Making sense of the military’s Rawat conundrum

Not many of us will be familiar with Hanlon’s Razor, a principle or rule of thumb akin to Murphy’s Law, which states “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Its application can go a long way in helping eliminate the more devious motives we tend to attribute for much of human behaviour.

Over the years General Bipin Rawat, former Army Chief and the present Chief of Defence Staff, has been in the middle of numerous controversies for his apparently off the cuff attempts to control burgeoning defense expenditure. While many disparate motives have been imputed to him, to be fair, he is probably as keen as most to improve the capabilities of our Armed Forces.

Sadly, other than an overwhelming desire for achieving immediate results, neither the ability to think through the implications of his initiatives, especially their impact on the organization or personnel, nor any genuine attempt at taking others along, have been the hallmark of his efforts.

Take his latest proposal in which he has attempted to sort out the broader issue of retention of personnel, especially those technically qualified, while also simultaneously attempting to control the rising expenditure on pensions. Incidentally, matters pertaining to pensions are not within his ambit of responsibilities as laid down in the Government’s Rules of Business for the Department of Military Affairs which he also heads. What is proposal has managed to do is create fears within the serving community that it may be an attempt at replacing the existing pension system, while some veterans believe it is an attempt to undermine OROP, which this Government has only partially fulfilled.

Retention of skilled personnel is not just a concern for the military but also in all fields of endeavor, as we all know, especially more so when an individual has highly marketable skills, such as a pilot or surgeon or even an Operational Theatre Nurse, for example. Therefore, forcing them to retire at an early age after having trained them, as the military does, based on the rank they reach, is clearly not the optimum utilization of their expertise.

Undoubtedly, increasing their retirement ages, as has been proposed, makes eminent sense, though there will be limitations that must be taken into account because many of these specializations will be required in combat zones where age is an extremely important factor. For example, expecting a 57- year- old surgeon to be posted in a medical unit located at high altitude is neither desirable nor practicable for understandable reasons.
Therefore, across the board increase in retirement ages for all technically qualified personnel makes little sense because as they get older their utility in combat support roles, their primary task, will be increasingly questionable and they will become a liability.

Moreover, the rationale put forward that by retaining them in service will lower pension costs is misleading, it may do so initially, but as even a back of the envelope calculation of long- term impact on CTC will clearly show they will cost the exchequer more.
However, what is really irksome is the proposal to curtail pensionary benefits to those requesting to leave prematurely in an attempt to incentivize retention.

Firstly, applying such measures only to uniformed personnel while others in the Central Government are not impacted is not only legally untenable but also foolish as it only disincentivizes people from joining, especially since the military is already short of its authorized strength. Most importantly, the military of necessity, needs personnel who are motivated and willing to go beyond the call of duty, if we expect them to win us wars. How forcing anyone to stay on compulsorily can ever be a battle winning factor truly boggles the mind.

Undoubtedly, the increasingly high expenditures incurred in meeting pensions for those who are paid from Defence Estimates, including civilians, is a cause for serious concern. Not only does it put a strain on the Central government’s financial resources, which could be used elsewhere, but also impacts the amount available for capital expenses that go towards modernization and the procurement of new weapon systems.

The truth is defense pensions needs to be looked at through the lens of a much larger prism. Firstly, the defence budget is wholly dependent on the National Security Strategy we wish to pursue and the military capabilities we wish to build. Since Prime Minister Modi’s ascent to power we have seen a gradual decline in the defense budget, as a percentage of the GDP, to levels not seen since 1962. Obviously, threat assessments made in the past few years were grossly wrong, for which we are now paying the price, being forced to undertake emergency procurements, at huge cost, in an effort to counter Chinese actions in Ladakh. A defense budget of less than 3% of GDP is unrealistic, given the security challenges we face.

Moreover, our defense pensions are grossly skewed as more than a third of the military pension budget is disbursed to civilians paid out of Defence Estimates, though they account for around a fifth of all pensioners. More importantly, a question that the Government refuses to face is why does a military of 1.3 million uniformed soldiers require a support staff of half a million civilians? For example, as Mr. Bhartendu Kumar Singh, of the Indian Defence Accounts Service, in an article in the Eurasia Review pointed out “the Accounts Branch of the Indian Air Force, for example, has 492 commissioned officers and 7,000 men catering to the pay matters of 1,60,000 officers and men in the Air Force. On a competitive note, the same can be provided by 300 people on the civilian side very easily.”

The Government clearly has its task cut out, if it is keen to reduce the pension bill, not by adopting the rather ill thought measures suggested by the CDS but by cutting down on the civilian establishment within the Ministry of Defence, which is in many ways much like the tail wagging the dog. As regards retention, there is a need to adopt more innovative methods to achieve our requirements.

The United States Navy, for example, in its efforts to retain some of its Special Forces personnel is contemplating the introduction of sizeable bonuses for those who volunteer to stay on, much in the manner that business corporations function.

Finally, the General would be well advised to remember that change for the sake of change is not necessarily progress. As this columnist has time and again pointed out this Government has, over the years, behaved atrociously with the military. For reasons best known to itself it has indulged in deliberate actions to hurt their self-esteem and stature. It is also common perception, within the Services community at least, that General Rawat owes his career growth to the present dispensation and has therefore spared no effort to further the government’s intentions. All of this may well be true, but a simpler more likely explanation could be the one that Robert J Hanlon of Scranton Pennsylvania came up with!

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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