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Raffique Shah


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Fit for the military

By Raffique Shah
January 25, 2015

There are many arguments in favour of extending the compulsory retirement age for members of the armed forces, the strongest being the fact that there are retirees receiving full pension at age 47, many of whom are fit and healthy and can easily work for another 20 years, which most do.

There is no other profession I know that offers such tempting retirement benefits at such an early age. Bear in mind, though, that pay scales in the forces are not as generous as those in other arms of the Public Service, that Defence Force personnel do not have unions that negotiate for wage increases or improved working conditions on their behalf, and, as far as I am aware, they are not entitled to overtime claims, however long they may be deployed in operations.

Having said all of that, I think the timing of the extension of service granted to Chief of Defence Staff, Major General Kenrick Maharaj, was all wrong, perhaps even embarrassing. To have waited until the day he ought to have retired, at age 55, came across as granting a favour to the general. It could leave a bitter taste in the mouths of his immediate subordinates whose legitimate expectations of being promoted have been thwarted by political fiat.

The Government, more so National Security Minister Captain Gary Griffith, will have been aware of this retirement age-anomaly in the TTDF ever since they took office in 2010. They ought to have moved with dispatch to correct it then, not wait for General Maharaj to appear to have been given a gift by a Government that favours him.

But the deed has been done, and the only thing good that can come out of it is for Government to move with dispatch to adjust the terms of service and retirement ages and benefits of all members of the TTDF.

I should point out that the terms of service for members of our armed forces are a replica of what obtains in Britain, as are the organisational structure, ranks, etc. I have read where, in the British Armed Forces, new terms of service, retirement ages and pension benefits will come into effect sometime this year. My understanding is that generals and senior warrant officers will be allowed to serve up to age 60, and the CDS up to age 65.

I know the British military well enough to surmise that these extended retirement ages will be absolutely conditional on the health and fitness of the officers concerned—a mere two per cent of all personnel, according to a Ministry of Defence spokesperson.

That stands to reason, and it should apply here as well to all ranks, from private to general. Because of the demands of military service, all personnel must maintain minimal levels of fitness that are determined by routine tests. After a few weeks training (certainly in my time), the recruit or officer cadet must do 44 press-ups and 50 sit-ups in two minutes (each), and run 1.5 miles in 12 minutes.

By the end of 12 weeks of intense training, these benchmarks become second nature. The soldier must now add a nine-mile forced march-and-shoot in two hours and ten minutes with full combat gear (about 25 kgs), and swim 50 metres in combat outfit in under four minutes. Throughout his career, a soldier, whatever his rank, must maintain these standards, with some adjustments made for age.

Also, he must be medically fit with no health issues that would adversely affect his performance.

Many non-military persons might question this emphasis on the physical in a modern military that is highly mechanised. In my view, it is this element that distinguishes the soldier from a civilian, and anytime the soldier cannot cope, he must resign or retire.

There is nothing to suggest that General Maharaj is not fit, so this question hardly arises. He also comes across as being bright, articulate and a leader who commands respect among his troops, which is perhaps the most important attribute of a military officer at any level of the command structure.

Still, the abrupt extension of his service does create problems down the chain, both from the perspectives of upward mobility and pension benefits. While the former is limited (there can be only so many warrant officers class one (WO1) or colonels in the organisation), Government must move swiftly to offer equally opportunities at all ranks—not just to brigadiers and generals.

“Other ranks” below WO1 and commissioned officers below colonels, once they meet the health and fitness requirements, ought to be allowed to serve beyond age 47, at least to 50 if not 55. At a glance, this might appear to be a formula for a massive bottleneck. Bear in mind though that most servicemen (and women) move on after eleven years, which, I believe, entitles them to part-pension when they reach the pensionable age.

The retention of General Maharaj will have meaning only if Government immediately amends the relevant legislation to the benefit of all Defence Force personnel. To do otherwise will leave a stench of political interference hovering over the military.

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