Short of 60,000 Hands, Are the Indian Armed Forces Battle Ready?

The army topped the list with a shortage of 27,864 personnel, followed by the Navy and the Air Force.

5 min read

Recently Raksha Mantri (RM), Smt Nirmala Sitharaman while responding on the floor of the House to a question from two honourable Members of Parliament, stated that the armed forces had a total shortage of approximately 60,000 personnel excluding those belonging to the medical and dental stream.

The army topped the list with a shortage of 27,864 personnel (including 7,679 officers), followed by the Navy with 16,235 and the Air Force with 15,503.


Gap Between Recruitment and Exit

Compared to the authorised strength, the Navy’s figures seemed alarming with a shortage of 16,235 compared to an authorisation of just 67,228, amounting to 24 percent deficiency. The Air Force’s shortage in percentage terms is 10 percent and that of the army just 2.2 percent.

Real worry for the army is shortage primarily in the ‘officer’ cadre. As per the available figures in May 2017, this gap amounts to 7,679 personnel – short of the authorised figure of 49,932 – or 15.38 percent.

Shortage of personnel

  • Armed Forces facing a total shortage of approximately 60,000
  • The army tops the list with a shortage of 27,864, followed by Navy with 16,235 and Air Force with 15,503 personnel respectively
  • Authorised strength in peace stations remains at 91-92 percent which means an infantry unit of approximately 850 will be short of 80 soldiers
  • If we consider the strength of low medical category (LMC) personnel, shortage could go well above 100
  • 24 percent shortage is something that the Navy can ill-afford given the surge in sanctions for new vessels

The above statistics will make little sense to an uninformed mind unless they are suitably explained in terms of implications.

Firstly, the RM was absolutely correct that “the recruitment in the armed forces is a continuous process. The government has taken a number of measures to reduce the shortages”.

The deficiency of 2.2 percent in the army is miniscule if the number of personnel undergoing training has not been taken into consideration.

Even if they have been included in the current available manpower this percentage of shortages is a management factor arising out of the gap between exit and recruitment. However, considering that 27,864 slots are at stake it would always be prudent to ensure that even this shortage is minimised by accurate and timely recruitment.


Shortage at Unit Level Increases if Sedentary Positions are Excluded

If we consider figures for those personnel undergoing training as recruits who are yet to take oath, the deficiencies at the unit level do amount to 5 percent or so. Units in field areas usually hold 98-99 percent of the authorised strength while those in peace stations remain at 91-92 percent. This means that an infantry unit of approximately 850 in peace location will have a shortage of 80 soldiers.

When we take into consideration the strength of low medical category (LMC) –personnel who need to be on sedentary duties and those injured personnel retained by few units – deficiency figure could go well above 100.

Although the infantry units have tremendous flexibility, yet the deficiency of personnel impacts training and readiness.

In the current threat environment when the luxury of a long warning period is unlikely and everything is calculated on the basis of response to an ‘Incident (I) Based Scenario,’ the units deployed at peace stations could well be the first ones to go to war as part of a pro-active strategy.

The shortage of soldiers in the army is definitely not of immediate concern and can be overcome with better management.


Downfall in Shortage between 2013 to 2017

The officer shortage in the army has improved over the last five years.

With approximately 1,100 officers exiting and potentially 2,100 getting commissioned each year, the army adds more than a thousand officers to its strength. That is why the shortage has reduced from approximately 11,500 in 2013 to 7,679 in 2017.

However, the Army’s Mountain Strike Corps (AMSC) has resumed raising with additional formations and units are expected to be battle-ready by 2021.

Each new unit needs to be manned and has a cascading effect on the shortage of officers. Reconsidering seniority for the promotion of colonels (earlier 19-20 years to currently 15 years of service) who’re commanding units has also led to an artificial shortage because officers only junior to the Colonels in terms of service duration are placed under them. Thus, hard scales are still followed for manning of officer posts in all units.


Shortage of Manpower in Air Force and Navy

The current shortage is least in the ‘officer’ cadre for the Air Force. Owing to the scarcity of operational squadrons the impact of shortage may not be felt below the officer level.

However, induction of new platforms should be accompanied with a comparable increase in trained manpower. Induction of weaponry as well as manpower won’t be an overnight affair but should be in tandem with more focus on training.

Shortage of personnel that’s being faced by the Navy is not easily explicable. India’s focus on the Indo-Pacific region pre-supposes a strong navy. Shortage of 24 percent is something that the Navy can ill-afford given the surge in sanctions for new vessels.

The Navy has been extremely prudent in modernising its training curriculum and orienting its officer cadre technically. A flurry of accidents may have temporarily hit their confidence but that’s no reason why its manpower shortage should be so high.


Goal of Emerging as a ‘Lean and Mean’ Force

With manpower being shed by modern armed forces across the world in order to emerge as ‘lean and mean’ forces with higher technical footprint, shouldn’t the Indian Armed Forces follow suit?

Currently 83 percent of defence budget goes into manpower and other revenue costs, leaving little for capital acquisitions.

In 1998, a cut in manpower by 50,000 was imposed on the armed forces but was restored immediately, following the Kargil War.

With Doklam and threats due to greater collusion between Pakistan and China at India’s borders, manpower cuts may seem to be a difficult option. With these threats India’s Armed Forces will need greater budgetary support for modernisation without manpower cuts.


(Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain is a former GOC of the army’s 15 Corps and now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies. He can be reached at @atahasnain53. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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