Based on the Defence Minister’s directions to cut down on flab in a bid to reduce the salary bill and utilize the savings towards modernization, the Army HQs has ordered a study to reduce the ‘teeth to tail’ ratio. This means reducing the logistics elements (‘tail’) in proportion to the combat elements (‘teeth’) amongst the overall population of the uniformed force. It is undoubtedly a good idea. However, it’s also true that there have been several similar studies in the recent past, as a result of which the Army has already been trimmed to the bones. Because of the savings from the implementation of these studies, quite a few new combat units were raised through internal offsetting of manpower with no overall accretions.
In order to identify the ‘flab’ still remaining, there’s a need to widen the search beyond the uniformed forces to scrutinize the entire salary bill of the Ministry of Defence. Apart from the approximately 15 Lakh uniformed personnel, the ministry pays a large number of civilians. These are personnel from departments / organizations like DRDO, Ordnance Factories, Defence Estates, Defence Accounts, MES and Armed Forces Headquarters staff. As per the Census of Government Employees 2011, this figure has grown from 3.65 Lakhs in 2008 to 3.75 Lakhs in 2011. There has been virtually no corresponding increase in the strength of the uniformed personnel in the three services. This represents a substantial number – 25% – vis a vis the strength of the uniformed forces, and therefore a major chunk of the defence salary bill. In monetary value this share is disproportionately greater than 25% because of a higher ratio of senior posts amongst this vis à vis the armed forces. For example, it includes 121 Apex grade / HAG civilian personnel receiving the highest salaries as compared to 24 at the corresponding grades (Chiefs / C-in-Cs) in the armed forces. The tail is thus not only abnormally larger than the body, but also top heavy.
Any study carried out by the Army would have a restricted scope in identifying the ‘teeth’ vs ‘tail’ from within the uniformed organization itself, translating this directly into the combat and logistics elements respectively. However, when viewed in the larger perspective to include the civilians paid out of defence estimates, the paradigm changes. It emerges that as compared to the 3.75 Lakh non-combatants, even the logistic personnel of the army are engaged in ‘core’ function of combat. Each one of them is a trained soldier, with a weapon to his / her name, and capable of taking up front line combat duties if and when required. As frequently happens when personnel of the logistics services are posted in Rashtriya Rifles or even deployed as part of their own units in Counter Insurgency environment. Also, these include elements whose roles are so specific to war time they may appear superfluous in long spells of peacetime soldiering. A prime example of this is the Animal Transport units which hold mules for supplying far flung posts in mountainous areas. An earlier study had recommended these to be done away with. While this was being implemented, the Kargil War broke out, which highlighted the inescapable requirement of these units in such conflicts. As a result, the decision was reversed and these units retained. On the flip side, there are quite a few functions amongst the non-uniformed portion of the ministry which can, or rather need, to be trimmed. For example, while manufacture of armaments and ammunition by the Ordnance factories is necessary, it’s difficult to justify government factories making clothing, shoes and other such items which can easily be sourced from trade.
The way forward for a truly significant reduction in teeth to tail ratio is to look at the uniformed forces, including the logistic elements, as the teeth, and the civilians paid out of defence estimates as the tail. Such a study would necessarily have to be conducted under the aegis of the ministry, with requisite representation from the affected organizations including the armed forces. It would have to be monitored at the political level to ensure organizational affiliations don’t cloud rational judgement and block justifiable reductions. Only then would it be possible to meaningfully achieve the Defence Minister’s objective of reducing the salary bill of the Ministry and utilize the savings for modernization of the forces.