Armed Forces in Aid to Civilian Authorities in COVID-19 environment
Jaideep Chanda

COVID-19 has tested healthcare and associated infrastructure of nations like nothing else before. There are precedents e.g. the Spanish Flu, but none on the scale of COVID-19. Under such a catastrophic environment, the role of the Armed Forces in assisting the civilian authorities becomes an imperative. Indeed the crisis is nothing short of war, though with very different dimensions and implications which are yet to manifest. Understanding the way this war is likely to pan out is difficult to predict. It is simply too early to say how this will impact the nation and international environment over the next few years. For most, it will be on-the-job learning.

This article looks at the method of employment of armed forces for assisting the nation during this pandemic, while retaining optimum efficiency and not losing sight of the operational requirements.

Role of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF)

There is often a query which is raised by analysts about the need to involve Armed Forces in what is essentially a situation requiring civilian response. Questions are raised about the need to call in the armed forces when we have a dedicated National Disaster Response Force available for exactly this purpose. To understand this observation, it is prudent that we understand the scale and scope of the NDRF. At present, NDRF consists of 12 battalions, three each from the BSF and CRPF and two each from CISF, ITBP and SSB. Each battalion has 18 self-contained specialist search and rescue teams of 45 personnel each including engineers, technicians, electricians, dog squads and medical/paramedics. The total strength of each battalion is 1,149. All the 12 battalions have been equipped and trained to respond natural as well as man-made disasters. Battalions are also trained and equipped for response during chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) emergencies.1

These NDRF battalions are located at 12 different locations in the country based on the vulnerability profile of the country and to cut down the response time for their deployment at disaster sites. NDRF personnel are trained in courses like Flood Rescue, Collapsed Structure Search and Rescue, Medical First Responders, Rope Rescue, Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Emergencies and even Dignified Disposal of Dead Bodies. Thus simply put, the total NDRF strength is approximately 13,788 troops located over 12 states, who are essentially specialists and at best can form the nucleus required to train the community, provide specialist equipment and advice and supervise and monitor the rescue operations in any disaster management scenario.

Now when we apply this resource contextually, it is evident that the NDRF assets are meagre and too limited for a calamity which has afflicted the entire nation, as the COVID-19. The immediate knee-jerk reaction to such a revelation is to state that the Government should immediately enhance the quantum of NDRF resources to match the scale of the disaster. This is unwarranted given that the frequency of COVID-19 kind of calamities does not merit holding captive NDRF resources who, when not employed for disaster management, will still require to be paid from the exchequer. It does not make sensible economics for a country trying to improve the lot for its people, to in effect raise and maintain two armies, one for disaster management and one for defence. Hence, in such scenarios, where the scale and scope of the calamity is overwhelming for NDRF and state resources, the use of Armed Forces is rational and desirable. From the training it is seen that most of the training by the NDRF is also part of the Armed Forces curriculum. All countries, whether first world or third world, have at some stage required to use their armed forces for disaster management, whenever the existing disaster management resources have been swamped. In the Indian context, the Armed Forces are spread all over the country, they number over 14 lakhs in active service, are well trained and equipped to come to assist the nation at the time of need.

Having seen the rationale for utilising Armed Forces in a COVID-19 environment, it is worth dwelling upon the methodology of how the armed forces are to be employed. This is best done under the heads of force preservation; assistance to civilian authorities for logistics sustenance; assistance to civilian authorities for provision of quarantining and other quasi-medical facilities and lastly for assistance to civilian authorities in law enforcement.

Force Preservation

The primary role for the armed forces is to cater to external threats. Hence any employment of the forces for a non-external threat must cater for adequate force preservation to deal with the traditional threats. Thus at the initial stage itself, there is a need to laydown a threshold beyond which the resources of the Armed Forces will not be touched. Even as this article goes live, our Western adversary has reinforced its myopic vision of pursuing a policy to harm India by launching terrorists from launch pads across the Line of Control. This, while it is itself afflicted by the virus. Coronavirus or not, our troops have responded and not only killed the five terrorists, albeit losing five braves in the process, but also imposed a penalty by destroying posts and an ammunition dump through heavy artillery shelling. In fact, it should be taken as a given, that our Northern neighbour will try and surprise us by springing Doklam 2.0 on us during this time. The moot point being that despite the crisis in the region, the external threats remain. Hence, the approach to armed forces assistance to civilian authorities should be done under the perspective of an impending threat of external aggression. Under such an environment, the concept that evolves should be to strike a balance by preserving the force for the external threat, while going all out to meet the requirements of the civilian authorities for COVID-19 and more.

Hence, as a rough thumb rule, the armed forces need to be viewed in three segments viz. a battle ready component; a sustenance or administrative component and finally an ‘Op Namaste’2 component, based on the very appropriate name for the operation launched by the Armed Forces for aid to civil authorities for COVID-19. The battle ready component would, as the name suggests focus on being battle ready to meet the external threats as discussed above. This implies that they must be isolated, preserved, and must continue to train as hithertofore (while practicing social distancing norms) for battle. The sustenance component would be effectively running the administration of the armed forces entity, i.e. it would be sustaining the battle ready component as well as the Op Namaste component and itself. All this while disinfecting, sanitizing and isolating COVID-19 positive men and material.

