Until last year, manpower reductions did not figure in Indian military modernisation discourse, though its centrality is well established in revolution in military affairs (RMA) worldwide. Instead, the Indian preference was for the recruitment of more officers and men under the rubric of a two-front war, low intensity conflicts, and the scourge of terrorism. India was the only country amongst great powers not to work on manpower reduction in its military. However, taking perhaps the most commendable step in India’s post-independence military reforms, the Government recently announced the high level Shekatkar Committee to rightsize the armed forces and cut extra flab wherever possible.
What was the turning point? Undoubtedly, it is Prime Minister Modi’s leadership that impressed upon the armed forces the need to rightsize during his December 2015 address at the combined commanders’ conference. He lamented that, “when major powers are reducing their forces and rely more on technology, we are still constantly seeking to expand the size of our forces. 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….we should shorten the tooth-to-tail ratio.” Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar also called upon the armed forces to reduce the extra flab on many occasions before commissioning the Shekatkar committee.
A key problem that could hamper the Shekatkar Committee’s working is the choice between an in-house approach and sourcing views from outside. It could adopt an in-house approach assuming that outsiders will not know the nitty-gritty of the armed forces. However, even from a layman’s perspective, many reasons exist for manpower reforms in armed forces. First, numbers do not count anymore in the modern military power index. China down-sized the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) from 4.9 million in the early nineties to 2.3 million, and further declared to reduce it by 3 lakh in the near future. The contemporary emphasis is on educated soldiers fighting a technology-driven war with modern gadgets and machinery. The Indian soldier, representing the rural gentry, is semi-educated and deployed in the traditional warfare system.
Second, the guiding philosophy driving manpower restructuring and reductions the world-over is not merely the problem of plenty but that of a resource crunch as well. Even in the Indian context, the most vocal advocates of the expansionist school admit that revenue expenditure is rising beyond manageable levels along with defence pension expenditure. Third, many functionalities in the armed forces could be done away with altogether, handed to civilians, or outsourced for budgetary savings. Why should there be colonial leftovers like sahayaks or military farms producing costlier milk than that available in the market? The list is indeed long and frustrating. Such issues are not discussed in public since defence is treated as a holy cow and, therefore, alternative ideas are dumped in the dustbin. The Committee should, therefore, encourage feedback from the open environment to ensure that reform proposals are not half-baked or coloured by an organisational bias since few organisations in the government are willing to shelve their own manpower.
Another problem is about earlier proposals of manpower reforms in the services. For example, the Fifth Pay Commission had recommended the disbanding of the Accounts Branch of the Air Force.With 492 commissioned officers and 7,000 men, the only job done by this branch is to make salary and contractual payments for the Air Force through a circuitous procedure. On a competitive note, the same is being provided by their civilian counterparts through officers and staff totaling less than 300. Incidentally, the Accounts Branch is also under a huge number of post-audit observations and recoveries and has erred on a massive scale on travel-related payments and compensation in lieu of quarters (CILQ). This is just a representative example; the committee may like to expand the basket for analysis and further action.
Any prospect for India’s defence reforms, in general, and manpower reforms, in particular, is possible only with a change of mindset on certain counts. First, defence should be treated as public good and not something to be decided upon by the collective wisdom of a select few who are often victims of organisational thinking. Manpower shortage is quite ubiquitous in other sectors of the Government and, therefore, the claim of shortage of officers and men needs to be judged in the wider national interest. Cuts have been imposed in a judicious manner in these sectors, without compromising efficiency and performance, and there is space to replicate the same in the armed forces.
Second, the logic of domain specialisation demands that services restrict themselves to combat functionalities and get rid of running Canteen Stores Department (CSD), schools, shopping complexes, marriage venues, housing societies, fund management, etc. These activities could be outsourced to contracted staff. Third, it is time to define defence in broader terms. Development as defence contributes to the logic propelling the ‘Make in India’ initiative, and savings from extra manpower could be spent in developing the domestic military industrial complex (MIC) or creating jobs in defence sector.
India is at a historic crossroad in its military modernisation drive. Given the political initiative and leadership, the Committee has its task cut out. It should live up to its expectation and come out with recommendations that can enable the Indian armed forces to emerge as lean and trim, and be able to put their best foot forward.
Note: The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent those of the Government of India.