BHARAT RAKSHAK MONITOR - Volume 3(2) September - October 2000

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Lieutenant General Sundararajan Padmanabhan - A Profile


Lieutenant General Sundararajan Padmanabhan has been appointed as the next Chief of Army Staff (COAS) of the Indian Army. He assumes office on 01 October 2000. We will examine his biography, and attempt to predict what we may expect from his tenure as COAS. Lt. Gen. Padmanabhan was born on 05 December 1940 in Trivandrum, Kerala. He is an alumnus of Rashtriya Indian Military College (RIMC), Dehra Dun, and National Defense Academy (NDA), Khadakwasla. He was commissioned into the Indian Army in the Regiment of Artillery after graduating from the Indian Military Academy (IMA), on 13 December 1959. His early career included two stints at the IMA, and one as a gunnery instructor at the School of Artillery in Deolali. He also served as Major in the General Staff (GS) of a newly raised infantry brigade, and as a Colonel (GS) of a mountain division. His first command was the Gazala Artillery Regiment. He was promoted to Brigadier in 1985 and had the distinction of commanding one artillery and two infantry brigades in vastly different terrain. He was promoted to Major General in 1991 and was given command of a frontline infantry division in the western sector. He then served as Chief of Staff of a Corps in the Eastern Sector. In 1993, he was promoted to Lieutenant General. A rapid promotion in less than three years indicates how highly the Army regarded him.

His charge was the highly sensitive 15 Corps in the Kashmir valley. The newly promoted Corps Commander was to have a baptism by fire in his first months of command, when terrorists created an international furor by occupying the revered Hazrat-Bal mosque in Srinagar. It is a testament to his negotiating skills, and to his deft handling of the siege of the mosque, that the terrorists surrendered without firing a shot, and without getting any concessions from the Indian government. This period also marked the turning point in the counter-insurgency war, with the Indian security forces under a unified command led by Lt. Gen. Padmanabhan slowly gaining the upper hand over the terrorists. Along with his able Brigadier (GS) Arjun Ray, he also initiated a more open & sophisticated media management approach, which gradually won over the hostile local media and earned plaudits from the national media. Again, he was rapidly promoted to the next level, and appointed as Director General of Military Intelligence (DGMI) at the Army Headquarters in 1994. As DGMI, and later, as the Commander of the Udhampur-based Northern Command, he broke the back of local militancy in Kashmir by persuading local militants to come over ground and join the pro-India Ikhwan organization. The retirement age for Lieutenant Generals was raised to 60 in 1998, and to prevent stagnation among serving army commanders, there was a shuffle of commands under which Lt. Gen. Padmanabhan got command of the Pune-based Southern Command. This one time occurrence makes him one of the very few Indian generals who have commanded two different commands. The added experience should be of great use, as he takes over the reins of the Indian Army from the retiring General Ved Prakash Malik.

Lt. Gen. Padmanabhan's high profile postings in the 90s make possible some predictions about his style of managing the routine work of a COAS, and the substance of the changes he is likely to bring about. The bitter experience of the capable, but abrasive, Admiral Bhagwat shows that both style and substance are equally important in the realm of higher defense management. Lt. Gen. Padmanabhan's record of accomplishment in Kashmir attests that he brings to the office formidable negotiation skills to help him champion the cause of the army. Unlike the army generals up to the 1980s who led careers secluded from the rough and tumble of Indian governance, he and Gen. Malik have earned their spurs in an environment which calls for close cooperation with politicians, bureaucrats, intelligence agencies, paramilitary forces, police, and the mass media. The school of hard knocks has taught such men to be equally adept at managing king-size egos, playing hard-ball with recalcitrant parties, and inspiring subordinates. As Gen. Malik has shown already, such a set of skills is invaluable in keeping the wheels of Ministry of Defense running smoothly and without the angst & high drama that have marked some other tenures in South Block.

All officers are products of their times and their professional experience. General Sundarji, for example, developed his vision in the broad expanses of the desert, and in leading the elite armored division (1 Armoured Division) and strike corps of the army. Leaders like him have the luxury of dreaming grand dreams of armored thrusts through the desert; dreams that turned to horrors when confronted with the messy limited conflicts such as Blue Star and IPKF. Lt. Gen. Padmanabhan, on the other hand, has thrived in the convoluted battleground of Kashmir. Dirty counter-insurgency battles produce pragmatic and politically perceptive generals who are comfortable with the constraints of limited wars and peace keeping. Modern limited wars place much greater demands on training, equipment, and motivation of small units, as opposed to mass maneuver and heavy mechanization required by total wars. This means that Lt. Gen. Padmanabhan will pay close attention to preparing the Indian soldier for the kinds of conflicts he is likely to encounter.

Lt. Gen. Padmanabhan epitomizes the growing divergence between the post-independence crop of generals and the current bunch. The British were inclined towards a deliberate, attritive mode of warfare, and their Indian pupils diligently copied them in '47, '65, and '71 (western front). Even a visionary like Gen. Sundarji went in for the brute force, frontal approach in Operation Blue Star. To the Indian Army's credit, another breed of maneuver minded leaders slowly began to emerge - witness Lt. Gen. Arora and Lt. Gen. Jacob in '71, Lt. Gen. A. S. Kalkat with his multiple pincers in Operation Pawan, and Maj. Gen. Mohinder Puri with his superb concentration of forces in Kargil. Lt. Gen. Padmanabhan belongs squarely in the latter camp - for example, it would be hard to imagine him recommending the use of brute force in breaking a siege in a religious place!

We now move on to the likely substance of the initiatives he will undertake during his tenure. These initiatives will be dictated by the politico-economic-strategic situation prevailing in the country. Lt. Gen. Padmanabhan assumes office at a time when the political scene is stable, and the government is supportive of initiatives for restructuring defense management and military modernization. An improving economy and a growing realization of the necessity of conventional deterrent permit generous financial allocations for all three services. The lessons from Kargil, the continuing low intensity conflict in J&K, and the North East, and from other wars such as Desert Storm and Kosovo, have opened the Indian establishment's eyes to the potential of Information Warfare. There is a growing realization that India should not be left behind in this increasingly prevalent form of warfare. The army, under Gen. Malik, has already launched a computerization and computer literacy drive. Other means, such as reconnaissance drones and satellites, and modern Electronic Warfare (EW) equipment are likely to be inducted in the coming years. A new, dedicated defense intelligence agency may be raised in the near future, and the role of the newly formed National Security Council will evolve as experience builds in its working. These general trends will all direct and shape the initiatives that Lt. Gen. Padmanabhan will take, and in turn, he will have an opportunity to leave his mark on them. Lt. Gen. Padmanabhan is familiar with the increasingly sophisticated covert war in Jammu & Kashmir. The situation has placed a high premium on modern Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) and EW equipment, on proactive media management, on manpower management in security forces, and on intelligence operations. By experience and inclination, he is comfortable with the new modes of thinking that modern low intensity conflicts require. Given this composite picture of the man and times he works in, his tenure is likely to usher in a revolution in the way the Indian Army fights Information Wars (IWs), in much the same way as Gen. Sundarji revolutionized Mechanized Warfare.

There is an upbeat mood among the defense management community at the prospect of things to come. Lt. Gen. Padmanabhan will assume office at a time ripe with possibilities. He has the aptitude and the experience to seize the opportunities, and we wish him the best at his finest hour.

Copyright Bharat Rakshak