That the Indian military, and especially the army, has been hounded by shortages and overemployment for nearly three decades needs no elaboration. The army has faced a shortage of officers for the same period for the simple reason that the required quality is not forthcoming, and it is not forthcoming because service conditions and the corresponding compensation package are not good enough.

The prevailing sentiment amongst the serving and veteran community is that it has been dealt an unfair deal. Even traditional military families with five generations of military service have parted ways. In the commercialised world of today, age-old concepts and values of duty and honour are no longer good enough by themselves.

A nation maintains its military as an instrument of national power and means of safeguarding national interests. National security is ultimately a question of evaluating security threats and national interests and deciding on capabilities to meet or secure them. Capabilities in turn mean expenditure.

The evaluation must take the shape of a Strategic Defence Review and define the military capabilities to be created and maintained. We still await one to be formally articulated. As this is over the long term, corresponding long-term budgetary commitments have also to be stated. This obviously includes material and manpower.

If we as a nation are reluctant to invest in our military capabilities, considering all other competing requirements, then the answer lies in scaling down our military – not in terms of quality but the overall force structure. A small, well trained and equipped force is better than a hollow structure built on half measures.

The officer shortage has been attempted to be addressed by various ad hoc measures, each given up after some time. There were at one time seven different modes and schemes for officer entry and commission! And now we have the proposal for a ‘Tour of Duty’, which envisages ‘keen young men’ to serve for about three years after a truncated basic training and thereafter move on to other occupations.

The attraction for these young men is said to be the ‘thrill, adventure and pride in wearing the uniform’. And for the civilian employer a disciplined manpower with military values.

The scheme appears to be part of politics built around ultra-nationalism and glorification of military service without actually addressing the concerns of the military. The prevailing nationalistic fervour is expected to attract patriotic youth towards military service. Such patriotism is sought to be a substitute for a deep rooted institutional and organisational problem.

All militaries have a pyramid structure with a large base rapidly narrowing upwards, and the requirement of a young age profile. Solutions to these fundamental requirements have to be met outside the pyramid. Unfortunately, we have repeatedly sought solutions within the pyramid with cadre reviews, upgradations and so on.

All standing armies have a regular cadre and a support cadre of officers in the ratio of about 1 to 5. We introduced the Short Service Commission for five years, later extended to ten years and further extended to fourteen – and then diluted the concept by granting permanent regular commission to more than half of these officers on the flawed logic of ‘retaining trained manpower’ and ‘welfare’.

This was followed by introducing women short service officers with no permanent regular commission. Judicial intervention followed, mandating the consideration of permanent commission for all. That buried the concept of support cadre as attempted by us. What remains is lingering agitation and legal battles for entitlements and service privileges to these officers.

The Emergency Commissioned Officers inducted in the aftermath of the 1962 debacle and released from service subsequently have a legacy of similar claims and fights till date. Both the Emergency and the Short Service officers were commissioned after a very truncated period of training and it was left to their units to further train and employ these officers.

The Tour of Duty is apparently set on the same path and with the same residual issues as experienced earlier. A failed idea is sought to be tried again. Then the concept begs an answer to the perverse logic that if a few months of training for such officers is good enough then why are we spending so much time and effort on training the regular officer?

The Indian Air Force similarly inducted women as short service pilots in the transport and helicopter streams. This was followed by inducting them as fighter pilots. Now the air force intends increasing the tenure of short service fighter pilots again on the logic of ‘retaining trained (wo)man power’. Claims and judicial intervention for similar increase by the others will inevitably follow. What started as a concept of short service support cadre can be expected to be added to the regular cadre!

The argument that financial savings will help modernise the Indian Army is dubious. The total saving for the suggested numbers and period of engagement would not suffice to equip even one missile air defence regiment, leave aside any meaningful modernisation of the army.

The army today is fully committed in counterinsurgency operations and along the Line of Control and Line of Actual Control. Every newly commissioned officer, including from the services, sees service in J&K or the Northeast in his initial years. This requires well trained, fully committed officers and addressing the concomitant issues of death and disability and allied liabilities of the army and government.

These very service conditions and risks dissuade suitable young men from military service. Can the Tour of Duty officers be expected to have different expectations, or forsake these liabilities under these conditions? If not, would a young man volunteer to undertake these risks for the sake of the ‘thrill, adventure and pride in wearing the uniform’?

Actual combat is a dirty and unforgiving business, far removed from the make-believe of Bollywood movies, ceremonial parades and uniforms. It has no place for incapacity. A wrong move means the loss of life or limb. A soldier trusts his life in the hands of his officer on the assured understanding that the officer is trained and competent to lead him. What faith will they have in such temporary thrill seekers?

Then there is also a linked scheme – ‘inverse induction’ – for officers or soldiers of the Central Armed Police Forces, who will be inducted into the armed forces for a three-year Tour of Duty and then go back to the CAPF.

If this is acceptable, then why not lateral induction of the support cadre from the army into these organisations?

Statements by some industrial houses that they would ‘consider’ such officers for employment have been taken as approval of the idea; however in reality it suggests that they would still not be good enough notwithstanding their ‘Tour of Duty’ and would only be ‘considered’ by them..

It is no secret that a large number of Short Service officers had failed to enter through the regular route and sought entry with the hope of gaining subsequent permanent commission. This was also perhaps the last option left when other avenues were not available. Yet the requirement of a permanent to support cadre of officers in the ratio of 1:5 remains.

The support cadre (short service or whatever nomenclature) must attract entry through a matter of choice and not a compulsion driven by failure. It must have a legislated fixed tenure with no option or consideration for permanent commission. This would require a suitable package on release from service with allied benefits like higher studies, reserved intake into other services etc, backed by legislation to make it attractive.

Past attempts at lateral induction into the Central Armed Police Forces were thwarted even after cabinet approval. The bland reason stated was that ‘it was not accepted by the Ministry of Home Affairs’. Similar recommendations by committees for industrial deputation and absorption never saw the light of day.

The time for ad hoc measures is long past. If the environment and powers that be are unwilling to ensure these conditions for the support cadre, the army will continue to carry the albatross around its neck.

Lt General N.S. Brar (Retd) is former Deputy Chief Integrated Defence Staff and Member Armed Forces Tribunal