The army chief recently announced that the army is considering a new scheme for officers termed ‘Tour of Duty’ (TOD). The scheme envisages three years’ service, with no extension. It aims to attract those seeking to join the armed forces without adopting it as a fulltime career. Whether it succeeds in making up shortfalls in officer ranks will be known soon.

The army has been battling officer shortfall for ages. Simultaneous is the need to provide better promotion avenues for the permanent cadre, which implies enhancing the support cadre, currently the Short Service (SS) cadre and subsequently the TOD. The current ratio of permanent to SS is 3.7: 1, whereas it should have been 1:1.

Added to this is the increasing pension budget, which is officially not part of the defence budget but considered alongside it by the finance ministry. The share of pensions in the overall defence budget is 25 per cent. Despite requests by the armed forces, the defence budget is unlikely to witness any major increase in the future. The current levels could be considered the norm. Higher salaries and pensions (currently 56 per cent) impact availability of funds for capital procurement.

Hence, services maintain current force levels but have restrictions on enhancing capabilities. It is against this background that the government is encouraging forces to bank on indigenous production. The SS cadre was never an ideal career option. The main reason was that those who do not get permanent commission leave with 10 to 14 years’ service, at ages varying between 35- 40.

This adds to uncertainty and vulnerability at a stage when additional family responsibilities exist. This cadre remains undersubscribed by as much as 30 per cent. The armed forces are currently the most respected service, yet youth do not visualize it as a calling for a lifetime career while they may be desirous of serving for a short duration, without impact on future career choices. For many, the lure of the uniform, being a part of the most respected institution in the country and the experience, adventure and discipline which comes with wearing the uniform makes it an option for the short term.

For the organisation, this scheme if successful would enhance the support cadre without impacting pensions and other facilities that accrue to veterans including SS retirees after 10-14 years. As per calculations, the cost of training and salaries for three years will lead to a saving of almost Rs 4 crore per individual as compared to current SS officers leaving after 10 years and Rs 5 crore for those leaving after 14.

Hence, it is a win-win for both sides, those seeking a short army tenure and the armed forces themselves. However, there are stumbling blocks. The first is that from the time an individual takes a call, his selection process, training and service of three years imply almost five years, which would make it unattractive from the outset. This could be reduced in case the selection process is speeded up.

The second is the selection process and duration of training. The selection process needs to be shortened to reduce the gap between decision and joining. If there is a written exam, then it would enhance the duration, making the scheme unsuitable. Clearing the Services Selection Boards would remain mandatory. Reducing basic training as compared to the SS would be detrimental.

Added to it is the need for an officer to undergo the basic Young Officers’ course, which in most cases is six months. Hence, actual service would be approximately two years, if leave and courses are removed. Thirdly, there are doubts whether this scheme has been created to bypass the current five-year short service scheme where the government provides gratuity at the end of service.

It may lead to those joining through this route approaching courts for some compensation at the end of service. Fourthly, the scheme is based on the premise that corporates would prefer those who have served in the army rather than fresh graduates. It assumes that corporates would gain by hiring a disciplined, confident and committed youngster as compared to a greenhorn graduate. Mahindra has accepted the proposition, not others.

The prolonged time lag would, especially in technical fields, make the youngster lose touch with his specialisation. A similar scheme involving corporates had been attempted earlier but failed as corporates backed out. Unsatisfactory response from corporates in hiring officers, who resigned early and underwent management courses in prestigious institutes, belies this belief.

Finally, would this scheme run in addition to the existing SS scheme or is it a replacement? Would it lead to court cases by those who seek continuation? Logically, the army must have as few entry options as possible, rather than the plethora existing currently. For the individual, there are multiple benefits. These include a lifelong affiliation with a battalion or regiment, leading to a permanent connect with the forces.

Pay and allowances would be higher as compared to counterparts who join the industry direct from college. Their curriculum vitae would be exclusive as it would include military service. Confidence, ability to shoulder responsibility, managing stress and better social skills would be a major benefit in future careers. However, they would need to view the impact of being out of contact with their specialisation and corporate environment for three to five years.

In India, various committees have recommended an army stint for those joining central and state governments, which the government has not accepted. Israel follows a pattern of three years’ compulsory service and has found the system successful. In our case, the current scheme is voluntary and could be a greater success than Israel.

However, multiple issues listed above, could derail the scheme even before it takes off. These need a detailed inside review before obtaining views from the environment. Ideally, the army should open a blogsite for suggestions from youth and corporates on the scheme, after all they would subscribe and hire and hence their thoughts are of paramount importance.

(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)