Pandemic Factor in Military Organisation
Lt Gen Gautam Banerjee, Editor, VIF
Curse of the Pandemic

All-pervasive adversities brought about by the Covid-19 Pandemic have occupied, seized in fact, the universal human consciousness in a manner seen never before. That is only to be expected when the Pandemic has turned out to be the most catastrophic event in the hundred years, if not more, to devastate and disrupt the entire social, political and economic fabric across a modern, integrated world. In an ironical sense, the global spread of the Pandemic is but a macabre confirmation of ‘global integration’.

When every aspect of human society and life have been so profoundly affected by the Pandemic, can the military establishment remain spared from its ill-effects? The answer is definitely ‘No’. Next, the question arises as to what could be the effects of the Pandemic and its fallouts on the military organisation? Here comes a vital caveat. But before delving into that caveat, a brief historical scan of past pandemics would be useful in adjudging possible effects of the current Pandemic on Indian military organisation.

Historical Scan

Here, we may scan far back into the recorded history of warfare that had been prosecuted under the shadow of pandemics and similar catastrophes. The purpose is to see how the past pandemics have afflicted the military in terms of strategy, planning and conduct of operations, and the end state of war. That scan would find use in adjudging the effects that Covid-19 Pandemic is likely to have upon the military forces of India.

Enumeration of major pandemics and similarly catastrophic events reveals the following:-

  1. During 161-166 CE, an outbreak of Antonine Plague (possibly small pox or measles) in the Roman Empire killed nearly five million. The Pandemic withered the mighty Roman Army so much that Rome could make little gains in its war against a modest power like Parthia. Many historians view that point as the beginning of instability in the Empire when a long series of civil wars ensued. Many historians ascribe that time to rise of religiosity and attraction towards Christianity.
  2. American Plague, brought to Americas by the Europeans in the 16th Century, so ravaged the Aztec and Inca Empires that their armies could not put up adequate resistance against the European’s conquest.
  3. During 1770-72, Russian Empress Catherine II’s rule was severely afflicted by a so devastating Russian Plague that it led to civil insurrection that killed over 100,000.
  4. In 1896-97, all the three British Raj Presidencies in India were severely hit by a famine that affected 70 million people and killed nearly one million. The catastrophe, however, did not restrain the British Indian Army from campaigning against the Afridis and Orakzais in Tirah, presently Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan.
  5. The Spanish Flu (an Influenza) Pandemic raged over most theatres of World War I between February 1918 and April 1920. It spread in four waves, affecting 500 million, one third of the world’s population, and killing 100 million. Ironically, this was also the period when the Great War entered a phase of massive offensives.
  6. Between 2.1 to 3 million starvation deaths were reported during the Great Indian Famine in 1943 -a famine created by Churchill’s Government by transfer of scarce, draught depleted food stocks to the theatres of World War II. Loss of Indian lives in such huge numbers did not make British rulers defer the ongoing military campaigns. Conversely, the hunger driven people flocked to seek military recruitment which delighted the imperialists. But the famine also struck a death knell for the British Empire.

During more recent times, the human society has been struck with the AIDS disease since 1981 that has cost 35 million lives. The Swine Flu, raging during 2009-10, affected 1.4 billion people across the world, killing 500,000. Similarly, while Ebola has inflicted 11,000 deaths between 2014 and 2016, no reliable cure has been found yet. With over a hundred incessantly ongoing wars across the globe, these recent pandemics have not been able to dent the mankind’s penchant for warfare.

Ironically, pandemics have also led to necessity of adoption of many long languishing measures to the human benefits. During ‘Black Death’ period of 1346-53, which claimed lives of nearly half of Eurasia-Europe population, major welcome changes were introduced in the society. Labour being scarce, wages rose, affluence came, and demand for automation catalysed technological advancements.

Inferences from the history are clear: One, even overwhelmingly devastating pandemics have not been able to divert nations from their causes for prosecution of warfare; and two, in reckonable number of instances, pandemic instigated rage have triggered internal insurrections, many times catalysing the fall of ruling regimes.

