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Haphazard restructuring of armed forces will not work

 A collection of studies have recommended reducing Military Engineering Service manpower and outsourcing the majority of their tasks.

HARSHA KAKAR |

The appointment of the first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) with a mandate to create theatre commands, failure to appoint his successor, introduction of the Agnipath scheme and finally directions to shed manpower by two lakhs, the government is going all guns to alter the structure of the armed forces. The failure to appoint the second CDS for over eight 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 does not ring true 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 theaterisation away, despite statements that this remains its goal.

The Agnipath scheme, fought tooth and nail by the forces, is now being implemented. Numbers applying for 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 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 the specious grounds of the pandemic. 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 two lacs in the next few years. However, by bulldozing it within two years the government will ensure its implementation prior to the 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 1990s. 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 whetherthese figures could have been better achieved with the creation of tri-service logistics and repair echelons under theaterisation. This would imply implementing theatre commands first and pushing manpower reduction later or simultaneously. But with the government 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 government 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 Pakistani 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 strength of an infantry battalion, a mechanized company, or 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 the space available to terrorists, which could be reversed in case manpower is reduced. Scope for reduction is not in 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 the 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 government 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 government 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.