Indian Army Must Downsize — But Here’s What It Needs To Do First

Kuldip Singh
·7-min read

The 20th standing committee report (released in March 2021) indicates that the Indian Army is aiming at reducing about 1,00,000 troops in the next three to four years, with the money saved on manpower costs being cycled back into technology assimilation, upgradation and induction.

This from an organisation which has constantly sought additional manpower (post-Kargil; raising of mountain strike corps) (11,80,940 soldiers in 1995 to 14,38,717 in 2019) in an era when all other modern armies were downsizing.

So, what changed? The answer lies:

  • in timely adoption of technology by armies

  • some recent developments

Timely Adoption of Tech & the Bombing of Germany & Japan in WW-II

As firearms matured, they promised a capability to kill from great distances. However, there remained a great weakness — soldiers required extraordinary training and aptitude to hit targets under stressful, battlefield conditions. To compensate for this failing and increase ‘hit-probability’, nations initially took to increasing the number of firers, and by corollary, the size of their armies.

It was presumed that the development of automatic weapons, mechanised and armoured platforms, aircraft, modern battleships, etc, would result in lower troop levels. Instead, they raised the tempo of fighting and led to warfare turning industrial – on account of firepower being imprecise, on an average, in World War-I, about 10,000 small arms rounds were expended for every soldier killed (this rose to 45,000 in WW-II, and to 50,000 in the Vietnam War).

Thus, by WW-II, huge factories, plants and depots were required for mass production of weapons systems, ammunition, etc to support the battlefield efforts of large armies.

This led to air power strategists like US General William ‘Billy’ Mitchell and Britain's Hugh Trenchard advocating massed aerial bombing to annihilate entire cities as a means of winning a full-scale war.

Thus began the strategic bombing of Germany and Japan to destroy their industry, dams, kill workers, etc.

However, the numerous ‘1000-bombers’ raids undertaken, which banked on dropping huge quantities of inaccurate bombs, were very time-consuming — and on account of massive losses of aircraft, unsustainable.

This led to a quest for a ‘silver bullet’ — ‘one-bomb-one-target-city’ — and the atomic bombs provided that solution.

Also Read: Should India Worry About China’s Defence Budget & Army Upgrade?

How Need for Large Armies Reduced: Gulf War & Iraq War Bear Testimony

However, as conventional warfare continued to require large armies, the ‘one-bomb-one-target’ quest finally led to the first ‘smart’ bombs. In April 1972, eight F-4 Phantoms of the US Air Force used electro-optically and laser guided bombs to destroy the vital Thanh Hoa bridge in Vietnam. Earlier, from 1965, the USAF had flown about 873 missions against this bridge dropping hundreds of tons of ‘dumb’ ordnance.

As ‘smart’ munitions led to precision munitions, the need for large armies also reduced.

A single ‘smart’ artillery shell (example: Copperhead) could do the work of an artillery battery firing for five minutes. Similar breakthroughs in hand-held anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, mortars, rifles, UAVs, etc — when combined with electro-optical devices and ISR platforms — began facilitating far higher kill-probabilities with much less ammunition and troops.

The 1991 Gulf War and 2003 Iraq War exemplify how small-sized militaries equipped with precision munitions can defeat far larger legacy-equipment equipped armies.

The imperative to assimilate technology was clear.

Also Read: China Boosts Defence Spending by 8.1% Amid Military Modernisation

What’s Keeping Indian Army From Achieving Its True Potential?

Professional armies invariably take lessons from ongoing events, conflicts and wars, and undertake measures to shape themselves for the future.

The Indian Army’s involvement in counter-insurgency/counter-terrorist operations since 1988, as well as actions on the LoC, had led many to assume these are the new normal for war.

Also, like other armies, the Indian Army — while efficient and fully capable of unity of effort — is bureaucratic, orthodox and resistant to change.

Together, these are impediments to strategic thought and making/undoing policy. For example, we clearly failed to see the future of UCAVs (unmanned aerial combat vehicles), although the US had been using them liberally in our neighbourhood since Nov 2001.

How China Is Strengthening Its Military With ‘Super Soldiers’

The Indian Armed Forces were likely spurred to the dire need to modernise, due to the events of February 2019 (Balakot-Pak Air Force), and the May-June 2020 imbroglio with the Chinese PLA in eastern Ladakh. Internationally, the recent fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia, in which UCAVs and Loitering Munitions played a dominant, decisive role, pointed at the shape of contemporary and emergent warfare.

Importantly, Azerbaijan used regionally-developed Turkish UCAVs for most of the kills.

In addition, is the news that China is equipping its troops on the LAC with ‘exo-skeleton’ suits to ease tasks related to logistics carriage, patrolling and sentry duties.

Other reports informed that China, and France are developing biologically-enhanced ‘super soldiers’. The new species of augmented soldiers may have altered DNA, which, combined with robotics, could endow them with enhanced speed and strength, as well as singularity of mission.

Also Read: ‘Only Competence Matters’: Indian Army’s Seniormost Woman Officer

Impediments In Indian Army’s Modernisation Efforts

Induction of modern platforms entails three things:

  1. funds

  2. assimilation of technology and training of troops

  3. induction of weapons/platforms

However, for the Indian Armed Forces, funds for modernisation have been a problem, with two reasons being:

  • Stagnating defence outlays [(FY2016-17: 17.80 percent of total central government expenditure; FY2017-18: 17.73 percent; FY2018-19: 17.43 percent; FY2019-20: 16.86 percent; FY2019-20: 14.05 percent; FY2021-22: 13.73 percent); (the Budget also declined in terms of GDP — from 2.29 percent in FY2016-17 to 2.15 percent in FY2021-22)]

  • Huge manpower costs ( that is, pay & allowances, rations, clothing and housing benefits, medical and pensions to 51 lakh retirees).

In FY2020-21, manpower costs amounted to 65 percent of the total Defence Budget.

The size of the Army (85 percent of the total strength of Armed Forces; followed at 10 percent by the Indian Air Force, 5 percent by the Indian Navy) means it gets 56 percent of the Defence Budget (IAF – 23 percent; Navy – 15 percent; DRDO – 6 percent). With 70 percent of the Army’s budget going towards pay & allowances, its capital share is just 18 percent (Rs. 32,474 crores) (down from a high of 26 percent in FY2007-08).

Such figures severely impinge on the Army’s — and the IAF’s and Navy’s — ability to acquire technology-intensive combat assets. And the pension burden is set to increase (5-year OROP revisions; addition of about 60,000 retires annually) unless suitable reforms are undertaken.

Also Read: What Indian Armed Forces Must Do To Avoid ‘Limping’ Into War

Way Forward for the Indian Army

The Indian economy is on a declining trajectory, and therefore, it is unlikely that the government will give additional allocations for modernisation.

So, the Armed Forces have to find the funds from within existing allocations — and for this, they have to cut back on manpower costs in the Army by downsizing — precisely what the Chief of Defence Staff had espoused earlier.

However, the dilemma starts here: if it cuts down on the manpower without inducting appropriate, compensatory technology-intensive precision systems/platforms, then — given the operational commitments — the Indian Army would face an operational void, a risk which it cannot take given the strategic environment.

An alternative is to cut down manpower in small batches, and redeploy the savings thus, on a phased modernisation plan. The 1,00,000 reduction over 3-4 years seeks to achieve just that.

(The author is a retired Brigadier of the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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