Pandemic and Military Establishment – a Caveat

From the first initiation at a young age till superannuation and even thereafter, the soldiery’s chosen profession of arms is, has to be, deliberately and purposefully distinguished in concept, and segregated in practice from the rest of the societal ventures. Herein, the universally prevailing human social system selects its warriors young and segregates them to be administered with a distinct set of ethos, code of conduct, roles, and even laws, rules and procedures, most of these being in contrast to what is practised in the larger ambit of civil life. These warriors are then put through specialised training to be able to protect the core interests of the state by means of prosecution of constitutionally sanctified violence of extreme nature.

It is only natural that the afore-stated physical and cognitive isolation of the military establishment come to play in influencing the effects, both of helpful and hindering variety, of any defining event in the society, pandemics included. As a corollary, effects of the current Pandemic on the military establishment would be somewhat different in content and scope from the rest of the society.

Covid-effect on Indian Military

Discussion over likely effects of Covid-19 Pandemic on the Indian military within the bounds of the abovementioned caveat may be covered under four aspects. These aspects are: Human; Technological; Training and Operational; and Fiscal.

Human Aspects

As stated, the military institution is profoundly distinct from the rest of human vocations. Thus apart from limited business interactions, its connection with the societal norms are limited to pre-recruitment years, filial roots and occasionally fleeting association with certain key social customs like raising a family, birth and bereavement, and post-superannuation life. In other words, the active years of soldierly life is spent in more or less in an exclusive bubble, in an isolated world of its own. Strict adherence to personal discipline and observance of behavioural protocols adds to that barrier. Resultantly, chances of entry of an infectious disease into that bubble would occur only during fleeting associations with people at large. However, once the Corona virus gains entry into the military bubble, its highly infectious nature would see to it that its spread is quick enough to wear out the afflicted military outfit. A situation like that would be disastrous in any kind of military campaign.

This aspect therefore needs strict enforcement of medical discipline. To recall, during the Burma Campaign of World War II, the 14th Army, pitted against the formidable Japanese forces in the jungles of Arakan, had been severely affected by mounting casualties due to Malaria. At that point, besides the slogan of ‘Sun Down, Sleeves Down’, failing to use mosquito nets and apply anti-mosquito oil were made as punishable offences. General Slim, the commander, went on to adopt a ruthless policy of sacking the commanding officer of any unit that had even one case of the disease. Indeed, the Indian military has to stick to drastic steps to keep its units safe from withering out due to the Pandemic.

The Indian military establishment has devised effective means to negate such a danger and control its spread when detected. Curtailment of leave of absence and a two week quarantine of personnel who could have possibly been exposed to infection before they are taken on effective strength of a unit has been found to be effective. Enforcement of precautionary quarantine, observance of Covid-appropriate discipline and dedicated intervention of the medical corps have thus led to keeping military units by and large protected. Isolated location of military stations, particularly in the field areas, has helped.

Notwithstanding that, likelihood of depletion of manpower in the forces remains a worrisome menace. Adoption of Covid-precautionary measures could lead to sluggish mobilisation at times critical. In order to compensate for the personnel ‘left-out-of-battle’ (LOB), military planning has had to stake additional units for accomplishment of specified tasks. In war time that indeed would be a serious handicap.

Technological Aspects

Any discussion on the effects of the Pandemic on military establishment gets usually oriented towards technological aspects, including employment of weaponry and equipment. Here, there are two threads for consideration. One thread points at the need for astute exploitation of weapon and equipment characteristics in order to compensate for Pandemic related depletion of manpower. The other threads points at possible shortage of specially trained crew to operate sophisticated weaponry and other military hardware. Both these considerations require pre-planning formulti-tasking and reassignment of personnel as well as the inventories of war-wherewithal. Similarly, adverse effects of the Pandemic is also reflected on the military industry, setting back the maintenance and delivery schedules for the forces.

In a progressive development, however, the Pandemic has pushed the environment to overcome a common hesitation against technological adaptations and made it a priority in military as well as civil domains of functioning. This development has created an urge for priority adoption of automation, communication and remote operation in performance of military tasks. On a negative side, the practice of Pandemic-induced ‘work from home’ has offered a wide avenue to cyber criminals to ply their trade. Intrusive, disruptive and ransom-ware attacks on genuine cyber networks have become a flourishing industry. India, with its limited security consciousness, is a top target. Spill-over of this trade to target the Indian military is an obvious corollary, particularly with China so active in that trade.

