Turning Points, Objective Determinants

Indian Armed Forces are organisations that despite having large bureaucracies, hierarchical structures and specialisations, are like living organisms and are not machines. Different stages of the life cycle of the armed forces have required alterations in their objectives, strategies, command and managerial processes, technology and decision-making systemic. By their very nature, they evolve slowly, though supporting dynamism to adapt to new challenges and opportunities. Hence, the forces need to be stable (status quoist) and agile (dynamic) at the same time. Agile units and formations of armed forces create a cohesive community with a common robust culture that actually improves as more pressure is exerted. The armed forces, as a whole, respond and behave like living organisms.

This is a turning point for Indian Armed Forces life cycle when it is apparent that change is inevitable. They are in a cusp, with the inevitability of much-procrastinated change which will not occur sequentially, in hierarchical progression or holistically. This change actually involves moving from the known to the unknown, which would certainly cause turbulence, and hence faces severe resistance. The question is changed to what? Writing is on the wall, on three imperatives dictated with some timelines, by the politico-bureaucratic establishment. First is Átmanirbar Bharat Initiative (Self Reliant India) for defence modernisation, second of Theatre Commands leading to deep-rooted jointness or integration and third relates to the amelioration of dire effects of runaway revenue budget and paucity of the capital budget for modernisation, more specifically the salary-pension component.

The first issue relates to the Government initiative of ‘Make in India’ that commenced in Sep 2014, and the Átmanirbar Bharat of May 2020 to encourage manufacturing in India. Though the Initiative has well begun, there are significant challenges, like the budgetary support and unholy competition, lack of collaboration on technology and R&D between public and private sectorsThe issue needs analysis, separately.

The second issue is of establishing Theatre commands by 2022. In the GOI (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961, one of the roles of the DMA is “…facilitation of restructuring of Military Commands for optimal utilization of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through the establishment of joint/theatre commands.” It has been stated that these commands, like Northern Command, will be along the border with China, the Western Command along the border with Pakistan.[1]  The issue of a theatre ‘along with the border’ needs deliberation.

Theatre of War is a much broader concept, of the region in which military operations are or will progress.  21st Century warfare has transcended beyond the three Services – Army, Navy and Air Force, with newer domains of warfare like cyber, space, electromagnetic spectrum and informational. While Nagorno-Karabakh 2020 may not be the example in exactitude for perceived wars in Indian Sub-continent, it is yet instructive to follow offensive use of drones and electro-magnetic spectrum and their effect on the outcome! The density of sensors has made the modern battlespace transparent!  Future Wars, with disruptive technologies, may or may not necessarily involve physical combat on borders or even armed forces direct involvement, and may even target national infrastructure.

Apparently hence kinetic or non-kinetic, contact or non-contact, conventional or unconventional, will get aggregated or disaggregated in pursuance of political aims, in newer types of warfare, as need be!  Consequentially, the proposed Northern Theatre has to combat the Northern adversary in all realms of warfare, including un-predictive realms of cyber, precision projectiles/missiles and space, which may be handled by other Governmental agencies. Defense-offense along LAC will be but a part of the overall strategy.  Theatres cannot be only responsible for operations along LAC or AGPL/LOC/IB; they ought to be charged with combating the adversary in all manifestations of multi-domain warfare of 21st Century. Lest it be a shallow change, creation of Theatre Commands hence must be with a clearer vision and with enunciated broad-based military strategy. Such Theatre Commands, if conceptualised, will go well beyond Army, Navy and AF, bring in conjoined national power, and be a better model of jointness!

The third major intensive debate is the runaway revenue budget in Indian Armed forces, especially Army, more specifically manpower, salaries and pensions. It has been argued that “…exponential growth in the military manpower cost not only stifles defence modernisation but also impacts readiness due to progressively lesser budgetary allocations towards operational maintenance. Remedial measures under contemplation consider the twin approach of right-sizing the 1.4 million strong active duty military personnel along with various options for the reduction in pension expenditure.[2] Also, “…Defence pensions…had risen to a whopping Rs 1,33,825 crore in the financial year 2020-21. This equals 28.39 per cent of the total annual defence outlays, posing serious concerns for the federal government struggling to shore up its finances.[3] In Off, the Cuff programme, Ashley Tellis, Senior Fellow at think-tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace alluded that India faces a challenge with respect to the Army … too dependent on manpower.[4]

Three clear issues emanate from above formulations. One, right-sizing largely refers to Army’s 1.2 million-strong manpower, that reflects on the salary budget.  The mandated structure of the Army, the desired 42 squadron Air Force or the 150 ship Navy, it is deemed, ought to have been vetted and approved by the Government in relation to operational plans. Over 4000km of undemarcated, contested border – the LOC and LAC, have their demands for management in terms of manpower intensiveness, and for conventional operations. Though the Kargil War gave a clear ultimatum that incursions across the LOC will be unacceptable, devious nature of Pakistan Army, incessant attempts to infiltrate in terrorists and sponsorship of terrorism, all dictate multi-tiered deployments and grids.  Similarly, strength at the LAC in Ladakh in 2020 has doubled, for apparent reasons of untrustworthy China.

