Should COs be Leading from the Front? (Part-1)

Should a CO, be directly involved and personally conducting small unit tactical operations risking the onerous responsibility of his command? Do we not have competent, inspired and dynamic younger officers to lead such lower level tactical Operations?

Should COs be Leading from the Front? (Part-1)


The martyrdom of Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, the Commanding Officer (CO) of 21 Rashtriya Rifles (21 RR) on 2 May 2020, while leading his unit team during a counter-insurgency/ terrorism operation (CI/CT) in Handwara, a town situated in Jammu and Kashmir's Kupwara district has posthumously earned the heartfelt acknowledgement for conspicuous bravery from his countrymen. Col. Sharma's act of valour is a testament to the sacred & selfless spirit of the officers of  the Indian Armed forces.

However, the sad loss of this highly decorated CO has raised many eyebrows, especially in military circles and triggered a hot debate. Must our COs always be at the forefront in leading  small teams in such CI/CT Operations, jeopardizing the command of their units?

The Indian Armed Forces 'lead from the front' culture has come into sharp focus, especially in context with COs of units deployed in CI/CT Ops. During the past five years India has lost three COs in such Operations. Col. MN Rai and Col. Santosh Mahadik were two CO's who sacrificed their lives in the line of duty in 2015.


Several questions have arisen from this recent tragedy. Should a CO, a Colonel rank officer be directly involved and personally conducting small unit tactical operations risking the onerous responsibility of his command?

Do we not have competent, inspired, and dynamic younger officers to lead such lower level tactical operations? Is a CO required to prove or display his bravery in this manner so often? Where are the younger officers? Why can't they lead such operations? The 1999 Kargil War was won by young officers who successfully led from the front!

The spate of debates and discussions on the above subject led Col Vijay (1971 war veteran) of Ashok Chakra battalion to circulate an advisory to all COs deployed in CI/CT operations. The points highlighted by him certainly merit consideration and debate by all concerned. The COs to whom it is addressed have a lot to gain from it.

The tragic loss of Col Sharma at this juncture brought to the fore the names of Col. NJC Nair of 16 Maratha Light Infantry and Colonel Vasanth Venugopal of 9 Marathi Light Infantry. Both these gallant Commanding Officers were posthumously decorated with the Ashok Chakra, the highest peacetime award for conspicuous bravery of the highest order.

Colonel NJC Nair made the supreme sacrifice on 20 December 1993, while breaking through an ambush laid by Naga insurgents on his unit's advance party. Colonel Venugopal made the ultimate sacrifice while personally leading a body of troops against terrorists attempting to flee during an operation in J&K's URI sector in 2007.

Is the Indian Army's unique culture and reputation for officer leadership 'to lead their men from front' equally applicable to COs of units deployed in CI/CT Operations, especially in J&K? What are the possible circumstances or compulsions when the CO must lead from the front? When should he not risk his life in the higher interest of his command?

The well-considered responses of battle hardened veterans and serving brothers in arms (within security constraints/considerations) who have seen and experienced it all should help and enable a clear and complete picture to emerge on this hot current topic of national debate especially on the print and electronic media. The esteemed responses will surely remove several dark clouds of ignorance and illuminate many minds.

Responses from Veterans

Lt Gen Vishnu K Chaturvedi (Retd), ex DG (Manpower & Planning)

A Commanding Officer (CO) may have to take spot decisions at times; any delay may change the script. Nothing succeeds like success, and failure teaches the importance of a timely response. There is a very thin line between success and failure. The onus remains on the Commanding officer.

What they did was correct and appropriate under the circumstances. We must not sit in judgment over this episode. The result would have been entirely different if the operation would have been successful, in that case the CO would have been given kudos! Armchair criticism is most undesirable at this stage when facts are totally hazy.

I do not approve of the letter to COs, please let the CO decide what he should do. Let us not try and teach him. They are as good as we were. This type of courage is required. No-one knows under what circumstances he decided to go with such a small force. Number of us have done it, most of the time with success.

The difference between a success and greater success in such operations is a fraction of seconds. Decision making is his, and many have succeeded. This is our greatest strength, let us not decry it. Our COs are our strength. He took the decision in the best interest and traditions of our Army, not for getting a personal reward. His sacrifice cannot be demeaned.

