India’s armed forces faced a shortage of 1,02,955 personnel as on 10 December 2021. This would have likely increased by another 20,000 since 60,000 personnel retire every year from the army alone. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh informed Parliament on 22 March 2022 that the recruitment process has been suspended for the past two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Surprisingly, the armed forces/Ministry of Defence (MoD) did not suspend the retirement of soldiers despite a war-like situation on the northern borders since May 2020. Given the capacity of training establishments and the mandatory training period, the overall shortage may increase to 2,00,000 personnel by the end of 2022 before the balance between retirement and recruitment begins to be restored. Even with 30 percent increased intake every year, the deficit will take 6-7 years to clear.
Given the current state of unemployment, there is a demand from the youth for re-commencement of recruitment and also to increase the upper age limit for enrolment by two years to provide equal opportunities. This was an election issue in the recently held assembly elections.
For long, the armed forces, particularly the army, have been seized with the need to reduce their personnel strength through optimisation/reduction to reduce the increasing salaries/pension budget. The pending reforms for integration/restructuring/reorganising/modernising the armed forces for wars of the 21st century, are also expected to save personnel count. Another pending reform to save on the pension budget is through short term engagement/“three year tour of duty” and lateral short term induction from Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF).
The current personnel shortage offers the armed forces an opportunity to bring about long-term reforms.
Seize the opportunity
The wars of the 21st century require quick response by agile armed forces backed by state-of-the-art military technology – more so in the subcontinental context where nuclear weapons preclude large-scale conventional wars. We have a medium technology large military where we are forced to use quantity to compensate for quality. As a developing economy, India’s defence budget cannot increase exponentially. As we strive to transform, reduction of personnel is inescapable.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has absolute clarity on this issue. Addressing the Combined Commanders Conference on 17 October 2014 soon after the BJP came to power, he said, “Beyond the immediate, we are facing a future where security challenges will be less predictable; situations will evolve and change swiftly; and, technological changes will make responses more difficult to keep pace with…Full scale wars may become rare, …and the duration of conflicts will be shorter.” The most important task, PM Modi observed, was to transform our defence forces.
Addressing the same conference on 15 December 2015, he was more emphatic – “As our world gets transformed, the character of economies change and technology evolves, the nature of conflicts and the objectives of war will also change…Modernisation and expansion of forces at the same time is a difficult and unnecessary goal. We need forces that are agile, mobile and driven by technology, not just human valour. We need capabilities to win swift wars, for we will not have the luxury of long drawn battles.”
In the last Combined Commanders Conference held at Kevadia on 6 March 2021, he re-emphasised the need to optimise personnel planning in both military and civilian parts of the national security architecture and keeping in view the changing technological landscape, the need to develop the Indian military into a ‘future force’.
Despite absolute political clarity, the MoD and the armed forces have not made much progress towards optimising/reducing the size of the armed forces. The Chief of Defence Staff and the three service chiefs have carried out numerous studies and come up with a slew of proposals. However, from what is available in the public domain, nothing concrete seems to have happened.
The reason is obvious. The government has not owned the reforms. There is no steering committee headed by the defence minister and no parliamentary oversight. Reforms have been left to the tradition-bound military, which by nature revels in status quo. If that is not enough, the proposals also get mired in in-house/inter-service squabbling and the traditional bureaucracy-military rivalry which can be easily avoided by having a synergised approach overseen by a steering committee.
There is a long list of pending reforms which will reduce the size and pension bill of the armed forces. These include tri-service integration; restructuring/reorganisation particularly of the army in form of Combined Arms Integrated Battle Groups and composite units; reform of Short Service Commission for officers and short-term engagement for soldiers without pension to provide 50 percent of the strength; lateral induction from CAPF for short-term tour of duty; optimisation/reduction of strength by cutting down the flab; and improving the quality of intake by raising the education standard of soldiers to 10+2.
The way forward
The government must immediately carry out a strategic review to formulate a National Security Strategy to fight the limited intense and high technology driven wars below the nuclear threshold. It is an ongoing exercise and a refined database is available. Our experience of the last two years of the standoff with China and its emerging collusion with Pakistan, and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine must be factored in.
The National Security Strategy will dictate the quality and size of the armed forces. Our current organisations are 25-30 percent larger than corresponding organisations in advanced militaries. Our unsettled borders in mountainous terrain do require personnel intensive infantry units. However, 20-25 percent reduction is a pragmatic goal. That the armed forces could meet their operational commitments with the current deficit only proves the point. Bulk of this reduction will be from the army.
The default deficit of 2,00,000 personnel by the end of 2022 is approximately 15 percent of the current authorised strength. Another 10 percent reduction is an achievable goal. It is a political compulsion to recommence recruitment but the intake must be matched with likely reduction planned from the pending reforms.
It is time for the government and the armed forces to catch the bull by the horns, and seize the opportunity to bring about holistic reforms to reduce the size of the Indian armed forces and the pension bill. For PM Modi, it is a question of his legacy. He must ensure that his directions conveyed personally in the highest military forum are taken to their logical conclusion.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was a Member of the Armed Forces Tribunal. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)