator who went down in an air crash? Instead, we give them theatrics, T-shirts and sea caps with a 5-course menu.
Not everything can be blamed on bureaucrats either. Some amidst us can give them a run for their money.
Now, even gallantry awards are being questioned. Not by people outside, but those within us. We seem to have quietly forgotten that the lack of modern equipment can make even the ordinary an occasion for conspicuous bravery. It is not for us to berate that. Draw the right lessons. Treat every award with the gravitas it deserves. But don’t use that to cover up for systemic shortcomings.
I have belaboured the lack of capable helicopters and modern equipment in many of my blogs. But every year, I see a distinct slide towards ‘window-dressing’ and investment in frivolous publicity stunts like ‘Mig29 versus Lamborghini’ while we should really be thinking India versus China, or something of that order.
Remember, there is no shortage of the gallant. Get the right capability. Get the right numbers. Celebrate the awards but don’t lose the plot. For armed forces, the race for victory on social media is a race all the way to the bottom.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2018. All rights reserved. I can be reached at email@example.com. Views are personal. Picture courtesy Indian Navy’s official website.