NEW DELHI: A twin-pronged proposal by the defence ministry to increase the retirement age of officers and slash pensions of those seeking premature retirement has triggered yet another major controversy in the 15-lakh strong armed forces.

The defence ministry’s move comes in the backdrop of the urgent need for cadre restructuring in the Army, Navy and IAF amidst the ballooning pension bill adversely impacting military modernization. “The aim is also to retain trained manpower for longer tenures,” said an official.

But it has also led to widespread criticism in the 65,000-strong officer cadre on the ground that it will undermine the measures taken over the years to keep the armed forces “young and fighting fit’. It will also be a “strong disincentive” for superseded officers to seek a second career in the “civvy street”, they said.

As per the October 29 letter issued by the department of military affairs (DMA) headed by chief of defence staff General Bipin Rawat , the retirement age for ranks up to Colonels in the Army and equivalents in Navy and IAF will be raised to 57 years from the existing 54.

Similarly, it will be 58 years for Brigadiers (from 56) and 59 for Major-Generals (from 58). Lt-Generals will continue to serve till the age of 60, with military chiefs serving till 62 as before.

The retirement age for Jawans and JCOs (junior commissioned officers) in non-combat arms like logistics, technical and medical branches will also be raised to 57 years.

As for retirement benefits, officers will get only 50% of their entitled pension if they take premature retirement (PMR) after 20-25 years of service, 60% after 26-30 years and 75% after 31-35 years. At present, military officers as well as their civilian counterparts become eligible for pension (half of the last salary drawn) after completing 20 years of service.

“The draft GSL (government sanction letter) should be processed for the perusal of secretary DMA (Gen Rawat) by November 10,” says the letter, accessed by TOI.

After the implementation of most of the provisions of the one rank, one pension (OROP) scheme for ex-servicemen in 2015, the pension bill has hugely expanded. The defence pension bill for retired military and civilian personnel for this fiscal, for instance, is a staggering Rs 1.33 lakh crore.

But the fresh move to slash pensions of those taking PMR, which comes after several controversies ranging from taxing of disability pensions and “monetization” of defence land to restrictions on CSD purchases and ex-servicemen contributory health scheme (ECHS), has led to an uproar among many serving and retired military officers.

They contended the DMA has “no jurisdiction” to alter pension formulae. “Salaries and pensions are approved by the Cabinet after being decided by pay commissions and expert committees. Any such move will be challenged in court,” said a senior officer.

Moreover, the proposals go against the measures taken to reduce the “greying profile” of the armed forces. “The bulk of officers are superseded in the steeply-pyramidal promotional structure of the armed forces. Many of them take PMR for a second career after becoming eligible for pension after 20 years. If these measures are implemented, they will be forced to serve till retirement to get full pension,” said another officer.

Unlike civilian government employees, military personnel retire by rank at comparatively younger ages. All Jawans retire in their mid-30s and JCOs in mid-40s, while most officers retire in their early-50s, with the aim being to ensure the military remains young and fighting fit.