Guts, Grit and Glory | Military Selection Conundrum

A complete overhaul is required in the selection process of armed forces officers

Maj. Gen. R.S. Mehta (retd)Maj. Gen. Raj Mehta (retd)

The more things change, the more they stay the same – Les Guêpes, January 1849

Little known even in military circles but damninglytrue, our current officer selection is based on the officer-selection template that the British adapted from German selection norms in 1941-43 for accelerating British wartime officer induction. That system went past its use-by date in the UK decades ago. The UK now selects officers using modern methods that keep pace with changing operational environments, conflict spectrum and evolving digitisation, social media and threats posed by non-state actors as ‘way points intheir officer-selection roadmap.

Overall, progressive countries keen on quality induction have brought in Officer Like Qualities (OLQ) like integrity, ethics, morality, reliability, emotional stability, thinking-on-the-feet skills, situational awareness and physical fitness besides standard leadership qualities into focus. This is done in addition to ensuring pre-selection security checks. In our case, however, we remain frozen in time despite vacuous claims of fielding a ‘de novo’ selection system which, after being announced in 2014, is finally on limited trial by Services Selection Board (SSB) Bengaluru since May 2016; its validity/impact cloaked in inexplicable secrecy.

Thus, even as British, Australian, American, French, Chinese systems have admirably reformed their outlook, we remain anchored to past mindsets, our ‘status quo’ approach falls into what Dr Daniel Kahneman, cognitive psychologist, Princeton University calls the ‘Illusion of Validity’. The fact that the Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR), a Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) labis the key mover of our officer-selection process irks those in the know because it isn’t in sync with ground realities.

This article explains how our selection system is structured and networked. It indicates the extent to which we have remained in status quo mode by pointing out how progressive nations are carrying out their officer-selection. Some recommendations are made in conclusion for improving our outlook.

Officer cadets at the commissioning ceremony in OTA Gaya

The UPSC Charter
The officer-selection system commences with the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) whose charter is to conduct examinations/interviews for appointment to specified government services. The graduate entry written examinations for the three defence Services comprise papers in English, General Knowledge and matric-level Maths; the latter paper being waived off for entry to Officers Training Academies. The undergraduate entry level examination for joining the National Defence Academy (NDA) and Naval Academy has two papers: Maths and General Ability. The UPSC examination, unlike the Civil Services Exams which changed track in 2010, still focuses on mnemonic ability more than on eliciting thinking responses on morality, ethics, mental fitness, integrity that have become basic DNA of 21st century soldier-scholars.

The SSB System
Note that while passing the UPSC entrance exam is mandatory, the selection is acutely hinged on the SSB where candidates undergo a five-day testing regime under ministry of defence (MoD) auspices.Day 1 is the‘screening’ test after which 60-70 per cent candidates are rejected. Day 2 is for Psychologist’s Tests; Days 3-4 are for Group Tasks and Day 5 for Conference (Results). Personal interviews are conducted between Days 2-4. Two issues stand out here: The content for SSB selection norms and training of SSB faculty is an exclusive DIPR charter. DIPR is almost exclusively staffed by civil scientists with just a few middle-level military appointments to avoid charges of brazen bias.

DIPR: Selection Authority without Accountability to the Services

Raised in 1943, DIPR became a DRDO laboratory in 1982. It provides training, content, monitoring and feedback for officer selection by the SSB whose conducting faculty such as psychologists/GTO/IO are also DIPR trained. The Services recruiting directorates are administratively responsible for officer selection including for women officer candidates but are outside the loop for formulating/reviewing the DIPR selection norms.

In the SSB testing regime, presence of OLQs such as effective intelligence, sense of responsibility, initiative, judgment under stress, ability to reason and organise, communication skills, determination, courage, self-confidence, speed in decision-making, willingness to set an example, compassion and loyalty to the nation are assessed. Note the absence of certain critically needed OLQs such as ethics, moral character, integrity, situational awareness, possessing razor sharp operational reflexes that have become invaluable due emerging challenges. Note, too, that there is no quantifiable test of physical capability/weightage awarded during the SSB regimen. The individual and group obstacle tests assess OLQ, not physical fitness which is left for post selection evaluation by training academies.Also, no performance audit of DIPR has ever been carried out by the military as DIPR/DRDO function under MoD whereas the Services are merely ‘attached’ offices, hence outside the pale of the government rules of business. The irony is that the end users cannot question officer-selection norms and perhaps the reason why DIPR arrogantly bats for status quo.

