The why and how of restructuring and transformation of the Indian Army

Issues Details: 
Vol 12 Issue 5. Nov - Dec 2018
Page No.: 
Sub Title: 
Restructuring proposals of the Indian Army; their implications and allied aspects
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM (Retd)
Thursday, December 6, 2018

As the Indian Army commences its restructuring proposals, the author delineates what these are, the reasons to go in for the same  as also the benefits and the possible pitfalls thereof. Some other options that could be added to the process of restructuring are also suggested

As the second largest standing army in the world the Indian Army is also the force which faces the most strident threats, defending long borders and maintaining order within. It attempted a major transformation over ten years ago but due to lack of traction and political interest it could not achieve that. An attempt to transform is once again under way in some earnest. The desire is driven by a couple of factors the first being the inability to convince the managers of the national coffers for a larger defence budget outlay which is necessary to sustain it at optimum efficiency. The second is the necessity to streamline the teeth to tale ratio in the light of considerable redundancy which inevitably creeps into large organizations; sharper teeth to tale ratio to become leaner and cut the flab becomes a crying need. A third reason is to realign certain organizations and structures on the basis of evolving threats. The fourth and last reason is the necessity to address the aspirations of the personnel whose career management and esteem prospects dilute over time in the absence of timely measures to address them.

To all the above can be added a fifth reason and that alludes to the fact the Indian Army has been under pressure to downsize for better management of resources and in keeping with international trends, including that of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The need for infusion of cutting edge technology usually demands a cut in numbers in terms of human resources.

The term ‘transformation’ caught the fancy of the military world after the First Gulf War as operations under digital and ‘informationized’ conditions started becoming the norm. Armed forces around the world carefully analyzed their operational environment and restructured accordingly with big changes which they perceived were necessary to keep with the times. Downsizing became the norm as conventional war fighting receded in importance and hybrid war became more of a norm. However, India’s two front threatsfrom China and Pakistan, aided by the threat of irregular war as the additional half front remained live.

Transformation is not something achieved in a year or two; it’s an ongoing process which spans several years and takes into account the national functional environment, changing nature of conflict, threats, material resource availability, emerging technology, suitability of existing doctrine, quality of human intake, training needs and logistics, among other domains. This must not be confused with restructuring, a terminology being loosely used today. Restructuring by itself is at best a part of the transformation process. The Indian Army, inspired by the US exercise of transforming itself into the digital-information age after the First Gulf War, attempted such an exercise beginning 2005. However, it could force no traction with the political leadership and an unsupportive bureaucracy. The first exercise in attempted transformation only led to some accretions as part of Plans but that was about all. A major accretion sanction it could achieve was for the Mountain Strike Corps (MSC), 90,000 strong at estimated cost of Rs 65,000 crore. However, transformation itself found no takers. In the face of lack of budgetary support even the MSC was later virtually shelved. In early 2018 the Indian Army Vice Chief of the Army Staff while responding to questions of the Parliamentary Committee on Defence Affairs alluded to the insufficiency of budget allocations which were forcing the Army to foreclose 24 modernization projects because of inadequate funds available for the capital budget.

In the light of the above and escalating threats in which two front war and more have become a reality, especially after Doklam, somehow the Army has been unable to convince the political leadership of the need for suitable budget support to create the right  deterrence  and dissuasion which it aims to achieve against its adversaries. A notion appears to prevail among the non-uniformed, including the political leadership, diplomatic community and bureaucracy that conventional threats are passé and hybrid conflict is the flavor of the day. It is usually forgotten that deterrence through conventional military strength caters for the far end of the conflict spectrumwhile responding in the hybrid domain which is many times an ongoing phenomenon in varying intensity.

The current exercise initiated by the Army leadership appears a desperate attempt to overcome many of the imponderables in the face of poor prevailing perceptionoutside the armed forces community, about the nature of threats. It is currently undertaking a restructuring effort and will hopefully eventually progress into a transformation, going by my earlier explanation of the two terms. We have heard very little in the discourse so far about the exploitation of technology the very basis on which downsizing is premised. What is important is that the leadership is attempting to do a large number of things in a short period to overcome many of the anomalies which have piled up over time. The immediate backdrop study is the Shekatkar Committee Report of 2016 but it is heartening to see that a plethora of past reports, including the VK Singh Report on transformation, have been examined. Each such report is a wealth of analysis of that time with an eye on the future which is already the time we are living in. Many of the unactioned thoughts and ideas gain relevance even with changing context.

