The biannual army commanders’ conference, presided over by the army chief and his eight seniormost lieutenant generals, is the force’s supreme decision-making body. So, when General Bipin Rawat called for an informal meeting of the army commanders in September 2018, a month ahead of the scheduled conference, the brass knew something was afoot. They were right. In the huddle in New Delhi, Gen. Rawat unveiled plans for reform and restructuring of the force unlike any attempted in decades. The defence budget last February had left the army with one of its lowest budgets to buy new equipment-just 13 per cent or Rs 26,826 crore. This was because nearly 87 per cent of its budget would be spent on paying salaries, buying fuel and ammunition. When the army commanders met again, formally in October, they had already flagged off four study groups to move into thrust areas identified by Gen. Rawat. The four studies, each headed by a Lt Gen., have a fourfold mission. They are meant to reshape the field army into an agile, operationally effective force capable of handling conventional and hybrid warfare, restructure the army headquarters in New Delhi, give its officer cadre a younger profile and revise the terms of engagement of the soldiers, a vast majority of whom retire at the age of 35.
The 1.2 million-strong Indian Army, the world’s second largest after China’s 2.1 million-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA), hopes this restructuring will cut back up to 100,000 soldiers and reduce its crippling revenue budget (what it spends on manpower). Revenue spends are projected to rise to over 90 per cent in the years ahead. The goal of Gen. Rawat’s radical reform plan is to make the army fighting fit and to find the resources within the existing budget to make it happen. At the heart of the plan is the new concept of bulked-up brigades-called Integrated Battle Groups or IBGs-to replace division-sized forces. As Gen. Rawat puts it, his plan has three objectives: “to be prepared for future warfare by strengthening our capabilities, become more efficient and better manage our budget (see interview).”
Army officials are calling this the deepest cadre restructuring of the force in over three decades and, depending on how effectively it is implemented, potentially the army’s most far-reaching change since Independence.
The army reforms are a continuation of the ones set in motion by the defence ministry in 2017, when it began implementing the recommendations of the Lt Gen. (retd) D.B. Shekatkar committee report of December 2016. These reforms will see the redeployment and restructuring of 57,000 men, including officers, junior commissioned officers (JCOs) and soldiers.
The first stirrings of reform are kicking in. Two of the army’s advanced base workshops in Guwahati and Udhampur, each with over 1,500 personnel, have been shut down, the personnel transferred to army units. The nearly 50 station workshops, partly staffed by civilians and the army’s corps of military engineers (EME) are next on the chopping block. A majority will be outsourced to industry under a government-owned commercially operated model (GOCOMO). The World War II-era army postal establishment and military farms in peacetime establishments will be shut down. While the Shekatkar committee reforms, the brainchild of former defence minister Manohar Parrikar, targeted the flab within the army’s support elements like the supply corps and the engineers, it left the field army untouched. That’s where Gen. Rawat aimed his restructuring.
THE BIG IBG FORCE
Gen. Rawat, known for speaking his mind, can often be a journalist’s delight and a media advisor’s nightmare. His recent comments on the unsuitability of women officers to lead soldiers in combat set off a storm on social media. But beneath the candour lies a steely determination to leave a legacy. At a recent meeting of military veterans, Rawat said he wanted to bequeath an organisation to his successors that is lean, agile and capable of realising the military’s objectives.
The army’s Land Warfare Doctrine, released in December, bears the Rawat stamp. It reiterates conventional war as being central to the army’s operations and that it will continue to wage counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations to ‘ensure deterrence through punitive responses, against state-sponsored proxy war’.
His reorganisation hopes to reshape the army to fight under two overhangs-nuclear and budgetary. Both its potential adversaries-China and Pakistan-are nuclear armed. The defence budget is unlikely to rise substantially to meet their collusive threat. The chief has taken the axe out on the field formations that will fight conventional conflicts.
Structural reforms in the army, especially of the field formations meant to fight battles, are usually personality-driven attempts to alter the status quo. The last time this was done was in the mid-1980s when the visionary army chief General K. Sundarji adapted the US air-land battle concept to reshape four infantry divisions into the Reorganised Army Plains Infantry Divisions or RAPIDs, mobile divisions each comprising an armoured brigade equipped with battle tanks that would punch through enemy lines and two mechanised infantry brigades that would carry troops in newly acquired armoured personnel carriers.
