Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Trump-Modi “joint statement” strongly affirms US-India security ties

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th Jun 17

Leading into Monday’s meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump, both sides had conspicuously pitched expectations low, portraying it as a “getting-to-know-each-other” summit.

Surprising many, the joint statement, issued by New Delhi and Washington after one-on-one and delegation level talks, turned out to be an assertive endorsement of shared security interests and an expanding strategic partnership.

Whether on cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, on combating Pakistan-backed terrorism, regional issues like Afghanistan and North Korea or US-Indian defence sales, there was convergence enough to compensate for the mild divergences in trade and commerce.

The Indo-Pacific

Trump’s blow-hot-blow-cold vacillation on China had observers anticipating a downgrade in Washington’s formerly vigorous cultivation of New Delhi as a strategic hedge to China. However, that was put to rest in the very first section of the joint statement.

Echoing the “Joint Strategic Vision” spelt out during Barack Obama’s January 2015 visit to New Delhi, the document “agreed to take further measures to strengthen their partnership.” This was outlined in the statement as a set of principles that regional countries were urged to adopt.

These included the Chinese bugbears of “respecting freedom of navigation, overflight, and commerce throughout the region”; and a call to nations “to resolve territorial and maritime disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law.”

This is directed at Beijing, and its aggressive assertion of claims over territory and waters in the South and East China Seas. Beijing has also rejected the ruling of an international court of arbitration that rejected China’s “historical claim” over most of the South China Sea, as expressed by its so-called “Nine Dash Line”.

Former White House staffer, Josh White, has noted that a joint statement’s structure is designed to send a broader message. He tweets: “In this case, leading off with a section on the Indo-Pacific sends a signal that the emphasis embodied in the [Joint Strategic Vision 2015] is still operative…”

In another broadside directed at Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the joint statement supports the creation of infrastructure for boosting regional economic connectivity, but only “while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the environment.”

India has ostentatiously rejected the BRI on the grounds that its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) violates India’s territorial integrity, being unilaterally routed through Gilgit-Baltistan, which India claims as part of Jammu & Kashmir.

Pakistan-backed terrorism

Another Indian gain is the strong statement against terrorism, especially that originating in Pakistan: “The leaders called on Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries. They further called on Pakistan to expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai, Pathankot, and other cross-border terrorist attacks perpetrated by Pakistan-based groups.”

The joint statement resolves to cooperate in combating “terrorist threats from groups including Al-Qa’ida, ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria], Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, D-Company [Dawood Ibrahim’s group], and their affiliates.”

Leading into the summit, there were Indian apprehensions that Trump’s anti-terrorist preoccupations were restricted to West Asian groups like ISIS. As it turned out, Trump ticked all the Indian boxes, calling out Pakistan unequivocally.

Also gratifying to India was the US administration’s designation, just prior to the summit, of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen chief, Syed Salahuddin, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.

China, in contrast, continues to block India’s bid to place Azhar Masood, the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed chief, on a UN terrorist threat.

In last night’s US-India statement, “the leaders welcomed a new consultation mechanism on domestic and international terrorist designations listing proposals.”

While Obama had been reluctant to do this, Trump agreed to affirming “support for a U.N. Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism that will advance and strengthen the framework for global cooperation and reinforce the message that no cause or grievance justifies terrorism.”

“Major defence partnership”

Putting meat on the bones of America’s recent designation of India as a “major defence partner”, the joint statement equated India with the closest US allies. “The United States and India look forward to working together on advanced defence equipment and technology at a level commensurate with that of the closest allies and partners of the United States.”

As expected, the joint statement noted that the US has offered India the sale of Sea Guardian Unmanned Aerial Systems, to “enhance India’s capabilities and promote shared security interests.” The over $2 billion sale proposed is for 22 Guardian systems.

Also in the delivery pipeline are four Boeing P-8I Poseidon maritime aircraft for a billion dollars; about $3 billion worth of helicopters – including 22 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and 15 CH-47F Chinook heavy lifters – and a $700 million order for 145 M-777 ultra-light howitzers.

