With Recruitment Suspended Due to COVID, Indian Army Stares at Operational Challenges

With no new recruits for two years and growing security threats from China and Pakistan, the Indian Army cannot afford to lose any more time to address its 'worrisome' manpower shortage.

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Chandigarh: The Indian Army, which has endured a shortage of officers that has never dropped below 7,000 for nearly three decades, now confronts an acute paucity of jawans at a time when the country faces growing security threats from neighbouring nuclear rivals Pakistan and China.

Senior military officers say that with around 50,000 jawans retiring each year from the 1.4 million-strong army, and all recruitment to replace them suspended since early 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Army faces potential operational challenges with regard to its manpower-intensive deployments along India’s disputed borders in the Himalayas.

Since May 2020, the Army has been locked in a faceoff with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) along the line of actual control in Eastern Ladakh that shows no sign of easing. On the other hand, tensions also persist with Pakistan, along the restive line of control in Kashmir and in nearby Siachen. Military experts prosaically describe it as a ‘no-peace-no-war’ situation. Furthermore, enhanced Army deployment for counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir with the advent of summer as well as in the northeast continuous apace.

Last December, junior defence minister Ajay Bhatt told parliament that the Army faced a shortage of 104,653 personnel, of which 7,476 were officers and 97,177 were jawans, including junior commissioned officers who played a pivotal role as a bridge between officers and other ranks, especially in field operations. And three months later, in late March 2022, Bhatt revealed that all enlistment rallies planned by Army Recruiting Offices/ Zonal Recruitment Offices had been suspended due to the pandemic.

The minister disclosed that of the 97 planned recruitment rallies during 2020-21, only 47 could be held. But even in these, only four Common Entrance Examinations (CEEs) to complete the induction process could be conducted. Subsequently in 2021-22, 87 recruitment rallies were scheduled across the country, of which only four took place; expectedly, no CEEs were held, resulting in no new jawans being inducted into service for two years.

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Military analyst Lieutenant General H.S. Panag (retired) states the army’s manpower shortages – mostly of jawans – would, in all likelihood swell to around 2,00,000 personnel by the year end. In a recent analysis in The Print, he argued that even with a 30% increased intake each year, this mounting manpower deficiency would take six to seven years to make up, given the capacity of domestic military training establishments and their instruction timelines.

Representational image of the Indian Army. Photo: Reuters/Mukesh Gupta.

Other army officers say it takes an average of two to three years to adequately train jawans, and caution that if their recruitment and retirement cycles are not effectively managed – as was presently emerging – it could imminently spawn a “worrisome” manpower shortfall at a time when the Army could least afford it.

And though the Army has faced no such immediate manpower resource crunch, these officers hasten to add that there is a need to prudently maintain this “delicate balance” between jawan intake and their superannuation after 17 years of colour service or between the ages of 35 and 37 years.

“Both LoC and LAC deployments and requisite backup strike formations necessitate the availability of inordinately large numbers of troops around the year,” says defence expert Major General A.P. Singh (retired).

He adds further that rotating infantrymen at high altitudes every 90 days is mandatory, demanding adequate reserve troop levels, for which new recruitments are essential. Hence, recurring jawan shortfalls, like the ones that have multiplied over the past two years, could well prove “operationally troublesome” for the Army in the medium and long run, according to the two-star officer.

Impact on employment

Other than portending depressed force levels in the Army, the two-year pause in jawan recruitment had also adversely impacted youths, especially across rural India, for whom joining the armed forces have long been a default option. To them, soldiery is not only an honourable calling their forefathers had pursued, in some instances for several generations and one which locally assured them high regard and status, but is also relatively well paid and orderly, despite its arduousness.

Besides, upon retirement jawans receive pensions in addition to subsidised medical treatment and access to cheap rations, liquor and other sundry household supplies from military canteens. Alongside, they also stand to secure gainful employment, as not only are they young when demobilised, but are also disciplined and ingrained with the military’s systemic work ethic, which most businesses and civilian commercial establishments prefer.

