While the recent Rafale controversy raises controversial questions on price and propriety ~ not to speak of the dark hints of crony capitalism ~ the rationale for procurement is hardly a matter of debate. The need for defence modernisation is above board, but what was lost in the melee was a recent report that the Indian Army plans to slash around 0.15 million jobs, to buy modern weapons with an objective to prop up a ‘lean and mean’ force.

On the face of it, it sounded laudable inasmuch as the decision is almost a replica of the recent Chinese move to reduce the number of its 2.3 million strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to make it two-million-strong, and definitely a leaner and mightier force. But whether the decision of the Indian Army to downsize arises out of a need to cut down on the extra flab or by a resource crunch is a moot question, particularly as this decision is supposed to be driven by a need to buy modern weapons.

In 2015 the then Defence minister Manohar Parrikar spoke of “an urgent need for some downsizing in areas which are not of operational importance” due to budgetary constraints. It was thought practical to not only increase the budget allocation but also ‘right-size’ the Indian Army, as recommended by Lieutenant General (retd) DB Shekatkar Committee, set up by the previous defence minister, but is not very practicable now in view of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The formation of an 11-member committee was tasked to look into areas of “overlap” and convergence within the three forces ~ Army, Navy and Air Force ~ and to identify areas to “rationalise manpower”. It was also asked to examine possible areas of “multi-tasking” by troops and also ways to “optimise” the combat potential by induction of more technology as against more boots on the ground.

The former Army Chief, General Dalbir Singh, ordered a high-level study to determine and recommend measures to improve its tooth-to-tail ratio, a military term that refers to the amount of military personnel it takes to supply and support (tail) each combat soldier (tooth). Addressing the Combined Commanders Conference on board the aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, in December 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the country had been slow in reforming structures within the armed forces to promote “jointness”, and called for efforts to “shorten the tooth-to-tail ratio”.

Though India’s defence budget is now the fourth largest in the world (after the US, China and the UK), when it comes to defence spending, the budget allocations cut a sorry figure. The manpower costs account for over 83 per cent of the overall defence budget and the bulk of the Army’s budget goes into meeting the pay and allowances of the personnel, with little scope left for modernisation and capital expenditure.

In March this year, soon after Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley presented the Union Budget, Army Vice Chief Lt General Sarath Chand had said that the budget allocation for 2018-19 “dashed the hopes” of the Army. He had also said that the marginal increase was barely enough to meet inflation as 68 per cent of the force’s equipment falls in the “vintage category” with just about 24 per cent in the current and 8 per cent in the state-of the- art category.

“Allocation of Rs 21,338 crore for modernisation is insufficient even to cater for committed payment of Rs 29,033 crore for 125 ongoing schemes and emergency procurements,” he said in a presentation to the Parliamentary panel. Incidentally, China announced an 8.1 per cent hike in its defence expenditure for this year to a whopping $ 175 billion, which is over three times higher than India’s defence budget.

Six years ago, the then Army chief, General V K Singh, in a letter to the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, had mentioned the tanks that were running out of ammunition, obsolete air defence systems and lack of adequate weaponry for infantry and special forces battalions. The letter further pointed to “largescale voids” in essential weaponry as well as critical surveillance and night-fighting capabilities in the over 350 infantry (crippled with “deficiencies of crew served weapon”) and special forces’ battalions (“woefully short of essential weapons”). It warned how such “critical deficiencies” impinged on the Army’s preparedness in view of two “inimical neighbours”.

The Indian Army itself reported as much in its 11th Plan (2007-2012) review, underlining “operational gaps” in fields ranging from artillery, aviation, air defence and night-fighting to ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles), PGMs (precision guided munitions) and specialised tank and rifle ammunition. Though the Navy and IAF are being slowly modernised, the Army looks like an aged behemoth. A previous estimate stated that the army needs as much as Rs 41,000 crore to even meet its existing shortages in equipment and ammunition.

That there are critical shortfalls in ‘war wastage reserves’ (quantity of equipment and ammunition required to fight a war) in several areas is evident from the fact the Army has ammunition to wage barely ten days of intense war, in lieu of the mandated forty days. Both in strategic nuclear defence and delivery systems, China’s PLA is miles ahead of India’s nuclear forces. While the PLA’s stockpile is estimated to have more than 200 active nuclear warheads, India’s strategic nuclear force is estimated to have stockpiled about 50-70 nuclear warheads. China’s DF-41 with the longest range of more than 10,000 km is the answer to India’s longest-range ballistic missile is Agni-V with a range of 5,000 km.

That things have not looked up is proved by the submission of the Army to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence in March this year that it does not have enough money to pay for ongoing schemes, emergency procurement, weaponry for ten days of intense war, future acquisitions and also strategic roads along the China border. Modernisation and bridging deficiencies cannot brook any further delay. Already the largest in the world in terms of manpower and with the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal, the PLA is a growth industry.

Although it decreased in real terms between 1979 and 1988, China’s military budget increased after 1990 by about 10 per cent each year… despite the end of the Cold War and the crumbling of the Soviet Union. At least part of the budget increases went to military purchases that have significantly upgraded China’s military capabilities, for instance, air refuelling kits from Iran, Su-27s, Su- 24s, MiG-29s, Hind assault helicopters, and state-of-the-art Sovremenny- class missile destroyers with supersonic anti-ship missiles from Russia, and now with even more sophisticated weaponry. Aside from its arms purchases, the PLA’s efforts to modernise and upgrade its capabilities are focused on two other areas ~ developing its rapid reaction force as post-Cold War conflicts will increasingly be in the arena of regional limited warfare, and transforming its navy from a coastal force into a blue-water navy.

The Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat, has emphasised the need for “right-sizing” the Army, saying the “less liability we have under the salary head, the higher the budgetary allocation we will have for modernisation”. Reduced manpower will leave more resources for capital expenditure so as to have new technologies and smarter systems such as Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and unmanned systems, in space and, in particular, in cyberspace capabilities.

The PLA which was 4.5-million strong till 1980 was first downsized to three million in 1985 and later to 2.3 million. Besides China, all major armed forces of the world including the United States, and Britain, have effected deep cuts in manpower but not at the cost of military modernisation. If we want to measure up to our huge ambitions like fighting simultaneous land wars against Pakistan and China while retaining dominance in the Indian Ocean, lack of budgetary provisions will make us only a paper tiger.

The writer is a Kolkata based commentator on politics, development and cultural issues.