Bhutan is largely dependant on India for defense. It has an army but has no navy as it landlocked,. There is also no air force — India takes care of that for them. The Bhutanese military and security forces consist of the Royal Bhutan Army (which includes the Royal Bodyguards, the National Militia, under is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs), Royal Bhutan Police, the Forest Guards. and a paramilitary force.(2019). India is responsible for military training, arms supplies, and the air defense of Bhutan. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020 =]

Military and security service personnel strengths: the Royal Bhutan Army has approximately 8,000 personnel (2019 estimated). In the 1990s, Bhutan’s Royal Army had only about 4,000 members. Many were armed only with 303 Enfield rifles. =

Military service age and obligation: 18 years of age for voluntary military service; no conscription; militia training is compulsory for males aged 20-25, over a 3-year period (2012) =

Defense spending: one percent of Gross National Product (2005 estimate, compared to 5.62 percent in Israel, 3.2 percent in the United States and 0.4 percent in Ghana). In 2001, military spending totaled US$9.3 million, about spent 1.9 percent of its GDP. [Sources: Index Mundi; “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009", Gale]

Armed forces personnel: 2.4 percent of the total labor force (compared to 9 percent in North Korea and .8 percent in the United States). [Source: World Bank ]

The only hardware the Bhutan army possesses other than guns are twenty-seven BTR-60 wheeled amphibious armored personnel carriers made by the Soviet Union and presumably given to Bhutan by India after India obtained more modern vehicles of the same type. India has provided most of the Royal Bhutan Army's equipment, although the only recorded delivery of military equipment to Bhutan since 2010 was from France (2019 estimated)

The army headquarters are located in the capital city of Thimbhu. The regular activities of the soldiers include service with the palace guards, the royal police force, and the militia. India maintains a permanent military training presence in Bhutan through IMTRAT, the Indian Military Training Team. [Source: Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009, Gale]

Bhutan Strategic Location Between China (Tibet) and India

Bhutan is a strategic buffer state wedged between India and China. After centuries of close ties to Tibet and less definite connections to China, Bhutan developed a southerly political orientation, first with British India and then with independent India. British troops in or near Bhutan presented a considerable deterrent to China from the eighteenth century until the early twentieth century. Britain's withdrawal from India in 1947 and India's replacement of Britain as Bhutan's protector coincided with the communist military victory in China in 1949. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Because of its location in India's strategic defense system, Bhutan has long had foreign defense arrangements, first with Britain and then with independent India. Despite common international policy goals of Indian and Chinese leaders, territorial problems between the two powers continued to define Bhutan's buffer status. The 1962 border war between India and China had serious implications for Bhutan and could have embroiled it in the fighting. Thimphu permitted Indian troops to cross Bhutanese territory and Chinese airplanes allegedly violated Bhutanese air space. In addition, China reportedly had six divisions stationed near the borders of Bhutan, Sikkim, and Nepal. China had its own boundary disputes with Bhutan, and Chinese troops reportedly breached the Bhutanese frontier on several occasions in 1966, 1970, and 1979. In each case, New Delhi attempted to represent Thimphu's interests in protest notes to Beijing, all of which were rejected.*

As the Chinese threat grew, India became increasingly involved in the buildup of Bhutan's indigenous defensive capability, specifically in the training and equipping of the Royal Bhutan Army. The headquarters of the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT) in Bhutan was located in Ha District, which is adjacent to Tibet's Chumbi Valley, where China routinely kept large concentrations of troops, at the junction of the Bhutanese, Indian, and Chinese borders.*

