‘Tour of Duty’ — A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come

If the Indian Army and Ministry of Defence (MoD) has its way, a new channel of recruitment for the armed forces, named ‘Agnipath‘ (path of fire) may soon become reality. Encashing on India’s demographic bounty where more than 50% of the population is below the age of 25, this unique ‘Tour of Duty‘ will open the gates of armed forces to volunteers for a period of four years, including onboarding, training, leave and actual service.

Agniveers‘ selected under this scheme may soon hold a gun and stand watch on some of the most hostile posts few armed forces in the world have to deal with. Over time, bulk of regular recruits in the army will come from this scheme — a service that hithertofore was seen as a “way of life” rather than a tour of duty. If the test balloon survives internal and external metrics (much of which is cloaked in secrecy), it is only a matter of time before TOD sailors stand watch on naval warship gangways or push ordnance under an IAF fighter aircraft belly.

I recall a strange incident from the 80s. A bunch of officer cadets were being drilled to perfection by a dedicated team of naval gunnery instructors (GI). These GIs, most of them senor sailors of the rank of Master Chief Petty Officer (MCPO Class 1 or 2), were the epitome of good order and naval discipline. Tough as nails, raised and honed under fire, they represented the best tools to shape a walk-in officer cadet from a college. We trained for three years under these GIs, though even a few weeks would have left a lifelong impression.

Tirath Singh, MCPO II, a thoroughbred Khalsa (Sikh) who followed every naval tenet of his religion, was a particularly strict GI with no appetite for nonsense. So his outburst at a Sikh cadet when he found his weapon drill less than perfect, though not unexpected, took us by surprise. Shock traveled at the speed of sound through rank and file on that parade ground as Tirath Singh MCPO I bellowed “you fukkan terrorist, up rifle and round the parade ground until further orders (sic)”.

Coming on the heels of Operation Bluestar and all its blowback on the Indian armed forces, what made the senior GI see shades of “terrorism” in one of our best cadet’s minor demeanour on parade still leaves me flummoxed. Today, this could gaslight an entire continent. But here’s the great leveller: Tirath Singh MCPO II and the errant cadet came from the same religion. Both were 24-carat soldiers, committed to the same cause — not for a ‘tour of duty’, but for life.

The beauty of the moment? No one took umbrage; nobody played up a religion card or petitioned the CO for hate speech. Both Tirath Singh and his officer trainee — as all of us — were cut from the same gaberdine. Our Gunnery Officer Lt C Makandar, Special Duties (Gunnery), officer-in-charge of Boat Pool Lt Sheikh Mastan, SD (Bosun), Chief GI Kazi — all of them prepared us for a life at sea — one where days stretch into weeks, weeks into months, and months stretch to years before you gain “sea legs” before you eventually learn to run a happy ship — not with band-aid fixes, but the “main engines” of harmony and esprit de corps.

Even as a write this from a perch of privilege as a veteran officer drawing pension and lifelong ECHS cover, I cannot but reflect on the plight of sailors, airmen and PBORs who endure many challenges, in and out of service, claiming what was rightly due to them. There were moments of extreme distress, pain and agony: the extended periods of absence out at sea; the humble facilities one had to often endure; the non-family stations and field postings (read ships) where one often got “out of sight, out of mind” — all these and more. But we braved them all — me and my men, like countless others — because we never thought of the navy or any service as a “job”. It was a way of life — a life of honour, dignity and passion.

Spare a thought for jawans and PBORs who endure extreme hardships for what can only be ascribed to two simple reasons: loyalty — commanded by good leadership — and the contract of pension and medical cover. The former makes them seek “re-engagement” (during a downturn, for instance, this keeps home & hearth going) for a further period as defined and approved by the competent authority. The latter keeps them from starving or living a life of indignity.

Both are excluded by the proposed TOD scheme. Four years service means they’ll not even be entitled to gratuity (a vicious move nobody would will on a uniformed buddy). A 25% retention-carrot for permanent absorption would practically turn them into performing circus clowns.

Unlike the army where a soldier will wilfully lay down his life for the “izzat” (honour) of his paltan, the navy has no regimental culture. Naval loyalties remain affixed to good ships, good COs, or specialist affiliations — all of which will elude TOD recruits. Life at sea is hard, often striking a stark contrast to the landlubber life of other services. Everything is either too technical or too hard to master within 3-4 years. If I were a TOD sailor, I would spend 2 years in the grind and the rest planning my exit ashore. Of what use will such “agniveers” be to commanding officers who have to deal with a continuous scope creep as the navy spreads its wings across the globe? They may barely scale the lowest benchmark of “good messmate” before getting on to the path of resettlement. EXOs will soon be vetting more ‘resumes’ than ‘service documents’.

