Almost neutered by an ever-escalating pensions’ bill consuming over 60 per cent of a comatose, declining defence budget with reducing purchasing power pegged currently at 1.46 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the pensions’ bill is a soldier’s welfare obligation that leaves little for capital defence purchases. Governments over decades have fielded scheme after unsuccessful ad hoc scheme to make defence allotment of money count towards new acquisitions and stem this stark ‘welfare-over-defence preparedness’ conundrum that confronts us.
Tour of Duty (ToD) has deliberately been floated as a pilot project which is currently restricted to the Infantry arm of the Indian Army (less Para SF and other forces like NSG). The proposed three-year, cynically titled by some commentators as a ‘use and discard’ officer and soldier money-saving, scheme anchors itself on the conviction that India’s teeming millions of unemployed male youth will aggressively seek a short tour in the battle zone as members of their glamorous and brave army and experience at first hand that macho feeling of war and war-fighting for India before returning to civil life with a ‘Badge of Honour’ which hopefully will have corporate employment value.
The question is will it yield the financial and operational gains that the government expects it to harness for better military effectiveness and defence budget management?. Or are there better ways of doing this?
The Idea of ToD
Bluntly stated, the sole genesis of the Tour of Duty (ToD) issue is India’s exploding defence pensions’ bill. There is no other great or noble country-first intent behind its fielding. In the absence of ministry of defence (MoD) transparency on the issue, one struggles to fathom what is behind this radical oxymoron of ‘volunteer conscription’ of under-graduate males immediately after 10+2 (18-21-year-olds). Inducted into the Infantry (because it is supposedly a ‘non-technical’ arm) using exacting selection norms and trained cursorily for six months, they will enter the war zone for three year tenures and thereafter be disposed of with minimal severance and nil attendant terminal benefits such as medical, education, employment or job reservation benefits.
The prime motivation could be the background work on military pensions management done by the duo of retired Lt Gen. Prakash Menon and Pranay Kotasthane. Their 2019 paper, ‘A Human Capital Investment Model for India’s National Security System’, seems to be one major input using which the newly-formulated Department of Military Affairs (DMA) in MoD headed by the CDS/Secretary has chosen to tackle our exploding defence pension expenditure by proposing the TOD offering. (Read the paper at https://takshashila.org.in/takshashila-discussion-document-a-human-capital-investment-model-for-indias-national-security-system/)
The paper states that India’s defence pensions’ expenditure is unsustainable and has ballooned after the implementation of the One Rank One Pension (OROP) scheme. It states that in the long run, the pension component will make the defence budget irrelevant, consuming most of it and, in the short run it is severely degrading defence modernisation. As overwhelming proof, the paper says that the pensions’ bill of Rs 54,000 crore in 2014 has more than doubled to Rs 1,12,000 crore in 2020.
It candidly accepts that starting with the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) Report, many solutions have been floated to address this problem but none of them have fructified or, on fielding, have defeated the very purpose for which the solutions were offered in the first place. The fielding of Short Service Commissions (SSCs) for officers for five years is touted as an example wherein the initial period of five years was expanded to 10 years and then 14, extended on Supreme Court’s directions to women officers’ entry schemes also.
Against that backdrop both stated and implied the paper proposes lateral movement of armed forces personnel into the national security system to contain the defence pensions’ expenditure and estimates that the government can achieve savings of Rs 1.2 lakh crores if this model is implemented.
Readers can now hopefully see the deep linkages between the pensions issue and the TOD recruitment plan.
A word about the authors is warranted here. Commissioned in 1972, Gen. Menon is director, strategic studies at a privately funded think tank, Takshashila, and adjunct professor NIAS, Bangalore. He has been military advisor to NSA/secretary to government of India (GOI) and officer on special duty (OSD) in NSCS. He is the author of Non Alignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the 21st Century which became a much-commented-upon policy paper in media and defence circles. Pranay Kotasthane is a VLSI professional who is research head at Takshashila since 2017 and writes on geopolitics, public finance, public policy and co-hosts a podcast.
