Tour of Duty: The Kindergarten Army

In the current conditions, 100% of Army personnel go through one cycle of Recruitment, Training and Discharge for which capacities are sanctioned and exist.

The tour of duty does not seem to be a good idea. Proceed with caution. However the government seems to be quite determined to push its way through. If that be so, it is time to see the implications of this decision at the cutting edge level.
The tour of duty does not seem to be a good idea. Proceed with caution. However the government seems to be quite determined to push its way through. If that be so, it is time to see the implications of this decision at the cutting edge level.

By Lt Gen P R Shankar ®

From what appears in the media it is now pretty clear that the government is going to implement the Tour of Duty model for recruitment of the Army. The terms of service seem to be 4 years’ service with six months training. At the end of 4 years , 25% will be retained and 75 % will be let go into the civvy street with some severance pay. There is a lot of discussion on how these part time soldiers and will get absorbed into the national fabric. That is of secondary concern. The primary concern is – what will be the effect on the army? How will it affect national security? Will the nation be able to defend itself? Many senior veterans have written with the wisdom of their experience. A common voice has emerged. The tour of duty does not seem to be a good idea. Proceed with caution. However the government seems to be quite determined to push its way through. If that be so, it is time to see the implications of this decision at the cutting edge level.

Hither to fore the implications of this model have been analysed subjectively by experienced veterans. Their voice and caution has been thrown to winds. Hence a mathematical approach has been adopted in this analysis. Figures in this analysis are from publicly available data. At a macro level, eventually, the 12 lakh strong Army will have 25 % full time regulars (3lakhs),  75% soldiers serving for 4years (9 lakhs). This has a major impact on recruitment, training and discharge – turnovers and capacities. The devil is always in the detail. For the purpose of modelling, the mandatory pensionable service is being taken as 15 years. In the current conditions, 100% of Army personnel go through one cycle of Recruitment, Training and Discharge for which capacities are sanctioned and exist. If the new Tour of Duty model is to be implemented, then one cycle is required for 25% of the army personnel who will put in 15 years full service. 3.75 cycles will be required for 75% of the Army who will serve for 4 years. Overall, on amalgamation, there will be three cycles of training required. However since the training period is being cut by half, the overall capacity will have to be increased by one and a half times the current capacities as calculated and illustrated in the model below.

The annual intake into the Army is approximately about 65 thousand soldiers per year, give or take 10%.  It will increase to about 1-1.5 lakhs per year as per this model. This will result in a skewed intake and recruitment model. Why? We do not have adequate numbers even in the current conditions from many parts of the country. Generally vacancies of states from North East, Gujrat, and Goa get undersubscribed and MP, UP, Haryana and Punjab get oversubscribed. If the recruitment goes up by 1.5-2 times, the intake will only aggravate the imbalance disproportionately. This has huge ramifications for the overall structure and social balance of the Army. The Army will be Northern States heavy. The other major problem is the capacity to carry out recruitment of the required numbers needs examination. That will be a major challenge in itself. Recruitment staff has to be multiplied manifold. That means increasing the tail at the expense of the teeth!

The next mega problem is training. Basic recruit training is carried out in training centres. These training centres have been developed over seven decades since independence, to their present capacities. Even at present, the current capacities fall far short to train recruits. The Artillery example is being highlighted. Artillery has two training centres with a capacity of 2000 each. However, each of the Centres invariably trains about 2500 recruits at normal times. This is because the Army expanded over a period of timebut the capacity of training centres were not increased. This strength goes up to about 4000 plus in peak times. This invariably leads to hygiene and sanitation problems. Outbreak of epidemics and infectious diseases occur under such conditions. The current proposal envisages a sustained training output of one and a half to two times the current capacities. Training will suffer. Administration, hygiene and sanitation will take a nose dive. At the end, units will get a soldier who is half trained. A Gunner goes through six months of basic military training and six months of training as a Gunner. Is that being proposed to be cut in half? So the output will neither be a fully trained soldier or a gunner. He will be a tourist. The same applies to someone being sent into a tank unit. Who will fire all the complicated and high tech artillery which is being inducted through Atmanirbharta? Additionally, to train, these recruits, more trainers are required. These are posted from frontline units. See the point. The proposal is adding to the tail. At the end of four years, when these soldiers go on discharge, additional staff will be needed which will be drawn from units. So more cutting of teeth and adding to the tail. So we are going to consistently get substandard soldiers at the cutting edge units after depleting the teeth! Has this been modelled or factored by the genius who thought of this?

