In the many conflict situations the Indian Army has been faced with since independence, be it countering insurgencies and terrorism or conventional conflict with its two inimical neighbours, the stupendous performance of the Army’s officer cadre has always been beyond compare. Much credit for this off course goes to the Army’s training institutions, the National Defence Academy (NDA) and the Indian Military Academy (IMA). The NDA provides an opportunity for a career in the Army as an officer, from the time one leaves school, having cleared class XII. The three year training period also gives a good academic grounding, the passing out cadets being given a college degree. Thereafter, they do a further one year training stint at the IMA, before being commissioned as officers in the Army. The IMA also has entrants who may join after completing a three year degree course. They are trained for two years before getting their Commission. In addition, men from the ranks who qualify to get a commission are trained at the Army Cadet College (ACC) for three years and for a further one year at the IMA. These three streams of entry form the bulk of the permanent commission officers in the Army and form its regular cadre.
The Short Service Commission was designed as a support entry to augment the officer cadre at the base level and was accordingly designated as the support cadre. Generally, about 800 officers pass out from IMA every year who are given permanent commission and about 500 officers pass out yearly from the Officers Training Academy (OTA), who are given Short Service Commission after a one year training period. Entry to the OTA is also after obtaining a college degree. To make up for the officer shortage, most of these officers are subsequently also granted permanent commission.
There has been a great deal of churning within the Army fraternity, on how best to restructure the officer cadre. This is because of the limited promotion opportunities available within the system. That is a functional requirement as the military is a hierarchical organisation. As we go up the promotion chain, the number of vacancies available for promotion keep getting drastically reduced. In fact, even in the very first promotion board to the selection grade rank of Colonel (promotion up to Lt Col is time scale), over fifty percent of the regular cadre get eliminated for promotion. As the board for promotion to rank of Colonel is held for Lt Cols who are in the service bracket of 15 to 20 years, those who do not make the grade are destined for life in the same rank till they superannuate, though off course, they will get the time scale rank of Colonel after completing 24 years of service. This is particularly galling to the officers who have been superseded as they are very well trained and capable, yet are unable to tend the higher ranks due to lack of availability of vacancies.
A lot has been written and spoken on the need to rectify this anomaly. After all, the cadets who join the NDA, as also those who are direct entry entrants to the IMA are a select lot who have come into the system after a particularly stiff written exam and a rigorous interview, encompassing a test of psychological traits, leadership abilities and officer like qualities spread over five days. For the NDA entrants, after a three year training period at the Academy which is considered to be the very best in the world, a further one year spent in the IMA, and also the numerous courses that the officer is made to do in the initial years off his service, it is absurd to write of half of such officers in the very first selection board itself. That also goes for the Direct Entry entrants to the IMA. But that is the system, and perhaps the time has come to see how best the nation’s human resources can be managed. The focus so far has been on looking at the support cadre and seeing how it can be enhanced. Rear Admiral Monty Khanna has broken away from this line of thinking and offered a different concept. In his proposal, all the officers commissioned from the various academies should be considered ab initio for Short Service Commission only. Thereafter, those who wish to opt out of the Service may do so. Of the remaining, only the numbers required should be retained and those not retained must be provided with attractive second career options.
On the face of it, this looks to be a workable proposition, but the devil lies in some of the assumptions made by the Admiral and also in the details of its implementation. One of the assumptions made is that there are several talented young men who find the word ‘permanent’ with its implied 20 years of unbroken service, too daunting to accept. This may be so, but the numbers are miniscule. No survey per se has been carried out of this hypothesis, but in my own interaction with hundreds of young officers over the years, the number who wanted to leave after completing just five to ten years of service could be counted on ones fingers. Those who want to serve for a short duration already have an opportunity to do so through the SSC and so this argument holds little water.
Another questionable assumption is that having passed one Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exam and the associated Service Selection Board (SSB), one is assured of a salary/pension for life, irrespective of performance with the odd exception of having committed a major transgression. There is therefore a tendency amongst some to game the system and sail along with minimal contribution. This assumption once again is not factual. In the Army, the level of motivation upto the first selection board is very high. That takes care of the first 15 to 20 years of an officer’s career. There is a desire to rise in rank in stature, which is but natural. There is always an element of ambition and a desire to prove oneself in any organisation and the military is no different. On the contrary, the military exhibits far more ambition and selfless service than any other organisation. Yes, when an officer is superseded, he does express anguish and may be down for a short period of time, but he rebounds thereafter and continues to serve with dedication, barring an odd exception. To consider such officers as performing sub optimally, is both unfair and unjust.
A major drawback of what has been suggested by Admiral Khanna is the impact such a policy is likely to have on the officer cadre. The exceptionally high levels of motivation of Indian Army officers are presaged on the fact that such officers look upon themselves as a cut above the rest. The unit ethos is built around a permanent structure, with the officers maintaining their loyalty and fidelity to their units, regiments and the Army, well after retirement—indeed up to the time they draw their final breath. We may actually erode the very edifice on which our Army has been built, by resorting to such a measure.
What then should be done. There is a requirement to improve the career prospects of the regular cadre, but this cannot be done by a cadre review alone. The step taken by the government to increase the intake of SSC officers is a welcome step, but it should go a step further in creating adequate scope for a second career after an officer has given ten to fifteen years of his youth to the service of his country. That remains the Achilles heel till date. For the regular cadre, let us not put a blanket ban on officers seeking premature retirement. Rather, the terms of Service should be amended to give officers from the NDA and IMA an opportunity to leave the Service after completion of 15 years service. There also needs to be a greater intake of officers from within the ranks. The present system of taking officers in the ACC and also in the Special List needs to be done away with and a single point of entry created for the ranks, who must have a graduate degree, and who must have served for a minimum of 15 years in the ranks. This entry could constitute about 20 percent of the total officer strength.
The decisions makers would do well to remember that there is no shortage of officers in the Army. There is a shortage only at the level of the young officers, below 14 years service. This is the deficiency that must be made good through the support cadre and through the ACC. Great pragmatism is called for, as also of shedding old ideas and shibboleths. Admiral Khanna’s views must hence be considered and debated, so that we can get the best bang for the buck.