Thus, both work for the same private think tank, Takshashila. Kotasthane recently teamed interactively in a well synchronised podcast with Gen. Menon on the Takshashila podcast platform (26.4 minutes) about how TOD could help reduce the enormous pensions burden; having been exclusively designed to do just that. The advantages/disadvantages/implementation norms of TOD were also discussed with their joint pensions’ management paper as the backdrop to the entire discussion. Kotasthane acted as the podcast anchor/co-discussant and kept the focus on reducing the pensions bill. Hear the podcast at Takshashila EP 334 of 26 May 2020. Tour of Duty; Short Term Service in the Army.
The TOD Proposal as Discussed in the Podcast
‘Essentially created without investing in too much detailing, the reduce-pensions proposal is an updated version of past efforts focused on cost-cutting as the primary if not exclusive strategy to reduce pension liabilities to free more money for defence acquisitions. Menon is convinced that there is a huge demand perceived by government from young men who wish to be inducted for serving the army with spirit and daring; “for the thrill, adventure and pride of wearing the uniform”.
These young men (women not yet included) wish to be part of the army’s elite uniformed fraternity and experience that special bond and camaraderie that soldiers experience in actual war. Menon feels that their induction will result in a happy convergence of young men seeking military service for a short duration with honour and guts, grit and the GOI need to save big bucks.
The GOI will, thus in the long term, save huge money if the scheme catches on because there will be no pension liability or severance/overheads or hidden perks and their costs. You get trained for six-eight months; then serve for three years in two separate operational areas. You may get additional truncated training by way of short refresher cadres in the Unit to meet specific operational challenges. In the short term, as already reiterated, there will be more money available for purchasing new weapons or replacements for discarded warlike equipment and for operational logistics.
The candidates, inducted after meeting exacting and uncompromising UPSC/SSB selection regimen as in current usage for other kinds of induction, will get recruited at the pilot programme scale of 100@year for officers and 1000@year for Other Ranks and then serve in the army’s many hot-spots under warlike conditions, presumably in two successive same or different operational area conditions as, for example, in Jammu and Kashmir, International Border, Line of Control, Line of Actual Control and the Northeast.
They will serve exclusively in the Infantry, learning practical soldiering as well as the soldiers’ way of life; physical and mental toughness in the introductory six months and through subsequent short Unit cadres/upgrades or, more likely, learn on the job under fire. The principal focus, as Menon states and Kotasthane vociferously agrees, is that this form of officer/Other Rank entry will be without the huge financial sting that past schemes now gone awry have invited.
You serve your tenure and then meld in the Civvy Street with nothing to take home except for a cherished Badge of Honour and, for a freak minority, the odd bravery medal(s), may be physical maiming/loss of an appendage or other injuries but no severance benefits other than an anticipated Rs 5-6 lakh gratuity for officers and Rs 2-3 lakh gratuity for other ranks. There will, however, be the huge advantage of being trained and disciplined for whatever next career that the TOD inductee may enter post discharge but with no guarantee of suitable placement by GOI/private industry.
Most importantly, there would be huge long-term savings as the SSRC officer who serves 14 years costs the exchequer almost Rs 6.8 crores per officer whereas the TOD officer would cost a mere Rs 85 lakh per three years which is a staggering eight-fold reduction in costs. The same officer if granted permanent commission—and 50-60 per cent of them do qualify for this award—will cost another Rs 3 crores till retirement at age 54 and another Rs 9 crores in pension liability post his retirement.
The calculations do not end there. An Other Rank costs Rs 11.5 crores to the exchequer over 17 years of service (the current norm) but only Rs 4.89 lakh if recruited for a three period.
Mentioned in passing but for serious reader understanding is the fact that, if the pilot scheme works, it may find itself extended by the DMA to the sister Services; the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force (IAF) and thereby, further reduce defence pensions liabilities, freeing scarce money for new defence acquisitions.
The issue of women officers has not been raised in the podcast as they are presumably not seen as participants in combat conditions; only in combat support, even though the Supreme Court makes no such distinction.
