Indian Army Officership – A Calling, A Job or A Career

Indian Army Officers are a class apart.   Why do lakhs of young boys barely in their teens aspire and compete to join the National Defence Academy and the Cadets Training Wing (CTW), for but 500 odd vacancies?  Could this be just a mundane desire to seek an occupation or is it a calling!   The profession of arms has traditionally been looked upon reverentially as ‘a calling’ – a term that denotes a kind of strong inner impulse  to face formidable challenges, a fascination for uniform and a strong feel of nationalism – which propels the youngsters towards travails of Army life.  This calling transcends self interest and remains associated with self sacrifice, dedication as well as subunit/unit and organizational bonding.  The spirit of this calling always was, is and will forever remain a way of army life –hence is prone to jealousies from other governmental jobs. In the Army, this calling has retained its original glory the noble values of upholding “Naam, (honour), Namak) (consummate dedication) Nishan (unflinching organisational loyalty).” The army as an institution always took care of its own, albeit with the generous support of society.

Two pointers need addressal.  First, has the idea of devotion to service waned and a primary occupational model or intensive careerism taken primacy, with ‘what’s in it for me’ thought?  Second, is there a sociological transition underway among the Army officers taken as a society?   The first is grossly untrue.  Young officers have performed and continue to do so, unmindful of personal risk, in total devotion to the call of duty and the service to the nation for a very long time.  The Generals of today had as young officers of yesteryears seen intense counter terrorist operations in the 80s and the 90s, faced the brunt of the bullet fired in anger of multi-fronts – including a very hot Line of Control and the Kargil War.  The young professional officer of today heroically faces a different and difficult operational environment and unmindful of personal risk continues to lead troops and subunits by personal example.  Indeed, the Army life hones the strong emotions of loyalty, nationalistic and regimental fervour among officers.  This distinctive nature of military life – as a calling – inherent or honed in post joining the Army has not changed substantially over a long period.

The second pointer needs deliberation. As the saying goes, ‘… man without ambition is like a bird flying without direction’.  Ambition of any officer is that strong desire, a dream to do or achieve certain aims, objectives, goals and targets in service life. It would give him a sense of direction and motivation, something to live for. That’s why ambition must not be snuffed too early in one’s career.  Ambition in service life also enables the officer to be more absorbed, focused and motivated to struggle, strive hard and focus on self-improvement. Understandably, ambitions can differ from an individual to individual, though in the Army these have finite and tangible considerations. However, as is oft repeated, since service in the Indian Army is voluntary and aspirants are aware that promotional avenues not as promising as in other government services, an officer joining the service should be mentally prepared for inevitable supersession.

The Army career is a steep pyramid, with only 0.8% rising to be a Major General (equivalent of a Joint Secretary).  But that is faraway for a young officer – though there may be a few who would dream of becoming Chief on day one of joining the service – and why not! However, a young officer in his formative years would most certainly aspire to become a Colonel – the first select rank, one that bestows the finest of appointments in service – that of a Commanding Officer of a unit. This would happen in say 15 to 18 years in the Army, when an officer is in his mid or late thirties.  The ratio of officers considered for this select rank each year, and those who get selected to become a Colonel, is a paltry 30 percent or so!  Given this pyramidal nature of the rank structure, all officers who rise in the profession to attain higher ranks do so in a highly competitive environment.   This anomaly was sought to be corrected in the last ten years by increasing the Short Service Commission (SSC) intake. Unfortunately, some very elementary and easily achievable proposals to make SSC more attractive remain unimplemented thanks to some inexplicable rationale and characteristic apathy that is the hallmark of our bureaucracy!  What’s disturbing is that just within the first ten years of service (actually when one misses nomination on the Defence Services Staff College), reality dawns on officers that in face of stiff competition, the likelihood of crossing the first threshold of promotional ladder to the select rank of Colonel may not be possible for 70% of them!  Ideally speaking, this should not in adversely impact an officer’s performance and continual devotion to duty, yet there can be a difference due to the human factor.

India, at large, has become increasingly an all-round aspirational society and as such Army officers who are part and parcel of society cannot remain divorced from such aspirations.   With extrinsic motivation driven by promotional avenues on the wane among 70% of officers within ten years of service, intrinsic motivation that originates from within the officer – like the calling to join the Army, may also be affected.   The unit life – its izzat (honour) and the bonding, which is its raison de etre, may facilitate intrinsic motivation to last till the consideration for the first select rank.  Subsequent twenty odd years, an officer is managed in a series of varied assignments, some of which may be deeply disconcerting and demoralizing.    Resultantly, what would occur is a fundamental shift in the motivational basis, from a calling at the time of joining, to a mere necessity of an occupation—‘just another job, just another posting’.