The son of retired army deputy chief Lt Gen. Lachu Singh Rawat, the current army chief was deep-selected by the government over two other senior generals in December 2016. Since then, he has constantly pressed his field commanders on their preparedness to fight wars at short notice. ‘Cold Start’, the army’s battle strategy evolved after the 10-month Operation Parakram standoff with Pakistan in 2001, envisages the army going into battle at a few hours’ notice.
But, as a general says, a lot of Cold Start-related tactical work was up in the air before Rawat’s time. “What he’s trying to do is actually implement those on the ground,” one general says. In the pipeline is a plan to reduce the number of army commands facing China from the present four to just two.
If Gen. Sundarji gave the army RAPIDS, Gen. Rawat has called for raising IBGs. Equipped with infantry, tanks, artillery and mechanised infantry, the IBGs will be commanded by a major general and operate under the 14 corps-sized formations in the army. The concept is similar to the US army’s basic manoeuvre unit, the infantry brigade combat group, and the PLA’s ‘combined arms brigades’, a feature of China’s military reorganisation under way since 2013.
The IBGs will replace the primary all-arms fighting unit, the infantry division. Each infantry division is a force of around 14,000 soldiers backed by an armoured brigade of 80 tanks and artillery brigade of 500 guns, and can independently fight a ground war. One school of thought within the army calls for replacing all the 40 infantry divisions with nearly 140 IBGs. This will, however, depend on the results of a test bed in two of the corps in the Chandimandir-based Western Command this year, where field exercises will be carried out to see how it will work. The 2,900-km Indo-Pak border is not uniform-the LoC in Kashmir is rugged mountains, Akhnoor and Chhamb in Jammu are in the plains, Punjab is crisscrossed by rivers, Rajasthan and Gujarat have deserts and marshes. Each IBG on the western border with Pakistan will be sector-specific, each area getting the resources it needs to strike across the border in case of a conflict. The deserts will have a different application. “The chief wants to fix troops and equipment for each of these sector-specific IBGs,” a senior army official says.
The IBGs, the army feels, will kill several birds with one stone. They will operate directly under the Corps HQ, thus, doing away with division headquarters. They will see an increase of nearly 95 major generals, needed to command nearly 140 IBGs, thereby increasing the promotion prospects of lower ranks. Currently, a colonel has to wait for nearly six-to-eight years to become a brigadier. The army has proposed diminishing the importance of the brigadier rank by making it a ‘non-selection’ grade appointment as it is for the equivalent ranks of air commodore and commodore in the Indian Air Force and Navy. All colonels will thus automatically become brigadiers, drawing higher pay and with better prospects of becoming major generals. These measures will reduce the total number of brigadiers from 1,165 to 936, increase the number of major generals from 301 to 396 and, overall, reduce 134 officers in the army.
The army has proposed doing away with all its division headquarters because the corps will now directly control the IBGs. They will also abolish the NCC Directorate, the Military Training Directorate and the Deputy Director General Military Farms. Several other separate directorates will be merged. The DGs of Perspective Planning and Weapons & Equipment directorates are to be merged into a single director general (PP & WE). The Director General Signals and Telecom and Director General Information Technology are to be merged into the DG-ST.
Some of the officers it thus saves will be moved into the Directorate General of Shaping of Information Environment (DGSIE) to fight hybrid warfare, another of Gen. Rawat’s pet themes. Hybrid warfare is a military strategy that is a lethal cocktail of conventional warfare with irregular warfare, lawfare, cyber warfare and diplomacy. This proposed specialist vertical will enable the army to fight a defensive hybrid warfare challenge.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
The world’s second largest army faces multiple challenges, each of which has changed in varying degrees over the past three decades. It is fighting an insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir that has flickered with varying intensity. Its troops are strung out over 4,000 km of disputed boundaries with Pakistan and China. Fighting a full-scale conventional war on a collusive Chi-Pak axis is now cast in stone in its military strategy. “It’s not just about fighting a two-front war, it’s also about obtaining decisive military objectives on both fronts,” a senior army official says. What has changed dramatically, however, is the army’s ability to pay for all of this.
