National security and military preparedness are being discussed purely in financial terms, with the focus being on reducing the pension bill.
India’s budget for FY 2022-23 allocated Rs 5.25 lakh crore for defence, which includes the defence pension component of about Rs 1.2 lakh crore. This pension component has been a matter of considerable debate amongst political, bureaucratic and think tank circles, who offer the view that if the pension component can be reduced, a larger portion of the defence budget could be made available for defence modernisation and for capital acquisitions. As the Indian Army has the largest manpower, the focus has been on looking at measures which could reduce the Army’s pension bill.
Towards this end, in 2019, an Army veteran, Lt Gen P. Menon, along with Pranay Kotasthane, both from the Takshashila Institute, wrote a discussion paper recommending an “inverse induction model” to reduce the Army’s pension bill. Broadly, the proposal was to induct personnel recruited into the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) into the Army for a period of 7 years, after which they would be sent back to the respective police force, which had enrolled them. In principle, this idea is not new. The Army had long recommended that personnel who retire from the Army could be side-stepped to the CAPF, but this proposal faced stiff resistance from the police forces. The inverse induction model too, will find little traction and will be resisted by the CAPF.
Another proposal doing the rounds is the “Tour of Duty” (TOD) concept, wherein young soldiers will be enrolled for a period of three to five years. Romantically called “Agnipath”, the soldiers recruited in this proposal will be known as “Agniveers”, following the classic business model of giving a high-sounding name for standard military jobs. A small proportion of Agniveers will be retained by the Army, a few will find their way into jobs in other government sectors, but a majority will have to fend for themselves after their tour of duty is over. They will however be given a small lump sum amount as compensation for the service put in.
What is inherently wrong in these proposals is that national security and military preparedness are being discussed purely in financial terms, with the focus being on reducing the pension bill. The military is the final bastion of a nation’s security. Therefore, the prime focus of India’s Armed Forces must be on force effectiveness and not just on pension outlays. When viewed from a different lens, the discussion will be all encompassing and will not be restricted to a single agenda.
The TOD concept is inherently flawed. Enrolling individuals for short periods of three to five years will have an adverse impact on unit functioning, especially of the combat and combat support arms. Troops in combat excel when the unit fights as a cohesive whole and when bonding is strong, based on esprit de corps, camaraderie and unit ethos. All these aspects will see a gradual erosion with implementation of the TOD concept. Quick turnover of soldiers after completing just three to five years of service will mean that units will always be in a state of flux, with individuals who have just about learned the ropes of war-fighting being replaced by raw recruits. The management problem of the Commanding Officer (CO) will increase exponentially, as his focus will shift to training and managing the constant arrival of new recruits, and then determining who should be retained and who has to be left out. Those left out will nurse a bitterness against the unit and the Army, and are unlikely to be good ambassadors for the military. It will also erode the bonding between the serving soldiers and the veterans, which has an impact on the motivation level of serving soldiers.
These are the intangibles which cannot be quantified but it is these intangibles which are the cutting edge in combat and which can determine the difference between victory and defeat. We need to be careful of the path we tread lest we lose our cutting edge in battle. While the TOD concept will, to some extent, reduce pension liabilities, it will increase training costs, as higher turnover means that we have to increase the entire cycle of recruiting manpower and training the same by a factor of four or five.
The more logical way to go about the issue of getting what is popularly termed as the “best bang for the buck”, is looking into force effectiveness. Here, the entire gamut of research, development and manufacture of weapon systems to include both the public sector as well as the private sector—as also force structuring and maintenance comes into play. The Prime Minister’s push for an Aatmanirbhar Bharat in defence manufacturing will, by itself, be a far more effective tool in improving force effectiveness along with reducing costs than the envisaged TOD concept. Combine this with weapon exports and we have a total game changer at hand. Here, we also need to look into the German Mittelstand, which became a model of economic success. For something like that to succeed in India we need a very proactive bureaucracy which acts as an enabler, supporting such enterprises. Unfortunately, as of now, the private sector is hampered by India’s bureaucratic maze, which makes many entrepreneurs simply shut shop and move off to other countries where their talents are better appreciated.
We also need to look into how future conflict will unfold, and restructure our forces accordingly. Innovation in battlefield tactics and strategy is the name of the game, and the military leadership needs to be thinking at least two decades ahead, about the potential changes that will take place in the battlefield and prepare for the same. While future warfare will have a large component of non-contact warfare, the physical blood and gore of war fighting will still remain a constant. For the non-contact part of warfare, getting individuals on short term contracts from the private sector at various levels may be a better option, especially in the new emerging field of cyber warfare, artificial intelligence (AI) robotics, et al. A holistic long-term view will give the Indian Armed Forces the capability and wherewithal to defend the nation against external threats. Fiddling with the system keeping only the financial aspects in mind could lead to unmitigated disaster in the long run. We have suffered foreign invaders ruling over our land over the last millennium. We cannot traverse that path again.
Let us also remember that there is a cost to maintaining a young army. The nation has to be prepared to pay that cost.
The author is an Army veteran, who is currently, Director, India Foundation.