Indian Army's transformation process has begun, but it needs to be a progression rather than a one-time act

Probably stung by poor perceptional response on the intended changes to the army’s structure in different domains, its leadership decided to go transparent and brief the army veteran community on what exactly it was attempting and how. A good decision no doubt in today’s environment when disinformation is so easy and holding backing unclassified information is unproductive. However, a degree of clarity on a few issues is necessary before a brief description and analysis of some of the intended change.

Transformation is not something achieved in a year or two; it’s an ongoing process which spans several years and takes into account the national functional environment, changing nature of conflict, threats, material resource availability, emerging technology, suitability of existing doctrine, quality of human intake, training needs and logistics, among other domains. This must not be confused with restructuring, a terminology being loosely used today. Restructuring by itself is at best a part of the transformation process. The Indian Army, inspired by the US exercise of transforming itself into the digital-information age after the First Gulf War, attempted such an exercise beginning 2005. However, it could force no traction with the political leadership and an unsupportive bureaucracy. The first exercise in attempted transformation led to some accretions as part of Plans, but that was about all. A major accretional sanction it could achieve was for the Mountain Strike Corps (MSC), 90,000 strong at an estimated cost of Rs 65,000 crore. However, transformation itself found no takers. In the face of lack of budgetary support, even the MSC was later virtually shelved.

In the light of the above and escalating threats in which two front war and more have become a reality, especially after Doka La, somehow the Army has been unable to convince the political leadership of the need for suitable budget support to create the right deterrence and dissuasion which it aims to achieve against its adversaries. A notion appears to prevail among the non-uniformed, including the political leadership, diplomatic community and bureaucracy that conventional threats are passé and hybrid conflict is the flavour of the day. It is usually forgotten that deterrence through conventional military strength caters for the far end of the conflict spectrum while responding in the hybrid domain which is many times an ongoing phenomenon in varying intensity.

The current exercise initiated by the army leadership is indeed a bold attempt to overcome many of the imponderables in the face of poor perception about the nature of threats. It is currently a restructuring effort and will hopefully eventually progress into a transformation, going by my earlier explanation of the two terms. What is important is that the leadership is attempting to do a large number of things in a short period to overcome many of the anomalies which have piled up over time. The immediate backdrop study is the Shekatkar Committee Report of 2016, but it is heartening to see that a plethora of past reports, including the VK Singh Report on transformation, have been examined. Each such report is a wealth of analysis of that time with an eye on the future which is already the time we are living in. Many of the unactioned thoughts and ideas gain relevance even with changing context.

Four theme based committees have been formed, each under a Lt Gen, with terms of reference. These are — reorganising and optimisation with an aim of transforming the Indian Army, reorganization of the army HQ, cadre review of officers and review of terms of engagement of other ranks (OR). Each of them deserves a separate analytical piece but this analysis is a generic one to get a measure of understanding before more is written specifically on each study.

Obviously, two things are driving the entire exercise which the army chief appears to have correctly assessed as core to his current concern. First is the low budgetary support with no apparent assurance of any assuaging of the perception prevailing in the army. Second is the dilution in status of ranks of officers and the relative deprivation in terms of promotion prospects for all ranks across the board compared to the civil services, an issue snowballing to greater acrimony. Very interestingly, unlike in the past when the government approved a fixed increment of promotion vacancies as part of cadre review and the army doing the fitment by looking for appointments for upgradation, this time, the reverse seems true.

Doctrinally proactive strategy, a euphemism for Cold Start, requires progressive alteration in its capability to be effective. That is being attempted through the creation of Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) different from the current ones which are essentially based on loose grouping of a division and an armored brigade. What is being sought is a configuration with a permanent grouping of a mix of lesser number of infantry units along with some armored regiments, mechanised infantry and artillery units with dedicated and possibly assured communication, engineer and logistics support. This is the major change in the plains and desert creating a larger number of formations somewhere between a brigade and a division group thus enhancing the number of formations, increasing flexibility and reducing the headquarters (HQ) elements currently existing as the command and control body of each brigade and division. It’s a good thought since the number of contact points along the frontage automatically increase in an offensive operation in which a corps HQ directly controls the IBGs which will be under a Major General each, thus doing away for the need of Brigadier as a command rank. Something similar is being attempted in the mountains for offensive operations but two areas remain intact as they are. These are the Line of Control and the Strike Corps, clarity on which is yet missing. The rank of Brigadier will exist but there will be no selection board to become Maj Gen. Brigadiers will be automatically promoted to Major General rank after 2-3 years. Both ranks of Brigs and Maj Gens will be placed in same Pay Level 14. The army hopes to promote 80 officers per batch to Maj Gen, much above the current number, and thereby improve feasibility of more officers attaining the Senior Administrative Grade (SAG), although nowhere near the percentage achieved by the Civil Services.

Promotability from Lt Col to Col is to be increased from current 35-38 percent to about 55-60 percent with additional vacancies of Colonels who will also enter the “staff only” stream currently reserved for Maj Gen. That will enable “command and staff’ stream officers to be placed in command as Colonels in about 18 years of service after serving a tenure in staff. It will reduce the Colonel to Brigadier/Maj Gen service gap and allow more senior Colonels to command as the perception about very young Commanding Officers (COs) has not been as positive as had been contemplated. The army appears willing to take a notional cut of 4,500 from its authorised strength of 49,000 officers, to cater for enhanced cadre strength at senior ranks. A plethora of measures is being considered to optimise the use of available strength of officers. Merger of the sub area HQ with the corps HQ and 20 percent reduction of officers at Delhi is under consideration with pruning of the army HQ. There is likely to be a small cut in authorised strength of even frontline units to enable a pruning of up to 100,000 all ranks from the current authorisation.

As stated earlier, the restructuring hopefully with an eye towards transformation is yet at proposal stage. The one negative in all this is that the leadership hopes to commence restructuring in 2019 with a drastically short doctrinal test in a single exercise with troops and war game. This is unlikely to deliver optimum results because the proposed changes are actually a drastic overhaul of structures.

Not everything under change is being viewed positively by the experienced veteran community which also drives public opinion, especially the tampering with ranks and terms of service. The prevailing perception is that it is being driven more by the government’s unreasonable attitude and lack of understanding of professional needs which the army leadership has been unable to resist. Not the best way of going about it but under the circumstances a creditable attempt, which needs more refinement.