The Indian Army has been the country’s first and most important weapon against external aggression.
Today, threats have evolved, and this calls for a recalibration of approach.
Sent into Kashmir to drive out the invading Pakistanis barely two months after Independence, the Indian Army was one of the first public institutions to command the deference of the common people in independent India. In the decades that followed, the continental nature of threats, which India faced, forced the country to focus on the Himalayas. Positioned against the threats emanating from disputed land borders, the army evolved as the primary instrument of choice against external aggression.
This was clearly visible during the Kargil conflict in 1999. With the enemy holding key peaks, calling in the Indian Air Force (IAF) for a full-fledged offensive to soften enemy positions and interdict their supply lines before sending in ground forces to recapture the heights would have been the logical thing to do. Instead, what we saw was the army’s attempt to drive out the intruders on its own while limiting the IAF’s involvement in the initial phase of the war to providing firepower in the form of helicopter gunships, resulting in heavy casualties.
The most recent and the least subtle confirmation of the primacy of the army came from General Bipin Rawat late last year, when he argued at a conference that “wars will be fought on land” and called for maintaining the “supremacy and primacy” of the army in a joint services environment.
Talking about IAF and the Indian Navy, he said the other two services will play a “very major role in support of the army, which will be operating on the ground”. He appeared to hint that the territorial integrity of the nation could only be preserved through action by land-based forces.
The India Army Chief’s comment appears to be based on the assumption that threats emanating from India’s disputed land borders continue to be the country’s only major security challenge, like in the past. Sample this: “wars will be fought on land, and therefore the primacy of the army must be maintained. The other services, the navy and the air force, will play a very major role in support of the army, which will be operating on the ground, because no matter what happens, we may be dominating the area or the air, but finally war will be won when we ensure territorial integrity of the nation.”
Such an assumption runs the risk of ignoring the complex geopolitical developments over the last decade. Unlike in the past, India, today, faces an increasingly assertive China in the Indian Ocean whose footprint in the region has increased significantly since 2008 – from irregular forays to permanent presence with a military base in Djibouti and deployment of nuclear submarines.
Having forged closer ties with countries in India’s maritime periphery, or what is often called New Delhi’s backyard, China poses a far greater threat from the sea than it ever did in the past.
Beijing’s decision to come to the aid of Abdulla Yameen’s dictatorial regime in the Maldives, while New Delhi took a strong stand and was reportedly contemplating action, leaves no doubt about China’s intent.
Hence, General Rawat’s belief that ‘wars will be fought on land’ is misplaced. While the army’s primacy in preserving territorial integrity on the land remains intact, the navy will play the same role in the maritime domain.
At a time when more than 95 per cent of India’s trade by volume (68 per cent of trade by value) takes place via the trade routes in the Indian Ocean, when the country imports over 80 per cent of its crude oil requirement via sea and export of maritime resources, such as fisheries, generates foreign exchange worth Rs 16,600 crore, the navy’s role can’t be limited to supporting operations of land-based forces.
The same is true for the air domain. While the IAF will play a major role in supporting the land-based forces, as General Rawat suggested, the service’s precision, flexibility and long reach make it an independent player. With geography limiting large-scale land offensives across the Himalayas, the air force will be the primary tool for offensive warfare behind enemy lines.
However, the joint doctrine of the armed forces, released in 2017, does not identify the air force as an independent tool in the application of military power, and limits its role to that of a junior service meant to support land and sea operations.
The primacy of the army is also reflected in budgetary allocations. In 2017-18, like in the past, the army got the biggest share in the defence budget at 57 per cent, followed by the IAF, the Navy, Defence Research and Development Organisation and Ordnance Factories. While 22 per cent of the budget went to the air force, the navy got only 14 per cent of the total. Little changed in 2018-19, when the army got 55 per cent of the total budget, the air force 23 per cent and the navy 15 per cent.
Since 2010-11, the army’s share in the defence budget has increased five percentage points, mostly at the expense of the other two services. Most of this growth has been driven by increase in manpower cost. The army, which has over 85 per cent of the total manpower in the three services, accounted for 69 per cent of the total revenue expenditure in the defence budget in 2018-19. Revenue expenditure includes funds spent on salaries of personnel and maintenance of infrastructure. Of the army’s own share of the defence budget, 83 per cent is revenue expenditure and only 17 per cent is capital expenditure (fund spent on modernisation). In comparison, the air force and the navy, which have done a better job at managing manpower, spend 55 per cent and 52 per cent of their budget on modernisation, respectively. While the implementation of the Seventh Central Pay Commission recommendations and the ‘One Rank One Pension’ scheme continue to raise the manpower cost, the army is in the process of further increasing its numbers by raising a new mountain strike corps.
Between 2011-12 and 2018-19, the part of the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) total expenditure, which is used to pay allowances and pension, has risen from 44 per cent to 56 per cent. A large part of this increase has come at the cost of the portion of the MoD’s total expenditure used for modernisation of the three services, which has come down from a high of 26 per cent in 2011-12 to 18 per cent in 2018-19.
The increasing manpower cost not only leaves little for modernisation of the army, but also affects the government’s ability to allocate sufficient fund to the air force and the navy. With most of the growth in this year’s budget being on account of rising manpower cost, the allocations are just enough to meet existing committed liabilities, making any major new acquisition unlikely this year. At a time when the IAF and the navy are looking at acquiring new fighter jets and helicopters and the list of unfunded requirements continues to grow, this is undesirable.
Facing a similar situation in the past, China has significantly cut down the size of its land forces in the last four decades – by nearly a million men in 1985, about 500,000 in 1997, 200,000 in 2003 and over 300,000 in 2015. India can follow a similar path, although less drastic. This will not just help the army use more funds allocated to it for modernisation, but also allow the Defence Ministry to restructure the budget to increase allocations for the air force and the navy.
However, this reform is not likely to happen if the army continues to see itself as the only upholder of the country’s territorial integrity. Instead, if it views itself as one of the many instruments of national power, it can reduce manpower and help the idea of a unified command. Reassuring the air force and the navy – which fear losing autonomy in a joint working environment – by also sharing responsibility for efficiency will be the first step towards the new model of operations under a unified command.