Lean, mean military? Gen Bipin Rawat calls for plan to modernise army, but this will be a long march
As his term winds down, army chief Bipin Rawat has discovered the huge agenda he should have known about at the outset – the need to restructure and reform his force. All this while Rawat was busy fighting other enemies, some real and others imaginary. But a recent report says that he has, at last, called for studies to prepare the army for 21st century conflict.
As part of this the army envisages a cut of some 1,50,000 troops, beginning with a cut of one-third within two years. Some of these would involve cutting and merging existing departments at the army HQ, but others could involve cuts in support units like Signals and Supply Corps. The army, reports say, hopes for a saving of Rs 5,000 crore to Rs 7,000 crore that could be used to boost its capital budget to buy new equipment. All this sounds nice, but is easier said than done.
Such ideas are neither new or remarkable. In August 2017 the defence ministry had announced it was “redeploying” 57,000 personnel following recommen-dations of the Shekatkar Committee, set up to suggest measures to enhance the army’s combat potential and constrain its revenue expenditure. In 1998, the army reduced its recruitment so as to cut its numbers by 50,000, with the hope that the expected saving of Rs 600 crore would help to buy new equipment. But, to its chagrin, it found that the government simply pocketed the money and there was no bonus in the 1999 budget.
As for restructuring, in the early 2000s, when the army formulated its Cold Start Doctrine, it envisaged the reconfiguring of its divisions and corps into agile integrated battle groups (IBGs) which would be roughly the strength of a brigade. These groups were to comprise an armoured regiment, two mechanised infantry regiments, an artillery battalion, specialised units for Intelligence Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTR), electronic warfare (EW) and aviation. But, just as Cold Start was quietly put on the backburner, so was the idea of IBGs, though modern warfare needs such reorganisation regardless of doctrine.
Now presumably the army wants to revive these ideas. The suggestions that cuts will take place in Signals and Supply units actually goes against the grain of modern warfare, which emphasises quick moving forces and long range precision strikes enabled by specialised ISTR, EW and logistics units. Modern militaries have actually seen a reduction of traditional infantry and combat roles for soldiers and an expansion of the roles of laptop warriors – geospatial imagery analysts, GIS entry specialists, IT specialists, cyber network defenders, linguists, to name but a few areas.
Two issues stand out here. First, there is no guarantee that the army’s savings will be given back to them. In India money is retained in the Consolidated Fund, and whatever is saved or left over, goes back into it. It’s not as though the money “belonged” to the army. The government would have to re-appropriate the alleged savings through the Union Budget process. Going by past experience, that is unlikely to happen.
The second is that reducing numbers does not necessarily translate into reducing expenditure. Indeed, in the short run, it will be the other way around. The reason is that there is need to invest in getting higher quality personnel, pay to train them into their new jobs and re-equip the army with an entire new range of weapons and systems.
And before we go too far, it is worthwhile recalling the testimony of the army to Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence earlier this year, that some 68% of the army’s equipment holdings belong to the “vintage” category, 24% current and 8% state of the art. A modern, war winning military needs to be state of the art in every dimension – doctrine, organisation, equipment and quality of its personnel.