Last month, I read a report about over 2,500 tourists stranded in a snowstorm at Sikkim’s Nathu La being rescued by a local Indian Army unit. They provided them with hot food, first aid and warm clothing. But what happened next is why I consider it to be one of the country’s finest institutions—the armymen vacated their barracks for the tourists to sleep in.
As the incident demonstrates, the army’s sense of chivalry and duty towards its citizens is second to none. What it lacks, however, is everything else, from modern helicopters, surface to air missiles to assault rifles and even proper boots. The shopping list runs into trillions of rupees and many items have been pending for decades. Writing about the 1962 IndoChina war, Time magazine said the Indian Army ‘lacks everything but courage’. Even something as basic as a monument to that courage, a war memorial at the India Gate, is being unveiled this month, over half a century after it was first proposed.
Some of the equipment shortfalls the army currently faces can be attributed to its numbers. At 1.2 million men and women, the army has more than doubled in size since 1962—mainly to guard over 4,000 kilometres of disputed boundaries with Pakistan and China. Rising manpower costs mean that these numbers are unsustainable—the army has to spend close to over 80 per cent of its budget on running costs, which include salaries and pensions. It has little money left for muchneeded equipment.
Our cover story, Rawat’s Radical Plan, written by Executive Editor Sandeep Unnithan, has an exclusive interview with the current army chief, General Bipin Rawat, and outlines his decision to bite the bullet and possibly shed over 100,000 personnel. We won’t be the first. China’s army, the world’s largest, plans to halve its manpower to just 1 million and has already shed 300,000 men.
While the revenue saving from such a reorganisation is yet to be projected, backoftheenvelope calculations suggest the army would save only about Rs 6,000 crore in revenue expenditure if it cut back on 50,000 soldiers. This is just 4 per cent of its revenue budget, a mere drop in the ocean. The defence ministry is looking at how to further reduce wasteful expenditure. It will, however, require far more radical thinking than has hitherto been shown. Several examples of waste stare at you in the face in the defence ministry and the armed forces. The ministry holds over 17 lakh acres of land on which also stand some 62 notified cantonments. These cantonments are a colonial vestige, built on the outskirts of urban centres. Since cities and towns have grown beyond their formal boundaries, cantonments have ended up occupying prime land in urban centres, often with wellappointed clubs and golf courses attached to them. The cantonments should be relocated, the land auctioned off for commercial and residential purposes and the proceeds used to fulfil military needs. Similarly, the armed forces possess valuable spectrum for mobile telephony, the surplus of which can be monetised. The forces also have an army of sahayaks or orderlies—who number 40,000 men, a few reckon—attached to junior commissioned officers and officers even in peacetime locations. Such wasteful deployment of trained combat soldiers brings into question the rationale of having a 1.2 millionstrong army.
The world over, all military reform is driven from the top, by the political leadership. But in India, this focus from the political executive is sadly lacking. Successive governments have paid lip service to integrating the three services and done little to implement it. This leadership drift has encouraged the three forces to plan to fight their wars separately instead of jointly.
So while one can be sceptical of the government’s attempt at change, any effort at reform and restructuring must be welcomed. What we do need to ask is whether the reform will just be incremental or structural. The armed forces, in fact, have little alternative but to reform because the government has indicated that any substantial jump in defence spending is unlikely. The only option is to do what every large military in the world has done in the past two decades—downsize and modernise. The era of robotics and artificial intelligence and convergence has enabled other armies to increase firepower and reduce manpower. Equally, new technologies and equipment have also changed the whole concept of warfare.
Our soldiers need cuttingedge equipment and the nation needs the best bang for its military buck. It’s time to stop playing politics with the defence of our country and give our brave soldiers what they deserve.