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Initiatives to transform the Army Officer Corps

Ali Ahmed was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 05, 2009

    The defence forces have prided themselves in their consistent engagement with the frontiers of their profession. This is an index of their professionalism. India’s military, in particular, is rated highest on the key index of being apolitical against any peer military in the developing world. Owing to high economic growth, the military, through expanding defence budgets since the turn of the century, is also being ‘RMA enabled’. Defence cooperation with other professional militaries such as the US military and service in UN peacekeeping operations is expanding its repertoire of skills. In keeping with these positive trends, there is a ‘transformation’ initiative within the Army. This comment deals with the ongoing changes in the officer corps of the Indian Army.

    The Indian Army officer corps has a daunting British legacy. Indianisation since the 1920s culminated in Indians being appointed up to brigade command during the Second World War. Post independence military deployments in four wars and insurgencies kept the professional ideal alive. Absorbing emergency commission officers in the wake of the 1962 War was a major landmark of the period. A cadre review in the mid-1980s was a major institutional advance. Over the past two decades force expansion and deployment in the newly raised Rashtriya Rifles has severely stretched the officer corps. There are reports of an officer shortage of up to quarter of the authorized strength of 46,615. Additional increases in the wake of the Kargil War and Operation Parakram, for joint headquarters and post modern warfare, information war and missile regiments, are adding to the pressures. The changed war doctrine of the Army to Cold Start necessitates a higher readiness level and consequently a smaller gap in officer availability against authorization at the spear end. There has been a decline in attractiveness of the Army relative to the civil sector affecting officer recruitment. These cadre management pressures are being addressed through far reaching measures.

    The final outcome of the Sixth Pay Commission, delayed by avoidable bureaucratic politics, has catered for increasing the monetary profile of officers, stanching exit from middle ranks to the corporate world. The Ajai Vikram Singh Committee recommendations enabled officers to rise to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in an earlier time frame making for a younger age profile, financial benefits and satisfaction levels. Placement of these officers in the IV pay band has been a judicious decision. In the second phase of the AV Singh Committee recommendations for cadre restructuring in the forces, allowing for greater promotional avenues for officers, the Army will get about 1,051 new posts upgraded in select ranks over a five-year period. The upgraded or created posts included 20 Lieutenant Generals, 75 Major Generals, 222 Brigadiers and 734 Colonels. For decreasing the gap in officer availability at the unit level, there is a scheme to enhance reliance on short service commission officers for which an additional Officer Training Academy is to be opened in Gaya, Bihar. Officer commission through the direct entry scheme of Indian Military Academy is to be discontinued. Thus those graduating from the National Defence Academy would largely go up the ladder with greater assurance of reaching the higher rungs, while the short service stream would leave after a ‘golden handshake’ and retrenchment training. The long term import of these initiatives deserves examination.

    The Army’s ‘approach paper’ on the increase in short service commission to regular commission officers to a 2:1 proportion is under consideration with the Ministry. At the entry level, increase in young officers to the short service stream is designed to contribute to the readiness levels of units as also limit the promotional pyramid base to those exiting the NDA. This would combine the key advantages of the two streams. It would lead to greater competitiveness for getting into the NDA and therefore a better product. The professionalism of a homogeneous ex-NDA officer cadre would be higher and so would be its amenability towards the sine qua non of today’s combat operations – joint warfare. Increasing the number of officers would help fight counter insurgency better. However, a converse decrease in attractiveness of a short service commission may result, thus reducing quality. With increased proportion of short service commissioned officers, there is also danger of lowered average quality. The loss of the direct entry scheme officers would impact the versatility of the long serving officer corps. Over the long term the Army would require avoiding a distinction developing between the two sets of officers that might prove detrimental to cohesion. Also with more officers, utility and roles of Junior Commissioned Officers and Non Commissioned Officers would require preservation from dilution.

    The second major initiative is on multiplication in higher ranks. ‘Will this result in a top heavy army’ is a key concern. There are fresh RMA mandated areas of expansion. Therefore a proliferation in numbers is inevitable. Also changing the shape of the hierarchy from steep pyramid to a shaft with almost parallel sides would decrease careerism. With promotion prospects better assured, the core ethics of officership would be better adhered to by officers, thereby increasing combat effectiveness. Increasing attractiveness of the service is a hoped for result with service benefits at higher ranks being made available to officers who have sacrificed their youth and family life for the nation. However, when viewed against the perspective that prevalence of Information Technology should really be reducing numbers, increasing number of officers at the top appears to be biased towards career management and satisfaction level. Heightened morale would require the Army relating it to efficiency. Upgrade in ranks also has the downside of diluting the aura of rank. In the earlier cadre review in the mid eighties, colonels were made unit commanders; unheard of in other armies. In emulating the civil services and the police, among whom proportionately larger numbers make it to higher ranks, there is danger of the service losing its core concerns of efficiency and ethos. This situation would perhaps stabilize eventually when the NDA entrant rises to higher ranks with less career related angst.

    The aspect of officer cadre composition in the general cadre ranks has also entered the discourse. This has been brought out by Rahul Bedi, who likens the issue of reservation in general cadre numbers in proportion to the officers in various combat arms and supporting arms to the ‘caste’ system. Presently, there is pro rata vacancy in the general cadre. This results in more infantry and artillery officers entering higher ranks than from the mechanized infantry and armoured corps. The advantages of this system are many, which is why the move was made towards this system about a decade ago. Spirit for one’s own combat arm is one of the abiding characteristics of military life. The danger lies in parochialism. This caused the change to a fixed vacancy based system in the first place. Infantry officers who largely serve in difficult areas have a greater chance of making it to higher ranks. They are ably qualified by their very experience to command infantry troops and formations in counter insurgency. The counter argument is that officers with mechanized and armoured formations are by the nature of their role in relatively better stations. This should not undercut their chances of reaching higher rank. The capabilities at higher rank are of a different order and the Army and nation could do with only the best entering into the general cadre.

    Clearly a 1.13 million strong Army requires an expansion in the numbers of officers at all levels. The Army, in exercising autonomy that characterizes it as a distinct profession, has already embarked on this expansion. Currently the IMA has a capacity to train 950 officers per year, while OTA at Chennai trains half this number. The capacity at both these academies is being increased by a 100 cadets every year. Increased numbers of every order risks lowering of instructorship and intake standards. Attention at Services Selection Boards and in-training regimen would require an increase. Socializing young recruits to the military ethos is vital in this regard. The change in ethos from institutional to occupational is already evident in the Army. Therefore a reemphasis on a radical professional ethic may be necessary at the tactical level. In order to prepare the increased numbers occupying higher ranks, there may be a need to bring in a soldier-scholar model for command at operational and strategic levels. The current revolving-chair nature of command at higher levels needs to be arrested lest the nation get under-prepared generals. Last but not least is that an enlightened look needs to be taken in increasing induction of lady officers into the service in billets with added responsibilities.

    The ongoing radical reengineering after considerable thought in the Army needs to be appreciated as a gallant attempt to stay ahead of the times. Nevertheless, it needs reminding that implementing the changes without reducing its compact with the nation would be even more demanding.