In the next stage of this thumb rule, we need to define the quantum of these three components in any military entity. This will depend on the location of the entity, the weapon holding, the operational task assigned to it, the quantum of troops present in it and so on. So at one end of the spectrum, entities deployed on frontlines cannot be touched for Op Namaste tasks as they have to focus on the adversary. Similarly entities which have scarce equipment or are sensitive in nature, such as fighter squadrons too cannot be touched. Reserve formations with operational roles too must be preserved in totality. Thus the best persons to decide which units can be spared and not, are the armed forces themselves. Those units which are in low conflict zones (modified field areas), and can be deployed for Op Namaste tasks need to be divided into the three categories mentioned above. Thus depending upon the degree of threat, they would be required to shed upto 35% of the unit/sub-unit strength on Op Namaste tasks while keeping upto 35% fully preserved battle ready component. Balance 30% would be required for sustenance of the entire entity and for turnover of troops. In a low threat scenario, the Op Namaste component could be increased to 50% with the sustenance component decreasing to 15%. Either ways, at no stage should the battle ready component fall to less than 35% of the entity strength. The matrix could be visualised as under:

The Indian Armed Forces are one of the largest in the world and hence while the above thumb rules are generic, the say must remain with the Theatre Commanders to decide on the balance between force preservation and Op Namaste requirements under the overall ethos of ‘Har Kaam, Desh Ke Naam’ as articulated by the Chief of Army Staff.

Assistance to Civilian Authorities for Logistics Sustenance

With that critical requirement of force preservation having been underscored, the next is to analyse the task of providing assistance to civilian authorities for logistics sustenance. The logistics sustenance requirements for civilian authorities would essentially be in terms of providing provisions to remote areas and transportation and ensuring that no one in the area of responsibility faces starvation or suffers from neglect. This would involve working closely with the local administration to map the area from a local administrative perspective, identify the vulnerable population and segments, establishing contact and rapport with them in assistance with local authorities and establishing a supply delivery chain which may even include setting up of emergency cook houses. The logistics sustenance requirements could involve receiving raw food items, bulk breaking along with the local Public Distribution System (PDS) personnel, identifying the recipients, ensuring doorstep delivery and checking for hoarding and misuse/black marketeering.

These functions have never been part of the traditional aid to civil authority training and hence the junior leaders on ground will have to be briefed on the manner of operating under such conditions and in effect they will have to learn on the job. Systems will have to be evolved on the go and lateral learning between the columns deployed on Op Namaste tasks will pay off. An important caveat would be to ensure that columns, in their eagerness to assist, do not get exploited by local politicians or administration and end up providing excessive assistance to political supporters and isolating opponents or people from the relative minor communities.

Similarly, given the nature of local administration and the sensitivity of certain pockets of population, distribution of rations could often lead to a riot like situation. Column commanders must try to foresee this and take adequate precautions to ensure they are not caught in the middle of the melee. Further, the front end of the logistics system should ideally be managed by the local civilian administration, unless they are totally understaffed in which case the column commanders could undertake the responsibility, but for which they would have to be provided local guides and at least one representative of the local administration should accompany. Where the assistance involves transportation of migrant workers or similar, adequate social distancing measures should be ensured within vehicles keeping one vacant seat between passengers. Further, all moves would require to be carried out as per military norms under a convoy commander.

Assistance to Civilian Authorities for Provision of Quarantining and Other Quasi-Medical Facilities

Presently the assistance provided has been limited to quarantine facilities. This is likely to be expanded to quasi-medical facilities and even medical facilities if required.3 All assistance under this head would also necessarily factor in force preservation. In some cases, the manpower for manning quarantine facilities may have to be provided by the Armed Forces. Extraction of stranded passengers abroad and delivery of supplies and equipment has already been undertaken. While till date Naval vessels have not been used for evacuation or quarantining, the possibility may also be explored. Further if required, Naval crew could be required to take over commercial passenger vessels for evacuation or even for establishing floating quarantine facilities. Both options would already have been explored and plans would be in place at the Naval HQ.

As has been the experience, the local commanders must have at hand adequate civilian police including lady police to enforce the local discipline essential for the quarantine facilities. Misbehaviour with jawans manning these facilities must not be tolerated.

Assistance to Civilian Authorities in Law Enforcement

While the provisioning of assistance to civilian authorities for law enforcement is a time tested practice, the present circumstances are exceptional. Prima facie, the current approach to the situation should not be viewed solely from a security perspective but from a disaster management perspective. Of course, it is expected that some amount of security violations will take place and a few may merit calling for Armed Forces assistance, which will have to be met as per laid down protocols. However, as far as possible, the law enforcement be executed by the police forces rather than armed forces.