In a historic judgment on 16 February 2020, the Supreme Court cleared the way for volunteer women to be inducted in the regular armed forces in permanent commission mode. “It is an insult to women as well as the army when aspersions are cast on women, their ability and their achievements in the army,” the Supreme Court noted.
The Supreme Court said that the Centre’s opposition to permanent commission and command appointments to women officers citing physiological features is disturbing and cannot be accepted. While reading out the order on the centre’s appeal challenging the Delhi High Court’s ruling in 2010, Supreme Court judge Justice DY Chandrachud said, “Soldiers must have the physical capability to do one’s role. Women in the army are an evolutionary process.”
The decision has, thus, opened opportunities to women officers in the Indian Army to serve for a longer duration and to pursue permanent careers in all branches like their male counterparts. Extension of the TOD scheme, if successful to women officers, can therefore be taken as a fair supposition even if initial entries would be for combat support employment in the battle area. The issue is not discussed further, being currently irrelevant.
Implementation Norms for TOD
The podcast reveals that while the inductees would be paid current salary as applicable and provided existing allowances/perks available to serving personnel, there would probably be restrictions on availability of annual/casual leave as currently entitled to make better use of the officers’ short tenure. Understandably, the inductees would be barred from courses of instruction other than the Young Officers course/truncated recruitment training for Other Ranks. Similarly, the inductees would not be sent on temporary duty/administrative responsibilities/appointments to glean “more bang for the buck”; in other words, extract more operational area mileage. The podcast discussion assumed that much learning would be imparted within the Unit due interaction with other officers/personnel.
Gen. Menon, now no longer in governance, expressed distinct unease about the work and operational environment within which the officer inductees in particular would have to live, operate, earn acceptance from soldiers and officer peers and their respect. He noted that inducting officers in TOD “may not be a good idea”. His plea was that it takes time and skilling to learn how to lead soldiers in war and the TOD did not offer that time or skilling in handling weapons, men and operating environment.
Both agreed that their 2019 paper on the inversion model of induction of CAPF-seven year army tenure-CAPF sequencing of officers; the key linchpin of their above quoted paper was the way out. Menon also noted that for officer inductees, previous schemes of similar nature like TOD had either backfired or were stillborn with the army still being 7,680 officers short.
The podcast suggested that so far as the Other Ranks were concerned, there is no deficiency in numbers and the rationale for inducting them to reduce pension bills makes financial and operational effectiveness sense. Menon ended on a sombre note, suggesting that government would have to think through multitudes of released personnel of TOD who had weapons expertise and were back in Civvy Street making a living in whatever manner they could in the near absence of government support as has happened with generations of EC/Short Service Commission officers since 1962.
Assessment of the Podcast Content for TOD
References to the author and his thinking, having, till recently been part of government at secretary/ OSD levels was important to figure out what MoD is thinking about in the absence of open details. What stands out is that the TOD proposal is purely and simply driven by an urgent need to reduce pension bills and correspondingly provide money for defence purchases.
It is not clear on what basis the authors have presumed that multitudes of 18-21-year-old males just out of school are desperately keen to don uniform for three years because of the desire to look macho and think and act bravely in actual war conditions for which, besides euphoria they have little practical knowledge or insights. If a national survey was carried out, public and social media remain unaware and ill-informed about its contents. What appears more likely is that the authors have made assumptions and based their responses of them; at best an awkward premise.
There is also a contradiction in terms where, while the TOD for officers is ruled out because of its impracticality, it is accepted for Other Ranks. It does appear that, while denigrating the TOD, the duo pitches in for their inversion model as the antidote of all manning issues while meeting the need for reducing pension bills while maintaining operational efficiency. The fact that this 2019 proposal rebottled from past such proposals has so far not been accepted by government but, instead, TOD has been floated indicates that the officers may be at odds with current government thinking.