The 1949 Indo-Bhutanese treaty makes no reference to India's defense of Bhutan except what might be inferred from Article 2 of the treaty. Prime Minister Nehru, however, declared in 1958 that acts of aggression against Bhutan would be taken as acts of aggression against India itself. Also, by the terms of the 1949 treaty, Bhutan has the right to import arms, munitions, and other military matériel from or through India as long as the Indian government is satisfied that such imports do not threaten India. Bhutan, on the other hand, agreed not to export or allow private citizens to export any arms, ammunition, or military equipment. The Indian Ministry of Defence also made provisions for the rapid deployment of helicopter-borne troops to Bhutan in the event of a Chinese invasion and made related plans for air force operations. Suggestions from within the Bhutanese government to allow Indian troops to be stationed in Bhutan were rejected. An important defensive consideration has been the construction of extensive roads with major assistance from the Indian government's paramilitary Border Roads Organization.*

History of Bhutan’s Armed Forces

The Royal Bhutan Army was organized as a regular military force in the 1950s with the encouragement of India and in response to China's takeover of Tibet. Following the establishment of a national militia in 1958, the government announced a new conscription system the same year and plans for a standing army of 2,500 troops with modern equipment. Military training was given to all able-bodied men, and by 1963 the standing army was well established. A reorganization in 1968 led several years later to an increase in the army to 4,850 troops and a campaign aimed at recruiting 600 additional troops per year. In 1990 the Royal Bhutan Army was composed of 6,000 men and was backed by a growing militia. Two women were recruited for the army's airport security unit in 1989, but no other women soldiers have been noted. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

The army's primary mission was border defense, but it also has assisted the Royal Bhutan Police in performing internal security duties. The army also provided security at the Paro airport and regulated the sale, ownership, and licensing of civilian-owned firearms. For ceremonial occasions, the army had a band, some members of which were trained in India.*

Since the 1970s, one of the army's goals has been selfsufficiency . The Army Welfare Committee was established in 1978 to oversee the Army Welfare Project, which provided housing, food, and income for the Royal Bhutan Army and the Royal Body Guards. It was charged with taking care of individual army personnel problems and providing pensions to retirees. Although some labor for the Army Welfare Project was provided by army personnel, the project was administered by civil service employees and contractors. By 1979 a pilot project, the Lapchekha Agriculture Farm in Wangdiphodrang District, had been established to provide food for army units in western Bhutan. The farm comprised 525 hectares with a potential for an additional 113 hectares of arable land. Army personnel constructed a twenty-one-kilometer-long canal to irrigate the farm and worked there for three months each year. Revenues from the farm and other welfare projects helped provide benefits to retired and disabled personnel in the form of pensions and loans and, in the case of landless retirees, agricultural land grants. Army careerists could retire, depending on their rank, between the ages of thirty-seven and forty-five years of age. Preretirement training in farming was provided to army personnel. All retirees received pensions, and those disabled during service received both a pension and free medical care. In 1985 the Army Welfare Project generated Nu40 million in sales of farm services and products, which ranged from such practical civil activities as fence electrification to protect sugarcane farms from wild elephants in Geylegphug District to entrepreneurial endeavors, such as the manufacture and sale of rum to the Indian Army and Indian Air Force.*

Armed Forces of Bhutan in the 1990s

The army's supreme commander in 1991 was the Druk Gyalpo; dayto -day operations were under the charge of the chief operations officer. The chief operations officer held the rank of colonel until 1981, when the position was upgraded to major general (see table 33, Appendix). In 1991 the chief operations officer was Major General Lam Dorji. Organizationally, the army headquarters ranked at the ministry level and was immediately subordinate to the Council of Ministers. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

As of 1978, the Royal Bhutan Army consisted of its headquarters in Thimphu, a training center at Tenchholing, four operational wings, and an airport security unit at Paro. Wing 1 had its headquarters in Changjukha (Geylegphug), Wing 2 at Damthang, Wing 3 at Goinichawa, and Wing 4 at Yonphula. Organized into companies, platoons, and sections, the troops were assigned to the wings deployed primarily in border areas. The army also operated hospitals in Lungtenphug, Wangdiphodrang, and Yonphula.*