Separately, on Monday, the US Congress was notified about a proposed sale to India of a C-17 Globemaster III heavy lift transport aircraft for an estimated $366 million.

As Business Standard had revealed (“No F-16 deal during Modi’s visit to US), the proposal by Lockheed Martin to transfer its production line from the US to build the F-16 in India was discussed, but not included in the joint statement.

Votaries of the F-16 would take heart from Modi’s remarks to the media, in which he said: “President Trump and I have also spoken about strengthening bilateral defence technology and our trade and manufacturing partnership, which we believe will be mutually beneficial to us.”

While the two countries’ navies already exercise together in the annual Malabar exercise, which will be held next month, the US could also be joining the biannual Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), which is restricted to littoral countries.

With India already admitted to the Missile Technology Control Regime, the joint statement expressed strong support for “early membership” to the other three global proliferation regimes – the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Wassenaar Arrangement, and the Australia Group.

Trump also reaffirmed American support “for India’s permanent membership on a reformed U.N. Security Council.”

Monday, 26 June 2017

India, US to set agenda for “major defence partnership”

India wanted armed Predator drone (pictured), but US is offering unarmed Guardian maritime drone instead

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th Jun 17

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets US President Donald Trump for the first time on Monday in Washington DC, healthy defence ties between the two countries are expected to buoy the discussions.

Key issues that will be discussed include: Operationalizing India’s unique status as a “major defence partner” of America; the proposed $2 billion sale of Guardian remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) to India; and negotiation of a security agreement that would allow the US to import sensitive communications equipment to India.

Officials on both sides are playing down expectations of concrete outcomes, given the unpredictability of Trump and Modi. “I don’t see their meeting as being driven by the need for ‘deliverables’. This will be the first time they sit down face-to-face, and they would do well to establish a personal bond that will help them work cooperatively.

As Business Standard reported on Saturday (“No F-16 deal during PM Modi's visit to US”) there would be no forward movement on the proposal from US aerospace major, Lockheed Martin, to build F-16 Block 70 fighter aircraft in India. Instead, as part of a multi-vendor procurement, India’s defence ministry will process the F-16 offer according to the Defence Procurement Procedure of 2016.

Major defence partner

Last December, in the twilight of the Barack Obama administration, the US Congress passed an amendment titled, “Enhancing Defense and Security Cooperation with India”, to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 (NDAA) – an annual bill that allocates funding to the US military.

The India amendment, which forms Section 1292 of the NDAA, designates India a “major defence partner” of the US, and requires US secretaries of defence and state to designate an official to manage Indo-US cooperation. All US administrations must appoint an official who will report 6-monthly to Congress on the defence relationship.

In April, US National Security Advisor, General HR McMaster, affirmed the new designation when he visited New Delhi. How Trump and Modi operationalize the “major defence partnership” will be carefully watched, as that would signal the real content of the relationship.

There is potential for conflict, given Trump concerns like jobs and visas. Yet, India’s need for defence modernisation could also create more jobs in America. For example, moving the F-16 integration line to India to build 100-200 fighters could allow US workers to continue making systems, avionics, engines and other parts in America.

Sale of Guardian drones

Washington and New Delhi are discussing the sale of 22 Guardian RPVs to India, which both sides could use to demonstrate the value of the partnership.

US officials point out that these RPVs are “Category 1” systems under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), for the export of which member countries must assume “presumption of denial”, except on pressing national security grounds.

“An offer of a ‘Category 1’ RPV –exported so far only to US allies engaged in combat operations of critical national security importance – would demonstrate that India is being provided unprecedented technology under ‘major defence partner’ status”, says Benjamin Schwartz of the US-India Business Council (USIBC).

The MTCR tightly controls Category 1 systems because of their ability to deliver nuclear weapons.

America has sold such RPVs to western allies, including France, Italy, Netherlands, Spain and the UK. However, India’s procurement of the Guardian would be the first sale of an RPV of this category outside the NATO framework.

The Guardian, built by General Atomics, is the naval version of the legendary Predator B armed drone (also termed the MQ-9 Reaper), with which the US has killed terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. India had asked for the armed Predator drone. However, Washington turned down that request and instead offered the unarmed Guardian, which performs maritime surveillance.

