Saturday, July 23, 2011

Indian Military Officer Shortage and Crisis

The Tribune Sunday, July 24, 2011, Chandigarh, India
The Indian Military’s Officer Crisis
The Armed forces' officer cadre have been suffering from an alarming qualitative and quantitative crisis that includes officer shortages. But of greater concern is both the immediate and long-term implications considering the rapid pace at which military technology is getting increasingly sophisticated- by Dinesh Kumar

Gentlemen cadets at the Indian Miltary Academy. Photo: Manoj Mahajan
For the last two-and-a-half decades, the officer cadre of the world's fourth largest military, notably the Army, has been suffering from a severe officer crisis, notably officer shortfall, ever since the strength of the officer cadre was increased by 26 per cent in the mid-1980s. Since then, the Army's officer shortfall continues to fluctuate between 10,500 to 13,000 or 23 to 31 percent of its sanctioned strength. While officer shortages remains the most prominent and consistent component of the crisis in the Army, recent years have also witnessed considerable under-subscription in officer training academies; a spurt in requests for premature retirement; and frequent revelations of incidence of, and rise in, corruption - professional, financial and moral. Most disconcertingly, the incidence of corruption in the Army has involved even top ranks of lieutenant general and major general.

The officer crisis is a significant issue as it negatively impacts the overall efficiency of the armed forces as a fighting machine at a time when New Delhi is embarking on a major military modernisation programme against a backdrop of complex security concerns and the rapidly increasing sophistication of military technology.
Although there have been fewer revelations of corruption in the capital and technology intensive Indian Navy and Indian Air Force (IAF), the latter continue to similarly suffer an officer shortfall, which, as per latest figures (March 2011), is 1,818 and 837 respectively. Of this figure of 837 in the IAF, the pilot shortfall alone comprises 426 or over 50 per cent of the officer shortages.
The officer crisis in the armed forces is widely attributed to the severe decline in its popularity among the urban educated youth who, for the last two decades, have been ranking the military towards the bottom of their list of preferred career choices. The forces are no longer attracting the best and the brightest to its officer cadre. Careerism and corruption in the officer cadre has become a subject of much debate within the Army while the harsh service conditions have further contributed to making it an 'unattractive' career.
All through the 1980s and until the mid-1990s, parliament members displayed a remarkable indifference to the crisis as is evident from an analysis of data posted on the Parliament website. For example, of the total 608 questions on defence asked in a six-year period between 1984 and 1989, Lok Sabha members asked just two questions related to the officer crisis. In 1991 and 1992 (there is no such list for 1990), Lok Sabha members asked just four out of 310 questions on manpower related issues.
It was only from the mid-1990s onwards that parliament members began regularly asking questions on officer-related issues. The severity of the officer and manpower-related crisis in the armed forces has since led to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence producing six reports exclusively on human resource issues in the military between August 2001 and March 2011. In addition, the officer crisis has figured, even if in passing, in several other parliamentary reports during this period.

