Given the state of the economy and the proverbial ‘guns versus butter’ dilemma in a developing country, India’s defence budget is unlikely to increase in the near future. To compound the problem, the revenue expenditure and the pension bill have increased manifold, leaving very little for capital expenditure, thus adversely affecting military modernisation.

Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat and the Service chiefs are endeavouring to optimise the utilisation of the defence budget by reducing the revenue expenditure to correspondingly increase the capital expenditure. The focus has been to reduce manpower, pension bill, bring in austerity measures and curtail diversion of personnel for internal non-military duties.

The Army has come up with a slew of proposals in this regard in its report — Optimisation of Manpower and Resources: Review of Practices and Facilities in Indian Army. Also, the CDS has proposed an increase in the retirement age to save on pensions as a short-term measure and disincentives for officers seeking premature retirement.

However, what seems to be missing is a top-down holistic long-term approach, based on a strategic review. These are, at best, short-term incremental measures that, in some cases, also tend to impinge on the ethos and functional efficiency of the armed forces. Some of these proposals will also have an adverse effect on the attraction of the armed forces as an elite organisation with in-built perks and privileges financed out of regimental (quasi private) funds. In some cases, the proposals impinge on fundamental issues such as maintaining a young profile and stagnation in promotions.

Apart from the suggestions in the ‘Optimisation’ report, the forces and the government can also look at the following measures to save costs and re-route funds into modernisation.

Optimisation of manpower and resources
The report proposesto amalgamate the multiple messes, of units permanently located in peace stations, into a station mess. However, units and headquarters that move from peace to field tenures would still be able to retain their officers’ mess. This is an existing policy from the early 1970s, which was not implemented in letter and spirit. However, manpower and cost-saving would be marginal if this proposal is implemented. The proposal runs away from a more radical and egalitarian reform of doing away with officers’ mess altogether and having a common mess for all ranks as has been done by all modern armies. Officers’ mess is a colonial legacy, exclusively focussed to build regimental spirit among officers. They promote an elitist leadership style with social distancing from soldiers when ‘off parade’. These act as a repository for preservation of regimental history and memorabilia. Their existence also led to creation of Sergeant/ JCO messes. Disproportionate regimental funds are spent to maintain them. The combined authorised/diverted manpower in these two categories of messes is nearly 10 personnel per unit. With nearly a thousand units/headquarters across the country, the net savings by doing away with Officer/JCO Messes would be minimum 10,000 personnel. This will also help to bridge the social gap between the leaders and the led.
All infantry/mechanised infantry /Assam Rifles units maintain pipes and drums bands with personnel of the medical platoon (1 JCO and 18 OR) whose rolein a battle is to act as stretcher-bearers to evacuate casualties. These personnel are also locally trained as battlefield nursing assistants. The report proposes to optimise the number of bands per station, which in my view is a non-starter due to the turnover of units. Modern first aid in battle is carried out by soldiers/buddies. Casualties are picked up by helicopters right from the front. Nineteen men, authorised in the medical platoon, in mountains can barely carry two/three casualties. In modern armies, there are no authorised medical platoons or bands. During parades, volunteer soldiers act as bandsmen or recorded music is used. Doing away with all such bands and reducing the medical platoon to 8 battlefield nursing assistants will result in saving nearly 5,000 personnel. Bands can still be maintained by volunteers as is done by other armies.
The report proposes to discontinue the practice of each unit maintaining its own canteen in peace stations and replace themwith an optimum number of station-run canteens with civilian employees. This measure will certainly prevent the diversion of manpower from military activity. The profit, 1-2 per cent, on sale is the primary source of regimental funds to finance a host of regimental activities, perks and privileges which cannot be covered by official grants. In fact, contrary to popular perception, the glitter and elitism of the armed forces is not financed by the government, but by regimental funds. I am sure the Army will weigh the pros and cons before a final decision.
Some of the other proposalslike doing away with Army/Territorial Army Day parades; ceremonial quarter guards; use of outriders; residential guards, will certainly prevent diversion of manpower from military duties. However, these will impact the visible image of the Army.
It may have been beyond the scope of the above-mentioned study, but the Army needs to critically examine its organisations to save on manpower. A case in point is the authorisation of safaimen (1 per 100) washermen (1 per 100) and equipment and boot repairers (1 per 200). The number of such staff in the Army alone must be close to 20,000. There is no such authorisation of such personnel in modern armies. Soldiers share the duties of cleaning, and take care of their own washing and ironing. Personal equipment is replaced, not repaired. Doing away with the concept of sahayaks will save what is spent on another 20,000-25,000 personnel.

A closer look at our unit organisations shows that the manpower authorised is 25-30 per cent more than similar units in other modern armies. The logic of our “unique terrain”, “unsettled borders” and commitment to counter-insurgency operations does not withstand ethical scrutiny. More so, when 50 per cent of our Army is committed in the plains.

Increase in retirement age
In a major step towards reducing the pension bill, a draft Government Sanction Letter has been prepared by the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), proposing to increase the retirement age of JCOs and OR in Logistics, Technical and Medical branches — Electronics and Mechanical Engineers, the Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps and Army Medical Corps — to 57 years. At present the retirement age varies from 42 to 52 years for various ranks. This proposal will certainly make a dent in the pension bill and retain trained manpower for a longer duration, but it will also result in stagnation of promotions for a long time and lead to an ageing logistic support for a young combat Army. While these soldiers are not in frontline combat, they have to be prepared for all combat tasks in the event of enemy raids or terrorist action. I seriously doubt the ability of soldiers above the age of 50 to withstand the rigours of high-altitude and counter-insurgency environment.

In the case of officers, the DMA has proposed increasing the retirement age of Colonels from 54 to 57 years, for Brigadiers from 56 to 58 and for Major Generals from 58 to 59. The same is applicable to equivalent ranks in other Services. In my view, the only adverse impact of this proposal is stagnation that it will bring about stagnation in promotions because the number of vacancies for each rank are fixed.

It has also been proposed that the pension be reduced, which is 50 per cent of the last pay drawn for those seeking premature retirement on completion of pensionable service of 20 or more years. In such cases, the pension would be reduced by 50 per cent for 20-25 years of service, 40 per cent for 26-30 years of service and 25 per cent for 31-35 years of service. Personnel taking premature retirement on completion of 35 years and above service will not face any reduction. In my view, this would be a retrograde step in a pyramidical organisation and vindictive towards officers who have given their best to the Army. More so, when the grant of premature retirement is at the government’s discretion and the saving is marginal.

Need for a holistic approach
While the various measures proposed to reduce manpower and the pension bill are laudable, it seems that these are incremental reforms and the armed forces are shying away from radical reforms. All armed forces have been through similar problems and overcame the same by ruthlessly reviewing their structures and organisations.

It was also concluded by most modern armies that a short service scheme for both soldiers and officers without pension, but with incentives like one time gratuity and preference for civilian jobs, is the best solution to reduce the pension bill and stagnation in promotions. Ironically, such schemes were in vogue in our armed forces for a long time. However, our focus on welfare and obsession with retention of trained manpower, led to their termination/dilution. This has been the main cause of the spiralling of the pension bill.

It is time the CDS and the Service chiefs review the structure and organisations of the armed forces to reduce manpower and also come up with viable incentive-driven short-service scheme for officers and soldiers. Two-thirds of the manpower must be covered by this scheme. The former will reduce the manpower by 25-30 per cent and the latter, the pension, bill by two-thirds.