Army will be without arms…if it doesn’t revert to Five-year colour service

Indian Army Photo Uniform Editor - Army Suit maker

Figures don’t lie. The payroll expenses and the pensions and the post-retirement sustenance costs (besides pensions, access to canteen and health services for life) are barreling out of control, taking an ever bigger chunk of the exchequer. Based on the truncated one rank, one pension (OROP) accepted by the BJP government with equalization every five years (instead of every two years as suggested by the ex-servicemen’s organizations), the financial subvention for the human resources (HR) category (roughly the defence budget on revenue account + the pensions budget (with 2013 used as base year for one rank, one pension calculations) will hit the country . The scale of outgo on this account will become apparent in its totality when the 2019-20 budget is presented. But even without accounting for the OROP tsunami, the numbers are absolutely stunning. Consider the budgetary figures:


2017-18                              2018-19

Defence Budget


Rs 2,59,262 crores Rs 2,79,305 crores


Growth of Def Budget (%)  16.5 7.7
Rev Expenditure


 Rs 1,72,774 crores Rs 1,85,323 crores
Growth of Rev expend (%) 20 7
Share Rev Exp in Defbud(%) 67 66
Capital Expend Rs 86,488 crores Rs 93,982 crores-
Growth of Capital expend(%) 10 9
Share of Capital Expend (%) 33 34
Cap Acquisition (Rs In Crore) Rs 69,473 crores Rs 74,224 crores (approx)
Growth Cap Acquisition (%) -0.6 6.8 (approx)
Share of Def Budg in GDP (%) 1.54 1.49
Share of Def Bud GOIExp(%) 12.1 11.4
Defence Pension Rs 85,740 crores Rs 1,08,853 crores
Growth of Def Pension (%) 4 27

(Source: Laxman Behera, “”Defence Expenditure 2018-19”,  )

The HR outgo for the army in 2018-19 of Rs 2,94,176 crores almost equals the total defence budget and, at the present rate of growth will, by next year, exceed it by a furlong. (For simplification of analysis purposes, the military’s pensions and revenue budgets are not here disaggregated but lumped in with the navy’s and air force’s, also because the manpower of the smaller services are dwarfed by the army’s; compared to ‘army’s strength of 1.3 million, the air force is 140,000-strong, and navy 100,000-strong.)

With the 5-yearly automatic escalator plugged in, the defence budget will, quite literally be uncontrolled or uncontrollable by the Finance Ministry (as evidenced in the 23% growth on the pensions spend in just one year), even as capital/force modernization plans will have to be sporadically funded — as is already the case now but for reasons principally of absence of inter se prioritisation — or shelved altogether because there will not be enough resources available for them. But the separation of pensions and defence budgets is a bare-faced device to divert attention and soften — on paper — the fiscal impact, because the source of the funding of all these streams is the same — the tax payer’s pocket. If one were to include the 7 paramilitary organizations in totaling the cost in terms of maintenance and pensions, the figure will be altogether humungous. As it is HR upkeep costs are crowding out the outlays for hardware procurement.

The burgeoning problem has finally attracted the government’s attention. Except, the Modi regime has resorted to controversial steps by the Ministry of Defence — covered under the rubric of the civilianization of some 752 cantonment territorial parcels and military lands all over the country –as a means of drastically cutting the expenditure in upkeeping these vast tracts of land and landed-property owned by by the MOD and hitherto set aside for exclusive armed services’ use. This solution has already riled the military and increased the sources of tension between the military and civilian sections of society, and doesn’t address the fundamental problem of the government’s financial support for the military being skewed by the mounting HR expenses. The army has also proposed other means, such as eliminating the one-star Brigadier rank and equivalent from the military. Yes, but the savings will be minimal in payroll and pension costs in any case, but will sow a lot of confusion in the interface between time-grade promoted officers (to the Lieutenant Colonel rank) and colonels destined for higher ranks by selection. And, in any case, how will this new system jell considering a brigade is the army’s fighting unit of choice? Anything smaller being sub-optimal and anything bigger unwieldy.