The conceptology of ‘no loss of territory’ mandates physical defence as exemplified by the operations on Kailash Range, and which cannot be offset by machines.  Structural Rebalancing[5] from the Western Front may be feasible, and the issue is under contemplation! There are also social requirements of the troops to regularly turned over. To state the obvious, till relations with two collusive adversarial neighbours and the long tense borders are resolved, only limited changes in manpower of Army are possible.

Two is the issue of ‘whooping defence pensions’, which ‘impact defence modernisation’.  Pensions have been addressed in a large number of judgements by the Supreme Court, various High Courts and Tribunals. In landmark judgements, the pension is stated as not only compensation for loyal service rendered in the past but in broader significance as a measure of socio-economic justice which inheres economic security in the fall of life “when physical and mental prowess is ebbing corresponding to the ageing process and therefore, one is required to fall back on savings.” Pension is deferred salary and not a bounty or an ex gratia payment. The armed forces pensions are defined-benefit plan that provides a specified payment amount in retirement.

The retiring armed forces soldiers with an arduous, disturbed and challenging career behind them deserve serious national consideration for their post superannuated lives. Most of Army’s soldiers, retire early between the late thirties to mid-forties, with a long life ahead and pending major social/ familial commitments. A number of proposals to offset pension budget have been around, like New Pension Scheme (NPS), increasing retirement ages, right-sizing (implying down-sizing) army, lateral induction to CAPF (in-service or on retirement). It is obvious that the NPS scheme will not be able to generate credible corpus to allow any worthwhile annuity plan on retirement. Building up a requisite corpus for shortfall years from the Governmental retirement age of 60 will be necessary. Increasing retirement ages is an only quick-fix solution for a finite time, and it will have attendant anxieties of blocking promotional avenues, in addition to ageing the rank and file and reducing efficiency while committed on difficult postings.

There is no defined and assured scheme for second employment, which makes pension the sole support to protect the ex-servicemen from penury.  Lateral induction to CAPF has long been proposed as one of the solutions to reduce the defence pension bill. The Standing Committee on Defence as part of its 33rd Report to the Lok Sabha also highlighted this solution when it dealt with ex-servicemen issues. The 6th Pay Commission Report had strongly recommended the same. The reservation on Government jobs are left unsubscribed as ex-servicemen largely do not meet the basic educational/ skill criteria.

The responsibilities tasked to Armed Forces in peace and war deserves a commensurate defence budget. However, if there is an inevitability to addressing pension budget and if pension-budget is singularly weighing down modernisation of armed forces, it is imperative to address the issue of assuring second employment to early retirees. It is not Herculean for an expanding economy to commit to focussed re-skilling, and assured placements in avenues of interest or skill. Institutionalising this will transit the character of armed forces to another level.  Such assurance may pave way for a graduated transition to the defined-contribution pension plan that will allow rank and file and Government (for matching contributions) to contribute and invest funds overtime to save for retirement.

The third is the issue of understanding that armed forces personnel are going through a psychological paradigm shift too. Winston Churchill had so perceptively remarked “The Army is not an inanimate thing, like a house to be pulled down or enlarged or structurally altered, it is a living thing. If it is bullied, it sulks; if it is unhappy, it pines; if it is sufficiently disturbed, it will wither and almost die.” The operational response and dedication that is honed in by regimentation and esprit de corps of the units are detached and in a separate compartment from the psychological dimension which is getting exceptionally complex and fast-changing.

