The Indian Army is crying out for modernisation and assistance primarily for two major reasons. The Defence budget falls drastically short of meeting the needs of capability development of the Armed Forces in general and the Army in particular. Its revenue to capital expenditure ratio is around 87:13. Despite the Defence budget is grossly inadequate to meet the needs of the Defence Forces, it is four times the education budget and seven times the health budget.

The pie being the same other sectors get sacrificed too. We are paying a huge price for such low allocation in the health sector in the current COVID-9 pandemic which has been further heightened by the Amphan cyclone in Bengal, Odisha and Bihar. The Defence budget has grown upwards of 65 per cent in the last five years whereas salaries which includes defence civilians has grown by 75 per cent; but it is the pensions budget that has grown phenomenally high by about 140 per cent.

Our pension budget is almost twice the Pakistani Defence Budget. A silver lining of reduction in pension budget once Defence Civilian Personnel inducted from 2004 start retiring due to their pension coming under the National Pension Scheme may also not help as the number of Armed Forces Personnel will continue to grow due to better life expectancy and OROP commitment.

High revenue liability leaves the Indian Army with very little for capital procurement. The need today is to go in for niche defence modernization and technology development in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Cyber Warfare, Space based systems, robotics, drones, Electronic Warfare (EW), Quantum Computing, high end communication technology.

These requirements need big money if we have to cater for a two and half front commitment. But where do we get the money if we are going to increase our revenue expenditure year on year by 15 to 16 per cent? Unless we save our big ticket expenditure of salaries by rightsizing and some out of the box innovation we are going to get reduced to a low end technology equipped army. Is this desirable? I am afraid not. The idea of Tour of Duty (ToD) seems to be an outof- the-box solution and we need to make it work without losing our operational effectiveness and preparedness.

The second issue confronting the Indian Army is career progression. ToD (Tour of Duty) to some extent may address this issue. Due to our pyramid shaped organisational structure career progression in the officer cadre is a humongous challenge. As per estimates the strength of nonempaneled officers (overlooked for promotion) in the Army is going to touch around 14,000 by 2030.

Criticism of ToD and to some extent rightly so is coming from many defence experts and retired senior officers on the grounds of lack of motivation of ToD officers due to their limited tenure and uncertain future after completion of ToD. In matters of war fighting and CT operations inadequately motivated officers will definitely affect the operational effectiveness.

But what is the current state of the Indian Army? Can we imagine what will be the state of the Army with 14,000 non-empaneled officers? It is a reality that barring a few, most of the non – empaneled officers perform suboptimally. We also must consider that against the ideal ratio between permanent and support cadre officers for better upward mobility of 1:1.1 the ratio stands at 3.7: 1.

Should this idea succeed we could order an internal study and come up with an ideal ratio of officers between permanent cadre: SSCO (Short Service Commission Officers) : ToD. If the experiment fails we are at liberty to junk the plan. In any case the ToD officers will only fill up the deficient billets which are in the junior service bracket.

We must keep in mind that unit commanders as such are functioning with major deficiencies to the tune of 8 to 12 officers in respect of major combat and combat support unit depending on where the unit is located. So it may be worth trying young blood (ToD officers) and give them to young and dynamic COs to extract work out of them who as such are functioning with major deficiencies.

There is no harm in at least giving the idea a chance as a pilot project. If it succeeds we may look at setting right the permanent versus the support cadre ratio for better promotion avenues in the Army. Major benefits of the ToD will accrue essentially in savings in the defence budget and availability of officers in junior ranks in various units. These are two major issues confronting the Indian Army and by extension the country.

By rough estimates if we were to just induct 1000 soldiers on ToD we would end up saving more than Rs 20,000 crore. Likewise if we replace 1500 SSCOs with ToD (subject to success of pilot project say on 100 ToD officers) the net saving to the defence exchequer would be to the tune of 35 to 40,000 crore. These savings would further increase if we were to take the fitment factor of 2.5 and calculations for 40 years of pension for permanent cadre (50 to 60 per cent officers are awarded permanent commission).

In terms of savings this is a substantial amount and would definitely ease our constraints of modernizing the Indian Army. Criticism of the proposal on the grounds of inadequate training and professional skills do appear justified. But before rejecting the idea if we do an environment scan we would find that short three-year tenures have been very successful in the Israeli Defence Forces, South Korea, Russia and even the US although the conscription is not mandatory in the case of the US now.

The Russian tenure has over time been reduced from three years to just one year. Likewise South Korea has tenures ranging from 1 to 1.5 years. Israel has tenure of 32 months for men and 24 months for women. All these nations have achieved a fair amount of operational effectiveness with short tenures. In the case of India there would be a voluntary induction of personnel for ToD. As compared to a compulsory conscription, which is the case in most of the countries, voluntary service personnel should be better motivated.

This is likely to pay better dividends in operational effectiveness. Even if we look at the performance during the Kargil war, most of the officers who excelled were less than 3 years of service bracket. Finally, from what one has gathered, if ToD officers are facilitated better avenues for second career prospects by corporate houses (Mahindras have already offered to do so), given some good financial handshake package and tie-ups for preference through MoUs for category A MBA and Engineering institutions they will definitely be better motivated and serve to the best of their capability.

It is also learnt that there will be no compromise on the training of such officers. The duration and expenditure on training of SSCOs and ToD will be same i.e. 44 weeks. We need not shoot the idea even before it is born, let’s for once give a good idea a chance.

(The writer, a retired Lieutenant-General (PVSM, AVSM), is former Chief of Staff, Eastern Command, former Corps Commander, former Commandant, Army War College, ex-IG Ops NSG, and former member of various National Level Emergency Response Committees)