Shooting in the Foot Services Style
Every organisation has its archetypal character and traits, some positive and some negative. The services are no exception. They have numerous good attributes but one major failing is their penchant for making a change for the sake of change. For no ostensible rationale, well tested practices and policies that have stood the test of time and served the services well are disturbed and altered. In the bargain, the services end up shooting in their own foot.
Till 1980s, NDA enjoyed the ‘first pick advantage’ and attracted the brightest youth. As Class X was the minimum qualification for entry to the NDA and the age group was 15 to 17 years…
It is commonly said, making mistakes is not as bad as persisting with them. Like all bureaucratic organisations, the services find it extremely difficult to admit the blunders made, thereby making their rectification impossible. Instead of extricating themselves boldly from an untenable abyss, they try to justify their actions through frequent policy amendments, thereby getting sucked further down in a deep hole. Three issues are discussed hereunder to illustrate the point.
Raising of Entry Criteria for the National Defence Academy
Shortage of officers in the services has been defying solution. As stated by Defence Minister AK Antony in the Lok Sabha in August 2010, there is a total shortage of 14,244 officers in all – 11,500 in the Army, 1,507 in the Navy and 1,237 in the Air Force. It is often said that adequate number of suitable youth are not coming forward to join the services as other professions have become more lucrative. Under-subscription of seats at the National Defence Academy (NDA) is cited as a proof of these assertions.
Unfortunately, the primary cause for the above under-subscription is of the services’ own making. Till 1980s, NDA enjoyed the ‘first pick advantage’ and attracted the brightest youth. As Class X was the minimum qualification for entry to the NDA and the age group was 15 to 17 years, entry into NDA was the first ever career option that became available to the youth. Understandably, parents encouraged their sons to sit for NDA examination and be settled in a career at the earliest. As no other career option was available at that stage, most bright boys considered it prudent to give NDA a try. Resultantly, NDA gained and the quality of intake was always very high.
Further, as the average age of candidates at the time of joining NDA used to be between 16 to 161/2 years, their trainability quotient was very high. Periods of early adolescence and middle adolescence are undoubtedly the best for imparting training and moulding trainees as per the requirements of the services. With motivational levels ruling high, young cadets of impressionable age developed necessary mental and physical robustness with ease.
With average age of over 18 years at the time of entry, cadets are near-adults. With well set mindsets, habits and behavioural traits, they resist change and are difficult to train.
NDA cadets, after four years of training, got commission at an average age of 20 years and kept the age profile young at junior levels. Moreover, they served the services for longer period. Resultantly, for the same quantum of resources invested in training an officer, the services got better returns by way of longer service span.
In a blunder of monumental proportions, entry qualification was raised to 10+2 and consequently, the age group rose to 161/2 to 19 years. The fallout of this ill-advised move was quick and severe. As youth had the option to try other careers and avenues, NDA became one of the many choices, if not the last one. Most candidates sat for the NDA examination only after failing to make the grade elsewhere. Thus, NDA lost the unique ‘first pick advantage’. Instead of catching the bright sparks young, it ended up competing with other careers.
With average age of over 18 years at the time of entry, cadets are near-adults. With well set mindsets, habits and behavioural traits, they resist change and are difficult to train. Since normal age at commissioning has climbed to 22 years; service span has got correspondingly reduced.
As can be seen, raising of entry criteria proved highly detrimental to the services’ interests. Justification given for the misguided move is laughable. It was averred that entry qualification of 10+2 is essential to grant graduation degree to cadets at the time of passing out to help them in seeking second career after retirement. Can there be a more ridiculous reason? While selecting a young boy, imperatives of military career are being subordinated to his post retirement resettlement after 30 years or more of military service. Trust the services to harm their own interests through misplaced priorities and thoughtlessness.
The decision to induct women, taken in the early 90s by a service Chief, was neither need-based nor well thought-through. No attempt was made to study likely long term implications.
