Bottomline | Chasing the Tail

Instead of cosmetic tweaking, Indian Army needs to be part of overall military reforms

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

The army chief, General Bipin Rawat is under pressure from the government to cut his army to size (no pun intended). Reason: With the bulk of annual defence allocations being spent on the pay and allowances of 13 lakh army, there is little money for modernisation of the three defence services.

We now have the third report from the single-member Hooda committee in addition to the four Study Groups set-up by the army chief himself, and the Shekatkar committee which submitted its report in December 2016. The Shekatkar committee had recommended cutting of 57,000 troops over three years; the saved finances were proposed to be utilised for new army verticals like Electronic Warfare, Cyber warfare and so on.

The army chief’s groups have promised to slash 100,000 troops over two to three years to meet the challenges of modern war. According to Gen. Rawat, the army needs three things for modern war: technology infusion; restructuring of army from the present bloated formations to agile integrated brigade groups; and most importantly, to be the lead service in war (with the IAF in support role).

The Hooda committee has reportedly made three key recommendations: reduce the standing army and create a reserve force that can be called in war; make Special Forces (SF) a strategic force; and create a three-star post to recommend new technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics and so on for military use. This committee has proposed reducing 20 per cent of the army strength.

Of the three committees, only the Shekatkar recommendations make sense because of its modest aim of simply reducing the army strength. This committee, unlike the other two committees, did not propose preparing the army for modern war; it restricts itself to internal management rather than reforms.

The army chief groups and Lt Gen. D.S. Hooda’s recommendations cannot be taken seriously for six reasons. One, modern war requires military reforms (involving the three services). Talking of army reforms alone negates the basis of modern war – joint-ness – the prerequisite for swift, intense and result-oriented warfare. Two, given the infusion of cutting-edge military technology like precision stand-off weapons with China and its increased interoperability (ability to fight together on common mission) with the Pakistan military, the IAF, and not the army, should be the lead in modern war. Three, the army cannot give primacy to hybrid warfare (with focus on counter-terror and psychological operations) and yet hope to be the lead in a modern war. The two — hybrid and modern war — are as different as chalk and cheese.

Four, the Hooda recommendation of raising SF brigades under the Army Headquarters for strategic tasks without credible counter-offensive capabilities to meet enemy’s retaliation serves little purpose. The Indian Army has not had these capabilities since 1990 when counter-insurgency assumed priority. For this reason, during the so-called 2016 surgical strikes, the then director general military operations, Lt Gen. Ranbir Singh had informed Pakistan within hours that the mission was over and no further surgical strikes were planned. This was done to ensure that Pakistan did not retaliate. India was simply not prepared for an escalation. Given this, how can the army have SF for strategic task (like demolition of Marala headquarters) when fearing escalation, it could not use it for tactical task of CI ops along the Line of Control? Moreover, the government has already cleared the raising of a tri-service Special Forces division (which might be upgraded to command), which is in addition to the Special Forces with all three services.

Five, when the Hooda committee says that the reserve units should be optimised for capabilities for desired outcome, it makes little sense. For one, the lessons of Rashtriya Rifles (RR) raisings should be recalled. The RR concept with 50 per cent retired soldiers was mooted in 1990 by Gen. K. Sundarji. Since few retired soldiers were willing to come back to combat in Jammu and Kashmir, the army chief, Gen. B.C. Joshi was compelled to alter the concept by having all serving troops in RR. The RR remains regular army by another name. Given this, where would reserve soldiers, who would come voluntarily and get paid for three months in a year to fight CI ops come from? Seeking human fodder to fight faceless terrorists would be impossible. Besides, how would the army ensure desired capabilities (equipment and training) for reserve units, when the regular units are woefully short of war-withal?

And six, why does the Hooda committee need the post of a DG for identifying new age technologies for the military when two high-powered discussions on this subject are already underway? Since these technologies comprising AI, partially autonomous systems, robotics and human-machine interface, are more in the commercial than in the military domain, the NITI Aayog had earlier this year, released a discussion paper on ‘National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence’. The Hooda committee should read this paper to know how the government proposes to set-up centres of excellence by private-public partnerships. Simply put, India has not even begun this defining journey that would revolutionise warfare. Moreover, the defence ministry had also set-up a task force in 2017 to identify AI technologies for military purposes.

Given all this, the army should stop confusing its internal management with military reforms. Once this is done, it would not be difficult for the army to reduce its manpower. If it starts to look at progressively reducing the five divisions and three brigades it raised since 2009 when it started the two-front war capability building plan, a beginning could be made.


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