Maj Gen Raj Mehta (Retd), ex-GOC 19 Inf Div (J&K), Columnist FORCE Magazine

The day rank comes as a dividing line between the soldiers and officers will be the death of the Indian Army as we know it. Instead of legislating from comfortable offices, why don’t we leave the choice to the CO? Bde Cdr? GOC? Rommel, Guderian, Manstein have legendary reputations for leading.These weren't earned sitting way back.

Israel has won its wars leading. Death in war is an accepted risk for brave men. The medal I respect most is my wound medal earned as a Sector Commander in RR in South Kashmir. The other medals are there but do not count for much.

Wake up India! Celebrate that your officers, Colonel and below are out there and making a difference, a few higher ranked officers. More must go and do what needs doing; plan well and execute to win; laugh at loss and accept with honour.

Maj Gen CD Sawant (Retd), ex GOC Inf Div & Comdt MLIRC

My response is based on my experience of command of my unit in Srinagar from July 1991 to Jan 1994. It was a time when many senior officers were worried that the Kashmir Valley may merge with POK due to actions by the Pak trained terrorists. I do not want to blow my trumpet, but the fact is, as a CO while fighting with these terrorists I was wounded twice and four of our officers including my 2IC were also injured. It was our destiny that none of us succumbed to our injuries.

I will first talk about what happened in the case of 21 RR. If you look at the area, you will realise that Handwara is more or less surrounded by a forest. I believe entire 21 RR was deployed in the forest trying to locate the terrorists who were reported to have been seen there about a couple of days ago.

In such operations all sub units are deployed for specific tasks and it is only CO and his QRT (Quick Reaction Team) is available to exploit fleeting opportunities that may be available. In instant case the CO's QRT was indeed very small, which should not have been the case. As the CO received information about hostages being held up by the terrorists, he thought it best to tackle the situation with whatever is available with him rather than wait for some nearby sub unit to arrive.

Maybe the house in which the hostages were believed to have been held had more than one exit or way for the terrorists to get away, hence he thought it prudent to enter the house and rest is history. He could have waited for his sub unit to arrive rather than risk himself and his men which were not many. I wonder how come a Major was also with him, where was the sub unit of the Major? The CO took it upon himself to resolve the issue and paid for it with his and the lives of his companions.

No CO worth his salt thinks about an additional decoration or career in such situations, he only thinks about the target or objective that is allotted to his unit and makes best efforts to achieve the same. With experience I can say that the CO is the best judge in such situations, and none should do back seat driving during such situations. Yes many times the actions do not succeed, and lives are lost, but it is part of the game.

I can quote numerous examples of not only COs but senior officers getting involved in such situations. Gen JJ Singh was commanding a reserve brigade in Uri sector, In one such incident there was a report of some terrorists nearby his HQ and since no other unit or sub unit was available he himself went out with his QRT and got injured in the thigh during a firefight.

Another case was of Gen Inder Verma who was commanding the Dagger Division and wanted to influence a particular operation with his presence and in the bargain was injured in his arm. Yet another GOC of a reserve division whenever deployed in the valley used to venture out with his QRT during Cordon and Search operations.

Late Gen Mavi while commanding a division in the valley was caught in crossfire and his ADC was injured in South Kashmir. Gen Zaki was also involved in a fire fight in South Kashmir when he was commanding a Corps. Some may call such actions as unwarranted Bravado, but these officers thought it prudent to get involved in such operations

Col JP Singh (Retd), ex Infantry, Military Historian

As anticipated, after the martyrdom of Col Ashutosh Sharma, CO 21 RR, a hot debate has started, should the COs be dying for nothing in routine CI or counter terrorism actions.

Leading from the front has been a significant military leadership trait in the Indian Army since long past. This is what I have witnessed in my 34 years Infantry service including 6 years on the LoC and two and half years in Op Pawan of Sri Lanka. Nation has seen it vividly in the Kargil War.

In any and every tactical operation, in war, on the LoC, in CI operations, precious lives of officers and men are always at stake. At some point in time when it becomes dangerous for the men in action, CO has to position himself tactically so that his presence is felt by his men and he can influence the emerging situations. Hence, he has to be in the closer vicinity of action. How close is his discretion because it is for a specific operational objective? There is the dilemma of life and death of the men he commands.

