For those not in the know, there is this story of two druggies snorting next to a river bank and hallucinating. One suggests why we don’t buy land here. The other asks why, so the first guy says we will plant mango trees and when they grow up and bear fruit, we can sell mangoes to this village you can see; which will make us both very rich. Both like the idea and snort some more, but then doubts begin to arise. So, one guy asks what happens if the villagers steal our mangoes and ‘chupo’ (suck) them? This makes them very angry and in their agitated state they go to the village after dark and set the village on fire in the night. The angry villagers ask them why they have done so, to which their retort is “aur chupo hamare mangoes” – for sucking our mangoes !
The need to elucidate the above is with reference to the media news that Indian Army plans to cut 50,000 troops in the next two years and over another 1.5 lakhs over the next five years; “Army Chief General Bipin Rawat wants a leaner, meaner and more technology driven army with fewer troops, envisaging a cut by 150,000-200,000 troops from the current 1.2 million plus force”. Whether the ultimate aim is cut 200,000 manpower is not certain but let us keep the figure at 150,000. While the report talks of merger of certain directorates at Army Headquarters level and changes in the logistics setup amongst other issues, it also goes on to say ‘some of the cuts will be from infantry but with India rapidly modernizing and technology at disposal there are sections of the force that are less relevant today’.
This sets one thinking what on earth are cuts envisaged in the Infantry considering infantry’s current engagements and conflict requirements of the foreseeable future. Media says this is the first time Army has ordered a study to cut down manpower, which is untrue, because a study to prune the Army strength by 52,000 troops was also ordered when General VP Malik was the Army Chief. Studies and periodic reviews are certainly good and must be undertaken but in doing so, should the previous studies and recommendations not be analyzed to draw out parameters and lessons as the start point for the fresh study? To think that examining and analyzing previous such studies would bias the study group is avoiding hard work and adopting the Ostrich approach; or do we consider that our predecessors were all fools.
The abovementioned study to cut down Army strength by 52,000 was done by HQ Central Command, which also seriously examined how to prune down the strength of infantry battalions. While the deliberations were on, even cutting down the barber strength in the infantry battalion was discussed – bringing them down to just two; this can be termed ridiculous but cutting down infantry battalion strength ‘anywhere’ simply means cutting down the ‘bayonet strength’ of the battalion. For public knowledge, the barber too is authorized a weapons as there are no more ‘non-combatant employees’ in the Indian Army. Point to understand is that for the sake of discussion even reducing a barber-combatant rather than rifleman was debated. The overall study had concluded that it was not possible to slash down the Army strength by 52,000 leave aside reducing strength of the infantry battalions.
So the question is that over the past two decades since the study to prune Army by 52,000 had recommended no cuts in strength of infantry battalions, has the commitments of infantry decreased, remained at par or increased? It needs no intelligence to deduce that it has increased and will keep rising – enough evidence of which is in public domain. Hopefully we are not planning to say do away company headquarters (on lines of eliminating divisional headquarters) and let the battalion commanders command platoons. Whatever the armchair pundits are up to, cutting down the bayonet strength of the infantry battalion will be foolish. For that matter the concept of having three rifle companies instead of four rifle companies has also been debated umpteen times. What will be the bayonet strength ‘available ultimately’ to the battalion commander is what matters at all times; leaving out manpower on leave, courses, temporary duties and the like.
This gibberish that technology-driven Army can afford to cut down manpower and concept of ‘smart soldier’ must be related to the ground realities of what is the current state of equipping of the Army. Can we identify what are those technologies that we are talking about that can help reduce manpower, and most importantly, in what time-frame are these technologies going to be fielded and available to soldiers? With the type of budgetary allocations, the Army has already admitted that some 25 ongoing programs would have to be shut down. Were all these not technology-driven and related to Army’s modernization? Is the soldier with well-creased uniform to be considered ‘smart’; even when he is inadequately equipped in terms of firepower, surveillance, navigation, survival and mobility. Can we say do away with Intelligence Section in infantry battalions just because DRDO will give the battalion odd MAVs in next 3-5 years?
Should we not first let the technologies be fielded before talking of technology-driven Army? Isaac Asimov who talked of space travel, solar systems and landing on the moon can’t strictly be termed ‘Mungeri Lal’ because he was dreamer whose dreams came true albeit after decades. He could let his imagination run wild but the Army must be practical to the core. Recommendations for cuts in strength of infantry battalions, if any, must come from a commanding officers presently in command (preferably deployed in counter-insurgency environment), not from higher ranked officers who may or may not have commanded infantry battalions; who may recommend changes for the sake of making changes to please the hierarchy. On face value it would be prudent to leave the infantry battalion alone least we land up in the ‘Aur Chupo’ Syndrome with adverse operational consequences for all times to come.
It is understood from news reports that the four studies related to restructuring of the Army are to be discussed at the Army Commanders Conference in October 2018. With reference to the technology-driven Army bit, it would be good if the study group presentations start with what is the present state technology in the Army, introduction what new technologies is ‘actually’ visualized over the next five years, and how do such technologies relate to cutting down manpower?