In December 2016, Lieutenant General DB Shekatkar submitted a report to Manohar Parrikar, who as defence minister at the time, detailing bold reforms to give the Indian Army sharper teeth and a shorter tail.

In military parlance, “teeth” refers to combat capability while “tail” is the logistics support that sustains an army in combat. The report prepared by Shekatkar’s 11-member committee recommended cutting the “flab” by identifying outdated Army organisations through detailed performance audits.

Shekatkar has extensive combat experience, having served in the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan. He was also additional director general in the Directorate of Perspective Planning, which works on future plans for the Indian Army.

Parrikar moved to Goa as chief minister in March this year, leaving it to Arun Jaitley, the finance minister who was given the additional charge of defence, to try and implement the recommendations.

In mid-August, the government rolled out the first set of reforms, announcing that it was shutting down 39 military farms that had been in operation for nearly 140 years. These farms, set up by the British, were meant to supply quality food to the officers and men of the Army during peacetime and war. Today, when the military can easily procure food material from the market, these farms serve little practical purpose.

Leaner and meaner

The Indian Army has been trying to downsize at least since General VP Malik was the chief in the late 1990s. Malik had agreed to reduce the number of troops if it translated into more funds for acquiring modern weapons. The People’s Liberation Army of China is undergoing a similar reduction as its emphasis shifts from quality to quantity.

The Shekatkar committee looked at enhancing the Indian Army’s combat capabilities. In its report, the committee suggested that old institutions such as the National Cadet Corps should not be staffed by serving military personnel; they should instead be handed over to retired personnel. It also asked for the Corps be put under the human resource development ministry, so that the defence ministry can concentrate on war fighting.

Other organisations such as the Directorate General of Quality Assurance for carrying out quality checks, Ordnance Factory Board for developing and producing weapons, Border Roads Organisation, Defence Research and Development Organisation should undergo detailed audits to measure their efficacy, the report said. These have been found to be lax in carrying out their assigned tasks and being a drain on valuable resources.

In effect, this means that more positions will be transferred to the combat arms of the Army – infantry, armoured corps and artillery. “The wars of the future need greater mobility and soldiers who can interface with technology,” a serving Army general familiar with the Shekatkar committee’s recommendations, told “This will increase costs. Therefore, for better combat capability as well optimum resource utilisation, we need to change the current structure.”

Future wars

The committee noted that wars of the future would be technology intense, and will need specialisation in emerging areas such as cyber warfare as well as better electronic warfare capabilities. Shekatkar has sounded caution about “aping the West” for India’s needs, but advocated the need for the government to have single-point military advice. This means creating the post of Chief of Defence Staff, as was also recommended by the Kargil Review Committee after the war in 1999.

Shekatkar goes further and recommends setting up a joint warfare training institution to ensure personnel from the three services can train together as mid-career professionals and evolve joint warfare doctrines. Currently, the Indian military eschews the concept of theatre commands, unlike modern militaries such as that of the United States and China. In fact, China, which has long cherished joint warfare capabilities, has rejigged its military regions to give sharper focus to the military commanders to counter its perceived adversaries.

In India, the Army, Navy and Air Force operate separately, leading to waste of time and effort in developing and executing separate operational strategies. For instance, on the eastern front, the Army is headquartered in Kolkata, West Bengal; the Navy in Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh; and the Air Force in Shillong, Meghalya.

Future wars, army planners say, will be short and intense. This means greater damage to military infrastructure, necessitating the need for more combat personnel and greater resilience. Already, the expansion of the Special Forces over the last decade has shown the military how not to expand its combat capabilities. “Any expansion or change in roles needs equipment, training and tasking, but when the Special Forces were expanded by just converting battalions, it had the opposite effect,” a retired general and veteran of the Special Forces said. “Instead of enhancing combat capabilities, it reduced them to super infantry, which is clearly not its role. If the current conversion to a more modern and leaner military has to be achieved, then these pitfalls have to be avoided.”

In the mid-1980, the advent of advanced communication technologies revolutionised military thinking. Military strategists realised how better communication and transfer of vast amounts of data in real time could significantly enhance combat capabilities as well as expose new vulnerabilities. Those lessons and technologies changed the military forever. The current effort to transform the tradition-bound Indian military into a fighting force capable of conducting modern wars, far from its shores if need be, is long overdue.