Army Chief Bipin Rawat’s grand plans need course correction in order to succeed

While Indian Army chief General Bipin Rawat has planned a virtual transformation with ambitious military reforms, they may misfire given the fundamental flaws in his approach. Such reforms have been pushed after four decades—and deserve course correction in order to succeed.

In this piece, I discuss the flaws and how General Rawat can prevent his transformation from being a non-starter.

What Is Military Reform?

The process of military reforms is a continuum with reviews necessitated by emerging threats, changing patterns of conflicts and new technology. When the change in these factors is very radical, it calls for transformation or Revolution in Military Affairs (RIMA)—an all encompassing military theoretical hypothesis about the future of warfare connected with technological, structural and organisational changes to enable the armed forces to fight wars of the future.

General K.V. Krishna Rao and General Sundarji planned transformational reforms in the late 1970s which were largely executed in the 1980s. The political and military leadership were on the same wicket and the required budget was made available. What the Indian Army is today is based on these reforms, even though due to subsequent budgetary constraints, 15-20 per cent of the objectives are still to be achieved.

The Rawat RIMA

General Rawat has taken it upon himself to ‘sell’ the reforms not only to the Army’s rank and file, but also to the media, defence analysts and veterans.

He has tasked his top brass with discussing, analysing, formalising and, where necessary, testing the envisaged reforms.

In his own words, the aim of the reforms is ‘to be better prepared for future warfare by strengthening our capabilities, become more efficient and better manage our budgetary allocations.’

Four time-bound studies are nearing finalisation to make recommendations with respect to the creation of an agile and operationally effective field force capable of fighting a hybrid war across the entire spectrum of conflict. The agenda includes the restructuring of the Army Headquarters, maintaining a youthful profile for the officer cadre, and formulation of optimum terms of engagement and colour service for Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) and Other Ranks (ORs).

It is premature to speculate about the final recommendations but the hierarchy is committed to downsizing/rightsizing the Army by shedding 1,00,000 – 1,50,000 soldiers to reduce the burden on the revenue budget.

By far the most far-reaching reform is envisaged in restructuring of the field formations. Divisions and Brigades, part of the conventional armies for 200 years, are being merged to create mission and terrain specific all-arms Integrated Battle Groups which will operate directly under the Corps Headquarters.

Taking It From The Top

Logically, reforms with respect to national security are a top-down process—they begin with a ‘strategic review’ carried out by the government. This leads to the formulation or revision of the national security strategy encompassing all measures, diplomatic, economic and military, the government needs to undertake to secure the nation.

The government then budgets and creates the wherewithal to implement the national security strategy. For the military, it formulates the force development strategy. In consultation with the armed forces, the government decides the broad size and composition of the force, budgets for it, and leaves it to the military to develop the strategy.

Transformational reforms for our elephantine army have been a subject close to my heart, in and out of the Army. I salute the Army chief for initiating the process for RIMA. However, there is a fundamental flaw in his approach and all his efforts will come to naught if course correction is not carried out.

RIMA Threatens To Be A Non-Starter

If RIMA is to succeed, it must be government-owned, tri-service in nature and the defence minister should be its prime mover. Without a formal national security strategy on which is contingent the force development strategy and firm long-term financial commitment from the government, RIMA is non-starter. In our case, none of these aspects is formalised and, financially, RIMA is not on the government’s radar.

When you downsize/rightsize to reduce manpower, it has to be replaced with high-end technology—a costly exercise. Therefore, in the absence of the above prerequisites, General Rawat’s plan will remain a standalone exercise for internal restructuring/reorganisation without technology infusion and nothing more.

In the last six months, despite endless coverage of the RIMA in the media, not a word has been spoken on the subject by the otherwise outspoken defence minister or the defence secretary who virtually functions as a de facto Chief of Defence Staff and is ‘responsible for the defence of India and the Armed Forces’, as per the Government of India (Transaction of Business) Rules 1961.

Fixing RIMA

However, there is a silver lining. Militaries rarely initiate reforms to reduce their size, even though they continue to clamour for higher budgets to modernise. The three chiefs must work together to make the RIMA a tri-service venture and prevail upon the government to own it. General Rawat’s earnest endeavour has also provided the media, public, defence analysts and the veterans with an opportunity to exert pressure on the government to initiate national security reforms.

We must not let this opportunity slip by.