The Guardian, like the Reaper, cruises at 300 kilometres per hour at 50,000 feet, and flies 14-hour missions during which it can travel to and observe oceanic areas up to 1,800 kilometres from base. It is monitored and controlled remotely from a ground control room, which exchanges imagery in real time with the RPV, over a two-way data link.

Says a US official anonymously: “This offer represents an outstretched arm to India by its friends in Washington. If New Delhi were to reject this, it would severely weaken pro-India voices within the US government and do real damage to the defence relationship.”

The New York Times reports that India has asked the Pentagon for drone sales thrice in the past year. That led to pro-India senators John Cornyn and Mark Warner writing to urge Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to clear the sale, which “would advance U.S. national security interests and protect U.S. jobs.”


Since 2005, the US has urged India to sign an agreement called Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), which lays down stringent safeguards for sensitive radio equipment provided by America.

India’s refusal has caused its military to get key platforms like the C-130J transporter and the P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft with CISMOA-protected communications kit replaced by lower-grade, less secure, commercially-available equipment.

India objects to some safeguards, like inspections of CISMOA-protected equipment on Indian military bases. As negotiations have progressed, Washington has agreed to rename the agreement COMCASA --- or Communications Compatibility And Security Agreement --- to allow India a country-specific agreement, different from what the US Department of Defense (DoD, or Pentagon) has signed with dozens of other countries.

Pentagon sources say their draft of the COMCASA is now with New Delhi, but there is no telling when the defence ministry will act on it.

“During the trilateral US-India-Japan Malabar exercise in July, we have to come up with customised solutions for intercommunications. This happens also in disaster relief situations. After the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, Indian C-17 Globemaster III aircraft flying aid to Nepal could not communicate with US Air Force C-17s operating there because they had no CISMOA-protected radio sets.

Neither side is holding its breath on CISMOA/COMCASA. Modi and Trump could agree on the need to expedite negotiations, but an actual agreement is unlikely. 

Friday, 23 June 2017

No F-16 deal during Modi’s visit to US

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 24th Jun 17

There will be no announcement of the sale of F-16 fighters to the Indian Air Force, or even of Indian interest in the F-16, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official visit to Washington DC on Sunday and Monday.

Contrary to widespread media speculation about an impending announcement of a purchase by India of F-16 Block 70 fighters, and the transfer to India of the integration line in Fort Worth, Texas, New Delhi has told Washington its decision would follow a careful selection procedure, say reliable government sources.

New Delhi has even turned down Washington’s proposal to mention the possible “Make in India” of F-16 fighters in the joint statement that will follow Modi’s meeting on Monday with President Donald Trump in the US capital.

“We are not expecting any announcements [related to the sale of F-16s] in the next six months”, says an official who is aware of US-India negotiations.

Officials in both capitals understand that New Delhi is reluctant to commit itself to either side of a competitive procurement for single-engine fighters, which is still at a preliminary stage. Last October, the Indian Air Force (IAF) sent out a Request for Information (RFI) to global aerospace manufacturers, but has not yet followed that up with a formal tender.

Senior officials in New Delhi indicate that, besides the F-16 Block 70 offered by Lockheed Martin, Saab of Sweden has offered India its new Gripen E fighter, which made its debut flight on June 15.

Fuelling speculation over Saab’s continued relevance in the fighter procurement, Modi phoned up his Swedish counterpart, Stefan Lofven on Wednesday morning. Following what he lauded as a “good discussion”, Modi tweeted: “I deeply appreciate Sweden’s support for Make in India.”

Lockheed Martin has waged an aggressive, American style campaign to push the F-16 -- employing media briefings, sponsoring think tank papers and, at the ongoing Paris Air Show, announcing a joint venture with Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL) to build the F-16 in India on an integration line transferred from Forth Worth, Texas.

At the Paris Air Show on June 20, Lockheed Martin’s vice president, Orlando Carvalho, told DefenseNews that the Trump administration, notwithstanding its commitment to keeping jobs in America, was not opposed to transferring F-16 production to India. Carvalho stated: “We’ve briefed various members of the administration on the program, on what that program would mean for the United States and what it means for India, and throughout all of the briefings and discussions that we’ve done, we haven’t seen any resistance to the program by the administration.”