Handwara operation went on for 38 hours. It means that the terrorists were many, well equipped and strongly entrenched. Hence CO presence there was unavoidable. Hence Col Ashutosh was where he was supposed to be and did what he was meant to do as an experienced and competent Commander. Hence his sacrifice on the line of duty is in accordance with military ethics.

No aspersions can be cast on his gallant sacrifice. Debate on the issue is welcome but the supreme sacrifice is monumental and inspiring for the younger generation of leaders. Though I regret the loss of five previous lives in the encounter, I salute the bravery and sacrifice of Col Ashutosh and his team

Col Narendra Sheoran (Retd)

Sad that we are losing the precious lives of our troops even today. While I am no expert in making a detailed analysis and have not had any first-hand experience, some questions are well on the card, not for this operation as such but in the broader context of redefining the narrative for the terrorist and their masters. Under the present circumstances, when there is virtually no interference of local paid public demos to subvert an ongoing op, do we need to be hasty in its execution.

There is also I believe no need for senior commanders to press for early results. On the contrary, they should be concentrating upon 'No own troop casualty' while much can be argued in favour of the decisions of the commanding officers' decision on the spot, in this or any particular op. The point is that every case of the death of our own troops is a sort of victory for the terrorist in asymmetric warfare.

The other issue that troubles me is that the situation has been brought under relative control several times in the past, by the forces, making it conducive for some hard-political decisions and change strategy. Especially since the Art 370 has been done away with, hard choices are not just needed to capitalize on it, but doable. We need to put an end to this once for all.

To start with, let us not hand over the bodies and give them a burial. Just burn these after the mandatory postmortem. Also, rethink how to deal with the families of the dead terrorist. I also notice that after retirement, most big shot Generals who have the micro and macro level experience, start writing smart essays beating around the bush, instead of calling out the mistakes and remedies needed to be enforced top-down from the Govt level.

Brig BP Patnaik (Retd)

I normally do not subscribe to any view on how an operation should be carried out or not. I have done five tenures in J&K, from 2/Lt to a full Colonel. The first principle which we teach our subordinates is NO casualty whatsoever to the troops taking part in any operation. So, what the hell is happening nowadays. I have served in the Handwara area. Those days Sopore was the hot spot. I have taken part in operations in Sopore way back in 87/88. But never was action taken like in this operation.

I am not trying to ask questions regarding the decision taken by the CO, but I just can't imagine a decision being taken to go into action with such little force. Where have the SOPs gone? I am really sad. A CO twice decorated taking this type of decision? I will leave it at that.

Brig IS Gakhal, ex RR Sector Cdr, Comdt Sikh Regt Centre

The Commanding officer as the man on the spot is the sole judge of the ground situation and requirement of his presence upfront. CI ops are non-conventional and situation dynamic over nanoseconds. Those who compare it to conventional warfare will miss the point and criticise the presence of the CO upfront.

RR unlike an infantry battalion has manpower pooled from a set of groups that turns over as personnel complete tenures. Manpower is transient over 2-2.5-year tenures. The CO thus has a constant motivational role and his visibility is essential. RR deploy on a dynamic CI grid, and as situations develop the CO and his QRT may be the only force closest to the point of contact. Are we suggesting he sits pretty till others can mobilise? No way!

The CO cannot sit back, and hope results will flow, it also creates a gulf between the leader and the led, if the CO remains base bound. Those that comment about incompetent junior leadership are divorced from reality. Our junior leadership is professionally competent and extremely motivated.

Please do not question a CO for being up front, self-preservation is a human instinct and it takes courage and motivation to overcome it. The malice that needs to be addressed is about adequacy of operational equipment provided in CI scenario. The following will greatly help in diminishing military casualties:

  • Man-portable UAV for over wall visibility
  • Flame throwers
  • Helmet mounted cameras for instant feed, COs can then monitor from afar
  • Robotic cameras and weapons

Just a few of the many that our men need to cut their own casualties. The loss of a CO is tragic and should be avoided, but god forbid if it happens the unit is motivated to take revenge. Finally, in dynamic operations it's always the man on the spot, let us leave it to him. The COs have rarely let down the Indian Army. Let us not curb their initiative and operational freedom by imposing unwarranted caution.

