By Lt Gen. Mukesh Sabharwal (retd)
In any periodic press conference or media interaction by the defence minister or the chief of army staff on Army Day, Republic Day, or Vijay Diwas, one question is a permanent feature: what is the status of officer shortages in the Indian Army and how are the authorities planning to tackle the crisis? No minister or chief has ever denied that there is an acute shortage, and yet no realistic assessment is provided regarding the implications related to operational efficiency or human resource management.
What is being done is never articulated cogently to the press or public, either at media interaction sessions or even in parliamentary debates, which are generally restricted to the question hour and hardly ever discussed because of their relative low priority.
The questions that merit immediate attention are one, the extent of the shortage; two, implications on operations of the Army; three, the reality check on intake; four, the reasons for the continuous deficiency; and finally the suggested approach to address it.
The Current Status
Whereas the air force has a deficiency of only five per cent officers and the navy is short of 21 per cent, the army is the most critically affected with a shortage of about 23 per cent. Of the army’s sanctioned strength of 47,762 officers, the held strength is only 36,790. It is not as if this shortage has emerged recently. The shortfall ranged from 12-15 per cent in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Emergency and Short Service Commissions (SSC) spurred by wars during that period were the preferred approach to bridge the gap. The next three decades, however, saw the shortage rise up to 24-25 per cent.
Significantly, there are no deficiencies in the higher ranks of Colonel and above. The criticality lies in the lower part of the pyramid at the level of captains, majors and lieutenant colonels. And what is more, this shortage translates to a reduction in strength at the regiment and battalion level, which is the cutting edge of the army.
Over the years, the deployment of our combat troops along the western front, especially in J&K has remained the same as the relations with Pakistan do not reflect any confidence to reverse the trend. With the focus gradually shifting to the East with a renewed sense of purpose, requirement of combat forces, especially the infantry has increased substantially. Two divisions have completed their raising last year and another two are in the offing in the 12th Plan.
The stark truth that faces us is that the number of officers posted in each unit is likely to reduce to 50 per cent of their authorised strength. There might be a few commanding officers and commanders who would perhaps claim with a false sense of bravado that all one needs to run a unit is six to seven officers. One may be able to possibly go through the routine but you cannot be efficient in your functioning without full complement of hard scale, which is a minimum 60 per cent of the authorised strength.
Junior leadership in the battalions is extremely vital when deployed along the Line of Control (LoC) in J&K. The levels of infiltration may have come down in the last few years but the number of attempts by terrorists to infiltrate has not reduced. Even in the hinterland, the Rashtriya Rifles continue to exert pressure on the militants so as to ensure low levels of violence. Without adequate leaders at the company and platoon level, tactical operations are bound to be adversely affected.
Effective operations depend on the quality of trained young officers who can lead their men into battle. Most of the training institutions in the defence services are oriented towards enhancing skills and capacity of our young leaders. The irony is that units cannot spare captains and majors for longer periods of time from their operational commitments. Perforce, lieutenants out of the academies just months ago are obliged to officiate as company commanders despite their inexperience. Deficiency of junior officers also affects staff functioning at lower formations, be it operational, logistics or administrative.
Yet, when and where it matters, our young leaders have risen to the occasion and proved themselves magnificently, as seen during the Kargil conflict, in counter terrorist operations, or in any other adverse situation they are confronted with.
It is high time that we did a realitycheck on the quantum of officer intake in the army. Of the prescribed annual induction in the army of 2,240, actual intake in the last five years was as follows:
The upward trend is encouraging and is likely to again surpass the authorised intake in 2012. Two main areas of concern where the intake has been marginal are the Direct Entry (DE), Gentleman Cadets (GCs) in the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Dehradun and the Short Service Commission (Non Technical), SSC (NT) GCs in the Officers Training Academy (OTA), Chennai. The DE strength has risen from 255 in 2008 to 309 in 2011, but is still well below the 500 vacancies authorised. The SSC (NT) has remained more or less constant and was 211 against 350 vacancies in 2011.
However, the heartening factor is that there has been a spurt of inflow in other types of entries in both Academies, which more than make up for the deficiencies in DE and SSC (NT). The 10+2 Technical Education Scheme has been a success story. The Cadet Training Wings at CME Pune, Military College of Electronic & Mechanical Engineering (MCEME) Secunderabad, and Military College of Telecommunication Engineering (MCTE) Mhow have turned out to be superb centres of excellence. Against a sanctioned strength of 170, a total of 232 officers were trained in these institutions in 2011. The Short Service Commission, Technical, SSC (T) has also been very popular of late. Floundering in dismal double figures till 2008, the SSC (T) was hugely oversubscribed in the last two years. Yet, another feature that has been a regular source of inspiration has been the Women Entry Scheme.
The dramatic increase in the number of technical graduates opting for the army appears to be part of a national trend, as seen from the admission pattern for IIMs and Civil Services examinations. In fact, 20 per cent of candidates for the Non Technical course at IMA are engineers. This is a welcome trend and is proving to be beneficial to the organisation, which is looking forward to modernisation in a big way.
Inflow at IMA, OTA & NDA
According to the figures obtained from the ministry of defence and thearmed forces, a pleasantly positivepicture is revealed. The state of officer cadets under training in 2011, at these pre-commissioning academies makes interesting reading.
Academy Sanctioned Strength Undergoing Training
IMA 1,650 1,849
OTA 500 695
NDA (All Cadets) 1,800 2,030
(Army Cadets) 1,170 1,320
The academies are overflowing with over 200 cadets each. The fact is that there is no more capacity available in these academies to house more cadets. Even these additional numbers have been accommodated by modifying existing quarters. Any further intake would certainly compromise the quality of training.