Causes for Officer shortfall
The officer shortages are primarily in the critical ranks of lieutenant, captain, major and lieutenant colonel and their equivalents in the Navy and the IAF. These ranks comprise the junior-to-middle rung of leadership which is considered the 'work horse' or 'mainstay' of the three services. Some of the key tasks performed by officers in these ranks include leading soldiers from the front, flying aircraft, driving ships and submarines and heading various specialist sections on board fighting vessels. Officers in these ranks also conduct various staff duties at the battalion, brigade, division, corps, command and army headquarter levels and in their navy and air force equivalents. They also head various ordnance and logistics depots, and technical workshops entrusted with maintenance, service and repair of an enormous inventory of equipment of one of the world's largest military.
In 1997, the Army took the unprecedented step of hiring advertisement agencies to launch a nationwide image promotion campaign to attract youth. The Navy and the IAF followed soon after with separate publicity campaigns. By then liberalisation of the economy had taken root and the Army was well entrenched in intensive and life-risking counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir. Successive defence ministers have been attributing the shortfall to 'the opening up of the economy' that have lead to 'new vistas of lucrative job opportunities in the civil sector' compared with the 'relatively risky and hazardous career in the armed forces'.
When the image promotion campaign was launched in 1997, the Army was facing an officer shortfall of 12,972 or 28 percent of the sanctioned officer strength. At that time the Navy and the IAF were suffering from a comparatively lesser shortage of about six percent (690 officers) and 12 percent (1,045 officers) respectively. But this decade-long campaign seems not to have led to any significant change for the Army. Since then, there has been no improvement in the Army - from a shortfall of 28 percent or 12,972 officers in May 1997, the shortfall, as of March 2011, is 12,349.
The officer shortfall in the Navy and IAF has shown no considerable improvement over the last decade-and-a-half. From an officer shortfall of 690 in December 1996, the Navy's current (March 2011) shortfall is 1,818. Similarly, the IAFs officer shortfall increased from 1,045 in December 1996 to 1,368 in March 2008 but had reduced to 837 in March 2011.
The late-noughties witnessed the highest the highest-ever under subscription to both the Indian Military Academy (IMA) and the tri-service National Defence Academy (NDA). In January 2008, the IMA recorded an unprecedented 66 percent shortfall in the number of cadets. Against 250 vacancies for the January-June 2008 term, a mere 86 candidates reported for training. Originally, only 148 applicants (or 59 percent) had qualified for selection. Of these 148 selected candidates, 62 (almost 42 percent) dropped out.
A similar situation prevailed at the NDA when again in January 2008 the number of cadets joining the course dipped to 192 (64 percent) against its capacity of 300 thus marking the highest cadet shortfall of 36 per cent in this premier training academy. The Army faced further embarrassment in April 2008 when only 11 engineers could be short listed for short service commission training courses against a vacancy of 107 at the Officer Training Academy.

The Army's combat potential
So what impact has the continuing officer shortage had on the Army? By the MoD's own admission, this has impacted adversely on its combat potential. However, both the MoD and the Army have not elaborated on the extent of this adverse impact. Some defence officers pessimistically speculate that the combat potential of the Army has been compromised to such an extent that India may find it difficult to win the next war against either of its two most prominent adversaries.
Since the manpower-intensive Infantry makes up for a third of the Army with over 300 battalions and is in the forefront of every war and operation, the officer crisis is being felt the most in this arm with battalion commanders functioning with about 50 percent of their prescribed officer authorisation. Against a sanctioned strength of 22 officers, Infantry battalions are struggling with an average of just nine officers.
If one takes into account that at any point of time some officers would be on leave or on temporary duty, the actual officer strength in infantry battalions does, on occasions, become lower. This has imposed additional pressures on commanding officers who are finding it difficult to ensure continuity in even important appointments like the second-in-command, adjutant, quartermaster, company, squadron and battery commanders, and is giving them less time and scope for officer-soldier interaction and bonding.
The officer shortfall has led the Army to take certain innovative but not necessarily professionally prudent steps to try and reduce officer shortfall in Infantry battalions. First, for over a decade-and-a-half now most infantry and even other combat arm battalions and regiments have been forced to assign junior and hence relatively inexperienced officers to command companies and their equivalent. While it is difficult to quantify the adverse impact it has on the conduct of operations, defence officers say that inexperienced officers in tactical command are prone to making mistakes and botching operations, especially when engaged in guerrilla warfare against invisible militants merged with the public.
Second, the Army has been deputing freshly commissioned officers from both the non combat and technical arms directly to Infantry battalions for a period of three years to partially tide over the officer shortfall. This 'emergency commissioning' or 'rationing', even though for three years at a time, has been necessitated due to the Army's continuing commitment to counter-insurgency operations, particularly in Kashmir. What was initially begun as a temporary stop gap arrangement seems to have become permanent and is having a seriously adverse impact on the Army.