Capt Kamal Singh (Retd), IN (Shaurya Chakra)

A CO can do everyone's job, it is a given. Otherwise he will not be a CO. The problem in the current ambiguous times and warfare however is the ability to see through a given situation and develop a proportionate response to deal with it, in accordance with the Rules of engagement. This calls for the experience on part of the CO.

The problem with leading from the front, in the hallowed traditions of the yesteryear's as compared to the present times is that the CO is actually compromising his primary duty as a planner, strategist and chief executive. The point is in the vacuum caused by his absence, "who does the CO's role” This is the critical difference between victory and defeat today, both factual and notional.

Cdr Ravindra Pathak (Retd), ESM Activist

I do not agree that the Commanding officer has to lead from the front literally. Unfortunately, this syndrome has developed due to the general tendency to blame the commanding officer for everything. He has a tough task to perform with limitations far beyond his means to overcome. He has to deal with matters like shortage of manpower, lack of trained manpower due to extraneous duties in peace stations, lack of modern and latest weapons, and the lack of will in the service to give responsibility to juniors and hold them responsible and accountable.

The officer who wrote justifies his presence in the most dangerous position in the raid but falls short of analyzing the reasons why he needed to be there. We have always taken pride that we have a large officer casualty whilst leading from the front  but somewhere this has gone to higher ranks who still think they need to lead from the front in a battle like situation.

When one reaches command level you are too costly in terms of training costs and more importantly experience that is gone forever. This then leads to a situation where instead of the second in command taking charge, we have to replace the Commanding officer with an old horse. In the Navy, we have the second in command fully trained to take over a unit if the Commanding officer for some reason was not in a position to perform command function.

I feel that there is a very urgent need to battle inoculate youngsters before sending them to units on the frontline, bravery needs to also be supplemented with brain use  and that is training

Brig BL Poonia (Retd)

Comments with Reference to ‘Open Letter to all CO's in Kashmir’:

Reference the article by Col Vijay on the subject. While the officer, in his article, has conveyed a very pertinent point, which has a lot of merit; it may not always be applicable in every situation.

I commanded a Battalion in a terrorist affected area for three years. I did not have a single officer who had any experience in fighting militancy, except for me. Hence, I personally led each and every operation wherever and whenever there was even the slightest chance of militants opening fire. It was to save the lives of my men, using my experience.

It was also to make sure that l used my experience to train the officers to conduct such operations by taking them along with me. It was not to get the entire credit or all awards for myself; rather I ensured that not only the officers but even the JCOs and Other Ranks were recommended for awards as per their demonstrated performance. And the best part was that I could be absolutely fair in my recommendations as I had an opportunity to personally witness their performance on ground.

My Battalion got 70 awards including a Shaurya Chakra (an NCO), three Sena Medals (two officers and one JCO); I got a VSM. The Battalion was awarded with "Unit Citation" too. No one's credit was stolen. In fact one of my officers told me that had it not been for me, he could have never imagined getting an award, since I was the one who pushed him to his full 'potential', of which he himself wasn't aware. He told me this not while serving under me, but years later when he just happened to meet me.

I had an opportunity to lead three militant 'Camp Raids' on three different occasions with a 'two company-strength size' force each time, when my position as a CO, as per the teaching, should have been between the two companies, but I positioned myself just behind the Section Commander, who was just behind the two scouts of the leading section, because that was the position where the most important, crucial, critical and timely decision making was required.

It was primarily to ensure saving the lives of the men. Though it had its own risks and repercussions, yet these are the command decisions which must rest purely at the discretion of the commanding officers.

Each CO will have his own opinion and own judgement based on his experience, confidence, and the situation. While I don't say that the officer is wrong in expressing his point of view, rather he has brought out many sensible and pertinent points, that need to be appreciated and considered, this is simply another point of view.

A commander, no matter what his rank, should go to the 'hot spot', to the place where judgement counts, where a true feel of the actual situation can be gained, that simply is not transmitted by telephone or radio - in fact is transmitted in no other way than through the six senses of the man who is there. How far forward, will depend on the rank as well as upon the situation.