Four theme-based committees have been formed, each under a Lt Gen, with certain terms of reference. These committees  are based upon:-

  • Reorganizing and Optimization with an Aim of Transforming the Indian Army.
  • Reorganization of the Army HQ.
  • Cadre Review of Officers.
  • Review of Terms of Engagement of Other Ranks (OR).

Each of them deserves a separate analytical piece but this analysis is a more generic one to get a broad measure of understanding of each domain under consideration. At a first look what appears decidedly missing is mention of review of doctrine and technology. However, these actually come under the purview of the first committee.

Obviously two things are driving the entire exercise which the Army Chief appears to have correctly assessed as core to his current concern. First is the low budgetary support with no apparent assurance of any assuaging of the perception prevailing in the Army. Second is the dilution in status of ranks of officers and the relative deprivation in terms of promotion prospects for all ranks across the board compared to the civil services, an issue snowballing to greater acrimony. Very interestingly, unlike in the past when the Government approved a fixed increment of promotion vacancies as part of cadre review and the Army doing the fitment by looking for appointments for up gradation, this time the reverse seems true.

Doctrine and Force Structuring

Doctrinally proactive strategy, euphemism for Cold Start, requires progressive alteration in capability to be effective. That is being attempted through the creation of Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) different to the current ones which are essentially based on loose grouping of a division and an armored brigade. What is being sought is a configuration with a permanent grouping of a mix of lesser number of infantry units along with some armored regiments, mechanized infantry and artillery units with dedicated and possibly assured communication, engineer and logistics support. This is the major change in the plains and desert sectors creating a larger number of formations somewhere between a brigade and a division group thus enhancing the number of formations, increasing flexibility and reducing the headquarters (HQ) elements currently existing as the command and control body of each brigade and division. It’s a good thought since the number of contact points along the frontage automatically increase in an offensive operation in which a corps HQ directly controls the IBGs which will be under a Maj Gen each thus doing away for the need of Brig as a command rank in this environment. Something similar is being attempted in the mountains for offensive operations but two areas remain intact as they are. These are the Line of Control and the Strike Corps clarity on which is yet missing.

What appears a little questionable is that the dedicated command and control of each type of Arm thus far under its respective brigade commanders (armor/mechanized infantry, infantry and artillery) will now devolve directly on the IBG commander. The time tested system of specific Arm based advice to senior commanders would obviously be missing. The proposed structure is thought provoking no doubt but this ought to be put through robust testing in all pivot corps before even thinking of implementation.

The Force HQ of the Rashtriya Rifles (RR)from lower intensity areas is under consideration for redeployment to other sectors. However, a word of caution is advisable here. The situation in J&K (especially south of Pir Panjal) must not be assumed to have turned for the positive. Unless a clear period of complete stability is experienced across the state the potential for resurgence anywhere does exist. Any proposal to tamper with the RR’s organization and mandate may also prove counter-productive. Across the border the Pakistan Army has the added capability of a blooded Frontier Corps which over the last ten years could well be considered as Pakistan Army’s force optimizer like the RR is that of the Indian Army.

Officer Cadre

The rank of Brigadier will exist but there will be no selection board to become Maj Gen. Brigs will be automatically promoted to Maj Gen after 2-3 yrs. Both Ranks of Brigs and Maj Gens will be placed in same Pay Level 14. It’s a system the Army says it is borrowing from the Navy and much consultation has been done on that. The Navy treats its one star rank (Commodore) as an appointment. Officers may or may not hold this rank and could be promoted from Captain (Army equivalent being Colonel) directly to Rear Admiral (equivalent to Maj Gen)    The Army hopes to promote 80 officers per batch to Maj Gen much above the current number of about 40-50 (sometimes even lesser), and thereby improve feasibility of more officers attaining the Senior Administrative Grade (SAG) although nowhere near the percentage achieved by the Civil Services.

Promotion rate from Lt Col to Col is to be increased from current 35-38% to about 55-60% with additional vacancies of Colonels who will also enter the ‘staff only’ stream currently reserved for rank of Maj Gen. That will enable ‘command and staff’ stream officers to be placed in command as Colonels in about 18 years of service after serving a tenure in staff. It will reduce the Colonel to Brig/Maj Gen service gap and allow more senior Colonels to command as the perception about very young Commanding Officers (COs) has not been as positive as had been contemplated.