Environmental Reactions to the TOD Proposal
These are varied depending upon the proximity of the writer to government sources/centres of power. This is why the thinking of Gen. Menon and his associate and their 2019 work has been given prominence. That aside, the major deductions are listed below:
- The defence budget even in its very modest form of 1.46 per cent of GDP is badly skewed in favour of defence pensions which are a trend that must be arrested.
- As a consequence of defence pension allotment, the army has little to make new purchases with or replace/upgrade obsolete equipment/invest in critical operational logistics/infrastructure needs.
- The TOD is structurally and conceptually in dire need for an urgent review based on practical and operational realities. If NDA, for instance, takes in cadets after 10 plus 2 and takes four years to train its product to meet minimum operational needs and Direct Entry IMA cadets joining after graduation need 18 months and OTA cadets 10 months, it is untenable for young 18-21-year-olds (the same age as NDA entries) to be trained for six months to face daily challenges of life, death and instant decision making in the war zone.
- TOD inductees will not be trusted by rank and file because of young age, inexperience, lack of awareness of weapons, their handling, logistics and man management experience which their counterparts have in plenty.
- The current, decades old assiduously nurtured and developed social, emotional and leader-led bonding between the various forms of entry into the army will be adversely affected not just at the officer level but equally and more hurtfully at the soldiers’ level.
- At family levels, the future social prospects of these young inductees will meet with much derision and skepticism and create social divides.
- The ugly tag of ‘Guest Officers’ out to glean macho credentials as their sole tasking in war zone activity will become a hateful label.
- Fallouts on issue of honours/awards; handling discipline and personal issues will make unity amity vulnerable and Company Operating Bases (COB’s) a nightmare to live, work and operate in.
- The same issues though at reduced levels will be applicable to Other Rank entries.
- The near total absence of compensation/subsequent job security/placement in CAPF for TOD entries post release will seriously degrade candidate interest after the first rush of blood, if that happens.
- Lack of mention of death/disability/long hospitalisation and government support thereof and lack of post release placement will discourage applicants.
- Lastly, the timeless image of the Indian Army and its ethic of Naam, Namak, Nishan and Mai-Baap; its long-cherished positioning as the nations’ deeply loved ‘Go To’ service for all eventualities will take a major hit which is best avoided.
The Indian Army has established for itself a reputation that is the envy of the military world for long decades. We all know that no price is enough if paid for maintaining the sovereignty of India against all threats. We also know that the Indian soldier is amongst the world’s toughest, grittiest and tenacious soldiers ever seen since warfare began. He deserves to be led by officers who are better than he is; not by guest officers here one day, out the next; ill-trained and ill-prepared to lead the finest of soldiers. We must remember that on entry, soldiers sign a covenant of unlimited liability till death. No one else does this in the world but soldiers. We must respect them by having the finest and best lead them.
In this context, the following points are offered:
- The pensions bill needs paring yes, no doubt there. Look carefully at the almost 4,00,000 defence civilians who add a huge load on defence pensions and see what can be done about them beyond the part-tackling of MES.
- The TOD is currently raw and unfinished, though a good idea. Examine afresh by absorbing the feedback now generated and reframe its conditionalities.
- There is a long felt need to take out a Blue Paper on all aspects of defence examination, selection, induction, training and subsequent utilisation, training and education. In a brilliant initiative led by veteran Col Vinay Dalvi, a blog based on his Victory India books on our current selection processes needs urgent perusal and follow up decision making. (See https://missionvictoryindia.com)
- With the complex geo-strategic and geo-political environment we live in India today, there should be no hesitation to hike our defence budget to 2.5 per cent of GDP and keep it there till we are ready for inevitable war.
- We have a dozen or more existing entry schemes. All need to be re-looked at and fully exploited, keeping defence expenditure in mind but not compromising on quality.
Lastly, we must remind ourselves that there is no price big enough to be paid for ensuring national security and the defence forces are its guarantors. Let that price be paid.
(This article first appeared in the Guts, Grit and Glory Column of 'Force' in its June 2020 edition, and has been reproduced with due permission of the author and Force executive editor Ghazala Wahab. Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')