Oh, sure, there are other decisions the Modi government can take expeditiously to streamline, rationalize, and drastically reduce defence expenditure by, for instance, integrating the training and logistics components of the army, air force and navy into joint Training and Logistics Commands under MOD (to avoid triplication of these capabilities and of funding at each unit level), which will save  a whole lot of money. But anything integrated is shunned by the military and however desirable will not be obtained –witness the state of the realization of Chief of Defence Staff system. It has been provisionally vetoed by IAF. So the economies available by these means won’t happen, especially as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while happily seeking votes from the large, country-wide, military Family for his OROP decision, has shown he lacks  the political will to impose structurally and organizationally re-engineered systems for the bureaucracy and armed services to operate in.

So the only way out seems to be to rejig the manpower-heavy army’s strength without hurting its war-fighting capability.  An obvious solution comes to mind that older generation officers may be partial to: Why not revert to the old five year colour (frontline regimental) service standard for the army? It will have cascading benefits for the country, besides relieving the stress on the state treasury.

India’s  population is some 1,281,935,911; of the available youthful manpower of 616 million, 489.6 million are “fit for service” with 22.9 million annually reaching military service age of 18 years. The entrant-level jawan will have to be unmarried and with a high school-leaving certificate. The five year colour service norm will mean a year for training and battle inoculation and four years of active service, at the end of which an unmarried jawan cohort will pass out of service, still young but now experienced — some of them armed with marketable technical skills in telecommunications, machinery servicing and maintenance, etc. , and each equipped also with a fat remuneration package of couple of crores of rupees paid up-front, lump-sum, to ease their passage back into civilian life and with the financial wherewithal to find their way in the world in second careers lasting a lifetime.

The gains will be numerous, among them (1) a growingly disciplined citizenry, with the ex-armymen in the van, (2) a younger, physically stronger, more lithe and agile army,  that will more readily be deployable in challenging tasks and expeditionary missions, etc. (3) a younger armed forces reserve for call-up in national emergencies, and (4) drastic reductions in the spend on pensions and post-retirement services.

At present  the army is in the worst possible situation in every respect. With the 17-year colour service norm, the average trooper is in his 30s by the time of his release — too young to live a pensioned life, but too old to start out on a new career and to lift himself further. The country has then to sustain him for the rest of his life — for the next some 40 years or more, and his survivors for the rest of their lives, completely skewing the defence budget. Worse, it radically limits the resources the nation can make available for national security generally, but more importantly, for keeping the army and the other armed forces continually modernized and technologically updated.

The country, moreover, will not have to “double dip” by having government-owned banks give loans to the young for their entreprenurial ventures — as Modi boasted in Parliament in last Friday’s vote of no confidence. The jawan graduating with 5-year’s military service behind him will be well-equipped financially and age-wise  to make it on his own.

If the paramilitary organizations were subjected to similar five or seven year frontline service norms, more Indian youth — short of compulsory national service — will be recycled and a huge dent made as regards unemployed or under-employed youth currently clogging up the economy. The demographic bomb, and not demographic dividend, is the country’s most severe existential threat.




About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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10 Responses to Army will be without arms…if it doesn’t revert to Five-year colour service

  1. Brijesh says:

    I regret that Mr Karnad has once again shown that he is firmly wedded to his chair and the solution suggested by him does not even address the problem because even a recruit who has served even for a day is entitled to all the benefits, thanks to the short sighted decisions taken over the years. So, sending out a bloke with five years service will entitle him to all perks unless he is recycled in the CAPFs-something no government has been able to do since early eighties. Considering the dependence of the politicians on police in their initial district years and the close bonds developed there, it is unlikely that this government will be able to do that either.
    The way out, as far as I am concerned, is to introduce National Service for all entrants to universities and government service lasting perhaps a year. This will, at one stroke, provide the required manpower to the forces without any long term budgetary cost. For the officers too, something similar to the four year initial engagement period should be started and those opting out should not get any perks of retirement except perhaps education grant and preferred admission to universities and benefit of military service towards seniority. Entry to central services is already until 28 years so no change will be required or happen in the age profile due to the entry of such entrants as perhaps happened earlier when the entry age was capped at 25.
    Since 1975, when Mrs Gandhi gave in to the populist demands of Late Mr Jagjivan Ram and played with the health of the military by increasing the colour service to pensionable time and lowering the standard for SSB, each succeeding decision affecting the military has been taken on vote bank grounds. I am not sure how many senior officers stood their ground and opposed them ( I am personally privy to at least a couple where the mid level officers strenuously argued against at least one decision but were told ‘we know best’),
    Anyway, that is history and it is Mr Modi’s lot to retrieve the situation.
    Where I agree with the author is that the situation is near dire and requires urgent non-popular remedial measures.

