Sacred Cows

The Army is reducing its numerical strength by about 50,000 men, to quote a recent announcement “this will cut its long tail while at the same time sharpen its teeth in a cost-effective way”. Sizable savings being envisaged by the reduction in troops strength will be directed to enhancing the combat efficiency of the Army. Military professionals opine that it will transform the army into a more potent institution, enhance its response capabilities and result in a fine balance between quality and quantity. The announcement claims that the fighting potential of the army will not be affected by this reduction in manpower. The restructuring plan envisages the Army to be ‘lean but lethal’ and hard-hitting, “it will improve the teeth-to-tail ratio”.

The Pakistan Army also announced elimination of combat soldiers as batmen of Officers and Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) and their replacement by a new cadre called “Non-Combatant Bearers” (NCBs) employed on contract. Officer/JCOs will be given a chance to re-employ soldiers retiring from service in the new cadre on contract for five years. This change is take effect from August 1 this year, by the end of this year all combat soldiers will revert to their operational duties. This should free 50000-60000 combat soldiers for use by the Army.

The changeover from a uniformed “batman” to a “non-combatant bearer (NCB) was long overdue. Giving a rough calculation, in an infantry battalion comprising about 800 men, there are about 40-45 batmen, i.e. about 5% of the total strength and this is during peacetime. During wartime deployment and peacetime exercises this number increases by about 50% (to about 7.5% of the unit strength) as at least 50% of the existing batmen remain behind in peacetime locations. In a best case scenario where personnel for temporary Extra Regimental Employment (ERE) are not needed, the fighting unit has 50 to 60 of its personnel engaged in non-combat duties. Multiplying this with 15 (there are 9 infantry units, 3 artillery regiments, one engineer battalion and one signal battalion in every infantry division) and you have 800-900 combat personnel not available for combat during emergencies in any one infantry division i.e. more personnel than of one infantry unit in one division, or roughly about 25-27 infantry units when computing for the whole army. This makes for the infantry complement of three divisions –” and that is only the calculation for the fighting arms. The supporting services have an equal number of batmen, doubling the combatants in non-combatant role during war. Obviously this is a ridiculous situation, one must commend President Gen Pervez Musharraf for having the courage of putting this sacred cow to rest.

Being military in nature the matter of where the reductions are targetted must remain confidential, other than the “batman elimination” plan the reduction in personnel would target those surplus to the “mission” in administrative (supporting services) slots rather than the troops in the fighting arms i.e. infantry, armour and artillery, to include combat engineer battalions and companies. Our fighting arms need to be kept at full strength, their ranks are normally depleted in peacetime by non-justifiable temporary “fatigue parties”, etc. When troops moved out to the forward defended localities (FDLs) in late December of 2001, some fighting units were short of combat effectiveness because they had to leave behind personnel for rear HQs and family complements.

Our supporting services are badly bloated, these include supply services, ordnance, medical, etc, but is the army’s plan for reduction include them? The army never learnt out-sourcing, even the present “batmen elimination” plan is not fully “out-sourcing”, some of it is simply sleight of hand, shifting from one financial head to another, albeit at reduced cost. The supporting services gradually became far heavier in personnel through the years than the fighting arms they were supposed to support. Whatever gloss may be put over the facts, the situation is so bad we will need almost another Army to protect our “support services”. While one cannot play down the critical input of logistics in the conduct of military operations, and it is best seen in the ongoing US operations in Iraq, the peace-time lifestyle of the Army in recent years has contributed to a continuous increase in the strength of “peace-time only” soldiers, a handful can not really be called “soldiers”. There is also a tremendous contradiction in experience within the rank and file, on the one hand you have a great many veterans of actual combat (not to talk of the extremes of mother nature) because of two decades of Siachen and a few months of Kargil, on the other there are some in the upper military hierarchy who have never heard a shot being fired in anger.

To really make the defecne budget cost-effective, the most important sacred cow that needs to be eliminated from the Army is the Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO). The British created a buffer between their officers and the men by having Viceroy Commissioned Officers (VCOs), after World War 1, the severe shortage of British officers between the wars forced the British to commission native Indian officers. As the Royal Military Academy (RMA) at Sandhurst and later the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Dehra Dun, started to churn out officers, the VCO started to become irrelevant. The British worked on a plan to phase out the VCOs but before this could be acted upon World War 2 came about, the independence of India and Pakistan followed soon after the end of the war. Because of the shortage of commissioned officers, VCOs were badly needed. Pakistan and India inherited something they did not really need (VCOs became JCOs) but useful under the circumstances because of the shortages. Because of quality induction, there remained an acute shortage of officers, quite severe in the Indian Army but no so bad in the Pakistan Army. While JCOs have fulfilled a purpose (and quite a few have performed admirably both in peace and in war) there is no need for this buffer between the officer and his men. After all this is not an imperial army. Officers must command infantry platoons, tank troops, etc directly, Pakistan has always been well served by young leadership during all our wars. To have an incentive for the soldiers, senior NCOs who excel must be taken to a “Finishing School” to make up the background deficiencies and civil education gaps in their lives. Having been groomed for upto two years, those qualified must go to the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) for six months before being commissioned as officers. For serving JCOs too old to go this route, they can be given honorary ranks of Second Lieutenant (for Naib Subedars), Lieutenant (for Subedar) and Captain (for Subedar Majors) and then retired as they reach the commensurate age. In this way they will be phased out in a few years without any heart-burning.

There are a number of anomalies that remain, to name a few (1) the use of first line transport during peacetime (2) cantonments shifted from cities where one cannot differentiate between the civil and the military e.g. Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, etc (3) NAB investigating Armed Forces clearly living beyond their known means (to avoid public castigating of the Armed Forces, why not have separate judiciary and military wings for investigation and prosecution in camera?) etc etc. The President and COAS cannot afford to sit back and bask in the laurels of removing the batmen (partly) from the defence budget. Given the considerable amount it takes to train and maintain combat soldiers in a standing army almost always facing a crisis, Pervez Musharraf has to go after other sacred cows that not only affect the budget but more importantly, “morale military”!