The case of NDA is unique. The number of applicants for the NDA examination has been increasing exponentially. Whereas 2.8 lakh boys applied in 2008-09, 4.2 lakh filled the forms in 2009-10 and 5.6 lakh in 2010-11. Of these, 990, 1,160 and 1,221 passed the written exam and cleared the Services Selection Board (SSB). Yet, all of them could not be called for joining due to limited vacancies available. A poignant story of a young boy deserves mention. He wrote to the Prime Minister, saying that debates in Parliament discuss the shortage of officers and here you have volunteers who are fully eligible and have duly qualified but are not being admitted. The boy made a moot point but could not be absorbed as he was low in order of merit. The NDA currently has 15 squadrons and a 16th squadron is likely to be constructed by next year. Not that this contingency was not foreseen, but administrative and bureaucratic delays ended up doing too little too late.
What is amply evident is that the real stumbling block is a lack of training capacity. Building infrastructure takes time, even if land is readily available. Housing is only one of the essentials. Training areas for weapon training, firing ranges and sport facilities have also to be catered for. Instructors and staff to support the training activity are equally important. For instance, it has taken years to get the deficient civilian staff sanctioned for these academies.
Another Officers Training Academy to cater for commissioning the support cadre was inaugurated in July 2011 at Gaya, with an initial capacity of 150 cadets to be increased to 750 cadets by 2015. This will add to the much needed capacity, but its output will depend on the quality of wherewithal that is established. Similarly, the case for four additional squadrons in NDA needs to be progressed.
Youth Not Opting for Army
Reality, myth or a bit of both? A report in The Hindu on 2 August 2010 quoted the defence minister informing the Lok Sabha that “the shortage of officers was partly attributable to accretions from time to time, tough selection procedures, difficult service conditions coupled with perceived high degree of risk involved in recruitment and training.” The defence minister, no doubt, is correct in his assessment. Furthermore, data indicates that the profile of candidates in recent years is more rural than urban; more children of JCOs and jawans than officers; and lesser representation from elitist schools and colleges.
Even though the foregoing is a reality, it is also true that the numbers of candidates applying for the Services is ever increasing. The general impression among the public is that there are very few aspirants for the armed forces. Statistics, however, tell a different story. The table below will show a comparative trend of applicants from 2009-2011.
It is evident that the number of candidates vying for each vacancy ranges from 200 to 300, except NDA where almost 900 candidates are contesting for a single vacancy. The number of applicants has almost doubled in most cases except the CDS where it is more or less constant. The view that the youth are not opting for the army does not appear to be supported by statistics.
Quality of Intake
This is another perception that needs to be demystified. Most people think that selection standards have been pegged down and the quality of intake leaves much to be desired. It is a human tendency to consider your peer group to be superior to the generations that follow you. The reality is that the Services Selection Centres (SSC) have not lowered an iota of the standards continuing since decades. Even with the stringent criteria, the numbers of candidates that qualify are more than the existing vacancies. So why should selection standards be brought down?
Take the example of the Technical Education Scheme. When it started, candidates to be eligible had to score at least 72 per cent marks in their 10+2 exams. For the January 2012 TES course, about 20,000 candidates applied. Only 6,500 could be called for the interview due to lack of capacity and time. And talking of quality, all those candidates had scored above 82 per cent marks. So, where is the question of inducting inferior candidates? What is required is increasing capacity of Selection Centres. Seven more SSBs have finally been sanctioned by the government, including two for the army, after progressing the case for three years.
The Way Ahead
It is fashionable to talk of ‘out-of-the-box solutions’. Logical, straightforward steps have been proposed, discussed threadbare and moderated at every level within the Services and the ministry of defence. However, the draft cabinet note is still awaiting government sanction. In a nutshell, the note talks of making the Short Service Commission more attractive, and it proposes certain ‘peel factors’ for an exit policy, as recommended by the Ajay Vikram Singh Committee in 2008. It also highlights the restructuring of the Permanent Commission (Special List) cadre and the introduction of the Service Commission (SECOM) entry.
The basic framework is that the armed forces need to be agile, modernised and be prepared for future conflicts. For this, it is mandatory in the long run, to have a smaller regular cadre and a larger support cadre. Attracting the youth to serve the army for 10 to 14 years and then look for a second career at the age of 36 is a gigantic challenge. Unless the terms and conditions are made very lucrative, it will be unfair to expect the best to join the armed forces.
Net intake of officers also depends on the number of premature retirements. PMR can be controlled by modifying policies but it could prove to be counterproductive too. Restraining officers from quitting in a volunteer army could possibly end up managing unmotivated officers for after 20 years of service and 42 years of age, an officer is more than clear about his promotion prospects. Although service conditions have improved after the Sixth Pay Commission, the lateral absorption or the second career option much touted about and reinforced in the Ajay Vikram Singh Report has not seen any progress whatsoever. The solution lies in empowering our officers to seek an alternate career.
If anyone thinks that the shortage of officers can be made up in a hurry, they are living under a false illusion. Yes, the intake has increased and the trend is healthy. But even as we adopt measures to improve the inflow, the Army has accretion plans for about 5,000 officers in the 12th Plan.
There is no denying the fact that the shortage is incrementally taking its toll on combat efficiency. But to say that it is affecting morale would be an exaggeration. The silver lining is that the inflows are showing a positive trend. These have to be sustained by increasing capacity and securing sanctions for the proposed measures very urgently.
(The writer is the former adjutant general of the Indian Army. He was also the Corps Commander of Srinagar-based 15 Corps)