“Jal’, ‘Thal’ and ‘Nabh’...our armed forces have left no stone unturned in strengthening the fight against COVID-19.” This tweet by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday recognised the critical contributions of the navy, army and air force to India’s pandemic response. The military has swiftly marshalled enormous resources to help manage -- in some measure -- what is being dubbed the world’s biggest health crisis.
The armed forces, officials said on Friday, are operating in full battle mode for Covid relief. They foresee a bigger role for themselves in the coming weeks and months to help tackle the devastating second wave of the pandemic even as they cater to the health needs of serving soldiers, veterans and their dependents.
Modi has reviewed the military’s preparations for Covid relief four times since April 26 in one-on-one meetings with the chief of defence staff and the three service chiefs.
Firing on all cylinders
The armed forces are in the vanguard of the fight against the disease. They have helped meet the exploding demand for oxygen, set up Covid hospitals and opened military hospitals to civilians and transported critical medical stores.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) is flying sorties daily to international and domestic locations to help overcome a shortage of oxygen. It has deployed eight C-17 Globemaster III aircraft, four IL-76s, 10 C-130J Super Hercules special operations aircraft, 20 An-32 transport planes, 10 Dornier aircraft and 20 helicopters for Covid-related duties.
The IAF is airlifting much-needed empty oxygen containers from abroad and domestic locations to filling stations across the country to help beat oxygen shortages. Till May 6, IAF aircraft clocked almost 400 flying hours while performing Covid-related duties.
IAF chief Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria has ordered 24x7 readiness of the force’s entire heavy-lift fleet and substantial numbers of the medium-lift fleet to operate in a hub and spoke model for Covid-related duties.
“IAF transport aircraft carried out 50 sorties, airlifting 61 oxygen containers of 1,142 MT capacity from abroad. Within the country, it carried out 344 sorties, airlifting 230 containers of 4,527 MT capacity till May 5,” defence minister Rajnath Singh said on Thursday, enumerating the steps taken by the armed forces in the battle against Covid.
The army is helping authorities set up and run Covid facilities, treating civilians at military hospitals and providing medical specialists, super specialists and paramedics for adequate staffing at non-military hospitals, officials said.
On Thursday, it mobilised two field hospitals by air from the northeast to Patna to assist the Bihar government set up a 500-bed Covid facility, including 100 intensive care unit (ICU) beds. Also, around 750 beds in various military hospitals across the country have been reserved for civilians.
The army has also set up a Covid management cell under a three-star general to help civilian authorities. It is headed by the Director-General of Operational Logistics and Strategic Movement, who reports directly to the vice chief. The main responsibility of the new cell is to coordinate Covid-related logistics support across the country. The army is also liaising with state governments to help them deal with the unprecedented surge in Covid-19 cases.
The navy has assigned several of its warships - nine, at the last count - to ferry liquid oxygen-filled cryogenic containers and other medical stores from countries in the Middle East and South-East Asia under Operation Samudra Setu-II.
On April 27, CDS General Bipin Rawat said the military still has “long distances to travel” in the Covid fight, a clear reference to the challenges lying ahead.
Some experts and officials believe that the military has the potential to expand the scope of its assistance to the civilian authorities in these extraordinary times.
The army, with its vast resources, can play a critical role in providing logistics support to civilian authorities, setting up communication centres to coordinate Covid relief, strengthening supply chain management, conducting outreach in remote areas, building more medical infrastructure and also helping with vaccination, said Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd).
“Involving the military brings in an element of effectiveness. It has the capacity, skills and leadership to mount a swift response,” Hooda added.
While the involvement of the armed forces in Covid relief efforts can be increased, many believe it is paramount that resources are not overstretched given the military’s vast operational responsibilities along the borders with China and Pakistan.
In an article in Hindustan Times on May 5, strategic affairs expert Commodore C Uday Bhaskar wrote that maximising the institutional capacity of the military in the war against Covid, without diluting its primary operational orientation, in the backdrop of a resource crunch, is the task ahead for the Indian political and defence leadership.
“The military’s core characteristics are professional competence, innovation in the face of adversity, proven organisational acumen and a deeply ingrained spirit of selfless service. Add to this the intrinsic training ethos of the military and some policy options can be identified,” Bhaskar wrote.
Lieutenant General BS Sandhu (retd), a former director-general of supplies and transport, said the military can provide engineering support, help repair medical equipment and speed up the movement of critical medical stores. “However, we have to ensure that channelling resources into the Covid fight does not dilute the military’s operational role. More Covid waves are being predicted, and the role of the armed forces in this fight can’t be stretched beyond a limit,” he said
The defence minister on Thursday said that the military’s efforts for Covid relief did not undermine its operational readiness. “All the efforts and initiatives by the armed forces and various organisations of the defence ministry…are being done without compromising the objective of defending the nation from any external threat.”
Singh said the armed forces were walking the extra mile for the nation to emerge a winner in the fight against Covid. “Hard times demand the manifestation of an indomitable spirit to fight against the odds and that is what the country is doing at the moment.”
The government has sanctioned emergency financial powers for the military and its medical wing to strengthen and accelerate efforts to deal with the crisis.
While vice chiefs of armed forces, including the chief of integrated defence staff to the chairman chiefs of staff committee (CISC) and army commanders (and their equivalent ranks in the navy and air force) have been given “full powers”, corps commanders and area commanders have been delegated powers to spend up to ₹50 lakh per case.
These powers have been granted for a period of three months, from May 1 to July 31.
Division commanders/sub area commanders and their equivalent ranks in the navy and air force have been delegated powers to spend up to ₹20 lakh per case. Such powers were sanctioned last year too when the pandemic first broke out.
Emergency buying powers have also been conferred on senior military doctors. While the heads of the medical wings of the three services have been given powers to make purchases worth ₹five crore, doctors holding the ranks of major general and brigadier can now make procurements worth ₹three crore and ₹two crore, respectively.
The armed forces are also marshalling 600 retired military doctors for Covid relief.
DRDO, DPSUs fully involved
The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs) are fully involved in Covid relief. The DRDO has so far set up or is in the process of setting up state-of-the-art Covid hospitals in six cities to treat more than 3,100 critical patients. It is also extending technical support to state governments in setting up temporary Covid hospitals, officials said.
DRDO will set up 500 medical oxygen generating plants across the country within three months under the PM-CARES Fund to ramp up oxygen production.
The Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) has earmarked nearly 60% of its existing medical set-up for Covid care. As many as 813 beds out of a total of 1,405 are reserved for Covid patients. The OFB is providing Covid care at its medical facilities in 25 locations across Maharashtra, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Odisha and Uttarakhand.
The OFB is the country’s main producer of military arsenal.
State-run plane-maker Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is setting up a 250-bed Covid hospital in Lucknow. It has already set up two Covid facilities in Bengaluru with 250 and 180 beds each. It has also operationalised a 70-bed facility in Odisha’s Koraput and a 40-bed hospital in Maharashtra’s Nasik.
The DPSUs are fast-tracking the procurement of oxygen plants for state government hospitals under their corporate social responsibility scheme. These include HAL, Bharat Dynamics Limited, Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited and Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers Limited.