Legacy Mindsets and ‘De Novo’ Selection Norms
Faced with an angry crescendo of military veterans’ voices across uniforms demanding review of officer-selection, the DIPR, after decades of denial of need and vacillation, unveiled a ‘de novo’ officer-election system in ‘limited trial mode’ by SSB Bengaluru in May 2016. Its trial directive and interim trial results/ methodology remain cloaked in secrecy. What is known in public, however, indicates that the changes have‘de novo’ content; just smart spin-doctoring which lends substance to: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (The more things change, the more they remain the same). It raises eyebrows, though, that the DIPR has invoked ‘de novo’ (‘new’) changes70 years after it inherited British World War II officer-selection norms.

Veteran experts opine that the ‘de novo’ system, by focusing on ill-thought-through telescoping of the SSB testing process from five to a surreal three days, has increased the workload of already over-worked SSB faculty specially GTOs/IOs/Psychologists. The new system does away with its poorly-thought-through‘Screening Test’; aclumsy DIPR ‘innovation’ administered on Day 1 (for reducing its candidate testing load) by flimsy psychological aptitude testing without sharing the reasons for discarding them or providing the departing candidates without even the basic courtesy of providing lunch. Candidate removal might still be justified if one could understand how paring down candidate numbers will henceforth be handled. That hasn’t been explained.That apart, ‘Group Dynamics’ testing has also been slashed, leaving one to wonder whether this critical intra/inter Services operational dynamic has been thoughtlessly side lined.

Clearly what’s being addressed isn’t qualitative improvement in officer candidate selection but linear logistics management to ensure quantitative increase in intake by holding more selection boards to reduce the huge12,000 strong officer deficit. Worse, the increased load is to be handled by gravely deficient SSB faculty; a situation entirely of DIPR’s own making considering that it is the DIPR charter to ensure adequate SSB faculty availability.

Services are out of the Selection Loop
One issue that begs answering is whether the DIPR took the Services on board including senior officers from Training Academies before formulating its ‘de novo’ review? Had the Services been intimately involved, they would have provided the environmental, social and operating conditions against which new officer inductees must measure up. These Qualitative Requirements (QRs) should then have been rigorously war-gamed to finalise Service-specific testing protocols fleshed out in the SSB Blue Book. Clearly, such DIPR opacity in officer-selection is not conducive to qualitative officer induction. Nowhere else in the democratic world has such absurd security over officer selection been found necessary.

What Drives SSB Selection? Personality, Intelligence Needs or Both?
It is worth noting that DIPR has bench-marked the ‘de novo’ system as personality and not intelligence driven or both. It has also reduced assessed OLQs from 15 to 9qualities at a time when prevailing wisdom points to inclusion of more OLQs that relate to using technology to meet emerging war-fighting needs; test ethical conduct, morality and an officers’ transformational ability to drive men to achieve challenging tasks. There is also the need to add OLQs that show high ‘trainability’. One is also intrigued to find out why some OLQs were junked.

Obviously, what was needed wasn’t a one-off ‘de novo’ initiative but a systemic review of examining, selecting, training and educating officer cadets processes/practices for Service and national good across gender.

The Challenges NDA Faces
Intake Issues: With over 5,000 officer cadets under training at any given time (NDA 2000; increasing to 2500; IMA 1800: OTA Chennai 750; OTA Gaya 500); surely far more was expected from DIPR officer-selection. That said, we cannot get away from the reality that part of the blame lies with linear rote driven teaching as opposed to holistic (critical thinking driven) academic development and here, the training academies cannot escape their fair share of blame. Let us take training at NDA as an example, since it is considered the exemplar of peerless officer hood and rightly so. Examining NDA issues is de facto examining issues at all other academies since the challenges faced are the same with minor variations.

Physical Fitness/Wasting Out Rates: The issue of physical fitness may sound like an anachronism in an elite training academy but it is there for real and the NDA/other training academies aren’t to blame. What should have been checked by the SSB as an entry requirement has been forked off to the training academies as a ‘trainable’, hence, redundant factor for the SSB regime and with serious consequences. Worrying levels of selected cadets who enter the academies are physically unfit and reflect their poor conditioning in ‘stress fractures’. Cadets of NDA course serials 116-125 suffered a staggering 466 stress fractures from July 2008 to August 2011 i.e. 12 @ month or 155 fractures a year with an average 25.2 days hospital stay and overall absence from training for eight weeks. A stress fracture occurs when muscles become fatigued and cannot absorb stress/shock/repeated impact. Fatigued muscles transfer that stress to the nearby bones, the Tibia and Fibula. Overall, a recent study for 10 NDA courses (Serials 96-106) revealed a wastage rate of 17-18 percent, which is almost double the European and much higher than the Chinese average which is 12.45 per cent.

