Restructure of Indian Army must address defence challenges faced by country, not just its budgetary concerns

In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid out his vision for the armed forces in his address to a combined commanders' conference. "Full-scale wars may become rare, but force will remain an instrument of deterrence and influencing behaviour, and the duration of conflicts will be shorter," he said.

He went a step further a year later, rejecting the notion of plans based on "outdated doctrines" that are "disconnected from financial realities". In a telling comment, Modi said, "At a time when major powers are reducing their forces and relying more on technology, we are still constantly seeking to expand our forces." He challenged the assumption of "massive funds locked up in inventories".

Now, news has emerged that the Indian Army brass is looking to "right-size" the force. However, can an endeavour aimed at restructuring be undertaken without addressing the strategic imperatives that dictate structures in the first place?

An understanding of the recent inputs and analysis of lessons from the past provide pointers for the ongoing reforms.

 Restructure of Indian Army must address defence challenges faced by country, not just its budgetary concerns

Representational image. Reuters

Reports indicate that the army is looking at cutting the flab at the headquarters, organisational restructuring of formations, with the option to remove divisional headquarters and bringing modular self-contained brigades directly under a corps. There is also a proposal to promote officers directly from the rank of colonel to major-general.

The restructuring is a desperate bid to enhance the force’s effectiveness by reducing the share of revenue expenditure currently pegged at 83 percent and capital at a mere 17 percent. This remains grossly inadequate for the modernisation needs of the army, especially given the nature and degree of obsolescence of equipment. Further, the projected defence budget indicates that it is likely to hover around 1.5 percent of GDP, unless there is a major change.

This is not the first time that the army is trying to cut numbers. An attempt was made by General VP Malik cutting the strength by 50,000 and a transformation study was close to implementation under General VK Singh. Perhaps the most successful endeavour was headed by then Lieutenant-General (later General) KV Krishna Rao in 1975. There are important lessons that can be learnt from the success and failures of that effort.

In 1975 the Krishna Rao committee, perhaps for the first time, was required to think long-term — it was to plan till the year 2000. This included an evaluation of security threats, proposal for a strategy against them and visualisation of the future battlefield. On the basis of this assessment, the committee was to determine the size of the army and its build-up.

Interestingly, the mandate was given under challenging circumstances, which despite the prospect of a two-front war, required the army to cap its strength at 8.38 lakh.

Given the disadvantage posed by a superior combined forces of China and Pakistan and India’s limited ability to move forces from the Chinese front, Rao concluded: "The option, therefore left, to tackle the problem in the West is to improve the quality of the forces in all respects, as opposed to quantity."

During the next decade or so this quality was achieved through a clear strategic vision, careful manpower jugglery and an enhanced budget to pursue mechanisation.

What followed was the most transformative evolution of the Indian Army. The modernisation that took place in the 1970s and 1980s was not merely through mechanisation, but was a result of a fresh approach to war-fighting. Perhaps for the first time since Independence, India leapfrogged its potential adversaries.

This experience suggests important takeaways in the process of military transformation, including restructuring.

First, the exercise had the complete backing of the government. This ensured the required financial support was consistently available.

Second, the process was not merely an exercise in restructuring. It was also aimed at strategic reorientation of the army's fighting capability.

Third, the army consulted a large number of governmental bodies for a holistic perspective, which could in turn guide its decision-making process.

Fourth, the primary objective of the changes was to enhance operational effectiveness; restructuring was the means to achieve it and not the end.

Fifth, while there was an integrated approach within the government, each service independently went about its modernisation plan. This was against the spirit of joint planning and implementation — one of the few flaws in the process.

What lessons does this hold for the changes now underway?

The first factor relates to the changing character of war. It is a reasonable premise that major wars are likely to be rare and standing armies, at least in the conventional sense, will be employed more as instruments of deterrence. By all available evidence, sub-conventional and non-conventional wars such as insurgency and cyber warfare have moved to the forefront while conventional conflict has taken a back seat.

The restructuring must therefore be preceded by doctrinal underpinnings that reflect this reality. While the army’s doctrine is not in public domain, India’s 2017 joint forces doctrine did not give this indicator.

If the changing character of war is a given, then the debate over its impact cannot remain constrained within the power circles of the army.

Future conflicts are likely to blur traditional boundaries of war and peace in numerous ways: Between military means and coercive diplomacy; challenges of law and order and public order; localised discontent and systemic State-led subversion.

Therefore, the proposed strategic shift must be debated not only within the three services but also among other organs of the state, academia and think-tanks. The armed forces, specifically the army, must translate it into structural reality based on the time-tested model of concept creation, wargaming, exercise with troops and implementation.

Given this sequence of envisaged action, the premise or prerequisite of a figure that dictates the percentage of defence budget (whether 1.5 or three percent) or cut in the size of the army (say by 1.5 lakh), cannot become the bottom line for manpower or structural changes.

Instead, it must be dictated by the threat, challenges and ambitions that the State visualises. The armed forces and other organs of the State, must flesh out the capacity needed to achieve these ends. If the creation and maintenance of this capacity is not immediately feasible, it must be staggered. Simultaneously, India's strategic ambitions must be tailored to reflect the country's actual national power.

There is little doubt that the army's foundations have been built on the experiences forged by wars fought in past decades. It is equally critical, though, to look at national security through the prism of insurgencies and small wars that have bled India for this entire period. The restructuring process must address the conflicts we face, not merely be a band-aid to fix budgetary constraints.

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Updated Date: Sep 19, 2018 14:05:54 IST