Armed Forces Are Not For Experiments - Listen to Professionals, Scrap 'Tour of Duty'
"The Armed forces are not like a limited liability Company
to be reconstructed from time to time
as the money fluctuates.
It is not an inanimate thing like a house
to be pulled down or enlarged or structurally altered
at the caprice of the tenant or owner.
It is a living thing.
If it is bullied it sulks;
If it is unhappy, it pines;
If it is harried it gets feverish;
If it is sufficiently disturbed
It will wither and dwindle and almost die,
And when it comes to this last serious condition,
It is only revived through lot of effort and lots of money".
-Sir Winston Churchill
The Armed Forces of India are the last bastion of the Nation for safe-guarding the borders - land, sea, air and space; as well as the sovereignty of our nation state.
They have not surfaced today but have evolved over centuries, ensuring that they organise and re-organise; change when the situation demands after due deliberations by experienced individuals using their accumulated wisdom and experience.
While doing so, due note is taken of the international and regional strategic environment; detailed review of our potential adversaries; and studying how major militaries of the world restructure and change. What emerges is an organisation and structures that can serve the nation in all facets of security. It is this that enables the other sinews of the country to grow in a safe environment.
The Indian Armed Forces have, over the years, met challenges even beyond these and tackled diverse and at times novel challenges that have confronted the nation, both by natural causes or those that are man-made. It includes operations against different types of insurgents on the one hand and coming to the succour of the polity in diverse areas of assistance, including assisting the Indian diaspora in many countries.
Unlike other instruments of the state, the Indian military has always carried out allotted tasks with precision and elan. Such handling of tasks has been possible on account of the military's first-class professionalism, in-depth training, leadership, experience and ethos, on the one hand, and its functioning in an apolitical environment.
This last quality is now being buffeted with head winds created by our governing elites, who have little knowledge of 'matters military', mainly to bolster their individual or group standing in electoral battles.
The lynchpin of our system of government is that we are a secular democracy. It is the military of India that exemplifies both, by being apolitical and this is a great strength of our military.
However, one observes with mounting anxiety that lately our apolitical ethos is being dented severely. This needs to stop by actively ensuring that political parties do not use the military for enhancing their own value or tasking them to carry out unnecessary and absurd changes/tasks, which may meet political ends. But are likely to change the character and dilute the strengths of the armed forces that have been nurtured over decades and have paid handsome dividends to the nation.
The on-going "Tour of Duty (TOD)" concept is the latest policy that is sought to be foisted on the armed forces; it will have extremely negative implications for the current high-grade strengths of the armed forces, which are acknowledged by militaries of most great powers and especially by our two main adversaries.
Whereas no formal details of the structural and organisational changes in the offing have been announced, leaks and conjectures in the media, as well as professional discussions indicate that what is being contemplated is not only ill-judged to put it mildly, but will be catastrophic for the ethos, elan and professionalism of the armed forces.
Two major issues, both important on their own, are sought to be used or mated to achieve 'an animal that is neither fish nor fowl!'
On its own, the concept of inculcating qualities of discipline, love for the country, nationalism, making better citizens, and giving some kind of a job to the youngsters, which the government has failed to provide. The unstated aim is to improve the electoral prospects of the government in power.
The vehicle chosen, viz. the military, reeks of ignorance of the armed forces, how they are organised and how they become professional warriors who deter and fight for victories for the nation. If the TOD scheme, as presently envisaged, is not stopped in its tracks and de-linked from the military, we would be diluting the military's capabilities to levels that are unacceptable for both 'deterrence' and/or 'waging war'.
The second stated aim of reducing funds currently under the head of pensions, is undoubtedly a challenge, but there are many other ways to achieve it. Let statistics guide us.
The strength of the Indian military is about 1.4 million. This includes about 3.75 lakh civilian employees paid out of defence budget. Though they are around 25% of the strength of the defence forces, in terms of pay and allowances, their take home emoluments for both pay and pension, in percentage terms, are higher due to their longer service, Non-Functional Financial Up-gradation (NFFU), better allowances and so on.
Nearly 55,000 personnel retire from the defence forces annually. This includes a large number of civilian employees, whose pension is greater than equivalent armed forces personnel. The average annual defence civilian pension is roughly Rs. 5.38 lakhs versus Rs. 1.38 lakhs for military pensioners, reflecting longer career spans for the former.
It would be clear that the direct method of saving funds for the armed forces is to substantially reduce or completely remove the civilian cadre from defence entities. This recommendation has been repeatedly made in the past, lately by the Shekatkar Committee. However, our systems are so hackneyed and selective that all civilian government employees are well protected and only those recommendations that suit the political leaders and the bureaucracy are accepted!
Civil government employees have traditionally been a major 'vote bank' for the ruling dispensation and are well organised. Their unions are powerful and they abhor change, as the present system implying 'less work, more pay and no accountability' suits them admirably. Since Independence, we have seen all types of governments ruling the nation, from over two thirds majority; to coalitions; but none of them have changed the system. Obviously, no political party or grouping wants to take up this challenge.
A connected issue is that freebees, doles and compensations have become the methods of governance of all parties, not to speak of inflaming passions by creating religious rifts in the pluralistic society of our nation, which has always been our civilisational and cultural strengths, much admired throughout the world.