Ratio of Academic/Physical Activity: As it was planned, the ratio of military vis-à-vis academic training should have been 30:70. On ground, the absolute reverse has been in vogue. Seventy percent cadet time is spent in physical activities and 30 percent in intellectual activity. Physical activity goes beyond authorised sporting and physical conditioning activity and includes ‘josh’ runs, ragging, practices for squadron level games/championship banners, all leading to gross overuse of the body.

Faculty Strength
NDA has authorised a UPSC selected faculty strength of 162. For years now, the posted strength has been well short with 15 odd military Education Corps faculty posted along with around 30 ad hoc faculty hired on hourly/monthly basis. The NDA has no recourse but to cover academic syllabus by holding more classes per day.

Research and Study Group (RSG) Deliberations
To examine where we are vis-à-vis international officer-selection practices,read the deliberations of a 1997-2000, Research and Study Group (RSG) from Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Netherlands, UK and USA on officer selection. In Belgium, selection includes assessment of ‘Morality’ and ‘Physical Fitness’. In the UK, most British officers are recruited by means of a network of school/university talent scouts who then nurture selected students. Regiments/Corps are allowed to sponsor suitable candidates and encourage short attachments. The SSB system is preceded by a proper SSB driven briefing, psychometric tests, an interview ending with a PT test. This is also the first elimination stage. Next is the main SSB test after which successful candidates join Sandhurst/equivalent academies. In the US, students take the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT). Service academies use the ‘whole person’ concept for evaluating applicants. A ‘Whole Person Score’ (WPS) is derived from weighting academic aptitude (60 per cent); leadership potential (30 per cent); and physical aptitude, (10 per cent).

Key Learning’s from Foreign Academies
The USMA at West Point was the rough model for NDA and runs an extremely competitive four-year course for almost 4,500 Army/Air Force male/female cadets with the navy training at nearby Annapolis. The Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) helps develop future leaders of the Australian Defence Force by providing Navy Midshipmen, Army and Air Force cadets with military training and university education (through the University of New South Wales). The military content supplements the academic package; a refreshing break from the standard model. ADFA teaches militarisation for the first six weeks, thereafter balanced, stringently overseen-tinker free academic-military scheduling. Students, on arrival are streamed into their Service of choice and absorbed its values from Day 1, including wearing its uniform; with all Service content being left for later at Single Service Academies such as Duntroon. (In NDA, streaming takes place in the fifth term). The Royal Military College (RMC) Duntroon is the Australian equivalent of IMA. It focuses on critical thinking education. The French École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr has students entering at 21 years French students take extremely competitive examinations on general knowledge, aptitude and intelligence; sit for an interview and pass a test of physical ability.

Inimical Countries
The Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) provides training to 4,000 male/ female cadets spread over five courses, both graduate and under-graduate. The physical component follows vintage practices including ragging. China has People’s Liberation Army (PLA)outreach in schools, colleges and universities and ensures PLA approved physical fitness and military training modules are run. China has 67 military academies with 20,000 high school graduates annually recruited besides 8,000 students from 93 universities.

The Col Vinay Dalvi ‘Trilogy’
Readers are informed that no one has interpreted our officer-selection ills and remedies better than 1971 IMA entry and ex-Maratha Regiment officer Col Vinay Dalvi (Retd). An India-level sportsman/coach in several sporting disciplines, he has edited/part authored the ‘Victory India’ trilogy of books (2011-2016) and is finalising a fourth volume. The trilogy is an authoritative compendium covering the entire gamut of officer-selection and the challenges we face. With several NDA-IMA-OTA tenures behind him as Physical Training Officer, Dalvi has assiduously compiled the opinions/views of a staggering swathe of experts across the three Services and the SSB/training academy system; melded them with his experiences to present an unbiased overview of officer-selection from UPSC exams to commissioning. Read by decision-makers from retired service chiefs, ex-Presidents of SSB, GTO, IO and medical authority besides select MoD hierarchy, the trilogy makes a compelling case for change, providing a road-map for officer-selection in line with prevailing world best practices. Clearly, concerned veteran officers are doing their bit and more.

This article has brought out the need for urgent upgrade of the officer-selection system in line with the ever-changing operational environment and wide-ranging spectrum of conflict we face perhaps over two fronts with collusion between inimical countries a possibility. It establishes beyond doubt abetted assiduously by Col Vinay Dalvi’s work in his trilogy the consensus if not keen anticipation of change for betterment, not change for the sake of change as is currently on rancid display. In light of this fact, it is strongly recommended that a Standing National Commission be ordered by the President of India as Supreme Commander to go into the entire gamut of the examination, selection, training, education and development processes of armed forces officers across gender. Axiomatically, it is recommended that the Services; not DIPR/DRDO, should be made responsible for executing this noble ‘nation first always and every time’ assignment.


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