With approximately 14 lakh servicemen in the Indian Army along with another nine lakh in reserve, the Indian Army has become the world’s largest ground force, ahead of China, which has cut down its strength by half.
China held the top position for decades with strength of nearly twenty lakh soldiers. However, according to a defence report commissioned by the Government of Japan, China now commands the third-largest ground force in the world following India and neighbour North Korea, with approximately 9,80,000 personnel. North Korea is estimated to have 12 lakh active personnel, according to a US-based thinktank.
The Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) was always regarded as the largest army in the world with an approximate strength of two million soldiers. India, which has been keenly watching the PLA’s modernisation, is just in the initial stages of building a leaner and modern technology-enabled force as envisioned by PM Modi in 2015.
However, while China has been working on a massive modernisation of its force, India’s modernisation plans for its large personnel-driven force have been stalled by a cash crunch and a constantly increasing pension.
The Indian Army has so far carried out four transformation studies and is working on trimming its force by about 1.5 lakh personnel, which could take a minimum of five years.
Chinese president Xi Jinping had in 2015 announced the downsizing of the PLA to make the force leaner and reliant on modern warfare. The unprecedented reform began in November that year during which the focus shifted to technology for cyber and space and futuristic weapons besides giving a greater emphasis on building up the PLA’s Navy and the Air Force.
“Since 1985, China has continuously sought to modernize its military by curtailing the number of personnel and streamlining organizations and systems through reforms, including those currently being implemented, in order to improve operational capabilities … China has rapidly modernized its missile forces in recent years,” the Japanese military document said.
PLA ground forces cut by half
In January 2020, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported that China had cut the size of its land-based PLA by about 50 per cent and significantly boosted its navy and air force as part of an “unprecedented” strategic shift designed to transform its army into a comprehensive modern force.
The report indicated that the four other branches of the PLA — the navy, air force, rocket force and strategic support force, which is responsible for areas such as cyber warfare — together make up more than half of the Chinese military, overtaking the army, which has traditionally been the dominant unit of the PLA, the South China Morning Post reported.
Shanghai-based military analyst Ni Lexiong was quoted by the newspaper as saying that the overhaul marked a significant strategic shift from having a homeland-based defensive force to one with the capacity to allow Beijing to flex its muscles beyond its national borders and to protect its interests overseas.
He explained that modern warfare puts a greater emphasis on superiority in areas such as the air, space and cyberspace — further reducing the importance of the ground force. He added that the Chinese Army had to be reformed and optimized to meet the pressing needs of the changing times and this was the purpose of the overhaul. He also said that in the old set up, the PLA had too many officers and in this overhaul the all these officers must find new positions and adapt or they will be made redundant.
China, under Xi Jinping, is looking to develop its armed forces as it gets deeper entrenched in a strategic competition with the United States. Over the years, the Chinese have raised their defence spending as it grew richer due to its miraculous economic progress.
The US remains the dominant military power in the world with a plethora of strategic assets across the Indo-Pacific region. The Americans also have a highly advanced force in all areas of the military, something that the Chinese are trying to catch up with.
India has also been in the process of military modernization by integrating advanced equipment and developing state-of-the-art technical know-how. However, with a defence budget estimated to be less than a quarter of its northern neighbour’s, India has limited resources to pull in.
The armed forces have been largely dependent on imported weapons from the US, Israel and Russia; but a renewed push is being given to domestic defence manufacturing under the Make in India initiative.