Much has however changed in the life of the personnel over the last few decades. Technology gives individuals the ability to share images of or information about conflict or policy with larger military (and civilian) audience, potentially shaping perceptions. In fact social media is one major instrument that has overtaken langur gup (dining hall/ mess idle chatter), can cause anxiety and stress and influences the emotional and physical wellbeing. In this manner, there is a disconnect between the pronouncements of proposed military policy and its effects on personnel. A clear generation gap exists in the understanding of how social media will propagate negatives of any policy to rank and file. Anyone with a smartphone can reach more people than even the best-equipped, old-fashioned methods of information dissemination. Because of technology, military operations and combat have become transparent and available in real-time. They no longer depend solely on official information or on what they are told or shown by friendly journalists. The information has become dispersed and democratized, where information itself is a weapon. And attempts to in-house shape the narrative are becoming counter-productive.  To add fuel to fire are the innumerable fakes, deep fakes, blatant lies half-truths and rumours!

Heightened awareness, with much better educational levels and aspirational nature of society, has become the linchpin of this seismic change in the character of soldiering. To fight and win on the battlefield of information, the military hierarchy must have the ability to affect perceptions both in the area of operations, as also in man-management.  Colin Powell, the Chairman Joint Chiefs of the most technological military of the world had has so poignantly remarked, “…leadership is all about people. You have to be people-centred. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.”

It is obvious that there is a need for an amended psychosocial approach that looks at personnel in the context of combined influence that any projected change of policy will have. Soldiers are ready to pay the highest of price in the discharge of their responsibilities. They deserve consideration of what psychosocial effect of policy pronouncements will be, more so if they affect hygiene factors – status, job security, salary, pensions, terms and conditions of service.  Policy proposals insensitive to or not mindful of the psychosocial makeover of the rank and file, even if propelled by more intrinsic compulsions, are fraught with weighty qualms.  This is especially so where inclinations to effect change emanate in-house within the military. For the civilian hierarchy what Gen HR McMaster said holds good, “…civilians don’t always understand what compels warriors to sacrifice and endure…

The nature of service in the Armed Forces aggravates many issues and problems and introduces new ones for the rank and file.  In the armed forces, any transformation is not casual file-pushing politico-bureaucratic exercise. The soldiers, airmen and sailors (as also the hierarchical chain and the veterans as much) invariably have expectations about results of organizational change, and these expectations play important role in generating motivation for change. Critical change must not be perceived as another in a series of fads by the “management” as the newest flavour of the month.

The armed forces are indeed at turning points in their life cycle; as living organisms, deservedly the transformation must have objective determinants!

End Notes

[1] HARSH V. PANT and JAVIN ARYAN, The biggest challenge before India’s joint theatre commands plan — who will report to whom, The Print, 30 Oct 2020, accessed at https://theprint.in/opinion/the-biggest-challenge-before-indias-joint-theatre-commands-plan-who-will-report-to-whom/533357/

[2] Abhay Kumar Singh, Military Manpower Cost in India and the United States: A Comparative Analysis, MP-IDSA, May 29, 2020 accesssed by https://idsa.in/specialfeature/military-manpower-cost-in-india-aksingh

[3] Amit Cowshish & Rahul Bedi, Services in dilemma over fiscal prudence, The Tribune, 15 Nov 2020, accessed at https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/comment/services-in-dilemma-over-fiscal-prudence-168463

[4] KAIRVY GREWAL, Indian response to Chinese aggression in Ladakh has been very good, says scholar Ashley Tellis, ThePrint, 07 Nov 2020, accessed at https://theprint.in/theprint-otc/indian-response-to-chinese-aggression-in-ladakh-has-been-very-good-says-scholar-ashley-tellis/538979/

[5] Rakesh Sharma, Ideating Structural Rebalancing, CLAWS, 23 Aug 2020, accessed at https://www.claws.in/ideating-structural-rebalancing/

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Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma is an infantry officer commissioned in Gorkha Rifles in 1977, with career span of forty years. He has had extensive operational experience in Jammu and Kashmir, North East and on the Western Borders. The officer had trained the Botswana Army for three years in Africa, and attended the National War College at Abuja, Nigeria. Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma had attended the NDC at New Delhi and was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. He has done PhD in Defence Studies. General Rakesh Sharma commanded the Fire and Fury Corps in Ladakh responsible for Kargil, Siachin Glacier and Eastern Ladakh – facing both Pakistan and China.The General was the Adjutant General of the Indian Army responsible for the Human Resource Management and superannuated in 2017. He has been awarded with Param Vashisht Seva Medal, Uttam Yudh Seva Medal, Ati Vashisht Seva Medal and Vashisht Seva Medal. He is a regular participant in seminars, lectures in various institutions, and regularly writes for newspapers and military journals. Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma was Chief Defence Banking Advisor with the Punjab National bank. He is currently DISTINGUISHED FELLOW with the Centre for Land Warfare Studies.