Opting for lean and mean armies

July 25, 2012

(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Reuters)

The British army is being cut to size, or perhaps, being stripped to its bones. The British defence secretary has announced a 20 percent cut, reducing its strength to 82,000 combatants by the end of the decade.

The British expect to retain the ability to field only one expeditionary force of a brigade group for protracted periods, and given support by allies, up to a division for non-enduring exigencies. Even if all their wishes were to come true, the British army will more than reflect the shrinking of the British Empire. Contrast the British story to the goings-on in Asia. The Chinese army boasts a strength of 2.3 million. In India, the armed forces are over 1.3 million.

A few years ago, Indians announced the raising of two new divisions for the eastern theatre. Apparently, the way the concept of lean and mean forces is being addressed in continents oceans apart couldn’t be more different.

However, an analysis of parameters to be met before cutting down forces needs to be undertaken before cuts in force levels are applied to the Indian army.

The British do not share land borders with inimical countries. In fact, like all big powers they deploy forces far beyond borders to keep the homeland secure. India faces threats across its borders from Pakistan and China.

Further, these borders run over some of the steepest mountain ranges, where evicting an enemy is extremely costly even with overwhelming fire power. It leads to manning posts all along the line of control supported by fail-proof logistics. Some examples of such terrain and deployment are Siachen and Kargil.

The British philosophy also seems deeply embedded in the guaranteed involvement of Americans, support from NATO and the provisions of EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy. Indians have to fight their own battles — at best, aided in terms of material resources, intelligence sharing, diplomatic support, etc., but definitely not boots on ground.

The British armed forces cater for modernisation in spite of the cuts. The Americans will surely provide full spectrum technology support that they will require to fight in a battlefield spread over land, sea, air, space and cyber domains. The Indian army has huge backlogs even in the areas of replacement of ageing equipment.

Technology enhances combat potential exponentially, while technological superiority over an adversary can degrade the opponent’s potential critically. The Americans bombed Iraq at will, barely losing an aircraft to hostile fire or Iraqi air force, while grinding Saddam’s elite Republican Guards to dust.

The budgets for techno-savvy, agile and flexible forces also need a deliberate look. The U.S. military budget is over $600 billion for its forces and overseas contingencies. The UK spent $59 billion in 2011 while even the opaque Chinese accounting allows an estimated $100 billion in 2011. The Indian treasury coughed up a mere $36 billion in 2011.

Even if Indian forces induct technology aggressively, the nature of threats, terrain and multiplicity of tasks call for a large standing army, albeit technologically matching its prime opponents at least. Insurgencies require boots, as the Americans learnt in Afghanistan. For Indians, with insurgencies being within the country, the tolerance for collateral damage is zero, with boots replacing firepower. Numbers also remain relevant in the Indian context till budgets allow a technology leap.

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