Over the next decade, the army needs to find Rs 100,000 crore to pay for new attack helicopters, utility helicopters and missiles to replace its 1980s arsenal. The army has over 800,000 infantry. These numbers mean even the cheapest item on its shopping list-assault rifles, carbines and light machine guns-will cost Rs 15,000 crore. Yet, the army also needs to find the manpower and equipment for its Mountain Strike Corps-three divisions that will move into China in the event of a military conflict-and to staff new directorates it is creating to respond to nascent threats like information warfare.
All these require huge jumps in budgetary allocations at a time when the government is focused on reducing the fiscal deficit-the gap between revenue and expenditure. In its budget this year, the army got Rs 17,756 crore less in capital outlay and Rs 24,755 crore less under the revenue head than what it had sought. The army accounts for 55 per cent of the defence budget, but swallows 69 per cent of the revenue budget of all the three services. The defence budget, at 1.58 per cent of the GDP, is the lowest in over 50 years, the army has said while arguing for a budgetary hike. The government is unlikely to relent.
A July 23, 2018, statement tabled in the Rajya Sabha by MoS for defence Subhash Bhamre captured the government’s thinking. “The defence budget as a percentage of GDP may appear to be decreasing due to increasing trend in the growth of GDP,” Bhamre said. “However, it is increasing in absolute terms, implying higher spending.”
SYNERGY QUOTIENT: A tri-service exercise in Karwar, Karnataka, in Nov. 2018
To bolster his argument, Bhamre mentioned the ‘total defence budget’ this year-Rs 4.04 lakh crore (and not the Rs 2.9 lakh crore which the government spends only on the armed forces). This also includes military pensions, which was delinked from the armed forces’ budgets and placed under the MoD budget in the 1980s. Seen in its entirety, the defence budget is actually 31 per cent larger because of this hidden pension component. All told, Bhamre said, the defence budget in 2018-19 would account for 16.6 per cent of the total central government expenditure.
Bhamre nudged the armed forces to “optimally utilise” their budgets, asking them to “reprioritise schemes to ensure urgent and critical capabilities are acquired without compromising operational preparedness”. The statement shocked the armed forces, particularly as the MoS mentioned the touchy issue of defence pensions.
India pays out $15 billion (Rs 1 lakh crore) for its 20 million defence pensioners a year, a figure almost equal to the salaries it pays to serving personnel. This figure, analysts note, is more than Pakistan’s $9.6 billion defence budget this year and is projected to climb over the years, further increasing the military budget’s revenue component.
The navy and air force have received smaller outlays. The navy asked for Rs 37,932 crore but was given only Rs 20,848 crore, Rs 17,084 less than what it had sought. The IAF got Rs 41,924 crore less than what it had demanded. With minor budgetary increases barely sufficient to cater to inflation, there is despondency all around. To make matters worse, in 2017, the government took away duty exemptions on the import of defence equipment, which means the defence services have to pay more for hardware. This translates into a 20 per cent hit on the capital budget across the services.
The budget cuts, as one service chief told india today, show the yawning gap between intent and reality. “We aspire to be a superpower and we want to be strategically autonomous, which means we can’t have military alliances. But creating hard power requires a hike in defence spending, which isn’t happening either.”
WILL IT SUCCEED?
The revenue capital mismatch has been faced by several of Gen. Rawat’s predecessors. As far back as 1975, then Lt Gen. K.V. Krishna Rao headed a panel that spoke of the need to reduce the army’s teeth-to-tail ratio or the ratio of fighting personnel to the supply and logistics personnel. In 1998, under what was informally called ‘save and raise’, Gen. V.P. Malik ‘suppressed’ 50,000 vacancies within the army. The army would work with manpower deficiencies and not replace retiring soldiers. It was a great idea, but got scuppered by the Kargil war of 1999. Overnight, the army grew by over 150,000 soldiers as it raised two new corps, one in Ladakh and another in Pathankot, to man the gaps along the LoC. In order to brighten career prospects in the armed forces, they pushed for higher pay and allowances and pensions under the sixth and seventh pay commissions over the past 20 years. These have now come back to bite. “We are in a Catch 22 situation,” says a senior army officer. “The armed forces are a low priority career option, so pay has to be kept at the level it is to attract people, otherwise you won’t get good candidates.”