There can be no set rule, unless the rule is that when in doubt err towards the front and not towards the rear. Command of troops is an art, a free creative activity based on character, ability and power of intellect. And the prerogative of such decision making must rightfully rest with the commanding officer because that's a function of command.

Col Joseph Samuel (Retd)

Day in and day out we hear of brave officers and men biting the dust and being hailed as martyrs and heroes. Remember what Patton said? "I don't want you to die for your country. You should make the other poor dumb bastard die for his country!"

We must evolve tactics and strategy of how to stay alive, while decimating the enemy. We should not take refuge under the dictum that a percentage of casualties is acceptable. Why should it be acceptable?

We have huge departments (Staff college, senior command, Higher command, National Defence College (NDC), Research & Wing (R&AW), Intelligence Bureau (IB), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) among others) working out plans and strategies, and here we have two hastily trained guys snuffing out five of our best. Seriously something is not right. Its high time the ostrich pulled its head out of the sand, and worked out a fool proof method to deal with this nonsense

Col CM Chavan

Leading the men from the front has been the tradition and the culture of the Indian Army. But this ethos has been taken to a level where the COs are competing to display one-upmanship in their formations. The Commanders are to be equally blamed to have not checked the COs from doing so.

In the race for getting positive results and catches, the COs have forgotten to refrain from such foolhardiness. This also is the result of not having confidence in the junior leadership, which; is where the role of the COs comes to the forefront and that is training.

It is also true that the RR and infantry battalions may not be getting time for training on the ground as they are committed 24×7. Hence to overcome this situation, after every operation it should be critically discussed threadbare and lessons brought out for implementation in the next similar operation.

Tools like drones (if not authorized, they should be) can be used to see the operation in real-time so that the CO can see the performance of junior officers sitting in Command Posts and can correct them subsequently or intervene during the operation if so required on radio set and correct the junior leader.

The COs should be involved in motivating and boosting the morale of junior officers and encourage them, even when they make mistakes as; the aim is not to condemn but correct them and make them understand and be available to pat their backs whenever they do well.

This would go a long way in encouraging and building up the confidence of junior officers and JCOs. A CO has reached his level after having done a number of courses and years of experience as compared to the other officers of the unit and as such, is an asset of the unit and that of the Army as well.

He should use his second in command effectively and personally get involved when he is essentially required to be present in an operation. He should always rally behind his officers and men and stand by them, which will automatically boost the morale of the officers and the men. Only when it is a battalion level task, the CO should get involved physically.

It is pertinent that COs understand this and conduct themselves accordingly. The lure of awards should be avoided and ultimately the work of a battalion is always seen by the Cdr and CO would always be rewarded for this.

Col NP Sharma (Retd)

Leading from the front is a very desirable trait which any officer can display. Bravery displayed by any officer is laudable irrespective of rank and merits recognition. However, it needs to be ensured that the commander of the armed forces at the decisive point/area is of a rank and status in keeping with the enemy to be optimum.

None can deny the knowledge and experience of a CO but what is of far greater importance is the rank and service of the officer detailed to lead a particular operation at the decisive point /area which may at times be better dealt by a much junior officer.

Col Rajinder Kushwaha, Author, ex CO 3 Bihar, Author & Analyst

When one does not clearly understand one's own role, one tends to become confused and consequently one ends up taking the wrong call. What makes matters worse is the unfortunate tendency of the army to cover up such glaring mistakes under the guise of patriotism and bravery. Praises are undeservingly showered on people who should be court martialed!

My rather blunt observations have nothing to do with the tragic mishap of 2 May 2020, of the 21 Rashtriya Rifles. I truly salute the brave heart for his act of gallantry is genuinely commendable. However, I am equally perplexed and left astounded and wondering what it was that guided or rather motivated him to be with the leadership team without a backup team!

How was the outside bathroom left unchecked? Was Col Ashuthosh Sharma and his team led into a trap? Perhaps an inquiry would eventually establish what actually took place during the course of the operation. But till then these are inconvenient questions which will need to be asked.

There remains an urgent need to distinguish the role, function, and deployment of Infantry Battalions (Bn) in environments of insurgency and war, as the two are poles apart in nature. To be more specific, in war the enemy is known, and an infantry Bn is used as a concentrated punch at the point of impact. In short, the frontage employment is very less, whether in attack or in defence and in any type of terrain. Here command and control (C&C) are centralised with the CO, including the execution of the given task.

