In early December, Sri Lankan media outlets announced that the Sri Lankan Army had decided to reduce troop numbers by 16,000. According to Sri Lanka’s libertarian-leaning publication, EconomyNext, President Ranil Wickremesinghe proposed to introduce a voluntary retirement scheme for troops in a bid to reduce military spending.
Sri Lanka is working on negotiating a $2.9 billion package from the IMF and several influential figures close to the government have been pressing for a reduction in military spending.
They argue that in recent decades, military spending has been excessive, reducing the residual supply of productive resources (that is, capital and labor) available for private and non-defense public investment, thereby weakening the economy, i.e., the depletion theory. The hypothesis is that lower rates of investment and economic growth are the effect of higher levels of military spending. Thus, the expected result of reduced military spending is greater investment and economic growth.
As I pointed out in a previous article, of the total defense allocation of $1.45 billion, $1.29 billion is for recurrent expenditure, mainly for the payment of troops. Only a fraction of the budget goes toward capital expenditure and any meaningful reduction of the defense budget cannot be made without a reduction in troop numbers. Defense spending is about 2 percent of the country’s GDP.
If the government reduces troop numbers now, at a time when the country is going through its worst economic crisis ever and when the job market has collapsed, the consequences would be devastating.
Sri Lanka’s military recruits come from overwhelmingly low-income rural families.
The size of the armed forces (including reserves and national guardsmen) went up from about 15,000 in the early 1980s to nearly 250,000 at the final stage of the war in 2009. Coincidently, the 1980s saw the beginning of the collapse of the rural economy due to the unplanned economic liberalization of the J. R. Jayewardene administration.
Given the degradation of the rural economy, a large number of youths took a rational decision that the best way to escape rural poverty was by joining the military. Thus, there was a steady stream of recruits from rural agricultural and semi-urban areas where they used to be in manufacturing jobs.
Despite claims that most of the recruits were misled by the chauvinist propaganda machinery into joining the army, I believe that Sri Lankan youth were taking a very thought-out and rational decision in deciding to join the army. While Sri Lanka has no data on what motivated recruits to join the military, studies in other countries show that times of economic difficulties usually boost military recruitment.
Over 300, 000 Sri Lankans have left the country for foreign employment in 2022 and millions of Sri Lankans are expected to lose their jobs in the coming months. If the military were to recruit, there would be long lines outside recruitment centers.
Downsizing the army has serious implications for Sri Lanka. It would mean that thousands of soldiers with skills in wielding weapons would be unemployed. Its implications are serious. Consider this: Sri Lankan army deserters have always posed a serious security threat to the country. They have joined criminal groups, started gangs of their own, and are behind almost all high-profile crimes in the country.
In the first 11 months of this year, 497 people have been killed, according to data issued by the police. Shooting and assault caused 223 of these deaths. Some 3,596 instances of kidnappings for ransom were recorded in this period. This is a 2,800 percent increase from the same period last year.
If young men and women (with weapons skills and anger over losing jobs after having put their lives on the line in the army) are released into an economy where the job market has collapsed, 2023 will become one of the most violent years since the end of the war.
Therefore, it would be better to retrain the security forces for policing and peacekeeping work or to work as rapid action teams for disaster response.
Sri Lanka needs more policemen. The department of police insists that it lacks the manpower to deploy policemen to control traffic, on mobile patrols or anti-narcotics operations. Redeploying sections of the military into policing should be beneficial to both institutions. The police can do with an infusion of disciplined and uncorrupt recruits, which the Sri Lankan police currently lack.
Sri Lanka has a long tradition of peacekeeping. Sri Lankan troops first participated in U.N. peacekeeping operations in 1960 when six peacekeepers from the country participated in the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC).
Peacekeeping offers Sri Lankan soldiers high remuneration and provides them with international exposure. They can network with soldiers from other nations, which they can later use to find security sector jobs.
With the increased effects of climate change, Sri Lanka is experiencing an increasing number of natural disasters. According to World Bank data, Sri Lanka has been having more floods, landslides and droughts in recent years and these disasters are affecting a large number of people.
In Sri Lanka, the security forces are called in during natural disasters as a last resort, when the civil authorities are unable to cope with the scale of the disaster. We know from experience that the security forces perform well in search and rescue operations.
In China, the People’s Liberation Army acts as a rapid response team for disasters and there is no reason why Sri Lanka cannot follow its example. Climate change is going to be one of the biggest challenges we face in the coming decades and the security forces are best equipped to assist the government with disaster relief and climate change mitigation.
By redeploying the security forces into the above-mentioned sectors, Sri Lanka can ensure that the soldiers don’t lose jobs, thus affecting the rural economy in adverse ways, which in turn will lead to social issues and the country can also ensure that important challenges of the future strategic environment are also met.