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Opinion | Defence matters: Military muscle, and dealing with the flab

Teeth to Tail Ratio is generally perceived to be the ratio of combatants to support personnel.

opinion Updated: Sep 01, 2017 11:21 IST
Lt Gen NS Brar (retd)
Lt Gen NS Brar (retd)
Defence matters,Military muscle,combatants
The entities being addressed — military farms, postal services and base workshops — are all predominantly, if not entirely, manned by civilian non-combatants who cannot be assigned combat roles. (Representative image )

The announcement of redeploying 57,000 personnel for combat duties as recommended by the Shekatkar Committee — which was tasked “to ensure India’s combat capabilities and potential are enhanced, with a better teeth-to-tail combat ratio, and to re-balance the overall defence expenditure in view of the escalating salary and pension bills” — is said to be far-reaching. The Prime Minister had wanted the military to be “agile, mobile and driven by technology”. As conveyed publicly, it was to cut the “flab”. While the objective is laudable, and desirable, the approach may not produce any tangible results.

The entities being addressed — military farms, postal services and base workshops — are all predominantly, if not entirely, manned by civilian non-combatants who cannot be assigned combat roles. The saving on their establishment costs would need to be redirected towards meeting the outsourcing costs, because such services cannot be dispensed with. Undoubtedly, the military farms would release substantial land which, having been engulfed by urbanisation, constitutes prime real estate. As to how this land will be handled and utilised is another matter.

Military force structuring and budgetary allocation are centred on two yardsticks: ‘Teeth to Tail Ratio’ and ‘Revenue to Capital Expenditure’. National security is ultimately a question of evaluating security threats and national interests, and deciding on capabilities to meet or secure them. Capabilities in turn mean expenditure. The first must take the shape of a ‘Strategic Defence Review’ and define our military capabilities to be created and maintained. As this is over the long term, corresponding long-term budgetary commitments have also to be stated. In our context, we are unique in never having formally articulated our security concerns and how we intend to address them. The unilateral cut in the induction of Rafale fighters and putting on hold and then scaling down the raising of the mountain strike corps — both requirements originally arrived at after a decade of debate — are symptomatic of the absence of such an approach. Stephen Cohen, an authority on South East Asia and the Indian Armed Forces, sums it up in his book, ‘Arming Without Aiming’.

What needs pruning

Teeth to Tail Ratio is generally perceived to be the ratio of combatants to support personnel. Besides the uniformed support services, the vast manpower embedded in the defence support establishments — Defence Research and Development Organisation, Director General of Defence Estates, Director General of Quality Assurance, Ordnance Factory Board, ordnance factories, defence public sector undertakings and so on – all forming part of the defence expenditure — need to be taken into account. This ‘tail’ too needs major pruning and restructuring. Interestingly, defence civilians account for 40% of the defence pension budget. The recommendations of the committee on these structures is unlikely to see implementation.

In our context, the army is invariably seen as a manpower-heavy organisation fit for cutting ‘flab’ and therefore defence revenue expenditure. It is not well appreciated that our security commitments, emanating primarily from unsettled borders, and the role of the army are manpower-intensive. This will only increase post-Doklam.

Given the requirement of maintaining a young age profile of the forces, and consequent retirement of a large proportion between 35 and 45 years of age, one of the repeated recommendations which could affect substantial savings is inducting this manpower laterally into the central police organisations such as BSF, CRPF and SSB. This would provide trained manpower and defer the military pension commitment for 15-25 years as also cut the overall pension commitment. This forms part of the committee recommendations.

In light of the cut

The perceived imbalance in the other area related to revenue-vs-capital expenditure is due to our overall allotment for defence declining in real terms over the years and the corresponding expenditure on maintenance (pay, pension, fuel) progressively increasing. The defence budget this year is the lowest in GDP terms since 1962. The ratio of revenue to capital expenditure thus appears disproportionate. The Kargil operation with the army chief stating, “We will fight with what we have,” said it all.

The decade of the 1980s saw the highest defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP. With no systematic acquisitions and replacements for the next three decades, the balloon of equipment turning obsolete and requiring substantial capital expenditure stares us in the face today. Depleting fighter strength of the air force and submarines of the navy are publically acknowledged. Shortages in ammunition and war-like stores leading to “hollowness” in war wastage reserves in the armed forces are revenue expenditures adding to the perception of excessive demands for revenue expenditure. Rationalising the classification of expenditure heads would perhaps give a truer picture of defence expenditure.

This committee is not the first and certainly not the last. All have recommended major structural changes and refining budgetary approach to defence spending. Needless to say, their implementation has been half-hearted and selective, if at all. Incremental tinkering is unlikely to make it “agile, mobile and driven by technology”. That will require political will.

(The writer is a former deputy chief of integrated defence staff. Views expressed are his personal.)

First Published: Sep 01, 2017 11:18 IST