A key reason for this is that Lockheed Martin does not envisage transferring more than a few hundred jobs to India, of workers involved in final assembly of the F-16 at Fort Worth. Meanwhile, some 6,000 American jobs connected with producing assemblies and sub-assemblies for the F-16 would get a lease of life. Without an Indian order, these jobs would be lost, since there are no other buyers for the F-16.

While Lockheed Martin is pitching to India the opportunity to build F-16s for all future purchases worldwide, DefenseNews quotes Heidi Grant, deputy under secretary of the US Air Force, as stating that interest from potential F-16 buyers was directed mainly towards the used F-16s of countries that were upgrading their fleet to the F-35 Lightning II.

If no new buyer emerges for the F-16, a line transferred from Texas to India would have to shut down after building India’s requirement.

While Lockheed Martin has planned to transfer its existing line to India, Saab has offered to set up a brand new line, while its existing line in Linkoping, Sweden, continues to build the Gripen E for the Swedish and Brazilian air forces.

Saab has sweetened its offer by undertaking to help India in developing and manufacturing the Tejas Mark 1A – an improved version of the current indigenous fighter – and also helping in the development of India’s planned next-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft.

India’s proposed procurement of single-engine fighters stems from the failure of a decade-long competitive acquisition process for 126 medium, multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). That resulted only in an $8.85 billion agreement with French company, Dassault, for 36 Rafale fighters, leaving a shortfall of at least 90 fighters, and up to 200 if one took into account the IAF’s fast-depleting fleet of vintage Russian MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters. 

Self-reliance mirage

Defence manufacture indigenisation is a long way off

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 23rd June 17

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was more optimistic than accurate in claiming on Tuesday, in a speech in Lucknow, that India is “marching ahead” towards self-reliance in building defence equipment. True, Mr Modi has always committed himself to indigenisation in defence manufacture. His 2014 election manifesto pledged to rewrite defence policy, restructure equipment procurement and make India a defence-manufacturing hub. In early 2015, the prime minister lamented before an international audience in Bengaluru that 60 per cent of India’s weaponry was still imported; declaring that increasing domestic manufacture from 40 per cent to 70 would double our defence output. Yet, today the percentage of weaponry India imports remains above 60 per cent.

On March 17, the defence ministry told parliament that 65.62 per cent of the military’s procurement for 2015-16 was done through indigenous sources. It also said that, over the three preceding financial years, 94 capital procurement contracts involving Rs 82,980 crore were signed with Indian vendors; while 56 such contracts, involving Rs 53,684 crore, were signed with foreign vendors during the same period. This would place the indigenous component at over 60 per cent.

But these answers obscured the large overseas component in so-called “indigenous” platforms. The Sukhoi-30MKI and Tejas fighters, the Hawk trainer, Dhruv helicopter and Dornier-228 aircraft are deemed indigenous, but are actually 40-60 per cent imported, according to Parliament’s Standing Committee for Defence. Similarly, Bharat Electronics Ltd imported 44 per cent of the input materials it used in 2015-16, Bharat Earth Movers Ltd imported 21.68 per cent, and other defence public sector units (DPSUs) and ordnance factories (OFs) have lesser, but significant, shares. Adding these import costs would present the real picture of indigenisation.

Meanwhile, the government has been talking up its policy reforms directed at boosting defence manufacture. On Tuesday, Mr Modi claimed he had allowed 100 per cent foreign direct investment (FDI) in defence manufacture. In fact, 100 per cent FDI requires case-by-case clearance; only 49 per cent FDI is permitted through the automatic route. Other reforms include the whittling down of defence items that require licences to produce. The private sector is getting a more level playing field through mechanisms such as exchange rate variation protection, which was earlier provided only to DPSUs and OFs. Offset guidelines are now more flexible and easier to fulfil. The Defence Procurement Procedure of 2016 accords preference to a new category of procurement, eponymously titled: “Buy (Indian) - Indigenously designed, developed and manufactured”. A more attractive “Make” category of procurement allows the defence ministry to fund 90 per cent of the cost a company incurs in developing new equipment. The ministry will now choose private firms as “strategic partners”, which foreign vendors can partner to manufacture in India.

