‘Fighting Dirty’ Through Pandemics and Lockdowns

 By Col. Samir Srivastava
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Blue Land has long standing territorial disputes with Red Land and Yellow Land over the past many decades. A highly infectious pandemic has broken out throughout the world and very soon effects were to be seen in Blue Land as well. On L Day, the Blue Land PM announced a nation-wide lockdown. By L plus 3 days, all rail, air and road traffic had come to a grinding halt on an ‘as-is-where-is’ basis. Concurrently, the Blue Land Armed Forces got extensively engaged in Aid to Civil Authorities combating the pandemic.

On L plus 7 days, Red Land without any provocation, carried out ballistic missile strikes on ten major airports and fifteen Indian Railway loco sheds. Concurrently, with a massive cyber attack, mobile telephony and internet connections were impaired throughout Blue Land. On L plus 8 days, Red Land carried out several incursions all along the LoC and International Border (IB). All this while, Blue Land was facing the multidimensional challenges of mobilising, building up combat power in the units and also protecting troops from the disease.

This can be the opening narrative of an exercise/ tactical discussion , being conducted at the Staff College/ War College/ National Defence College in the near future or worse, an actual scenario when the next lockdown due to a pandemic takes place. While for many, such an attack may sound unethical, this will be an opportunity for a revisionist country to alter the status quo. In the scenario painted above, it can be assumed that the aggressor’s Concept of Operations is to take advantage of an adverse humanitarian situation to launch an attack, while simultaneously disallowing a build -up of combat power by own forces.

The Indian Army (IA) has, over a period of time, refined the mobilisation drills in order to reduce the time taken, from a couple of months to a few days. This however has been based on the presumption that, the Nation’s infrastructure is ‘readily’ available for use by the Armed Forces – which is not the case during the current lockdown necessitated by the outbreak of COVID-19. It, therefore, becomes very important for IA to critically examine the effects of the lockdown and its aftermath with particular focus on ensuring operational readiness. The IA should be able to mobilise even when resources, whose availability is otherwise taken for granted, are not available. Apart from this, it is also important to ensure that IA is shielded from the debilitating effects’ of a pandemic, particularly the highly contagious ones like COVID-19. This calls for fresh thinking on the subject. However, it would be pertinent to first analyse as to what should be ‘guiding’ the thought process during such a situation.

Availability of Manpower in IA.   When not mobilised, about 35% of any unit’s manpower (approximately 3.5 to 4 lac IA personnel in all) is away from their respective bases, as they are either on leave or are engaged in some higher defence courses or temporary duties. However, units and formations have extensively practised getting back these personnel from even the remotest parts of the country within an acceptable time frame. These plans are however, based on the premise that all means of transport viz Rail, Road and Air are available. If any adversary decides to attack India during such a crisis, there will be a situation where up to 40% of IA’s manpower (including  few Commanding Officers and some of the best JCOs/NCOs detailed on courses) gets ‘left out of the battle’. A deeper analysis will also reveal a lopsided trade availability within units. So, it is suffice to state that,  in the event of a suddenly announced lockdown, over 1/3rd of IA’s manpower will be out of the unit. Furthermore, in case of a pandemic, troops who are on leave will continue to stay in civil areas , which will increase there risk of exposing themselves to the pathogen.  Therefore, it is imperative that these personnel are brought back to the unit without wasting much time.

Indian Railways Infrastructure.  There is no doubt that the Indian Railways (IR) will leave no stone unturned in making available all resources required by the IA to transport men and material. However, in case of a lockdown, IR too will be functioning in a different manner. On a normal day, IR resources are on the move across the country but during a lockdown, the coaches and wagons (rolling stock) would have been marshalled at various yards whereas, the locomotives (electric and diesel) would be standing in various loco sheds throughout the country. In other words, IR resources are concentrated at locations which are not as protected as a military installation and therefore are susceptible to being attacked, particularly by missiles. In the event of the enemy striking the yards/sheds, IR would not be able to operate at the capacity desired by IA. In addition, the time lag between receipt of orders (to lift lockdown) and the functioning of  IR on optimum capacity, also needs to be factored in while planning a movement via rail.    Commercial Air Transport Infrastructure.            In India, there are six major airlines operating scheduled flights from over 100 airports (some of which are also IAF air bases) throughout the country. With a combined fleet size of over 600 aircraft and with an average seating capacity of 150 passengers per aircraft, almost 180,000 troops can be airlifted (assuming the entire fleet flying two flights per day). While the IAF would be doing most of the air lifting, IA should plan on utilising civil aircraft for mobilising and getting the troops back. However, during a lockdown, these aircrafts would be required to be parked at selected  airports throughout the country. A missile strike at any of these airports (especially the hubs) will result in large number of aircrafts being destroyed ,thus making them unavailable for IA.