Induction of Women
In early 90s, when the euphoria on induction of women was still raging, a group of Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) was overheard discussing the issue in all seriousness. The oldest JCO in the group remarked, “The Army has enough problems at hand. I do not know why another one is being sought.” Another JCO made a confident declaration, “The Army is going to rue its decision in near future.” There was a rare unanimity in the group – they were all convinced that the move to induct women was ill-conceived and totally unwarranted. Events of the last few years have proved their apprehensions to be prophetic. The said group of JCOs could foresee what the top brass of the services failed to.
As the recent events have shown, the services are in serious trouble and are struggling to contain the damage. Instead of earning kudos for giving women a chance, they are getting flak from the judiciary, media and self-appointed experts. Demands are being made to grant permanent commission to women in the combat arms, a demand that is unprecedented in any army of the world. Worse, some have gone to the ridiculous extent of demanding constitution of all women battalions. A matter that critically affects the health of the services has been belittled as one of ‘equality of sexes’. True to their propensity for damaging their own cause, the services are in a deep mess which is totally of their own making.
The decision to induct women, taken in the early 90s by a service Chief, was neither need-based nor well thought-through. No attempt was made to study likely long term implications of multiple issues involved. In other words, a decision of colossal significance was taken in a totally cavalier and hasty manner. The first batch of women Short Service Commission (SSC) officers joined in 1992. As the other two services did not want to be seen as ‘male-chauvinists’, they followed suit. Soon a race got underway between the three services. It is only now that a plethora of complex issues are getting thrown up with resultant adverse fall-out.
“How can a leader, who is unable to carry her personal weapon and equipment and keep pace with us, be expected to lead us in war?” is a common refrain of soldiers.
To date, no one has been able to justify the decision to induct women in the services – it was not a need based policy. Low-tech Indian military is totally dependent on raw physical strength of its manpower. With their abysmally poor physical fitness standards, women just cannot perform these tasks. Moreover, they suffer from frequent back problems, pelvic injuries and stress fractures. As very few desk jobs are available, most commanders are at a loss to employ them gainfully.
Instead of contributing to the effectiveness of the organisation, they have become an encumbrance as considerable resources are diverted towards ensuring their comfort, dignity and safety. Worse, every commander runs the risk of being accused of sexual discrimination, harassment and even exploitation. It is no wonder that no commander wants them as they are considered a liability.
To start with, the tenure of Short Service Commission (SSC) was five years, extendable to 10 years. It has since been increased to 14 years. One does not need to be a visionary to understand that grant of SSC to women at 24 years of age is the most impractical proposition. That is the time for them to get married and raise their families. With standard two child norms, they spend most of their service tenure in producing and nursing children. For every delivery they are exempted physical activities for a period of three years. Thus a woman SSC officer is hardly ever available for military activities.
Interestingly, champions of sexual equality are very selective in their demand. No demand has ever been made to induct women as soldiers. Women want to join only as officers, in the erroneous belief that officers’ job is soft and easy. When reality dawns on them, they resort to the standard ploy of the weaker sex needing special dispensation. As regards their acceptability as leaders, most soldiers consider their induction to be a political gimmick that merits no serious deliberation. “How can a leader, who is unable to carry her personal weapon and equipment and keep pace with us, be expected to lead us in war?” is a common refrain of soldiers.
Cadre Review and Mushrooming of Senior Appointments
With a view to improve promotional prospects of officers and to offset effects of large scale upgradation of civil appointments, the services resorted to creating a huge number of senior appointments. Comparisons are often made with police appointments to justify the same. Admittedly, every state police has dozens of Directors General of Police (DGP). State governments can upgrade or downgrade any appointment to accommodate chosen incumbents, job content notwithstanding. It is always a political decision. While a DGP may be looking after purchase of 100 computers and another one may be assigned the task of purchasing furniture, the services cannot follow them.