To be fair, I can think of few sundry duties naval TOD recruits may yet fill. “HMP & VMP muster” during the daily “both watches” on a warship is one. These motley group of sailors deputed by different departments work under supervision of the shipwright to maintain hull and ventilation integrity. Other is filling the endless list of “working party” and “nominated to volunteer” lists that constitutes an EXO’s daily migraine.

As on date, such duties are being undertaken by regular sailors, often over-trained and over-qualified. The scope and magnitude of secondary duties are ever-increasing, providing easy justification for a crafty mind to let in TOD through the back door. But to design a scheme that facilitates carriage of such agniveer “Johnny-come-latelys” on a seagoing warship is sacrilege in our context. To keep them ashore would mean denying the hardworking regular recruit his “soft” posting. A delicate balance, already disturbed by ill thought-out short-service commission schemes, is set to be completely wrecked by extending it to the ranks.

A navy of 21st Century deals with cutting-edge technology, owned and operated by the officers and sailors. Every man jack in the navy is a “techie”, though the system may be loath to admit this. Think about this: the only two civilian components of a warship — the ship’s barber and/or civilian bearer — would spend more time at sea than a TOD sailor. On a flight deck, a TOD sailor would man the chocks and lashings and nothing more. How would he/she be employable rest of the time, all the while gaining full access to the navy’s deepest secrets?

I have seen civilian recruits approximating TOD being exploited with the promise of permanent employment (dismal as they come) in the aviation world and offshore industry. B-Tech engineers from tier 2 and 3 colleges are recruited by contractors of oil and gas PSUs for abysmal wages and living conditions with the lure of ‘on job’ offshore experience. Their lives, grooming, wages, safety, reemployment, etc. mean nothing to the organisation. Thankfully, they are not trained to access or use weapons; neither is there any chimera of “izzat” or “service before self”.

How future commanders in Indian armed forces will run their ships and establishments with TOD recruits remains to be seen. The worry lines i have seen on the faces of privileged officers (with and without pension) as they approach the end of their usable life in service doesn’t inspire much confidence. Often, the services’ apparent indifference to their plight turns them against the establishment — a PTSD that will linger long after the architects of this exploitative system have re-attired. This could prove to be a fertile ground to recruit mercenaries by agencies that are inimical to the state. Do not forget, a soldier owns the nation’s deepest secrets.

In the debate leading to finalising contours of TOD, comparisons have been drawn to countries that have resorted to conscription or schemes akin to TOD. This is unfortunate and must be viewed against Indian realities. We have no dearth of volunteers or the right stuff, but an abundance of “yes men” & funky ideas borrowed from here & there, with no sensitivity to our context. Our soldiers are the finest in the world. They deserve better shipmates than TOD sophomores.

That this ‘cut-copy-paste’ idea should emanate from the army comes as no surprise. Steeped in a “much less with much more” culture, officials from Indian Army who framed the rules, endorsed, or embraced this concept, owe an explanation to their soldiers why they couldn’t consider a no-holds-barred approach to cutting flab before polluting their paltans with TOD recruits. The public silence of navy and air force officials on this debate is ominous. In the absence of informed opinions from veterans, it simply reinforces my hunch that we operate in a financial vacuum where we want to rob Sepoy Patel to pay Col Paul’s pension. The bureaucrats will of course stoop to conquer such low-hanging fruits.

I leave you with this tweet by Twitter user and fauji brat Joe (@JoBeingJoe) who shared a picture taken before Indian Army’s 2 Rajputana Rifles mounted a counterattack to retake Tololing during Kargil War, June 1999.

Screenshot of tweet by @JoeBeingJo on Battle of Tololing, June 1999

Anyone under the delusion that an “intern” on a 4-yr Tour of Duty will match up to such Himalayan challenges & put “izzat” of the Paltan before life & limb is clearly hallucinating. Or worse — lying.

If you think pension is expensive, try defeat.


©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2022. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Kaypius is a former navy experimental test pilot, synthetic flight instructor (SFI) and writer. He is dual ATP-rated on Bell 412 & AW139 helicopters has flown 4500 hours over 24 types. Over 100 of his articles have been published in magazines, journals and news media in India and abroad, including Indian Navy’s flight safety journal ‘Meatball’, Rotor & Wing International, VERTICAL Magazine, Shephard Media, The Quint, Scroll.in, Times of India, The Print, LiveFist Defence, Global Aviator, Stratpost, Fauji India, Raksha Anirveda, etc. He calls himself ‘full-time aviator, part-time writer’ and blogs at https://kaypius.com/. He can be reached at realkaypius@gmail.com or on his Twitter handle @realkaypius. Views are personal.

21 thoughts on “‘Tour of Duty’ — A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come

  1. Pisha, very well reasoned and articulated as always…love the title:-)
    I am retiring in a fortnight or so…phew!

  2. Very well articulated KPS.

    This will demoralise the guys once they see their seniors getting the Pink Slip. It will then snowball, leading to a dangerous situation, can go out of control.