Yet, despite this liberalisation, defence manufacture lags. While it is true that the goals must be realistic as defence technology is complex and sophisticated, and rapid indigenisation is probably not possible when the country doesn't really have a strong hi-tech manufacturing sector, the fact is the government has been slow in its response. It has taken three years to build the policy framework, after playing musical chairs with defence ministers. Without robust ministerial leadership, bureaucrats shirk decision-making, fearing victimisation in the future by investigative agencies. Instead they push for policies that do away with discretion and judgement, with outcomes determined by unthinking procedure. With nobody ever accountable for overruns or delays, the defence ministry – which, in defence manufacturing, is the regulator, the sole customer and also a big seller – remains moribund.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Boeing signs $100 million contract to keep navy’s P-8I aircraft flying

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 20th Jun 17

The Indian Navy’s Boeing P-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft, reputedly the world’s most fearsome submarine hunters, have proved themselves in joint patrols with the US Navy in the Indian Ocean, tracking Chinese submarines.

Last July, a pleased Indian Navy signed a billion-dollar contract with Boeing for four more P-8Is to augment the eight aircraft it already flies. Delivery will begin in 2020.

But, with Chinese submarine activity growing in the Indian Ocean, the navy wants more P-8Is on station today. Last Monday, the navy signed a $100 million contract; requiring Boeing to maintain spare parts and personnel in India, ready to respond to any defects or failures in the P-8I fleet over the next three years.

The so-called “performance based logistics” contract requires Boeing to continue the warranty services it has so far provided under an initial production contract, which will expire in October.

“This contract will substantially bolster Boeing’s performance-based support to the Indian Navy and should maintain or increase the operational capability of the eight-aircraft fleet,” said Boeing on Monday.

Since the P-8I is based on a commercial Boeing 737-800/900 airliner, material support will also be sourced from the Boeing Commercial Aviation Services’ Fleet Services division.

This is yet another lucrative triumph for Boeing, which has won more than $10 billion worth of Indian defence contracts since 2009. Besides $3 billion worth of P-8Is, Boeing won a $4.5 billion contract for ten C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft, and will soon start delivery of $3 billion contracts to supply 22 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and 15 CH-47F Chinook heavy lift helicopters.

Pratyush Kumar, president of Boeing India and vice president of Boeing International says: “With this contract, the Indian Navy can be assured of achieving exceptional operational capability and readiness of the P-8I fleet.”

Despite the navy’s growing reliance on the P-8I fleet, which has replaced ageing Soviet-era maritime patrol aircraft like the Tupolev-142 and Ilyushin-38, the navy’s P-8Is remain handicapped by New Delhi’s reluctance to sign a cooperation pact called the “Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement” (CISMOA).

India’s refusal prevents Washington from providing “CISMOA-controlled” equipment, which would allow Indian and US submarines and P-8 aircraft to operate together smoothly.

To keep track of hostile submarines in the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, naval pilots fly their P-8Is on eight-to-ten hour surveillance missions over these waters. To strike enemy warships and submarines, the P-8I carries seven tonnes of weaponry on board, including advanced Harpoon missiles and heavyweight torpedoes.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Lockheed Martin, Tata, join hands to build F-16 planes in India

Likely to compete in single-engine fighter contract with Gripen E, built by Saab-Adani combine

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 20th June 17

US defence giant, Lockheed Martin, and India’s Tata Group signed an agreement on Monday to jointly build the F-16 Block 70 fighter in India, should New Delhi opt for the American aircraft in the procurement of single-engine fighters for the Indian Air Force (IAF) that was initiated last October.

Highlighting the importance of this contract for the Tata Group’s aerospace and defence aspirations, Chairman Emeritus Ratan Tata personally attended the signing ceremony at the on-going Paris Air Show in France.

The Tata Group has earmarked Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL) to actually build the F-16 in India with technology and manufacturing facilities transferred from Lockheed Martin.