Most if not all of the army's weapons in the 1980s were manufactured in India. Rifles, bayonets, machine guns, and 81mm mortars have been noted in the army's weapons inventory, but some were believed to be obsolescent. Figures on defense expenditures were not publicly available and, in budgetary information published by the Planning Commission, were found only in general government costs.*

The army has traditionally been a small, lightly armed conscript force. The majority of its officers and noncommissioned officers were trained by IMTRAT, which was commanded by an Indian Army brigadier at the Wangchuck Lo Dzong Military Training School, established in 1961 in Ha District. Recruits were trained at the Army Training Center established in 1957 at Tenchholing in Wangdiphodrang District. IMTRAT also offered a one-to-two-month precourse for officers and enlisted personnel selected for advanced training in India. Royal Bhutan Army cadets were sent to the National Defence Academy at Pune, followed by training at the Indian Military Academy at Dehra Dun, from which they were commissioned as second lieutenants. It was reported in 1990 that members of the Royal Body Guards (an elite VIP protection unit commanded by a lieutenant colonel) had completed counterinsurgency and jungle warfare training in the Mizo Hills in India, the Indian College of Combat, and the Indian Military Academy.*

The army conducted an annual recruitment drive. Families with two or more sons were expected to have one son serve in the army. Individuals between sixteen and twenty-four years of age, having a minimum height of 150 centimeters and minimum weight of fifty-two kilograms, were eligible for recruitment. Selected from among volunteers and conscripts, recruits were given ten to twelve months of basic training that included weapons proficiency, "field craft," signals, map reading, tae kwon do, and physical fitness. Soldiers also were expected to achieve proficiency in Dzongkha, Nepali, and English. Annual salaries started at Nu300 plus food, clothing, and accommodations.*

Forest Guards and Paramilitary and Militia Forces in Bhutan

Historically, the government raised militia forces during times of crisis during the period of theocratic rule (1616-1907). They were commanded by a dapon (arrow chief in Dzongkha). In modern times, a 5,000-strong militia was raised in 1958 as part of the defensive strategy against China. Militia personnel were trained by army officers who had been trained at the Indian Military Academy. Their primary function was as a first line of defense along frontier areas with China. Following an Indian inspection tour in 1961, the government was advised to step up militia recruitment. In 1967 the militia was reorganized on a national basis, with compulsory military training being given for three months each year for three years to men twenty to twenty-five years of age. After the initial three-year training phase, militia personnel were placed on reserve status. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

In a move said by the Druk Gyalpo to reinforce Bhutan's security, new militia training was initiated in 1989. In the early 1980s, weapons training for all male citizens between ages sixteen and sixty was considered, but, in view of national security and public works projects to which the army already was committed, it was postponed. In 1990 ninety-four students were enlisted in a program at the Tenchholing army camp. Candidates for militia training included individuals who had completed at least the tenth grade, new college graduates, and members of the civil service. Starting in l989, new male civil service entrants were required to take a three-week militia training course.*

In reaction to the "prodemocracy" demonstrations by ethnic Nepalese in southern Bhutan in September 1990, the government announced that more than 1,000 citizens had volunteered to join militia groups. The army was to provide training for around 500 militia members to assist the "badly under strength" police in dealing with mob attacks. Recruits were men and women from among civil servants and urban residents. Militia trainees pledged to give their "full support and loyalty" to tsawa sum (country, king, and people) and a total commitment to defend the nation.*

The Forest Guards, a uniformed government service with paramilitary capabilities, had been in existence since the early 1970s. Under the jurisdiction of the Department of Forestry, Forest Guards were trained in two six-month classes per year at the Forestry School. Recruits learned first aid, forest-fire fighting, marksmanship, physical training, and traditional Bhutanese customs. Small arms training was imparted by the Royal Bhutan Army. Besides guarding Bhutan's important forest resources, the Forest Guards provided border-security support to the Royal Bhutan Police. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Council of Bhutan (, National Portal of Bhutan, the Bhutan government’s main site (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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