  3. Excellent article as usual for clearly put across reservations about ToD. As a civilian & arm chair general, it was difficult to see resistance to ToD as little more than NaMo hatred & reluctance to change.
    However, point remains as to how does Israel maintain high standards of fighting capability with compulsory military service of 3 yrs? They have people serving in SF etc whose training itself is close to 3 yrs. If they can do it, perhaps we too need to take a leaf from their book & do the same.
    Surely, ToD can be made more attractive by reserving percentage of seats in Govt jobs for them, subject to merit. In fact, this can be used to dismantle the current ly biased reservation system with a fairer one. But our ecosystem shall never do that.

    1. See the size and geography of Israel and then compare it to India. Also, we always don’t need to compare to other countries. What works for them might not work for us. You can’t expect a TOD recruit will perform competently on a warship or fly a fighter compared to a person with an experience of a decade. TOD is like taking an easy route for a solution to a difficult problem, rather than taking a difficult path that could have reformed the armed forces for good.

    2. The answer is in one word: ‘SURVIVAL’…and the mission of the IDF is “defend the existence, territorial integrity and sovereignty of the state of Israel. To protect the inhabitants of Israel and to combat all forms of terrorism which threaten the daily life.”

      TOD has a different purpose….

      Every Israeli is a Jew first and foremost, except for the Druze inductees. Also, this TOD proposal is not making them reservists liable for extended military service. In the IDF, the conscripts are in for 3 years, and then come back for a month very 3 years till age of 40. Next, they get paid a stipend, not PAY like a regular soldier. The ratio is 1:50. Also, we forget that every politician in Israel has been a soldier at some time or other….so they know what soldiering is… Unlike India.

      And any person in Uniform who agrees with the concept of TOD: is an Idiot who cannot comprehend reality, and like Judas has probably sold himself for some pieces of silver.

      I don’t want to say anymore, since I might tread on too many toes.

      I retired 22 yrs ago and I don’t like what i see.

  4. I was posted on one of THE front line warships when they started sending SSC officers to sea. Just discussing the ‘X’ (commanding ) branch here. Being a ‘Chappoo Chalak’ as coursemates take a dig, I had emabarked, most of the ships in west, a few in the east, over a period of 10 years. Embarkations which extend to overseas deployments or long fleet exercises over prolonged periods brings one in close contact with officers and men , both formally and informally. What i observed through these interactions was a vast diff between the SSC ‘X’ officers. Lets just say that 50% were as hard working as the PC chaps and delivering what they had been trained for, nay even more, since they wanted the ‘TOD’ status changed to permanent. And they were good. But, the other 50% were a disappointment, and i say this in a light manner, with no interest in even trying to put on an act of ‘hardwork’. Goes without saying that regular officers were over burdened since they were tasked to oversee (actually pretty much do ) these ‘TOD’ officers, who were more interested in just completing their time. I would risk a limb out here to say that most just perhaps either found it beyond their level or they just needed to bide time till they found the next TOD on civvy street with WorkEx of the armed forces to boast on their resume.

    Long story short, it was sad to see front line warships being burdened with such ofifcers. Am sure it was worse for the men they had under them , who must have wondered wtf they were doing under poor leadership ( knowledge and drive at a minimum).

    So, I dread to imagine what the TOD recruit would do in the same ship, where each man has a specific job in action stations, which if he doesn’t perform sinks the ship. Imagine such men in subs ( heavens NO !). And i dread to think of them in the fighting arms of the army, actually even the supporting arms like the EME.

    I had written once before in reply to a blog of yours. A Brit Adm once asked us why we were inducting women, when we had no problems with manpower. He said it was a bad idea because they had many (still do as do all Goras) Command and Control issues with them around, but were forced to recruit them since they didnt have enough male volunteers. And that’s the reason for their and a lot of other countries’ TOD program for the armed forces.

    So why are we still trying to fix something which isn’t broken? Isn’t the past template of the SSC officers performance a good yardstick to measure possible success rate? And 4 years for TOD !! The former had 7 and were still found wanting ( the guilty ones guys ).

    Freedom of a country’s way of life doesn’t come cheap. Especially in our surroundings. Can’t afford to be penny wise and pound foolish here.Those who brainstormed this have perhaps not understood that most western nations who use this ‘phaar-moola’ have never been invaded.

    MCPO (GI) II Tirath Singh would be forgiven if he would address these brainstormers the same way as he did the Cdt in the parade ground !

    PS: Is it being thrust down our throats? Or is it ‘khud khushee’
    PPS : Disagree with Sepoy Patel and Col Paul anology.