In this ‘model’, the rostered strength of a unit is a taken as 500. It implies five hundred people are held on the unit roster.  Of these, 10% are permanently sent on Extra Regimental Employment like RR units, NCC, HQs, R&D establishments, MCOs etc. These 10% vacancies are given to units on a rotational basis. All those sent out have to be above five years’ service and are mostly JCOs/NCOs. Hence the residual War Establishment strength of the unit is 450. In this effective strength, those posted in the unit HQs and specialist sub units are taken as around 120 (27%). This is a conservative assumption.  Resultantly, the number of soldiers in  fighting sub units ie., rifle companies / gun batteries / tank squadrons is 330. That makes it about 110 soldiers per sub unit, assuming a uniform triangular pattern of three subunits per unit. The composition of these 110 soldiers is the crux of the issue.

Presently approx. 1.3 lakh vacancies (as reported)  have built up in the Army over a two year period due to lack of recruitment as a result of Covid (see box). It implies that the vacancies per year are about 65000. For an Army with a sanctioned strength of approx. 12 lakhs, it implies that a recruitment rate of around 5.41% is the normal. This is a stable figure since it is based on a two year average. Let us assume that those recruited are sent to units on an even distribution. This is the base assumption of the model.

Hence for an unit with a strength of 500 , the number of recruits per year is 27 @5.41% annual recruitment (see box) . Over a five year period, the strength of soldiers under five years is five times this ie 135. All these young soldiers are kept in the cloistered and protected environment of fighting subunits due to their relative inexperience. A backward regression indicates that the number of soldiers in subunits with more than five years’ service is195 as shown in the box. When converted into an experience ratio it is 1.44:1. It implies that currently there are three experienced soldiers for two young soldiers. To achieve this , the recruitment model works out to 73:27 (see table). From any perspective based on experience, it can be safely said that at the cutting edge of a subunit, the experience vs youth should not be diluted below 70:30. If this is breached, we will end up with an experience inversion. It means having a three man trench with all youngsters, young drivers at the wheel of a long gun train negotiating head spinning Himalayan curves at top speed or a driver who cannot jockey his tank into a firing position. All three conditions are fraught with danger of a military defeat.

However, when the current proposal is modelled, the figures are alarming. When the retention was initially aimed at 50%, the experience ratio was 1:3.12. That itself was bad. When the retention is going to be only 25%, the experience ratio will be 1:6.33. In a subunit there will only be 15 soldiers above 4 years’ service and 95 soldiers below 4 years’ service. We will not get enough NCOs to be gun detachment commanders or command post in charge or ammunition in charges or OP party communication NCOs or be capable of defending a gun area !Is that not a kindergarten Army?Most notably, like in any kindergarten, the turnover will be high. Every year 25-30 soldiers will be coming in or going out. Ever heard of team spirit in a kindergarten?

In the Gunners, everything is double checked. Not a single round can be fired from an artillery piece if a double check is not carried out at every stage – plotting the target, deriving data, communicating gun data, applying gun data, preparing ammunition, loading ammunition, laying the gun and firing it. The double check is carried out by an appointment who is as competent but slightly junior to the appointment who is responsible for a task. Invariably, the 2iC of that detachment is the check on his boss. This rare quirky and funny rule is followed rigidly since lives are at stake. How does one expect an ignorant and untrained youngster to act as a check on his boss when under enemy fire. When a gun which fires 40 km away, there is no room for error. One thing this author is sure. The performance of Kargil where our gunners blasted Tiger Hill despite being shelled by Pakistanis will not be repeated by a Tour of Duty gunner battery. The same applies to all other subunits of all other Arms and Services.

A major issue will be that who decides the 25% who are going to be retained? In a system where there is no formal assessment till a soldier becomes an NCO, we are going to exclude 75% based on 100% assessment in three and a half years?Nuts! One hopes that someone has thought through this. If one were to summarise, the Tour of Duty is an exercise being undertaken without adequate staff or capacity, in order to create which, the teeth have to be knocked off. Then the not so well trained tourist will be part of a subunit in which there is a rat race for retention with no bonding or no junior leadership. This soldier will be expected to man Brahmos/Pinaka/Vajra weapon system which he cannot handle and defend his gun position from marauding Pakistanis or Chinese. In essence, the tour of duty proposal expects a superman from a kindergarten. We might be producing an Abhimanyu but he will not get out of the Chakravyuhu. After five years of tour of duty, Arjuns will not be available in our next Mahabharata. The cutting edge units will not be able to fight. There are no runners up in war.

Lastly, when I was a brigade commander in the East, the locals wanted me to train the tribals boys so that they can get recruited in the Army. I was very enthusiastic. I chalked out a program and was about to commence the training. The Subedar Major of my Assam Rifles battalion came up to me when I went to the unit and told me ‘Sahab, do you realise that all the boys whom you train and who do not get recruited will be picked up by militant groups? You might be training future militants.” I quietly buried the program.

Is there a case for putting the whole concept on trial?

(The author is PVSM, AVSM, VSM, and a retired Director General of Artillery. He is currently a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras. He writes extensively on defence and strategic affairs @ Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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