Coming ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States this month, Lockheed Martin’s inking of this joint venture (JV) – which would have required formal clearance from Washington – indicates that, despite President Donald Trump’s promises to keep skilled jobs in the US, his administration is willing to transfer the ageing F-16 production line from Texas to India.

TASL and Lockheed Martin already have a JV that manufactures airframe components in Hyderabad, including for the C-130J Super Hercules airlifter and the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter.

C-130J production from that JV goes towards fulfilling Lockheed Martin’s offset obligations. However, the manufacture of F-16 Block 70 would be a far more ambitious project. This would first require the ministry of defence (MoD) to select the Tata Group as an Indian “strategic partner” for aircraft production.

Next, the IAF and MoD would have to choose the F-16 Block 70 as the IAF’s single-engine fighter aircraft. That multi-billion dollar procurement has already kicked off with the issue of a global Request for Information (RFI) by the IAF.

MoD and IAF sources confirm aviation market intelligence that the IAF’s chosen fighter is likely to be either the F-16 Block 70, or the Gripen E fighter that Swedish company, Saab, has offered India.

In case the IAF opts for Saab’s Gripen E, the role of Indian partner is likely to fall to the Adani Group, say senior Saab executives. The Adani Group, despite its lack of experience in defence or aerospace, is positioning itself to be chosen as a “strategic partner” for this purpose.

Lockheed Martin expects the IAF will choose the F-16, based on the calculation that transferring the world’s only F-16 production line to India “creates new manufacturing jobs in India, and positions Indian industry at the center of the most extensive fighter aircraft supply ecosystem in the world”, as a company release today stated.

Lockheed Martin points out that over 4,500 F-16s have been built since the 1970s, of which approximately 3,200 fighters remain in operational service in 26 countries. An Indian production line could expect to benefit from their custom, including, ironically, from the Pakistan Air Force.

The IAF’s global procurement of single-engine fighters stems from the failure of its high-profile acquisition project for 126 “medium multi-role combat aircraft” (MMRCA), which fizzled out into the procurement of just 36 Rafale fighters from French company, Dassault.

The shortfall of 90 fighters this created, along with the likely retirement of almost 200 MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters this decade, drives the IAF’s requirement for the early production of single-engine fighters.

Exacerbating the IAF’s fighter shortfalls is Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd’s slippages in building 100 Tejas light fighters, designed and developed in India by the Defence R&D Organisation.

Defence planning guidelines require the IAF to operate 42 fighter squadrons, with 21 aircraft in each. It is 10 squadrons short of that level at present.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Armies don’t take hostages

Army must safeguard its ethics and values. As the confrontation in Kashmir grows more vicious, this will require all its focus

By Ajai Shukla 
Business Standard, 6th June 17

It testifies to the resilience of Indian public debate that, four weeks after Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi, an army officer in Kashmir’s Budgam district, tied an innocent civilian to his jeep as a human shield against stone-throwing mobs, criticism continues despite official justifications. This is an important debate. In question here is not just an isolated incident of military misjudgement, which happens in moments of extreme stress in operations. Instead, with the government and army establishments publicly justifying and condoning the actions of the officer, the question is more fundamental: Were Major Gogoi’s actions in line with the ethos and principles that undergird the military?

From the start, government officials and the army chief himself solidly supported Major Gogoi’s contention that he had no option but this extraordinary measure to safely evacuate polling officials from a voting station near Budgam. Their lives, he argued, were threatened by a mob that had gathered to disrupt voting. To obtain clear passage through the stone-pelting mob, Major Gogoi picked up Farooq Ahmed Dar, ironically an innocent shawl-weaver who had just cast his vote in defiance of the separatist diktat. With cellphone cameras rolling and capturing video of Major Gogoi’s rescue convoy, which was also threatening through a loudspeaker that stone pelters would meet the same fate as Dar, the officer successfully extricated the polling officials. Dar was released, physically unhurt, after spending hours being driven around tied to the front of the jeep.

Predictably, videos of this spectacle went quickly viral on social media, painting the military as an army of occupation that cowered behind human shields. For the army, which Kashmiri separatists routinely criticise, but mostly respect as an impartial and restrained force, this was a humiliating blow to its public image.

