Don’t leave the army alone

War is too important a business to leave to the generals alone (notwithstanding Nehru-Krishna Menon)

In an editorial earlier this month The Pioneer called for the Army to be left alone, for there ‘are other ways to save money’. It is an excellent example of good intentions but poor policy thinking.

For some time now strategic affairs ‘experts’ and their political mentors, known for their proximity to the Washington establishment, have been peddling the theory that India needs a technology-intensive ‘lean-and-mean’ Army, not a large force of 11 lakh soldiers and officers.[via Bharat-Rakshak Forum]

The Pioneer gets off the mark on a very wrong note. It is presumptuous for it to not only cast aspersions on the expertise of those who have a different point of view but question their motives. We may be experts-in-quotes, but to the best of our knowledge Sushant Singh and I—who have argued for a more technology-intensive Armed Forces—are rather far away from Washington. The larger point here is that a sensible debate over making the Armed Forces more effective is impossible if one begins by questioning the other’s patriotism.

On paper this sounds good. But shorn of hyperbole, it simply means downsizing the Army and thus automatically reducing the deployment of troops, especially along the Line of Control and in Jammu & Kashmir, apart from our frontier with China.

Now really? If hyperbole is to be shorn, we would have liked some facts as to why downsizing the army is tantamount to reducing troop levels in Kashmir or along the frontier with China.

Those pushing the ‘lean-and-mean’ theory will, of course, argue that any reduction in the number of soldiers and officers will be more than made up by the induction of ‘high-end technology’. What they do not mention is that the technology will have to be imported at a high cost – both literally and metaphorically — and supplies can be stopped without either explanation or notice. While we would be left high and dry, the suppliers, who need not be named, would be laughing all the way to their banks.

In our op-ed, we argued that a more capital intensive army need not necessarily be one that imports big ticket items. The Pioneer would do well to ask how many of India’s soldiers are equipped with such low-tech gear as light-weight body armour, what kind of computer networks and software the Armed Forces use or indeed what type of vehicles they travel in. The Pioneer does no service to the nation by arguing that modernisation of Armed Forces is the same as importing high-tech equipment. And on another note, shorn of rhetoric, does it really believe that India’s defence needs can be met without importing high-technology weapon systems from foreign suppliers?

All this and more must have weighed heavily on the Army top brass, which has now decided, as reported by this newspaper on Saturday, that there cannot be there cannot be a reduction in the size of the Army.

To the extent the Armed Forces are a bureaucracy, they can be expected to argue in favour of retaining and expanding their numbers. Show us the bosses of one government department that will accept that it could do with a smaller headcount?

Unlike in most countries, especially those who preach the need to trim the size of our military, the Army in India is not restricted to barracks or fighting other people’s wars. Our soldiers and officers have to maintain constant vigil in the west and the east; they have to perform security-related duties in Jammu & Kashmir (no, these cannot be left to the State police); they have to hold the peace in the North-East; and, given the wretched state of our infrastructure, for which our political class is to blame, they have to be deployed in sufficiently large numbers throughout the year along the LoC and the frontier with China.

Fair enough. This is not an argument per se for not improving teeth-to-tail ratios.

Those who argue against this would do well to revisit the incursion by Pakistani troops in the Kargil sector in 1999 because of the hare-brained decision to keep posts vacant during winter.

This is faulty analysis. Were the posts at Kargil vacated due to troop shortages? Or did the conflict escalate because the Indian Army did not have surveillance and intelligence gathering capabilities that could detect the incursions in time?

Hasn’t The Pioneer heard about the high-tech fence, UAVs and advanced imaging capabilities that are even now keeping infiltration levels down?

There is no doubt need to rationalise the present ‘field force’ and ‘non-field force’ to the extent that useless flab can be got rid of. But this is an exercise best left to the Generals who alone can assess where cuts can be made to make the Army more efficient without depleting its inherent strength.

There is no doubt that the Generals have the most accurate picture of military affairs. But by no stretch of imagination is it prudent to leave the exercise to the Generals alone. Indeed, it is precisely this attitude that contributes to the much lamented lack of strategic culture in India’s policy establishment. Civilian policy makers, political leaders and civil society have important roles to play in national security. Cutting out the civil society is, in fact, detrimental to national security. As Sushant and I argued in yesterday’s op-ed, transparency in military matters will help civilians make an informed judgement about military matters. Unless civil society is on board, how does one engender public support for, say increasing the defence expenditure?

In any event, there cannot be any roll back in the number of troops deployed at the ground level to secure our borders. To do so would be suicidal — in the event of an emergency, by the time we move troops it may prove to be too late.

Here The Pioneer shoots itself in the foot. Moving troops and logistics is a function of technology. A more technologically intensive army can move troops and supplies much faster than a less technologically intensive one.

Let the Government not eye the Army to reduce its expenditure. If it is truly interested in cutbacks, it should begin by scrapping cockamamie social welfare projects, conjured by barefoot ‘economists’ and jholawallahs, which are bleeding the public exchequer and enriching corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and contractors, and stop promising freebies to entice voters.