    1. what a biased and cynical thought. You should be thinking of PC officers before commenting of SSC officers. There are considerable number of PC officers with so called ‘Izzat’ who was involved in one or the other scams and some of them were even caught red handedly. The loyalty of PC officers was exaggerated and most of them who talk of ‘Izzat’ and ‘Service before self’ have left service in 20 years because they couldn’t make it to next rank. That’s their dedication towards the country and I wont talk much about it. Shameful to have such ill thoughts.

  5. KPS very well articulated. TOD to compensate for full time soldiers doesn’t appear to be a sound idea. Armed forces can’t be seen as a corporate entity through quarterly balance sheet numbers. Try TOD for defence civilians to save on budget. Time will tell whether the decision to implement TOD for soldiers is good or bad.

  6. Quoting an extract from Lt Gen Shammie Mehta write up in the tribune: “Be that as it may, the question that begs an answer is, at what cost? Soldiers are not ‘use and discard’ objects and ‘volunteer conscription’ is an oxymoron. The proposal applies corporate manufacturing assembly line norms to those who live, breathe and are impregnated with ‘my country, right or wrong’ credo of national service. They sign unlimited liability bonds, and for them, the ultimate sacrifice with a smile is sine qua non.”

  7. [13/06, 09:37] Vineet: “I am inclined to believe that the basic difficulty of battle command is not so much that the leader cannot command the respect and confidence of men whom he does not know, for the brave example set by many of the very leaders who were let down by these scratch forces should have been enough to inspire a wooden Indian. It derives from the same mental block noted in the stragglers of the Ardennes- The inherent unwillingness of the soldier to risk danger on behalf of men with whom he has no social identity. When a soldier is unknown to the men who are around him he has relatively little reason to fear losing the one thing that he is likely to value more highly than life- his reputation as a man amongst other men.”
    SLA Marshall – Men Against Fire

    [13/06, 09:44] Vineet: ToD………Our Sr offrs need to read the fwg:-

    – Men Against Fire, SLA Marshall
    – Anatomy of Courage, Lord Moran
    – Psychology and the Soldier, Norman P Copeland
    – Pyschology of Serving in Peace and Combat, Vols 1 to 4
    – Pyschology for the Armed Forces, Edgar J Boring
    – Before the Battle, Flanegan S Jr
    – Follow Me I & II, Aubrey S Newman
    – Common Sense Approach to Small Unit Leadership, Dandridge M Malone

  8. Dear Sir, quite insightful, logical and eye opener for the civilian world. A ill implemented SSC scheme is already causing resentment. Young men and women join with little or no idea about the SSC tenure. We only realise this when we have done almost half of our service and the reality dawns. Yet institutional authorities deny SSCOs opportunities to plan their upcoming, unsure and unforgiving future in the civil world. Now when such a plan is being thought of, i can only imagine what all can go happen onboard a ship.

  9. Respected sirs,
    I would beg to differ. The narrative is from the point of view of an officer. And mostly in comparison with SSC officers. I had served as a sailor and retired out as a petty officer after 15 years of service.
    In a normal case a sailor who has not completed atleast leading course is never given any serious responsibility and generally works under close supervision of a leading qualified or a leading. A Junior-junior sailors (Sea I- Sea II) will be basically engaged in cleaning, greasing and superficial maintaince of equipment under supervision. (They will never be in privy of any documents that are not available in public domain).
    A new recruit fresh from school in late teens would have joined the Navy seeing the advertisements of Join the Navy and see the world will realise that he is not suited there. (To be fank most of us feel it that way in the initial years) can go back to civvy street in early 20s semiskilled with a readiness to do any job without any reservations for white color jobs only.
    Those who feel themself suited can carry-on. Though it would have been better if the reatinment is 50-60 % instead of the proposed 25%.
    Overall I welcome the idea.

  10. KPS I have a different view . I have two arguments in favor of TOD. First this mechanism allows you to retain talent and sift out all shammers , back pain and medically downgraded personnel who avoid sea time. Secondly do you need specialists for all jobs. Is there not a requirement to have a right mix of generalist and specialists. The TOD for navy should follow with NEA scheme making all retained sailors as Artificers even in Seaman ranks. Lastly TOD would allow grooming of a large number of personnel and the community would benefit greatly with this work force. I seriously feel it’s good idea.

  11. Best thing that has happened to the Armed Forces in a long time.

    Ref “up to 25% of each specific batch of Agniveers will be enrolled in regular cadre of the Armed Forces.”

    I expect that this will increase to 75 % in the course of time.

    A similar scheme is required for the officers also. In any case, the Agniveers will fill a substantial part of the civil services, especially the Class A group.

  12. We have based our arguments almost entirely on apprehensions. Use of SSC officers aren’t a good example. I still don’t understand why the max resistance comes from retired folks. Serving fraternity seem to think it’s doable. If pensions are a big drain on our budget, can we not try a scheme that’s working elsewhere? At the very least, we can walk away from it like we did with JIT/Modular concept in IAF without having blood on our hands.

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