However, in an insurgency environment, an infantry Bn is deployed against an unknown, elusive and largely unseen enemy, in smaller more dispersed blobs over more extensive frontage. In the case of insurgency, the command structure is decentralised, however the control is retained with the CO. The rationale behind it is that the initiative is with the insurgents due to fleeting situations on the ground.

Therefore, the CO must allow execution at lower levels but coordinate and control the operations. Obviously, he does not have to be in the front but rather plan, guide, coordinate and retrieve situations if they go wrong.

So, if the CO himself was a frontline scout, then there would be a control and coordination vacuum. Who will retrieve him if he falls to insurgent bullets? I feel that in routine cases where the CO leads, they do so seemingly motivated by extraneous reasons.

Worse could be that the CO neither knows how to use his subordinates, nor is he sure of his own role. Once or twice is acceptable but if it becomes a matter of routine, then it ought to be checked by the higher Commander. Such COs are a danger to the organisation in actual war.

It is a wrong sense of bravery, the Nagrota terror attack, which took place a few years ago, should be a case in point to tell all commanders to keep away from the scene of action. 'Staggered terrorist' actions look for such a scene to inflict more casualties.

It is a falsity that leading from the front is the job of the CO. I would call it professional greed. It is a well-known fact that insurgency/terrorism prone areas are treated as arenas for 'punching your tickets', as the authors of. 'Crisis in Command', Richard Gabriel and Paul Savage highlight. Kashmir is particular, is a glamour bazaar for Indian Army officers. It provides opportunities to careerists to decorate their chests and move up the professional ladder.

This is what had happened to the US army in Vietnam. Incidents like the Mai Lai massacre took place. Not that it did not happen in Kashmir. We just tend to cloak them under the guise of patriotism. In 2000, a DIG of BSF was killed by his own men, but it was covered up as a terrorist attack. The same thing happened in the case of CO of 4 RR, Col Balbir Singh, though later the culprits were caught.

In the case of the 21 RR CO, I have my apprehensions as to what motivated him to be with the frontline team? I am not questioning his valour, but what led him to this? Was he lured or trapped by his own informer? I do feel it is so.

I can quote incidents from the RR Battalions methodology of functioning. My own experience and knowledge of the valley from 1997 -2000 tells me about the wrongs that have crept in. RR battalions generally have double agents working as informers. In some cases, the COs know, in other some cases, they do not.

Some of the informer’s act as the guides for the infiltrating terrorists. They would generally let 2-3, small-time terrorists, get captured/ killed, but most of the high-value ones would be allowed to escape.

This is the informers' general modus operandi in Kashmir. Besides that, these agents also manage weapons haul to show their operational efficiency and competence. In some cases, there is pressure from higher-ups on COs for more 'Kills' and action. Therefore, maybe it is a case of professional survival that COs do resort to such devious methods? But it happens!

Conclusion & the Way Ahead

Many poignant issues have been well articulated by several senior and experienced veterans who have shared their professional military views on sensitive questions raised in the debate. The responses are interestingly divided with good ‘food for thought’ for all concerned. Most respondents are in overwhelming support of CO’s leading from the front in the current challenging and trying circumstances.

One of the critical reasons cited by most respondents in favour of COs leading from the front is the high personal example of leadership that  invariably raise the morale of  troops risking their lives in unforgiving counter insurgency environments. However, veterans who have responded against the practice of CO’s engaging in lower tactical operations have pointed out few points worth review and reflection.

Issues like availability of human resources (especially officer shortage), pressures on a CO, a misplaced sense of bravado, lack of adequate technology and equipment available to our counter-insurgency forces and careerism do need serious consideration and reflection by all  those who are  responsible and accountable.

The responses to the open letter written by Col Vijay (71’ war veteran) to CO’s serving in J&K have received mixed reactions. The purpose of the debate was to get the well-considered views, comments  and suggestions of  professional and experienced veterans with a view to educate and enlighten all concerned about the hard facts and grim reality on ground in the prevailing CI/CT environment in J&K.

All responses have collectively cleared many doubts and myths by projecting the harsh reality of operations that our security forces (Indian Army) are currently confronted with in the valley.

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