The army's commitment are varied and many. The Army has to be prepared to fight nuclear wars against both its rivals, China and Pakistan, and also be prepared to fight conventional wars with all its immediate neighbours, both land and maritime. While there are uncertainties and variables around an actual war taking place, the Army is already operationally engaged in two highly manpower-intensive operations. One, guarding long and mountainous borders with China and Pakistan and second, fighting insurgencies in politically and diplomatically sensitive regions of the country such as Kashmir and the tribal states of north eastern India. These low intensity combat situations are nevertheless fraught with high casualties in addition to being manpower intensive.
At any given time more than half the Indian army's fighting units are engaged in border duty. For example, six of the army's thirteen corps is located along the disputed borders with China and Pakistan. In addition, the MoD admits to deploying over 200,000 soldiers or about 20 per cent of the Army in counter-insurgency operations which detracts from its primarily responsibility of preparing for a war against external threats. In counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir alone the Army has lost over 3,000 soldiers with many more wounded. The casualty figures in the north east is separate.
Coupled with the officer shortages, the manpower-intensive and officer-led counter-insurgency operations have significantly added to the strain on the army's officer corps. The initial raising of 36 battalions of the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) and its subsequent expansion to 66 battalions has further strained the Army's officer cadre since it comprises entirely of officers and soldiers on deputation.

The qualitative decline

Source: Compiled from
Ironically, there has not been any dramatic decline in the number of youth applying to join the training academies. For example, in 1997, the UPSC received 170,000 applications for less than 5,000 vacancies in various training academies for all three services. But the problem clearly is that the defence forces are finding it hard to find youth with the right aptitude to become leaders or officers. In the past, the services selection boards (SSBs) would interview 16 times the number of candidates required. SSBs are now interviewing 20 times the number of candidates required because the overall quality of youth has deteriorated.
Even then selectors are unable to find enough candidates to fill officer vacancies. A decline in quality is also evident from the fact that successful candidates are scoring lower percentages than before in both written exams and interviews. The declining quality has led some officers to question the quality of both the Army's present and future leadership.
The issue of officer shortages is afflicting the armed forces, particularly the Army, in even the most advanced democracies in the developed world. For example, the US Army has been concerned about its continuing officer shortfall and about under subscription in its officer training academies. But the figures pale into insignificance compared to the Indian Army where the current officer shortfall of 12,349 is over four times higher than the US Army which has a shortfall of about 3,000 officers amounting to a mere six percent of their total sanctioned strength of 52,000 officers.
The operational commitment of the Indian Army is vastly different when compared to the armies of advanced western democracies. Neither the US or UK, for example, are faced with territorial disputes or insurgencies on their soil. India, in contrast has serious security concerns and both complex and porous borders. It has reasons to be concerned about both its major neighbours, China and Pakistan, and has been engaged in near permanent deployment in counter-insurgency operations for almost half-a-century.
The officer crisis continues to steadily worsening. There is difficulty in finding enough quality youth which over the years has adversely impacted on the Army's combat effectiveness. Next, there is internal dissatisfaction with the working environment even as pay and emoluments compare much higher in the private sector. The country's economic growth has widened the avenue of job opportunities, particularly to officers from the technical wings of the armed forces. The shortage of officers in the technical branches is a matter of concern for all three services, especially with the increasing induction of technologically advanced weapon systems.
A specially launched image promotion campaign has not had the desired impact and there are no signs that the armed forces will be able to narrow the officer shortfall gap or attract high quality youth in a country with a growing economy and increasing job opportunities in the non government sector. There is no likelihood of a dramatic change in India's security environment that could necessitate a down size of the military which could otherwise help reduce the officer shortfall. So long as the armed forces continue to not attract the desired number of quality youth, the officer crisis in the Indian military is here to stay in the near future and is fraught with an adverse bearing on the effectiveness of the armed forces. There are no easy answers to address this problem. The officer crisis is a national problem and unless the political executive is willing to take radical steps which mainly involve hiking salaries, raising the profile of the armed forces in the warrant of precedence, and removing it from counter-insurgency operations, the problem will continue to fester with, as some officers have cautioned, dangerous consequences that could lead to military reverses in a full scale war.
The article is part of the writer’s doctoral thesis at Monash University, Australia and appeared in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies.


  1. Hi,

    I totally disagree with the facts that have been shown in this article by the Army as inspire of 140 odd people having got recommended for IMA by the SSB only 70 add have been called in join the course (TGC 113). Same is the state of the UES Entry where almost 150 candidates have not been called to join the course. There are almost 200 candidates recommended and medically fit who have not been inducted for training and if even after this the Army says we are running short of offices and present youth is not willing to join the forces...i totally disagree and doubt the statements made by Recruitment Dtr. No offence to the Army as such but just wanted people to know the exact fact.

  2. Offiers please suppot us..... we all need your support :)