The entire issue of promotion to the first select rank of Colonel is an important one in light of the anguish within the officer cadre regarding the distribution of vacancies in 2008-9. In the last cadre review majority of the vacancies were allotted through a skewed formula which gave an undue quantum of vacancies to certain Arms leaving other Arms and the Services with very few, thus drastically reducing the percentages for approval for promotion for them. This caused much heart burning and rise inlegal cases. The decision by the Committee on Cadre Review to recommend more vacancies and hopefully a more equitable formula for distribution will give a far better chance to officers to be promoted to the first select rank. It will also reduce non-empanelment (NE) for promotion and therefore lesser liability to carry NE officers in the system. The Committee has also recommended measures for improvement of efficiency of these officers.Time Scale (TS) Col for non-empanelled (NE) Lt Cols in 23 yrs and TS Brig for NE Cols one year before their retirement is under consideration.

The Army appears willing to take a notional cut of 4500 from its authorized strength of 49000 officers, to cater for enhanced cadre strength at senior ranks. A plethora of measures is being considered to optimize the use of available strength of officers. Merger of the sub area HQ with the corps HQ and 20 percent reduction of officers at Delhi is under consideration with pruning of the Army HQ. There is likely to be a small cut in authorized strength of even frontline units to enable a final pruning of up to 100,000 all ranks from the current authorization.   The idea of doing away with the HQ sub area will unduly burden the Corps HQ at a time when issues such as land and environment are likely to continue bedeviling us.

Integrated HQ of the MoD (Army)

Among the changes here are the long pending ones such as winding up Directorate General of Military Training(DGMT) and leaving the field to the HQ ARTRAC with a small liaison team at Delhi. A third Deputy Chief of the Army Staff (DCOAS) is likely to be introduced on lines of the former Chief of the General Staff (CGS) with charter of taking the DGMO, DGMIand DGOL under his ambit. The DGMO currently being a Principal Staff Officer (PSO) will have to revert to DG status. More changes of lesser importance are also on the cards.

Expectedly there are some serious observations on the recommendations of the committees, many of which are due to the sheer exhaustive quantum of recommendations and the inability of many to fully comprehend them. The terms and conditions of JCOs/OR are being commented upon in the observations below. Among some of these are:-

Two distinct hierarchical Military Ranks(Brigs & Maj Gens in this case) cannot be placed in same Pay Level 14. Wearing Maj Gen’s ranks in Service HQ but that of Brig on Deputation is likely to resultin down-gradation of Maj Gens.

Presently SAG & above Posts in Army are not even 1% (Lt Gen/Gen- 0.2% &Maj Gen- 0.6%) while in most of Group A Services these range from 20% to 35%.Even after proposed restructuring, above mentioned situation for commissionedofficers will remain unchanged or improve only marginally. In light of this pursuing the Non Functional Financial Upgradation (NFFU) system through the legal route is recommended by most.

The severest observation in the environment appears against the unwillingness to pursue with the government any proposal to reduce the strength of defence civilians whose strength stands at almost 650,000 and specifically that of the Armed Forces HQ Cadre who will be the indirect beneficiary of the cut in strength of officers from Army HQ.

Although promotion approval rates to first select rank of Colonel are being enhanced those from Col to Brig/Maj Genare likely to reduce from current 35-38% to about 25-30%. Although it has been said that 80 officers per batch are likely to make Brig/Maj Gen in rank continuity more needs to be proved how this progression will succeed in vacancy creation. It is hoped that necessary statistical modelling has been resorted to establish this assumption.

In soldiers’ terms and conditions a major change appears to be the proposal not to count the period of training towards pension thus forcing an additional year in service and some initial saving. To obviate early exit in order to seek a second pension from the Defence Security Corps (DSC) the second pension facility is being stopped. Both steps are being considered retrograde.

There are enough experts in the ranks of the veteran community who have researched pay and allowances plus pension to a great extent. They appear peeved that none of their expertise was tapped for the study on career and pay/pension related issues. They also perceive that the Committee on Review of Terms of Engagement of JCOs/OR lacked the expertise and has based its recommendations with the sole purpose of reducing budgetary requirement.

As stated earlier the restructuring hopefully with an eye towards transformation is yet at proposal stage. The one negative in all this is that the leadership hopes to commence restructuring in 2019 with a drastically short doctrinal   test in a single exercise with troops and war game. This is unlikely to deliver optimum results because the proposed changes are actually a drastic overhaul of structures.

Not everything under change is being viewed positively by the experienced veteran community which also drives public opinion, especially the tampering with ranks and terms of service. The prevailing perception is that it is being driven more by the Government’s unreasonable attitude and lack of understanding of professional needs which the Army leadership has been unable to resist. Not the best way of going about it but under the circumstances a creditable attempt thatwill need more refinement.A deeper consultation exercise with experts will definitely result in greater optimization.

Military Affairs