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Downsizing the Indian Army: A Dangerous Exercise

Downsizing the Indian Army: A Dangerous Exercise
Re-strategising of the armed forces must be as per the threat perception/Photo: UNI
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Above: Re-strategising of the armed forces must be as per the threat perception/Photo: UNI

The Army restructuring plan involves reducing its manpower by 1.5 lakh personnel, but doing so on an ad hoc basis to appease the government in power may prove suicidal

Praful Bakshi 

~By Praful Bakshi 

Downsizing of armed forces, especially after a period of conflict and turmoil, has been a practice with various countries throughout history. As the cost of maintaining a large standing army becomes a strain even on the economies of large and powerful countries, the practice of downsizing their fighting forces in peace time is seen as a necessary measure, for democracies, in particular.

However, many military thinkers are of the opinion that most armies around the world carry a very large teeth-to-tail ratio, i.e. the ratio between the actual fighting arms and the supporting non-fighting services. To increase battle efficiency, more advanced technology is brought in, replacing the supposedly excess manpower to create a lean and mean fighting system. The advanced technology becomes a force multiplier.

In India, when news came out recently that a brainstorming session of the top Army brass led by Army chief Gen Bipin Rawat has given in-principle approval to carry out extensive reforms to enhance war fighting capabilities, it led to intensive debate among strategic  experts and military thinkers. The reforms that have been proposed include amalgamation of various military support organisations and cutting excessive manpower by restructuring these establishments.

In this restructuring, the Army may reduce its strength by nearly 1,50,000 personnel. The organisations affected in the reforms are the Rashtriya Rifles, Signals, Ordnance, with the clubbing together of various army training and maintenance establishments.

The world over, such drastic reforms are undertaken after a detailed study of the politico-military atmosphere of the region along with the threat perception, which involves the type and quantum of threats, the country’s fighting capabilities and resources, availability of advance technology which would replace the old equipment and the operating manpower. An example would be the flying crew in World War II bombers like Liberators or B29s, compared to the latest B1 or B2s which require 30 percent or even less crew than the aircraft they replaced. The same holds true for warships, submarines, missile and air defence units.

The threat perception aspect is best seen in the European Union. Compared to the 1930s and right up to the end of the Cold War and break-up of the Soviet Union, today one can see a massive reduction in the armed forces in the European Union. Most countries are developing joint fighting systems, joint air lift commands and coast guard forces. A number of military experts from various countries involved in Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) have suggested that modern systems with enhanced capabilities may even reduce the requirement of a large number of small organisations which could be amalgamated to become one modern and efficient system. In India, that could mean amalgamating the Ordnance, the Corps of Electric and Mechanical Engineers (EME) and the Army Service Corps (ASC) to achieve a leaner and efficient logistics/supply organisation.

The RMA study considered the threat perception in the next 40-50 years which is what the Chinese or the Israelis do. In the Indian context, this would help in formulating its doctrinal approach and defence policies. While it makes sense to cut the flab and build a leaner, nimbler fighting machine, there are hidden dangers.

It could mean ignoring or overlooking the threat on the ground and a knee-jerk reduction of the Army merely to save money for the exchequer and thereby curry favour with the powers that be. This is, one feels, the situation in India with the force reduction plan.

In a fighting force, periodic reforms are welcome, but only after weighing them against future threats, development in arms and weapon systems and improvements in battlefield infrastructure. A time will come when decision-makers will have to answer whether reduction of fighting forces and saving money is more justifiable than strengthening the fighting infrastructure to face future threats. Establishment review in the armed forces is not a new phenomenon, but it is felt in some circles that instead of carrying out reforms in a planned and systematic manner a lot of ad hocism is being resorted to.

In the mid-70s, we had the Gen KV Krishna Rao reforms, with very little follow-up. Defence planning staff carried out the first systematic security review in the 1980s which was implemented very unsatisfactorily. Thereafter came three important reports—the Kargil Review Committee report, the Naresh Chandra Task Force recommendations and the recent Sheketkar Committee report. All these reports had some very valuable recommendations. The Union Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) chaired by the PM found it very necessary to immediately implement the recommendations of the Sheketkar report. In this first-ever reforms exercise since Independence, it was accepted that the reforms suggested would not only enhance the combat capability, but would also optimise and bring out in phases a well-balanced expenditure system for the Army.  The most salient aspect of this report was that it made recommendations for all the three services, keeping in mind future thinking of jointmanship and interoperability of fighting systems between the three services.

The committee had submitted close to 99 recommendations and 65 of these pertaining to the Army have been approved. They deal with readjustment in army signals, EME, repair and workshop establishments, ordnance depots, vehicle and armoured fighting vehicle depots, along with further streamlining of the inventory control mechanism. The 34 recommendations, pertaining to the Indian Navy, Air Force and Integrated Defence staff, are to be taken up soon.

All the reports may prove valuable in terms of efficiency created by realignment of organisations and reduction in manpower and equipment, but it is pertinent to ask as to how much thought was applied towards the study of development of threats, both external and from within. One need not be a military genius to see the current military threat developing on our borders, including India’s vast sea coast. It was 20-odd years back that India woke up to the threat from China, despite the Henderson Brooks report which came out after the 1962 episode, almost 50 years ago. Various studies showed we were some 30 years behind in the military preparations and defence infrastructure on the Chinese border in the north and along the Leh-Tawang axis. Military infrastructure built by the Chinese, including rail and road transportation of troops, right up to the border with India, the military aviation support infrastructure like runways, helipads, advanced landing grounds, ordnance, logistics support, radar and surveillance infrastructure are way beyond ours.

Our plan to build a strike corps base at Panagarh and its auxiliary support infrastructure has not developed to its full potential. Our troops still have to travel by road and mule tracks for days to reach their fighting locations while the Chinese, in similar circumstances, take only hours to complete the task. We are constantly witnessing Chinese intrusions in Arunachal and Uttarakhand. This is not only due to our lack of border infrastructure but also due to the lack of proper socioeconomic development in the rural areas. Vast stretches of border areas and entire villages have been abandoned by the local population, making it easy for the Chinese to take advantage.

Similarly, the coastal defence development programmes require a huge amount of human and logistical resources, including a large number of sea surveillance and early warning radars. The Coast Guard has starting manning a number of these, but large gaps still remain. New development programmes and induction of new technology also require  training officers and men—the massive development in naval ships, aircraft carriers, submarines or frigates, would call for an induction of trained manpower.

Keeping all this in view, lndia cannot enjoy the luxury of reduction in fighting forces like countries under the European Union. Our threats are real and very urgent and spill over into internal security problems in the form of Pakistan-led and Taliban trained non- State actors.

With modern threats taking a new shape in the form of cyber warfare, a huge amount of infrastructural and technical development institutions would come into play, and these would further have requirement of trained manpower. In conclusion, it can be safely said that reducing manpower on an ad hoc basis to appease the government in power would be nothing short of suicidal.

—The author is a defence and security analyst and former spokesperson for the defence ministry

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