Gen. Rawat is confident the government will approve his restructuring. This shouldn’t be a problem because ever since the defeat in the 1962 war, when the Nehru government was accused of foisting an unpopular general on the army, successive governments have left the army to itself. The army is yet to project the savings on account of reorganisation, but back of the envelope calculations show it could shave off up to Rs 6,000 crore from its revenue budget if it reduces 50,000 soldiers.
But will the finance ministry, which allocates budgets, transfer revenue savings to the capital account? There is no evidence to show this will be the case. Still, Rawat believes the government will meet him halfway. “I am quite confident the government will support us. You know when we tell the government that ‘we are coming halfway, are you also willing to come halfway?’, I’m sure they will understand.” It remains to be seen how the finance ministry reacts to this.
Graphics by Tanmoy Chakraborty
“The defence ministry already accounts for 33 per cent of the government’s entire capital spend,” says Laxman Kumar Behera, a scholar at the MoD think-tank Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). “It is difficult to see how the finance ministry will want to increase this allocation. All savings will only go into the Consolidated Fund of India.”
Former Northern Army Commander Lt Gen. H.S. Panag says the reforms are meaningless without the government finalising a national security strategy after which it can kick off resource-intensive modernisation plans like seamlessly linking up soldiers on the battlefield through information-technology and sensory networks like those in the armies of the US or China. “Technology acquisition is an expensive exercise which needs the government on board. Since this is not a priority for the government, this (the reforms) will remain nothing more than a plan for internal reforms,” he says.
Downsizing the army is a concern shared by the government. A report submitted to the National Security Advisory Board, which operates under NSA Ajit Doval, last November recommended cutting 20 per cent of the standing army into reserve formations to save costs. The report, independent of the four studies being undertaken by the army, was prepared by former Northern Army Commander, Lt Gen. D.S. Hooda. A big imponderable, though, is the fate of all such reform plans-Gen. Rawat’s included-at a time when the government is rapidly slipping into election mode. And it’s easy to be sceptical. The Indian Army is a behemoth that inherently defies any attempts at change. None of the army’s right-sizing moves over the past three decades have succeeded. And last but not the least, a change at the top frequently results in a change in priorities.
THE MIRAGE OF ‘JOINTMANSHIP’
The bane of all attempts to reform budgets is the fact that these are single-service endeavours. Analysts point out that the army’s attempts to reform itself suffer from the same problems afflicting national security. It reflects a single-service action when the remedy lies in a joint approach. “Future wars will not remain only army- or infantry-centric. They will need all three services to fight together. Hence, jointness-the three services fighting together-is the need of the hour,” says Lt Gen. Shekatkar, who headed the MoD reforms committee. “The services haven’t even touched the toenail of this elephant in the room,” says an MoD finance official. “Why do the services need 17 separate commands? Why is there a Southern Naval Command in Kochi and an Air Force Southern Command in Thiruvananthapuram?”
Graphics by Tanmoy Chakraborty
These are solutions which have to be pushed through at the political level. But here again, the government is yet to act on one of the most contentious recommendations of the Shekatkar committee-the creation of just three joint theatre commands: north, south and west-which will merge the existing 17 commands. Each command will report to a theatre commander. The theatre commanders will report to the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), the single point military advisor to the government. It is also yet to act on the proposal for a permanent chairman, Chiefs of Staffs Committee (a halfway house to a CDS). The post is presently held in rotation by the seniormost of the three service chiefs. For years, the services could never build a consensus on the roles and responsibilities of the permanent chairman. This year, however, after years of infighting, they did the unthinkable. Navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba, chairman, CoSC, says the services finally buried their differences on a permanent chairman, CoSC, and submitted a proposal to the government last year. Now, the ball is squarely in the government’s court.
Gen. Rawat says the army’s reformed structure will lead to more jointmanship and has called for officers from the two other services to be posted within each others’ commands to increase efficiency.
Rawat has another year to go before he hangs up his boots, the first chief in nearly two decades to enjoy a full three-year tenure. This year will be crucial for him to realise his vision. He is confident his successors will carry on his reforms, a task that could take up to five years to realise. His success or lack of it will determine whether the Indian Army turns into a 21st century fighting machine or be fated to remain in the last century.