Currently there have been a few violent incidents e.g. inside the Jail in Kolkata where rioting took place as inmates protested the blocking of meetings with relatives to prevent spread of COVID. The battle took place between the convicts and under-trials. Political call needs to be initiated whether to release the under-trials who have been in custody for periods greater than the maximum prison term for the crime committed. Similarly, convicts with good conduct reports may be released to decongest such flash points. Countries such as Myanmar have already started releasing Rohingyas and other political prisoners from custody in order to decongest the prisons. Such options can be recommended by the Armed Forces wherever identified, however the call will remain with the civilian authorities.

Situations such as these require mental mobility in commanders to switch from operational perspectives to Op Namaste and back within the same time frame. This mental flexibility will enable troops to switch back and forth from two very different tasks with élan. Since the situation is unprecedented, commanders will have no option but to maintain total situational awareness, keeping looking into the future and have the mental resilience and perseverance to learn and evolve on the job.

Further, there is a psychological impact of the deployment of India’s Armed Forces, on the local population. It raises hope and optimism, both of which the nation cannot afford to compromise. Therefore, in the interaction with the locals during delivery of supplies it troops and commanders must reach out to spread an aura of positivity and hope. This will go a long way in mitigating the suffering, especially of those not well off.

Irrespective of the nature of operation, the military ethos of functioning should not be compromised at any cost. Under no circumstance should the resources get deployed without a homogenous command element with them. It needs to be understood that the Armed Forces are the last resort of nation and hence cannot fail or be seen to fail in even the most innocuous of tasks. Hence all tasks under Op Namaste must be carried out with military precision and with total dedication.

The recent COVID-19 episode on board the American aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt reveals the risks service personnel face while embarked on duty. The dilemma faced by the Captain as revealed by his leaked letter, is something that all commanders will face. In all cases, adequate mitigating solutions can be worked out while balancing mission readiness and crew safety. These must be exploited to the hilt. Jerry Mothershead, a retired naval physician has listed out several options that were available for managing the situation on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt4 without resorting to the extremes of taking the ship off deployment for extended periods.

Recently, Indian Navy Chief has said that “Our ships and aircraft are on standby to support the government and civil administration. We are ready to extend support not only to our country but to Indian Ocean region nations, island territories of our country".5 He also emphasized the need for preserving the assets that include personnel and naval platforms. Further, Indian Navy had brought in 44 Indians from Iran and they were placed in quarantine facility of the Navy at Mumbai6. Indian Navy is also ready to provide support for disinfection of public areas, logistics support for movement between states, preparing vehicles for medical support, establishing quick response teams and assistance in maintaining law and order if so required by the civil authorities. Similarly, Indian Air Force besides preserving its force it has been providing logistics support and quarantine facilities to the civil authorities. The IAF has also lifted 6.5 tons of medical supplies and equipment to Maldives as part of Operation "Sanjeevani". Point to note here is that during the current period of lockdown these medical supplies were sourced from different suppliers in India, road transport was provided by the Army IAF provided the airlift. It should also be noted here that Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) along with HQ Integrated Defence Staff has an important role to play in integrating and coordinating the tri-services response for managing disasters in India and the neighbourhood.

Further, associated with the pandemic is the ‘infodemic’ which needs to be channelized, trained and utilised to condition the population in a positive sense. Unchallenged, it can overrun human reason and cause mayhem in the minds of the population resulting in grievous incidents. Precautions are required to be taken both in the service as well as amongst the civilian population.

Lastly, we must return to the first point of force preservation. Notwithstanding all that the Armed Forces do under Op Namaste, they will be required to fall back to the operational task, often compromising the need for social distancing. Hence troops also need to understand how COVID-19 works and spreads and how they, even if affected by it, would be likely to recover, as from a common flu. The bottom line here would be that irrespective of the degree of infection, till the operational tasks are not fulfilled, all troops would be employed even if afflicted with COVID-19.

Commanders would need to reorient themselves to operating through the COVID-19 to meet operational requirements. In the fog of the COVID-19 environment, a simple back to basics approach where the commanders are accessible, honest to their command, have clarity of purpose, are able to convey their intent, able to keep the team together and work through the chain of command, is likely to pay the best dividends to all the stakeholders.

  2. For our foreign audience, the word ‘namaste’ means "I bow to the divine in you". It is widely used in the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and among the Indian diaspora worldwide. The gesture (but not the term namaste for it) is widely used in the parts of Southeast Asia.. It is used both for greeting and leave-taking. Namaste is usually spoken with a slight bow and hands pressed together, palms touching and fingers pointing upwards, thumbs close to the chest. This gesture is called AñjaliMudrā in yoga; the standing posture incorporating it is Pranamasana. Since the advent of COVID-19, the Namaste gesture has become popular as an alternative to the hand shake to prevent the spread of the virus. Hence Operation Namaste becoming the official name of the relief operation for an armed force is a very touching name which both provides a solution and a quasi-divine greeting.

(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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