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Haphazard restructuring of the armed forces will not work The Statesman 17 Aug 2022
The appointment of the first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) with a mandate to create theatre commands, failure to appoint his reliever, introduction of the Agnipath scheme and finally directions to shed manpower by two lakhs, the government is going all guns to alter armed forces structures. The failure to appoint the second CDS for over 8 months sends the message that either the government considers the CDS to be a failed model or that it seeks to push through further changes with divided services, rather than united under a CDS. Any claim of still hunting for the right individual as the CDS is a farce as the government has already amended its own rules to choose almost anyone. The longer it takes, the further it pushes its announced agenda of theaterization away, despite statements that this remains its goal.
The Agnipath scheme, bulldozed by the PMO, fought tooth and nail by the forces, is now being implemented. Numbers applying for the joining the armed forces are not a measure of acceptability of the scheme, though it would be projected as such, but an indication of rising unemployment within the nation and desperation by the youth for any opportunity to earn their livelihood. What would be the scenario when trained soldiers are pushed onto the civvy street with no source of income is anybody’s guess. Promises from all quarters for their subsequent employment continue to flow, more aimed at quelling voices of discontent against the scheme, rather than as an assurance.
The current announcement of reduction in manpower also needs to be considered in the same light. It had been the government’s intent for the past two years, which is why it blocked recruitment on a false ground of COVID. The aim remains to reduce salaries and pensions. Retirements annually are around 55,000 to 60,000. By stopping recruitment, the army’s manpower shortfall is already around 1,20,000. By recruiting 15-20,000 less every year through Agnipath, it would reach the magical figure of reduction of 2 Lacs in the next few years. However, by bulldozing it within two years it is ensuring its implementation prior to elections in 2024.
There is no doubt that there is always scope for reduction in numbers, especially as technology intensive equipment is introduced. However, reductions should be based on internal assessments, rather than political and bureaucratic directions. It should never be rushed. Currently the armed forces are following a concept of save and raise. To create new establishments to meet induction of technologically advanced equipment, they are cutting manpower elsewhere.
A similar political direction was given in the late nineties. The army reduced its strength by 50,000 almost overnight. All changed with Kargil. Recruitments jumped and training establishments faced difficulties in enhancing facilities to cater for additional inductions. Strengths returned to normal.
The other aspect which needs to be considered is whether these figures could have been better achieved with the creation of tri-service logistics and repair echelons under theaterization. This would imply implementing theatre commands first and pushing manpower reduction later or simultaneously. But with a PMO in a hurry to push through changes the scenario is the opposite. Reduction figures are given, and forces compelled to implement. Solutions must be found internally because the PMO is unrelenting.
There are strategic thinkers who give examples of China or other nations which have reduced manpower. The Chinese PLA manpower reduction was sidestepped to meet requirements of a growing navy and its strategic support force. The combined force levels remain the same. The Indian context is vastly different. India has no desire of projecting military power beyond its shores, unless specifically requested and that too for a short duration. India’s battle with its neighbours is for land and in most disputed areas defences are physically held on the watershed. Manpower in each defensive position is normally the minimum needed to ward of attempts at land grabbing or infiltration. Post Ladakh, the Indian public has displayed anger at any loss of territory.
In Kargil, shortfall of manpower and increased deployment in counter insurgency led to reduced troops being deployed along the LOC. Gaps were exploited by Pak intruders, compelling India to launch operations to evict them. Subsequently additional troops were moved in to prevent a similar situation, partially impacting counter insurgency operations. Currently, reduced manpower has impacted all arms and services, including units deployed in critical locations, as the government stopped recruitment.
On the contrary, a steady reduction in manpower could enable planning and readjustment of troops ensuring it does not impact operational preparedness. While the bayonet strength of an infantry battalion, stick in a mechanized company, crew of a tank or a gun detachment cannot change, other reductions could be considered. In the current scenario, the axe would fall on administrative and logistics echelons.
Seeking to reduce companies in Rashtriya Rifles, which have successfully contained terrorism in the valley, solely to meet reduction criteria, currently under consideration, could be an error. They have restricted space available to terrorists, which could be reversed in case manpower is reduced.
Scope for reduction is not the armed forces alone, but a horde of civilian employees in multiple organizations, paid from the same defence budget. There is no mention of them. A collection of studies have recommended reducing Military Engineering Service manpower and outsourcing majority of their tasks. Similar has been a call for other organizations. Unions belonging to civil government employees are powerful enough to impact government decision making, something which the forces lack. Hence, the armed forces are the easiest to hit.
The haphazard manner in which the PMO is acting in pushing changes, stalling where it is essential, as the case of the CDS appears to be, indicates lack of long-term vision, planning and even strategic foresight. With the manner in which directions are flowing, it is possible that there would be more changes forthcoming as the bureaucracy within the PMO and the National Security Council have suddenly become experts on bulldozing the armed forces. Yes, the forces need to change, but the same must be considered and then implemented, rather than directed.