Like The Pioneer, this blog too is a vocal critic of the UPA government’s poorly designed spending programmes. But it is misleading to cast this as a guns vs butter debate. If the government can spend less, it should spend less. If it can optimise expenses, it should optimise expenses, regardless of which head they belong to. Indeed, the path that The Pioneer has chosen is dangerous—for it is very much possible for a government to use this logic to slice the defence budget and allocate it for, say, the rural employment guarantee programme. For it can go to the voters and argue that livelihood of farmers is more important than pay increases for soldiers. The linkage is spurious—India must spend whatever is necessary to secure itself.

Since the people of India do not grudge the Army its expenses, politicians and strategic affairs ‘experts’ who look West-ward for inspiration and patronage should stop bothering their silly heads about it.

It begs asking who gave the The Pioneer the authority to tell others to stop bothering their silly heads about national security. The defence budget is the second largest item in India’s budget. Not grudging the Armed Forces their expenses does not, in any way, mean that the people of India should not insist on knowing how the money is spent, or worrying our (albeit silly) heads about how we could get more bang for the buck.

The Pioneer does the Armed Forces no service by attempting to cloak their operations in the romantic mystique of special expertise and patriotism. Like any government department, the Armed Forces are made up of not infallible humans. Just as there is no reason to spare the income tax department, the Reserve Bank, the Supreme Court from the rigours of public scrutiny, so too for the Armed Forces.

Overall, a very disappointing piece from The Pioneer.

8 thoughts on “Don’t leave the army alone”

  1. To some extent, I agree with the Pioneer. The US, with its “lean and mean” Army is hopelessly stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan. To guard our borders and to mount successful attacks on the enemy, we need numbers. And we need a long tail to keep the teeth biting for extended periods.

  2. There are advantages of having an army that is lean and highly maneuverable much like the ideas behind the Future Force Warrior and the Future Combat Systems in US but those advantages disappear when it comes to area-holding and policing activities required in a CI environment.

    Of course, a move towards a technology oriented army is better but I am still not convinced if leaner is the way to go for India. Know that US can think of having a leaner army because of its unique geographical situation( know, the pond on one side and the Pacific on another..) unlike India whose land borders are more threatened than American land borders.

    At the same time, I am all for moving away from Army-led anti-terrorism tactics towards a police-led one.

  3. Mihir,

    I don’t is the reason why from pragmatic’s earlier post.

    A soldier costs the nation roughly Rs 20,000 per month, including salary, pension and training costs. Yet, a vast majority of them are employed in non-core skills like driving and serving as orderlies. The army has over one lakh drivers and an equal number of sahayaks (orderlies). In foreign armed forces, only senior-most officials are entitled to vehicles; the rest drive their own cars and get an allowance.

    Even as it hankers for state-of-the-art night-vision devices and main-battle tanks, the army has not made even the simplest advances in civilian supply chain management to improve its unwieldy logistics tail. Take, for example, procurement of vehicles from the private sector. These are first sent to godowns in Mumbai from where they are dispatched to field areas. Yet another glaring example is the huge depot in Allahabad where the army procures and stores items with low shelf-life, like paints and welding rods.

    The Army can easily do two things

    1. increase its effectiveness by deploying all these orderlies into active duties and gain more bang for the buck by improving its own supply chain management or

    2. retire them altogether since they aren’t doing anything other than keep up the feudal lifestyles of the officer class. even then i.e., after reducing force levels by nearly 2 lakhs as we can see the armed forces will be able to maintain their current levels of effectiveness.

  4. No disagreements there. Getting rid of the chauffeurs, batmen, etc., and making the supply chains more efficient would be a step in the right direction. What the Pioneer is against is a downsizing of the Army in general so that we have a “lean and mean” force.

  5. Increased efficiencies should lead to a reduction in numbers. It is not a “lean and mean” army for the sake of having one. A greater synergy between the three services, joint field commands and so on, would also bring down the numbers significantly. The high-end technology replacing humans doesn’t even figure at this stage.
    The greater argument, and I fully endorse Nitin’s view, is that the defence services cannot be beyond criticism in this country. IMHO that to question them ought to be as “unpatriotic” as is to question the nuclear deal.

  6. Pragmatic,
    Even if efficiency is bumped up, I see no reason for a drastic reduction in the size of the fighting arms. Same goes for “greater synergy between the three services”.

    Joint field commands are a good idea in theory, but for India, it translates into little more than “give operational control of Air Force assets to the Army” – often to a general who has a limited understanding of aerial combat. It’s a bad idea. One way around this problem is to allocate a part of the Air Force to theatre commanders permanently, and keep the other part under an independent aerial commander. But with a combat strength of only 32 squadrons and a limited number force multipliers and supporting assets (AWACS, tankers, transport, etc), the IAF simply isn’t large enough for such a venture to succeed.

    Coming to your (and Nitin’s) view of the armed forces not being beyond criticism, I agree. But you seem to imply that such criticism is missing. Serious observers and enthusiasts, and even mediawallahs have ruthlessly excoriated the armed forces time and again for making irrational decisions. And this isn’t a new trend either.

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