The recent ambush of the security forces in Chhattisgarh, leading to the loss of 16 lives, highlights a vital gap in our ability to fight the war against insurgency and terrorism — the need for early warning systems to protect our forces.

True, as many have pointed out, had there been cellphone connectivity, help would have arrived sooner. But even so, there certainly would have been considerable damage caused to our forces in the intervening period.

The solution, as the United States Army has discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan, lies in the use of highly trained dogs. In the words of Lieutenant-General Michael Oates, “technology like the electronic frequency jammers, has been successful. But the highest success rates were still achieved using K9 units and trained handlers.” In Chhattisgarh, just some well-trained patrol dogs would have alerted the forces to the ambush and saved lives.

In the U.S., the role of “Cairo”, the Belgian Malinois used in the operation to flush out and eliminate Osama bin Laden, has evoked great public interest in the use of military dogs. As Maria Goodavage points out in her book Soldier Dogs, the Department of Defence has approximately 2,700 U.S. military dogs in service worldwide, and about 600 serving in war zones. Another 200 are hired from private contractors. In 2010, military dog teams in Afghanistan were credited with finding more than 12,500 pounds of explosives.

Ms. Goodavage writes: “When you think of the damage that even 10 pounds of explosives can do you get a sense of the importance of these dogs to our military capability.”

An article in the Smithsonian by Joshua Levine (July 2013) points out that for many years the U.S. Defence Department tried to build a machine that could out-smell a dog. The product that resulted was called FIDO X, and it was based on flourescent polymers. The sales director of the company, FL I R systems, however, confesses: “I don’t think we will ever be able to beat a dog as our device does not have a brain.”

Similarly, at the Pacific Northwest National laboratory, where scientists are working on ionization techniques to “see” vapours the way a dog does, senior scientist Robert Ewing admits: “Dogs have been doing this for years. I don’t know whether you could ever replace them.”

In India, the Army and the paramilitary forces do use dogs. In fact, between 2,000 and 3,000 dogs are deployed in either counter-insurgency or in the border areas. But the programme faces several difficulties.

First of all, given the vastness of the areas where they are required, there are not just enough dogs available for deployment; hence the Chhattisgarh tragedy.

Apart from bureaucratic delays in procurement, the major reason for the shortage is that in India we just do not have enough breeding stock. The jobs these dogs perform are ideally performed by dogs bred from genuine working stock. In India most, if not all, breeders breed for show purposes. Show dogs, unfortunately, have all the working qualities bred out of them. So not only do our security forces not get enough dogs, the ones they do are completely unsuitable for the job.

The world over, security forces have in the last two decades or so, recognised that the best working dog available is the Belgian Malinois. In India, however, apart from the CRPF and the ITBP, no security force has recognised this fact. They stick to the more conventional breeds such as the German Shepherd and the Labrador, and that too from completely unsuitable show stock.

This CRPF and the ITBP, like other forces worldwide, have found that the Malinois is as tough as nails, can adapt to any kind of terrain and climate, and is almost zero-maintenance. In fact, the mortality rate for canines has come down to almost nil with the introduction of this breed.

Another great advantage of the “Mali”, as the breed is popularly known, is that a single dog can be trained to perform multiple tasks. One dog, for instance, can be trained to sniff out explosives, to indicate an ambush from nearly a hundred yards away, and to attack if necessary. These dogs have achieved great success in counterinsurgency operations. Unfortunately, the bulk of our forces continue to believe in the conventional wisdom of “one dog, one trade”. This severely restricts our capabilities. Our neighbours, China and Pakistan, have stolen a march on us and deployed the Mali in large numbers.

There are also serious limitations in the manner in which we train and raise our military dogs. Dog training, particularly for soldier dogs, is a hugely scientific and evolving subject. We have to make a big effort to break away from the old (and sometimes harsh) methods, towards more scientific and humane techniques such as operant conditioning. Also, most training and breeding centres house these dogs with coolers and heaters. The dogs, therefore, often break down in harsh operational conditions.

The truth is that in India we have not yet recognised the immense potential of the working dog — not only for the military but for therapy, search and rescue, and much else. How many lives would have been saved in Uttarakhand had well-trained search and rescue dogs been used!

Perhaps the best assessment of the military dog comes from General David Petraeus, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and former commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan: “The capability they [military dogs] bring to the fight cannot be replicated by man or machine. By all measures of performance their yield outperforms any asset in our inventory. Our army would be remiss if we failed to invest more in this incredibly valuable resource.”

(The author is a retired Headmaster of Welham Boys’ School, Dehra Dun)

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