As an aside it is necessary to refer to Non Functional Financial Upgradation (NFU) that came in for the Government Officers in 2008.  This was basically a raise in salary and perks of an officer who reaches a seniority level that makes him eligible for promotion but cannot be promoted because of lack of vacancies.  By virtue of its very premise, NFU was a Godsend policy for the Army officers who face extremely rapid stagnation. Accordingly, the Chairmen of Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), Chiefs of the Services and the Adjutant Generals (AG) and equivalent, from 2011 onwards, have continually and strongly represented to the Government, to the 7th CPC and to the empowered committees on the prime necessity of allowing NFU to the Armed Forces Officers.  As a measure to offset the lack of promotional opportunities, NFU would also be recompense for early retirement as compared to other government officials of equivalent rank.

Making Short Service Commission attractive and adjusting their imbalance with Permanent Commission Officers would have singularly addressed the adverse promotional ratio at Colonel rank.  The grant of NFU would have cumulated the gain. However, those in the realm of Governmental decision making have been hanging fire for too long, with NFU pending decision in the Honourable Supreme Court.  However, besides governmental support to make military service conditions more attractive, there is a need to explore alternatives within the Army itself. But is it feasible to provide honour, respect and commensurate work environment to officers unlikely to make through in the first select promotion?  That must become the key question for in-house policy makers.  Adaptation and innovation are particularly relevant to today’s Army given the challenge faced. Though the issue requires in depth analysis with requisite data and prognostications, three pathways are considered.

First, though welfare is germane to motivation and would certainly spur efficiency in peace and war but the Army is certainly not a welfare fixated organisation. It is essential to ensure that every officer feels that he is ‘wanted ’in the assignment and that it provides him requisite professional challenges.  While inspiration is something that an officer must seek to ingest from outside, aspiration is something that must be cultivated within by himself.  A bouquet of tasks performed by generalist staff, having learnt on the job, could be specialized by focused training of officers who could not make into the empanelled lot, as per aptitude.  Though there are departments that handle such issues, it will be advantageous to train and post officers to handle law, land, works, finance and procurement, in various headquarters. It will feasible to re-orientate faculties of officers to such specialist fields, provide elongated tenures where essential, and hence create repository of such expertise with durable memory. Such an expert job would satisfy an officer’s dignity, keep him mentally stimulated and fulfill expectations in a respectful and wanted assignment.

Secondly, there are operational domains that are expanding in warfare that do not have expertise currently in their entirety, which is the next pathway.  Information warfare in its manifestations transcends existing expertise.  These can be like perception management, psychological operations and counter propaganda, social engineering, disinformation and ‘weaponization’ of social media.  There are also realms of back-end (or stand-off) workers in modern warfare, like those in cyber stream, operating weaponized drones and satellites.  These spheres are opening up in newer and newer vistas that require modern militaries to be on top. Officers of caliber and prowess can select domains of interest, and can be of great value in contemplating and in the execution chain of future warfare.

The third pathway is the vista of professional military education.  In professional grooming, there are shortfall in studies on social sciences like war and peace, strategy, International relations (IR) theory and practice, area studies, and even military history.  These would provide avenues to officers to study in Universities and impart knowledge, direct growth and groom senior officers to be better all round professionals.

There will be naysayers, citing paucity of officers and many other routine and mundane objections to such proposals.  The existence of such large numbers of non-empanelled officers, and those seeing the writing on the wall even prior to the first select rank consideration, have to be propelled towards more productive pastures.  Largely, this may be achievable in-house without the mandatory Governmental sanctions.  However, it will mandate a re-think on Officer Human Resource Policies.  Study leave should be on subjects that the officer has aptitude for, and the organization can best avail services subsequently. Study leave also should not be restricted to non-empanelled officers. The officer posting management hence must not be stuck into two to three year mode.  As an example, IR professional officers could have a much longer tenures in National Defence College, Army War College and Defence Services Staff College – which will provide him stability in personal life and imparting knowledge.

Being aspirational is one of the most positive qualities an officer can possess because it pushes him forward to become a better equipped individual, and his utility to the organization, respectfully, is assured.   As the Army looks forward to an uncertain future, it must adapt, innovate, and institutionalize both past experiences and future opportunities to better prepare us for the next war in whatever context that conflict will emerge.   Innovation has to take place in periods of peace when there is time to think through problems.  Management of officers stuck up the awfully steep pyramid, requires serious innovation, soonest!