Facing a China with an increasingly capable military, and a potential two-front collusive threat, there is an urgent need for Indian security planners to rethink the tasking of the Indian Army. The Army’s long-standing commitment to counterinsurgency is so expensive that it makes it difficult to undertake the modernisation needed for dealing with a far more threatening external security environment.

A key question that India’s defence planners need to ask is: What is the purpose of the Indian Army? The Army considers its primary task to be defending the country against external threats. That is how it trains and what it equips itself for. But over the last several decades, its actual deployment and operations have been heavily skewed towards dealing with internal security, specifically counterinsurgency operations, mostly in the Kashmir Valley. Internal security duties were traditionally the secondary task, and while it remains so formally, it is now threatening the primary mission.

The Indian Army was always aware of this problem, and for a long time, sought to reduce its role in internal security duties. As the Army saw it, its task was protecting Indian citizens, not fighting them. Though the Army began engaging in counterinsurgency duties from the 1950s onwards, the commitment increased dramatically in the 1980s, with new insurgencies breaking out in several northeastern states, and of course Kashmir, later in the decade. In addition to these duties, the Army also found itself fighting a difficult war against the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, even if this was mercifully (relatively) short.

The situation today is even worse. While the Army internal security commitments have not reduced by much, the external pressure is now far greater. In addition to the old commitment to the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan, the Army is looking at a permanent forward deployment along a tense Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China.

A leaner, advanced PLA

Two additional developments make the situation even worse. First, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is now a far more formidable adversary, honed by better technology that a richer China can afford, and rebuilt to be a far leaner force. And China has been experimenting with different organisational structures that are presumably designed to make the PLA much more of a scalpel than a blunt hammer for the political leadership in Beijing. On the one hand, we don’t know how all of this will actually pan out in an actual war, and whether the PLA will be an effective tool. The PLA’s greatest weakness is its lack of recent combat experience. On the other hand, it is probably safer and more prudent to assume the PLA will perform well rather than hope it will not.

The second problem is the likelihood of a China-Pakistan collusive threat. Both China’s growing military capacity and its soaring ambitions should force a reconsideration of the chances of such cooperation. China has traditionally been more talk than action, as Pakistan found out in 1965 and 1971. But note also that Chinese military capabilities then were far poorer, relative both to today’s PLA, and more importantly, the Indian army. Both intentions and capabilities make such collusion far more likely today than it was earlier. That this is likelier does not mean that it is likely. A prudent Indian military planner cannot afford to ignore this contingency.

Paramilitary forces should step in

One way to deal with this problem of matching growing external security requirements is for the Indian Army to shed its internal security commitments. Ideally, the Army should never have been used to handle domestic counterinsurgency tasks. Today, the Indian central paramilitary forces under the Ministry of Home Affairs are over a million strong, including the Assam Rifles. This is only slightly smaller than the Indian Army’s total strength of about 1.2 million. Though this includes many different paramilitary forces, including those like the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) that is tasked with protecting installations, it should be possible to enhance more general forces such as the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) to handle counterinsurgency tasks. Some components of the CRPF and each of the other six paramilitary forces do engage in counterinsurgency duties. The CRPF developed a separate force called the CoBRA, primarily focused on counterinsurgency, though they are mostly used to tackling Maoist insurgents. In other words, these paramilitary forces are not intrinsically incapable of engaging in such tasks. Given different training and tasking, paramilitary forces should be able to handle counterinsurgency.

This was the original idea behind developing the Rashtriya Rifles in the 1990s, deployed mostly in Kashmir. The idea was to build a capable civilian paramilitary force that would be bolstered by some Army officers, so that the Army could be largely freed from these onerous tasks. Unfortunately, long squabbles over budgeting (the force was originally planned to be under the MHA) and command has meant that it has become an entirely Army manned force. From becoming a device to allow the Army to extricate itself from counterinsurgency duties, it has become the anchor for the Army’s counterinsurgency tasking.

Something has to give

There are additional reasons also why Indian security planners should seriously consider getting the Army out of counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency is troop-intensive, especially the way the Indian Army practises it. Unlike many others who emphasise overwhelming firepower, the Indian Army prefers to smother violence by blanketing troubled areas with troops. This makes eminent sense, because it reduces the levels of violence that are unleashed on the civilian population. But this does require large numbers to be effective. Considering that there is unlikely to be an immediate change to the insurgencies in either Kashmir or the northeast, India is looking at a difficult long-term commitment.

Such troop-intensive tasking means that the Army cannot undertake the necessary technological modernisation. Not surprisingly, Indian defence budgets are increasingly drowning in pension and personnel costs, leaving little aside for modernisation of any of the Services.

Something has to give. India cannot afford to devote its Army to counterinsurgency to the extent it does now and meet the growing external challenges unless it wants to completely break its budget. Alternatively, and more sensibly, India’s security managers should consider getting the Army out of counterinsurgency and handing that task to state forces and central paramilitaries.