The most compelling argument made by the diverse cast of characters that sprang to Major Gogoi’s defence was that the officer had saved many lives. These included Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi and army chief, General Bipin Rawat, who cut the ground out from under an army court of inquiry that is investigating Major Gogoi’s conduct by summarily awarding him a commendation. Punjab’s Chief Minister Amarinder Singh argued in an article: “When Major Nitin Gogoi decided (and, mind you, it could not have been anything other than a split-second decision) to use a civilian as a ‘human shield’ to protect his men from a stone-pelting mob, he was simply reacting to a tough situation in a dangerous environment.”

This raises two fundamental issues. Foremost is the worrying reality that the army is being permitted, even encouraged, by its chief to operate like a police force rather than as the military – the last recourse of the state. According to its own sacred regulations and operational procedures, the army shoots for effect when called in, rather than trying to save lives through measures like firing over the heads of a crowd, far less taking hostages. Major Gogoi’s militarily correct course of action would have been to warn the crowd to disperse and, if it refused to obey, to open fire with due restraint. That is what is prescribed in the “Regulations for the Army”, the foundational document that every officer possesses and reads. As it turned out, Major Gogoi might well have saved protesters’ lives by opting for a human shield to force his way through the mob. But he incalculably damaged the army’s reputation, not just in Kashmir, but anywhere that video is seen. The army must introspect what constitutes greater damage: A blow to its institutional credibility and the dilution of its operational culture, or the admittedly tragic consequences of dispersing the mob with fire.

After all, where does the “but he saved lives” argument lead to in a counter-insurgency environment? Would the army chief use the same logic if a military officer who has cornered a Kashmiri militant holds a gun to the head of his two-year-old daughter and orders the militant’s wife to bring her husband out to surrender? That might save lives too.

This mortifying scenario might not be so far-fetched, going by what the army chief said in an interview with PTI last week. General Rawat declared: “This [Kashmir] is a proxy war and proxy war is a dirty war. It is played in a dirty way. The rules of engagements are there when the adversary comes face-to-face and fights with you. It is a dirty war... That is where innovation comes in. You fight a dirty war with innovations.”

Is this is now government policy? Does the army’s counter-insurgency challenge in Kashmir require it to function less like an army and more like a police or intelligence organisation? Is that what was intended when the government chose General Rawat over two more senior officers from the mechanised forces to become chief? In “off the record” briefings, army spokespersons explained at that time that General Rawat had been made chief because of his longer experience in Kashmir. Does “longer experience” translate into gaining tactical results through unmilitary ruses and devices, even if they incurred strategic, political and public perception costs that far outweighed the benefits obtained?

The army has successfully dealt with insurgencies in Nagaland, Mizoram, Assam and Manipur without sacrificing its fundamental character as a warfighting army that abides by principles of honour and creed. It did this too in the first two decades of combating the Kashmir separatist insurgency, successfully creating a sanitised security environment in which New Delhi could have (but did not) initiated political processes to craft a settlement. Since 2009, however, when the centre of gravity of the Kashmir agitation shifted from armed militancy to intifada-style unarmed public protests, the army has struggled to deal with a new and infinitely more challenging security environment. This was starkly clear from General Rawat’s interview with PTI, where he stated: “I wish these people, instead of throwing stones at us, were firing weapons at us. Then I would have been happy. Then I could do what I (want to do).”

This, however, is wishful thinking from a bygone era. The army will increasingly have to do what it least wants to – confronting unarmed, rock-throwing, violent public protests. Its key challenge will be to do so without diluting its foundational warrior ethos with self-serving, and eventually self-destructive rationales about the need to “fight a dirty war with innovation”. Complicating the army’s task is the pressure it faces to compensate for political failure. As Lieutenant General DS Hooda, one of the army’s most thoughtful commanders in recent times, noted in the context of the Gogoi incident: “There will be political influences, it is in the nature of democracies, and pressure from public opinion. But the military ethic must stand on its principles and values. As the environment in Kashmir grows more vicious, this will require all our focus.