The Indian Army’s plans for downsizing despite a record shortage in authorised manpower strength is reflective of a deeper military-economic crisis. The enforced vacancies of over one lakh will only increase with more such cuts in a unilateral downsizing exercise. It is also being done without taking into account the current and projected deployment state of the Army. The exercise is being marketed as ‘rightsizing’ in a clever play of words, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that its thrust is on severe budgetary constraints for the foreseeable future.
Introduction of the Agnipath recruitment scheme was the first direct acknowledgment of the country’s dire economic situation, particularly as far as defence is concerned. Against an annual average retirement rate of about 60,000, only 40,000 fresh recruits are to be inducted, and that too on a four-year contract. But the Agnipath recruits could bring the rightsizing exercise to naught given its ambitious plans to cut the ‘tail’ of every arm and service over a five-year period for a leaner Army.
Serving soldiers in most professional militaries around the world will have an opinion on manpower surpluses as well as the optimisation of resources. That is a given fact. But what is not easily grasped is the methodology of downsizing, as well as the prioritisation of steps to be taken. So, a tank man thinks India needs more armour, just as a fighter pilot believes the country needs more combat aircrafts. But an infantry soldier on the Line of Control, or its eastern counterpart, will believe more foot soldiers are required to secure the difficult border terrain strung around the country.
Also read: Tale of 2 Agniveer suicides and India’s unemployed. ‘I can die even for 4-day uniform’
Make it cross-department, assess threats
What is not disputable, though, is that any exercise at downsizing an armed force has to begin with a comprehensive analysis of India’s threat perception covering the entire gamut of the national security environment. While it cannot be undertaken by a single Service, and unilateral at that, it has to be a cross-department and multiple-domain effort, looking at internal, external, regional, and global scenarios confronting India today and over the next 25 years. Any smaller time frame is counterproductive for many weapon systems that take that long to conceptualise and finally be commissioned. Size has to reflect strength, and be achievable and as envisioned.
The rightsizing plan currently under preparation by the Army is not in tandem with the other Services, and is not in the least bit reflective of the current or projected threats India has to confront. The Navy and the Air Force have a stake in any manpower downsizing plan that the Army seeks to implement. All three Services have to work together in a conflict, and each needs to know what the other two are capable of bringing to the table, so to say. All three are, after all, jointly supposed to work towards a theatre command system.
Any Service working in isolation is an exercise in futility, for the future beckons jointmanship, from boots to ops rooms. The three Services must, therefore, be at the core of a threat perception study for they have to bell the cat. And pull the chestnuts out of the fire as they have done repeatedly over the decades. It is only from such a study that a comprehensive manpower plan can emerge for the armed forces, not an enforced decision without debate or discussion. Manpower savings are best made when some resources are shared among the Services.
Also read: China increases military presence near Tawang, exercise started before December clash
Lean, mean, fighting machine
This exercise is driven by an external stimulus that demands manpower cuts so as to curb the defence pension budget, and join the global chorus seeking a ‘lean, mean fighting machine’. The panacea of all military evil is manpower, or so it appears from the blueprint being prepared. Watching far too much international television coverage of the Russia-Ukraine conflict has convinced some of the drivers of this exercise that this is how war is going to be fought in the future. So, technology over manpower is their analysis. But India is different—socially, geographically, and in combat ethos.
Relegating manpower for technology is dangerous, considering India’s neighbourhood. There is a need to ensure human vigil, not simply machine monitoring of borders. The multi-tasking soldier, or a cross-skilled one, for this exercise is great when seen on a screen, but it’s not possible when he has a four-year contract. Most of his buddies would be out after that period. The authors of this project, or those pushing the idea, seem to forget that most Indian soldiers are in any case multi-skilled if given the requisite years of service. Undertrained and multi-skilled soldiers, coming from the Agniveer option, are not a possibility in India.
Manvendra Singh is a Congress leader, Editor-in-Chief of Defence & Security Alert and Chairman, Soldier Welfare Advisory Committee, Rajasthan. He tweets @ManvendraJasol. Views are personal.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)