General M.M. Naravane has taken over as army chief at a significant juncture in India’s defence history. In appointing his predecessor, General Bipin Rawat, as India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) on December 30, the government signalled it was ready to begin restructuring the defence ministry and integrating the three armed forces into a single command structure. These recommendations were made nearly two decades ago by the Kargil Review Committee, but remained unimplemented for reasons ranging from political lethargy to a status quo-ist, change-resistant system.
Seen from the standpoint of reform, General Naravane is now best placed to execute what he impli-citly believes in-preparing the world’s second-largest army to fight the wars of the future. “We aren’t modernising to fight past wars, we will be modernising to fight the next war,” he told a small group of media personnel in South Block two days after taking over as India’s 28th Chief of Army Staff. “Future wars are likely to be more technology-oriented, in the cyber domain, [involving] robotics and artificial intelligence that is what we are looking at.”
With General Rawat’s entry into the defence ministry as a full-fledged Secretary in the to-be-created Department of Military Affairs, the armed forces now have a hotline to political leaders. (Until now, the armed forces functioned only as attached offices to the defence ministry.) There is now hope that the military’s reform proposals will have swift passage through civilian bureaucracy and political leadership. However, bringing change to an institution that has remained almost unaltered since Independence will be a tough job. For instance, the Indian army remains one of the world’s largest users of mules and bayonets, an indicator of how much it needs to upgrade its resources and methods.
Commissioned in 1982, General Naravane is seen as an austere, low-profile officer with an impeccable reputation and impressive track record of command and staff appointments-General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Training Command and the Kolkata-based Eastern Command. He has voiced distaste for excessive ceremony: “It is needed only on important occasions like Army Day or investiture ceremonies-you don’t need to roll out red carpets during field firings,” he says.
“While [General Naravane’s] larger responsibilities of ensuring the training, welfare and morale of the army continue, a major part of his remit will be to work closely with the CDS to see how the army fits into the larger role,” says former army chief General V.P. Malik. General Naravane has affirmed he will continue the army’s reform process, begun nearly two years ago by General Rawat. These include the restructuring of the army headquarters in Delhi, creating lighter fighting formations called Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) and speeding up promotions for officers and soldiers.
The reforms are also mean to tackle the army’s budget crisis. At Rs 1.71 lakh crore, the army accounts for 56 per cent of the overall defence budget. However, over 87 per cent of the army’s budget is spent on revenue expenditure (running costs), including salaries. This year, for instance, the army could commit only 13 per cent of its budget toward buying new equipment.
The army’s basic responsibilities-defending India and assisting the government in maintaining law and order-have changed little since Independence. In recent years however, the army’s tasks have increased manifold. For instance, nearly a quarter of its forces are deployed in Jammu and Kashmir. This is to keep a lid on insurgency and to stem the flow of terrorists from across the border, while also guarding contested boundaries. The army has to keep its conventional edge over Pakistan and deter it from carrying out Kargil-type ‘misadventures’, while ‘dissuading’ China militarily along the 4,000-km-long disputed Line of Actual Control and making sure border incidents don’t spiral out of control. At the same time, it also has to continue its modernisation drive, procuring everything, from rifles and artillery to tanks and missiles. This array of tasks has given successive army chiefs-with limited tenures of three years or less-little time to focus on each of them.
That said, the military equation at the border has changed, somewhat dramatically in India’s favour, in the past three years. The border with China remains largely peaceful as the government engages the People’s Republic diplomatically, giving the army time to prepare defences, build up infrastructure and continue its policy of being firm in its resolve along the border. “You have to be assertive and not aggressive,” says General Naravane.
With two cross-border strikes-the commando raid following the 2016 Uri attacks and the air strikes following the 2019 Pulwama attacks-the government has also signalled to Pakistan that it will not be deterred by that country’s nuclear weapons when responding to terrorism. “We have seen that we can carry out the kind of operations we need to without nuclear considerations coming into play,” the army chief says. Currently, violent incidents and unrest in Jammu and Kashmir are at an all-time low. Since the August 5 dissolution of Article 370 and the imposition of an unprecedented internet ban, the Union territory has seen few violent incidents. Terrorist networks in the Valley have been paralysed, with recruitment down to its lowest level since the 2016 upsurge in violence after the killing of Burhan Wani.
The threat of cross-border terrorism from Pakistan remains-army sources say there are between 200 and 250 terrorists at nearly 20 launch pads across the border, waiting to cross over. But with the government signalling its willingness to respond with force, the army believes it now has the upper hand. “Terrorist camps, infrastructure and launch pads can be taken down,” the general says. “They cannot operate with impunity.” This zero-tolerance policy, he hopes, will result in Pakistan restraining its actions.
This respite at the border-however temporary-means that the army chief has, for the first time in years, the mind space to focus on reform.
Modernisation is a chimera the army has chased for over two decades, ever since the 1999 Kargil War and the 10-month-long mobilisation in 2001, Operation Parakram. Nonetheless, in recent years, the army has augmented its firepower by inducting three different types of howitzers, bridged its shortfalls of ammunition and procured combat rifles for its infantry. Financial authority devolved to the vice-chiefs of the three forces means they can procure items off the shelf without waiting for files to grind through the bureaucracy. That being said, the continuing modernisation will have to proceed under a largely stagnant defence budget. Defence expenditure is unlikely to rise-at 15 per cent, it is the central government’s second-largest item of expenditure after debt servicing. With military pensions included, defence accounts for 2.2 per cent of the GDP.
The spending cap is unlikely to deter General Naravane. “There are always a finite amount of resources available,” he says. “These have to be apportioned to various ministries-[and while] we might say the defence ministry hasn’t got its allocation, I’m sure the railways and roadways will say the same thing.” Clearly, his tenure will see no public breast-beating over unfulfilled wish lists. “Everyone has a wish list, but it’s not [likely] that one gets everything. It is about what you can do within the budget. We need to become more efficient, to synergise the requirements within the three services, pool our resources and thereby make our money work for us better.”
It will be on Naravane’s watch that the army will formally begin the ‘IBG-isation’ of its Corps. IBGs will replace the army’s basic unit-infantry divisions-with lighter, more manoeuvrable brigades equipped with tanks, artillery and air power. However, this will take time, as it requires changes in the army’s war establishment-equipment and manpower levels laid down by the government-as well as field tests. These IBGs would also fit into the planned theatre commands-as part of the modernisation drive, three joint commands have been planned to replace the 17 single-service commands that currently exist. The chief expects the first IBGs to be ready sometime in the next two or three years, carved out of the army’s Panagarh-based 17 Corps and the Yol-based 9 Corps.
The first IBG was field-tested in Arunachal Pradesh during exercise Him Vijay (Mountain Victory) last November. Though the exercise revealed some deficiencies in communications-the Corps HQ was clearly not equipped to control formations (a task earlier done by division HQs)-the army says it is happy with the concept and is awaiting a detailed debrief of the exercise. “The initial reports from those who participated in the exercise are very encouraging. Having done it, they are all for it now,” says General Naravane. This, one hopes, could well be a metaphor for the armed forces, themselves in the throes of change.