Training and Operational Aspects

Social restrictions aimed at isolation of the Corona virus and prevent its spread has led to frequent and lengthy ‘lockdowns’. Even if the military has been exempted from such lockdowns, the effects of these on construction works, delivery of supplies and transportation of men and material,wherein large numbers of personnel have been stuck between their units, homes and duty destinations, have been rather disruptive. Similarly, the restrictions have tellingly impinged upon military training schedules, which given the tight time frame of their occurrence, has led to stalling of skill development exercises among substantial sections of the soldiery.

Apart from such hurdles against conduct of training and implementation of operational planning, the most dangerous cumulative effect of the Pandemic could be to render better parts of military units unfit for war.

Fiscal Aspects

Effects of the Pandemic on financial management of defence has been the worst. A Covid-afflicted society demands heavy expenditure from the state exchequer on creation and functioning of high-cost medical infrastructure and supply of huge quantities of mostly expendable items like medicines etc. Heavy expenses are also needed to bring succour to the massive numbers of people affected by deaths, long hospitalisation, and loss of livelihood and shutting of businesses. And all that unexpected burden falls when the state’s revenue earnings are running dry.

The Indian State cannot bear that kind of massive fiscal burden without having to slash ministerial and departmental budgets. The retarding effects of such budget cuts are clearly discernible in all sectors of the state’s administration. Obviously, secondary effects of a stagnating state machinery affects performance of the military’s administrative chores. India’s defence budget -already inadequate as it is in deterring the duo of ever hostile, powerful neighbours - is thus trapped in humongous challenges of fiscal management. Obviously, India’s much needed military modernisation programme has been the first casualty of fiscal starvation, the second being in making-up of the heavy deficiencies in unit holdings of scaled inventory – ammunition and similar expendables particularly. When in confrontation with China and its ally Pakistan, both these fallouts would impose reckonable operational restraints on the Indian military.

Reactions to the Pandemic

Spreading all across national boundaries, the Pandemic has disrupted the entire human society. Actually, full extent of the damages caused by the Pandemic will come to light only when deficit financing, unplanned expenditure, loss of work hours, retardation of commerce and trade processes etc. come to reckoning after the menace is subdued. Military establishments too have to suffer the secondary and latent fallouts of such disruptions. Having discussed the effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic on the Indian military, it would therefore be rational to touch upon the international as well as domestic reactions to this cataclysm.

International Reaction

The world is yet to find its feet in the Covid-induced morass. The true extent of damage the Pandemic has already caused to the international order, and that it would subsequently cause, is yet to sink in. Even then there is a global coalescence of rising demands for investigation on the origin of the virus and its world-wide spread. The demand would be rising as the calamity sinks in and formation of a coalition of the victims may well be expected. Conversely, mighty China’s autocratic, unaccountable empire and its manipulative financial persuasions would leave out no effort to scotch any genuine investigation. In that, China’s wrongdoings could find escape due to the global priority fixated at garnering economic and commercial gains in quick time.

Notwithstanding that, as the universally identified creator of the virus, the Chinese regime has sullied its standing in the world view. Combined with its other diplomatic-military misadventures and the resultant consternation that has generated, the Covid virus might have retarded the regimes global power ambitions. Expectedly, with its hands stuck in universally disparaging angst, the Chinese regime would perhaps slow down its territorial ravages - till the storm passes.

Domestic Reactions

With countries reeling under the untameable effects of the Pandemic, occasion for rise of any grievous domestic angst against the calamity and its management is yet to unravel. Besides, most countries have adopted many assuaging initiatives in public and private domains to soften the blow on their citizens. However, there are murmurs of isolated protests and even violence against government offices and the medical establishments. In the case of the originator of this human calamity, China, it is difficult to fathom the severely suppressed domestic mood; hints of dismay are however observable.

Closing Remarks

The Covid-19 Pandemic has wrought untold misery to the world population, and technology has permitted recording of the global distress as never before. If that be some consolation, the Pandemic has triggered a quantum uplift in medical infrastructure and treatment protocols. These improvements would no doubt prove to be of much use as the mankind marches towards an impending ecological-biological disaster. It is certain that hereafter the post-Pandemic medical facilities in India would find quantum improvement.

However, unless concerted steps are taken, on priority, to keep the much needed military modernisation programme and to ramp up production of deficient revenue budgeted hardware, the Indian military would remain stranded in the morass of obsolescence and frailty, as it has been so far.

For the powerful enemies of our sovereignty, that will be a ‘winning without fighting’.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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