Governments of all hues have compensated such expenditure by starving the military of funds and coming up with imprudent policies whereby the military is weakened. Governments forget that militaries need to modernise all the time and dependence only on military manpower, however good, is neither good for the military nor the nation.
Unfortunately, most governments have deliberately spent much needed funds on instruments that enhance prestige and optics of the rulers and their loyalists and advisers, but who continue to be less than capable for the tasks they have to perform!
QED: call the army!
With a view to reduce pay and pension, the TOD proposal appears to be to enroll recruits for a period of four years only and then discard them with no pension and meagre severance pay. Thereafter, re-recruit a quarter of them for permanent service, but with the proviso that their earlier service of four years will not be counted for purposes of emoluments, seniority, promotion, retirement benefits and so on! Is this fair?
This cycle will thereafter form the method of recruitment. With this kind of proposal, young men and women will first try their luck elsewhere and only the residual numbers will opt for the armed forces. Do we want this?
Let us also look at what unit commanders will do when 25% of the strength will rotate every year, besides those who have to retire on completion of their service or are boarded out due to medical reasons.
Most unit commanders will assign the lowest and simplistic duties to such rookies, and the permanent cadre would have to perform additional duties. Wonder how the rookies will absorb the ethos of the armed forces while doing this level of work! Commanding Officers will also have to continuously make lists of those that are to be re-recruited. This may result in malpractices like attempting to get on the 'list' containing those selected for retention after four years.
By going into more details, one will come up with many more anomalies for unit commanders to solve. One need not spell out the state of fitness for war of units with increasing numbers of rookies. As no one can predict when fighting operations will commence as also how the rookies will behave in stressful and warlike situations!
Much is being made out about the rookies learning new skills, which will enable them to get better jobs in the corporate and other sectors. It is a pipe dream because there is bound to be a mismatch between what the rookies have to offer and what suits the corporate honchos! Ultimately, with all their expectations unmet, they will at best get similar jobs as at present, i.e., security guards!
There is also the danger of these somewhat trained youth, who have tasted order, discipline and fairness while in the army becoming rogues and ready-made foot soldiers for existing and future bad guys.
It is understood that the TOD proposal will not apply to technical personnel. Since practically all personnel in the Navy and Air Force are technical personnel, it is the army that will bear the brunt and within the army it will mostly be the infantry, which is the workhorse of the army and the combat arms!
With so many negatives the proposal needs to be quietly placed on the back-burner. With the kind of active threats on our borders, it will be stupid to adopt this type of proposal at this juncture.
Defence budgets have been declining since the mid 1980's and are now less than 1.5 % of our GDP. With this level of funding, hardly any modernisation is possible, resulting in the armed forces carrying obsolescent and obsolete arms and equipment. However, India's militaries are expected to perform miracles, like being a force capable of cyber age warfare, featuring near-future Artificial Intelligence (AI), Drone Swarms and state of the art autonomous fighting platforms.
Although Atma-nirbharta is a sound plan, even after five years, hardly any new equipment has been fielded. In any case indigenous arms and equipment manufacture takes years and decades to fructify.
The government needs to be reminded about what the then COAS had stated when the Kargil intrusion had taken place in 1999, to quote: "we will fight with what we have". Over two decades have passed, but the military continues to be in the same state, or perhaps worse.
The government must refrain from taking the easy way out and dropping every task in the lap of the armed forces, ignoring the huge negatives that the armed forces will suffer.
Having observed the steady downgrading of the military since Independence, what is amazing is the total unaccountability of our civilian officials, yet they continue to be interposed between the elected executive and the armed forces.
This has given them undue importance, at the cost of the Elected Executive getting unadulterated military advice from professionals. The result is that half-baked ideas and plans on important military and security issues get accepted. When adverse effects surface in due course, it is the military that gets the blame and everyone else carries on as usual. The present TOD Concept will meet the same fate.
There are other options available, which will not affect the capability of the military yet achieve the results that the government wants to achieve. Since it is quite obvious that the Prime Minister wants the youth of India to become better and disciplined citizens of the country and imbibe/learn the professionalism, dedication and single-minded focus on the nation that the armed forces exude, the suggested methods are those where the military will still be the lead instrument in the training and subsequent employment of the youth, but without losing or diluting its capabilities.
Options available include expansion of NCC (Todays news is that the Government wants the meagre army component reduced! ;) Territorial Army; and using the veterans who have the same ethos and expertise as the serving personnel, but according to the Raisina lore are thought to be 'spent cartridges'! A pilot project, using one or more of the above options can be suggested, provided there is interest.
In the end, it is emphatically recommended that the present proposal of three or four years limited service be dropped as it will seriously harm the current capabilities of the Indian Military. It is unfortunate that the current advisers are taking loyalty to such extremes that deliberations and thoughts on the end state are ignored and the focus is only on the present.
We all will do well if we take time out to reflect on the end state, as the great Chankya had stated:
"Before you start some work, always ask yourself three questions
- Why am I doing it, What the results might be and Will I be successful.
Only when you think deeply
and find satisfactory answers to these questions, go ahead."
- Chanakya (Indian politician, strategist and writer, 350 BC-275 BC)
Lt General Vijay Oberoi is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff and former Founder Director of Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS).
Cover Photograph from Facebook