Reducing flab in armed forces

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has set up a 12-member committee headed by Lieut-Gen DB Shekatkar (retd) to suggest structural changes in the Army, the IAF and the Navy on cutting down flab and reducing revenue (maintenance) expenditure.

Reducing flab in armed forces

The Indian army today is the third largest in the world with over 38,000 officers and 11.38 lakh soldiers

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has set up a 12-member committee headed by Lieut-Gen DB Shekatkar (retd) to suggest structural changes in the Army, the IAF and the Navy on cutting down flab and reducing revenue (maintenance) expenditure. Its recommendations will entail doing away with posts that may have become redundant due to technology, and to ensure that addition of new equipment (modernisation) does not mean a corresponding rise in the personnel strength of the forces.

Parrikar has two important reasons for ordering this study. One is the ever-increasing revenue expenditure on manpower which leaves less than 20 per cent of the defence budget for weapons and equipment modernisation. The other is the advice from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In his address at the Combined Commanders' Conference in December 2015, Modi had said, “At a time when major powers are reducing their forces and rely more on technology, we are still constantly seeking to expand the size of our forces. Modernisation and expansion of forces at the same time is a difficult and unnecessary goal.” Articulating global, regional and national strategic environment and politico-military concerns, the Prime Minister exhorted the Defence Minister and the military commanders to promote "jointness" across every level, shorten the tooth-to-tail ratio, and re-examine assumptions that keep massive funds locked up in inventories. 

There is no doubt that budgetary constraint is the primary reason for this decision. As a percentage of the GDP, the defence budget has been decreasing over the last decade. This year there was an increase of 1.16 per cent on the basis of the budget estimate of FY 2015-16. Calculated against the revised estimates (Rs 18,295 crore was surrendered by the Ministry of Defence), it works to an increase of 9 per cent. This allocation does not cover the rate of inflation, fall in the value of the rupee against the dollar, and the sharply increasing cost of weapons and equipment all over the world. 

Due to the “One Rank, One Pension” scheme, the pension bill will increase substantially. With implementation of the Seventh Pay Commission recommendations, salaries, allowances and establishment charges of all civil and military personnel, paid from the defence budget, will shoot up. Recently, Defence Secretary G. Mohan Kumar admitted to the Standing Committee on Defence that “India’s military spending for FY 2016-17 is not as per the requirements of the services.” Unless the government hikes the defence budget, which is very unlikely, the Ministry of Defence would face a serious resource crunch to make up huge deficiencies of weapons, equipment and ammunition. Any force modernisation will remain a dream. 

We faced a similar situation in the late 1990s. As Army Chief, I decided to suppress 50,000 manpower (mostly from non-field force) over a period of three years, provided the money saved would be given to the army for capital purchases. D B Shekatkar, then a Major-General, heading Perspective Planning Directorate, worked on details in consultation with the heads of arms and services, principal staff officers and army commanders. There was considerable opposition within the army and outside. After obtaining approval and a written commitment on the savings from the Cabinet Committee on Security, we implemented the scheme for two years. The Kargil war put an end to that scheme in its third year. 

The Indian army today is the third largest in the world with over 38,000 officers (sanctioned strength is 49,631 officers) and 11.38 lakh soldiers. Cadre reviews and implementation of the Ajai Vikram Singh report has made it top-heavy with bloated headquarters. This is definitely not in line with modern defence management to win short and swift wars.

Incidentally, India is not alone in its attempt to trim its armed forces and improve the teeth-to-tail ratio. In the last decade, all major armed forces of the world have attempted such exercises and made deep cuts in manpower — the most important and costliest military resource. In 2012, the UK announced a 20 per cent cut, reducing the strength of its army to 82,000 combatants by the end of this decade. The Russian army has done away with large size divisional headquarters to make itself a quick-strike, lean force. The US army has announced a reduction of strength by a whopping 80,000 by 2017 to “reduce the overall number of headquarters, while sustaining as much combat capabilities as possible.” China’s recently announced military reforms envisage a cut of 300,000 personnel in its 2.3 million PLA forces by 2020. The idea is to “remake the PLA from a manpower intensive force to a smaller, technologically able and mobile force capable of combat beyond its geographical borders.”

Over the last decade, India's armed forces have absorbed a fair amount of technological developments, including communications and digitisation. Manpower intake is better educated, savvy on computers and smart phones. Most of them have driving licences. But the resultant organisational changes, shedding of redundant establishments and manpower savings have seldom been attempted by the army. On many of these issues, there is a lot to be learnt from the best practices of the private sector. 

In the past, many units were raised to meet special operational circumstances of that period e.g. Rashtriya Rifles for Punjab. A review to examine the need or quantum of such forces is overdue.  

Meanwhile, there is considerable scope for downsizing forces in areas which are not of operational importance, and to reduce the flab. Some suggestions which require further study are:

  • By further improving jointness amongst the forces, there is scope to cut down duplication (sometime triplication) of logistic (medical, supplies, station duties) and security resources.
  • Reducing size of headquarters, particularly of field formations, training establishments and shedding redundant establishments.
  • Merger and pruning of logistic units and training facilities of the army like the EME, Ordnance, Army Service Corps, Army Education Corps, and so on. 
  • Clubbing of non-essential unit functions such as Military Farms and Army Postal Service, or outsourcing their functions.
  • A review of all peace establishments.  
  • Multiple use of lands/facilities wherever units and formations are in close proximity to each other.

With the development of the automobile sector and availability of civilian repair and maintenance infrastructure in forward areas, this requirement of the armed forces fleet can be outsourced, or even better, contracted with vehicle manufacturers.

The flab is not only within the military. Civilian organisations like the ordnance factories, defence PSUs, DRDO, the MES, the Defence Estate, and the Armed Forces Headquarters Civil Services, paid from the defence budget, also need to be trimmed. With the Indian private sector coming of age and contributing more for the defence, and greater opportunity to outsource services, these organisations should be included in the flab reduction exercise.

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