    • Brijesh@ — You are quite right in all that you say. You have also pointed out the villains of this piece. I should have clarified that any trooper with any length of service, howsoever short, is entitled to pensions and other benefits, etc. Keeping in mind the attention span of the average blog-reader I should have included but didn’t because posted in previous posts — the other theme of giving the 5-year mil veterans direct entry into the paramils — something, incidentally, that my classified report as adviser, defence expenditure, to the (10th) Finance commission had recommended to GOI in 1995. All the recommendations were accepted by the Narasimha Rao govt or so we were told. If so, these and other reco’s in that report never got implemented.

  2. HEEMANSHU JHA says:

    Please breakup the pay and pension part of Defence Expenditure as between Uniformed Military Personnel and Defence Civilian Persons. A correct picture will then come out about who actually are causing the burden. Can do the same for CSD too.

  3. Vivek says:

    In a way it is good for two reasons.
    1. Most of taxpayers’ money will be remain in India as part of pension delivered.
    2. Army will not have much choice but to curb unnecessary imports of costly weapons.

  4. Nalin Kishore says:

    This is a harebrained article with no link to reality … Salaries and pensions are a fixed and inflexible cost, whether you have ssc or prc offrs. You pay peanuts you get only monkeys as is already happening. Numbers of esm will continue to increase because if bulk of people retire at 45 -54 and their life expectancy is 75-80 the pensions have to be paid for more than 30 yrs. Solution to this lies in lateral absorption so that pension starts only at 60 plus. In any case govt has to pay 50% salary as pension, so on lateral absorption govt only needs to pay addl 50% to get a fully trained, motivated and efficient person for the next 15-20 yrs – not a trained fellow being wasted out at half pay and employ a raw recruit at half pay.

    Def forces are not corporate entities, their balance sheet shows in safe development and prosperity of nation besides well being of its population ….
    Does anyone even comprehend the cost of defeat and surrender ??? Look at pakistan …

    Wake up … My fellow indians before you stop being indians …..

  5. Rajesh Khosla says:

    Five year colour service will only induct time servers into the military. It takes a very aggressive sense of self worth to lead a platoon/company against accurately sited weapons. That is what the Infantry man has to do. A man with just five years to go and a package at the end of it will think twice before he displays initiative. I have personal experience of this. I flew the re-doubtable MiG 21.The problem with the Mig 21 was that while it was an excellent aeroplane and conferred the status of God to its pilot in its time, yet the minimum safe flying speed was 400 kmph and the landing speed was the same as that of the space shuttle. I know many a MiG Pilot who got an opportunity to make a killing (posting to Iraq/UN etc) and decided to hang up his MiG 21 helmet on return. Or else finding something else to do when the flying programme came calling.
    It is mandatory to have a strong sense of belonging and family espirit de corps of the “paltan/squadron/ship” before the aggressive spirit comes to the fore. Kindly dont make me laugh by telling me that it is patriotism that makes a man fight. Rezang la type actions don’t happen in conscript armies. It is not for nothing that till now the Indian Army has been credited with the finest Infantry in the world. Well, the Brits made the Indian Army. It has lasted for 70 years. Thank God for that. Our politicians are capable of destroying anything. The Army was the last thing left.

  6. Col Vinod Awasthy, SM says:

    I wanted to know as to when the length of colour service in IA was raised to 15 from 7 and why ? Please enlighten.

    • Wasn’t it around 1977? The lengthened service came with an aging fighting force and a hefty pensions bill, and transpired because of political pressure, grassroots up, for pensionary military employment.

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