Consequently, the pause in recruitment came up rudely at an election rally that was being addressed by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh at Banshi Bazar in Uttar Pradesh, nearly 400km east of Lucknow, in February. Some disgruntled youths brusquely disrupted Singh’s speech by rudely criticising the halt in the routine recruitment drives, and though the minister offered them placebos, saying it was being revived, they persisted with their heckling.

Eventually, Singh silenced the disgruntled youth by telling them that “Neta-giri se baat bigad jati hai” or events take a bad turn when they are politicised, but their annoyance persisted.

Other than demanding the immediate recommencement of recruitment, these protestors were also wanting a two-year increase in the upper age limit of 19 years for enrolment to compensate for its stoppage since 2020.

Security analysts say that since recruitment into the armed forces is a “political compulsion” for all parties, and one which they exploit at the hustings, enlistment into the forces is likely to resume “in earnest” around late 2023 ahead of General Elections the following year.

A blessing in disguise?

Meanwhile, General Panag goes on to state that the ongoing personnel shortage in the Army presents an opportunity to usher in long-debated reforms to down-size the force, to not only render it operationally more efficient but also to eventually economise on burgeoning pension pay-outs.

Image for Representation (PTI)

Image for representation. Photo: PTI

In his analysis in The Print, the former Army Commander stated that 21st century wars on the sub-continent, where nuclear weapons precluded large-scale or extended conventional fighting, called for agile armed forces backed by state-of-the-art military technology.

And since India, he says, fields a large military armed with “medium technology” platforms and equipment, it is forced to use quantity (excessive manpower) to compensate for quality (in weaponry and systems). General Panag contends that India’s armed forces are 25% to 30% larger than corresponding organisations in more advanced militaries. However, he concedes that India’s “unsettled borders” in mountainous terrain necessitate the deployment of personnel-intensive infantry units, a 20% to 25% reduction in numbers remains a do-able and “pragmatic goal”.

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Over the past two decades, military planners and successive Army chiefs of staff have had struggled with reducing numbers in a force with an inordinately high ‘teeth-to-tail ratio’(T3R) of the number of support personnel required for each combat soldier, to render it a ‘leaner and fitter’ force to conduct modern warfare.

Senior officers say a 15,000-strong Army fighting complement, for instance, is backed up on average by a 3,000-odd non-combatant force, a quotient that needs correction.

Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the Combined Commanders Conference in December 2015 aboard INS Vikramaditya, the Indian Navy’s (IN’s) sole aircraft carrier, had called upon the military, especially the Army, to reduce its T3R.

He had declared that militaries were “driven by technology and not just human valour” and suggested that money be expended on “sharpening” their combat edge, instead of financing support elements like additional personnel.

Subsequently, in March 2019, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) approved the first instalment of proposals for “downsizing/right-sizing” the Army by reducing force levels by 50,000 personnel to maximise limited financial resources and to ensure the presence of younger-and fitter-officers in operational posts.

This restructuring followed the recommendations of an 11-member committee headed by retired Lt Gen D.B. Shekatkar that submitted four reports to the government in December 2016 to enhance the Army’s combat capability, curtail expenditure and righten its T3R imbalance.

 The MoD accepted 65 of the committee’s 99 recommendations, and following consultations with the Army, it claimed that it would implement them in a “planned manner”. But little of significance to optimise non-essential manpower had since occurred; even the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) in December 2019 had effected little to usher in any restructuring or manpower downscaling in the army despite grandiose promises.

Thereafter, in May 2020 with the Army gratuitously watching, the PLA fatefully occupied large swathes of territory along the LAC which India had claimed as its own, triggering a frantic amassing of troops at precipitous heights in harsh winters, which has continued unabated for two years, seriously straining the Indian military’s manpower, resources and materiel.

However, it remains to be seen whether the government – and the services – driven by electoral considerations opt for the relatively undemanding alternative of personnel recruitment or goes for the more daunting challenge of building a flexible and seamlessly knit force backed by modern technology to secure itself.

In the meantime, of the two other services, the Indian Navy faces a shortage of 1,265 officers and 11,166 sailors, while corresponding deficiencies in the Indian Air Force are the least of the three services: 621 officers and 4,850 airmen.