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Need To Make The Sri Lankan Armed Forces Leaner And Meaner – OpEd

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Scholars say military expenditure is too high with the emphasis on personnel rather than equipment and acquisition on new skills. 

Scholars have pointed out that Sri Lanka has an army far too big for its size and population, and has a military that is ill-suited to meet the new strategic needs. It is further noted that, despite this assessment, no meaningful steps have been taken to rationalize the size of the army and the expenditure pattern. The evolution of a military doctrine suited to emerging threat scenarios is also not evident. 

Among the concerns is the size of the military in terms of the number of personnel, their salaries and pensions in light of the fact that the separatist war ended 13 years ago. Then there is the related issue of the militarization of the civilian administration that is raised by the Tamil minority at home and by human rights organizations abroad.       

Though the issue of growing militarization has gained attention in the debate over the post-war human rights situation in Sri Lanka, the issue of the large size and high expenditure on the army have been ignored by rights activists. In a departure from this trend, it was raised in the British House of Commons on November 9 by a ruling party MP, Elliot Colburn.  

Colburn argued that if Sri Lanka is to be rescued from the economic morass it finds itself in through an IMF bailout, it needs to reduce its military spending, which stands at U$1.86 billion per annum. 

“As a key stakeholder at the IMF, the UK Government should propose conditions on any IMF financial assistance for Sri Lanka during the current economic crisis, including that Sri Lanka should carry out a strategic defense and security review to reduce its military spending, remove the military from engaging in commercial activities, meet the criteria for GSP+, and re-engage with the UNHRC process.”

“I appreciate that the IMF does not have powers to impose such conditions on its own, but the UK, as penholder, can have significant influence in the discussions before any bailout is agreed,” Colburn said.

After the debate, the House resolved “that it is concerned by reports of increased militarization and human rights violations in Sri Lanka, particularly during the country’s current economic crisis; calls upon the (British) Government, as a key stakeholder of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to propose conditionalities on any IMF financial assistance for Sri Lanka during the current economic crisis, including that Sri Lanka carries out a Strategic Defense and Security Review to reduce its military spending and remove the military from engaging in commercial activities, that Sri Lanka meets the criteria required for Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus, and that Sri Lanka re-engages with the United Nations Human Rights Council process and fully implements resolution 30/1; and calls upon the Government to implement targeted sanctions against individuals who are credibly accused of committing war crimes during the Sri Lankan Civil War.”

Sri Lankan politicians fear that even a significant reduction could trigger another insurgency which the country cannot afford. And traditionally, the armed forces have been used to aid the civil administration in Sri Lanka even in fuel rationing, de-hoarding, traffic control and tackling civil unrest. This is a factor militating against reducing the size of the forces. 

But there is a pressing need to reduce. Australian National University (ANU) National Security College Senior Research Fellow Dr. David Brewster told The Morning in September: ” Sri Lanka’s armed forces are far too large and do not have the right focus or equipment. There are way too many soldiers, meaning that money is spent on personnel costs rather than equipment. In order to modernize and refocus on current threats, the Sri Lankan armed forces (principally the Army) will need to be reduced in size, with much greater spending on the Navy and Air Force, with military personnel having much greater technical expertise. Sri Lanka is an island state, but its armed forces do not currently reflect this.”

In October, Sri Lanka had proposed a defense budget of LKR 373 billion (USD1.86 billion) for 2022, a 14% increase over the allocation in 2021. Janes reported that the proposed defense allocation accounted for 15% of total government expenditure for 2022. It comprised LKR 326.3 billion for ‘recurrent’ expenditure (for operations, maintenance, and salaries) and LKR 46.7 billion for capital expenditure. The recurrent allocation was a 20.5% increase over the expenditure in 2021 while the appropriation for capital expenditure was a rise of 26%. 

This clearly indicates that maintenance and salaries and pensions accounted for the bulk of the expenditure.

Daniel Alphonsus in his paper entitled: Sri Lanka’s Post-War Defence Budget: Overspending and Underprotection (South Asia Scan, Issue No. 15 (Singapore: Institute of South Asian Studies, November 2021), Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore) points out that despite the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Lanka’s defense  budget has not seen a significant decline or any major change in its  composition.  

The budgets appear to have no relationship to the emerging strategic environment and risks, Alphonsus points out. Despite the radically altered strategic environment since the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, defense expenditure rose from US$1.71 billion to US$1.824 billion to make it 2.4% of the GDP, he says. 

“The share of government pension expenditure accruing to military personnel has risen from 14.5 percent to over 17 percent in just three years,” he points out. “Sri Lanka spent around US$1 billion on pensions, so military pensions cost the taxpayer approximately US$170 million per year,” he adds. 

In the entire Asian continent, only Nepal and Tajikistan spend a greater share of their defense spending on personnel,” Alphonsus points out.

Another reason for the higher expenditure on personnel, according to the scholar, is that Sri Lanka does not have reserves. “The world average for reserves contribution to total manpower is over 60 per cent. In Sri Lanka’s case, reserves are less than four per cent of manpower strength. This may explain why Sri Lanka – the 58th largest country in the world by population – has the 24th largest army in the world.” 

Sri Lanka has been putting too much emphasis on the army, neglecting the navy, even though the separatist Tamil militants were using the sea to get their weapons from other countries. The Sri Lanka navy was given a chance to show its worth only during the last phase of the war in 2006-2009. Naval actions in this period had proved to be invaluable. 

Sri Lanka is yet to realize that threats to it are not from within its land area but come from the sea. Sri Lanka has no land border with any country. Terrorists, smugglers of drugs and humans, pirates and illegal fisher, the new threats, emanate from the sea. There is also a vast Exclusive Economic Zone to safeguard. But the navy is ill-equipped to face these threats, Capt.Rohan Joseph SLN, has said in his writings. 

The country also needs long-range reconnaissance aircraft to watch  the vast ocean around the island. And if Sri Lanka is to play a role in Indian Ocean defense its naval capabilities have to be enhanced. India and the US are pressing it to do so and India, US and Australia have given it ships.           

Given the emergence of new forms of warfare, Sri Lanka has to reorient its thinking and put emphasis not on manpower so much but on the acquisition of new skills and equipment. The Indian army as well as China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) have taken steps to make their forces “leaner and meaner.” The Indian Agnipath scheme for temporary recruitment and the modernization schemes envisaged by China’s Central Military Commission are geared to achieving that goal. It’s time Sri Lanka followed suit. 

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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