It therefore becomes evident from the above, that while there is a requirement to build- up manpower within IA units even during a lockdown, the means to do so are highly prone to disruption and possible destruction. Even after bringing the troops back to the bases, there is a requirement to protect them from the disease. This calls for fresh thinking on the subject ,wherein IA can be ready to be launched into operations even when the Nation is reeling under a pandemic (which may be man-made, if certain reports pertaining to outbreak and spread of COVID-19 in sections of the media are to be believed). For being a viable fighting force during a pandemic like COVID-19, IA should aim to address two issues which are:-

  • Building up manpower in the shortest possible time frame.
  • Force Preservation.

Building up Manpower.    This should be the most important thing to be done whenever a lockdown has been announced. One may say that, IA should cancel leave/courses at the slightest indication of a pandemic, however this is fraught with the risk of ‘false alarms’ upsetting leave and training plans. Troops need to be brought back to the bases by fastest available means only after the confirmation of the pandemic. But getting back 3.5 to 4 lac troops, hailing from every part of the country, is not an easy task. For this, IA will have to team up with the State Governments and the Central Ministries to include Railways, Civil Aviation, Surface Transport, Information & Broadcasting etc , into the plan . One suggested model, is to direct troops to reach the Administrative Division HQ of their leave station from where trains/aircraft whichever is available,  will  ferry them back. The District Administration will facilitate intra- district movement. Of the 102 Administrative Division HQs in India, all barring few, are served by IR and many have both – a railway station and an airport. The relevant branch at the IHQ of MoD (Army) needs to stay updated on the  real time location of the troops who are away from their units, so that the information could be  used to plan the movement in conjunction with the Movement Control Organisation detachments, spread across the country. For this, IA should leverage the ARMAAN App, wherein every person moving out moves with an electronic Leave Certificate/ Movement Order which will update the individual’s location on the Central Server. Alternatively, the soldier can share his/her location on receiving a message through the app. When such a movement plan is put to effect at the earliest, it will ensure that troops are safe , even if the pandemic grows at an alarming rate. Apart from this, the Ministries of Railways and Civil Aviation also need to be impressed upon, to distribute resources around the country, so that enemy strike(s) does not  prove to be devastating.

Force Preservation. It needs no emphasis that, troops need to be protected from the effects of the pandemic at all times. This has been more than stressed upon by IA leadership at all levels. IA, by the very nature of its work, is constrained to live and work in closed groups. Any contagious pathogen, having found its way into a soldier, will not take much time to spread across the military installation. The recent example of USS Theodore Roosevelt becoming non- operational due to COVID-19, is a stark reminder of such a possibility. Therefore, getting back troops to the base is the first part of the task. On arrival, troops need to be expeditiously tested for the pathogen and all those infected need to be given medical intervention. Thereafter, exposure of troops to the outside world needs to be curbed through quarantine. In India, the National and State Disaster Management Authorities, since its inception in 2005, have progressively built capabilities to face challenges thrown up by a pandemic. This should free up IA so that it can orient itself to carry out its mandated task. The Government should ensure that the National and State Disaster Management Authorities independently handle the effects of any pandemic without having to take help of the Armed Forces. Lateral entry of ex-servicemen into various Disaster Management organisations will be a step in the right direction towards augmenting these institutions.

Preparation for a pandemic has to start much before it actually strikes. This time, IA like other peer armies, has handled the challenges as they came, without much forewarning and preparedness. The next time around, IA should learn its lessons and be prepared. While issues mentioned in the above paragraphs need to be addressed, IA also needs to have  a fresh look as to  how troops are quartered. One of the biggest challenges faced by Commanders at all levels during the COVID-19 crisis, was  ensuring proper social distancing. At present, the Other Than Married (OTM) accommodation scales preclude adequate social distancing. Notwithstanding the nostalgia of the old long barracks, IA should now aim to ensure that no more than six persons are housed in a room which also includes the required sanitation arrangements. The Key Location Plan (KLP)  matrices should be reworked accordingly. In addition, the layout of old Cantonments should be such that that, the military portion is completely segregated from the civil portion. This will involve a lot of building and rebuilding but in the long run, the gains will more  than compensate for the effort and money put in..

The outbreak of COVID-19 is a ‘watershed moment’. It is perhaps, for the first time in living memory, that large part of the world  is  under lockdown. Even the next time, it would be naive to assume that, humanitarian considerations will stop a revisionist adversary from waging a war. While a lot has been written about ‘fighting dirty’, it’s about time that fighting during pandemics also be added to the list of ‘dirty wars’. IA should take note of what Helen Branswell, who writes about infectious diseases, posted on Twitter on 09 April 2020- “The timing of pandemics is unknowable. The inevitability of pandemics is very much knowable. Pandemic preparedness is just a very smart investment. And it’s a lesson we keep not learning.” (sic)