… ‘catch them early and catch them young’. All corporate houses go to professional colleges to have the first pick in campus interviews. The services have irrationally surrendered the same advantage…
All higher headquarters have become highly bloated and overstaffed. With overabundance of General Officers – red tabs and stars have lost their exclusivity. Standing and stature of senior ranks have got diluted. Every alternate room in the Services Headquarters (SHQ) is occupied by a Brigadier or a General Officer. It is a sad sight to see them flitting between various offices clutching bundles of files in their hands.
A job done earlier by a Brigadier is being carried out by a Lieutenant General now. Further, he has a Major General as his deputy and two to three Brigadiers to head different sections. Thus, a Brigadier has been substituted by two General Officers and two/three Brigadiers. As the job content has not changed materially, functioning has become totally bureaucratic and decision making is the main casualty. Decisions taken by a Brigadier earlier are now taken by a Lieutenant General. Emergence of multiple tiers has increased paper work. As every link in the chain wants to remain in the loop and retain its relevance, urgency becomes inconsequential.
Indian army follows a system of command and staff streams. After doing mandatory command tenure, officers are sidestepped into staff appointments. As command appointments are limited, it has become a challenge for the organisation to accommodate all aspirants. Consequently, duration of command tenures have been considerably curtailed, affecting continuity of command adversely.
The services never tire of claiming uniqueness and dislike comparison with other central services. Yet, they have diluted their contention by demanding parity with the civil services. The Warrant of Precedence (WoP) cannot be adequate justification for seeking more senior appointments. As is well known, revision of WoP is a regular exercise and every review invariably results in lowering the status of service officers. As the services cannot go on upgrading appointments to keep pace with the rate at which WoP is revised, it is a futile and self defeating exercise.
Reasons for the Above
The services are rigidly structured organisations with authority well delineated. Such organisations invariably become one-man shows with commanders at every level enjoying overriding powers. Dissonance and difference of opinion cease to exist. Whatever the commander says goes, with all subordinates abiding by his decisions knowingly or unwittingly. In the absence of any contrary perspective, commanders tend to acquire misconceptions of their infallibility, resulting in faulty decision making. “Yes, Sir” culture is the primary cause of the malaise of shooting in the foot. For example, it is inconceivable that no staff officer could foresee adverse fallout of inducting women and not caution the cavalier Chief against taking a critical policy decision in a slapdash manner.
All higher headquarters have become highly bloated and overstaffed. With overabundance of General Officers ““ red tabs and stars have lost their exclusivity.
Due to steep pyramid-like structure, the environment in the services is highly competitive. To ensure advancement in career, one has to not only excel but outshine others as well. In the absence of any quantifiable and measurable performance matrix, performance is measured in terms of initiative displayed, howsoever misplaced it may be. Recognition as the initiator and author of fresh ideas fetches credit and good reports. Therefore, every aspiring officer strives to score brownie points by pretending to be an original thinker. He wants to suggest something new – it may be a scheme, concept or programme. The sole aim is to impress senior bosses by displaying original thinking, assiduousness and thoroughness.
In the absence of ability for genuine original thinking, the only alternative available to an ambitious officer is to tinker with existing policies and suggest changes. Further, prolonged staff tenures make many officers lose touch with ground realities. They start living in the make-believe world of files and notings. They fail to visualise fallout of the suggested policy changes. Decisions to increase NDA entry standards, induct women in the services and upgrade senior appointments can be solely attributed to this weakness.
The Way Forward
All over the world the ruling mantra is to ‘catch them early and catch them young’. All corporate houses go to professional colleges to have the first pick in campus interviews. The services have irrationally surrendered the same advantage and now have to do with what is unfairly called ‘left-overs’. A graduation degree cannot be enough justification for forfeiting opportunity to pick the best youth for the services. Therefore, entry age and educational qualification for admission to NDA should be reduced to the earlier standards. It is ideal for the services to select candidates during early adolescence, train them during the period of middle adolescence and induct them as commissioned officer during late adolescence.
Grant of SSC to women should be totally stopped, protestations of self-styled champions of gender-parity notwithstanding. It is a most wasteful and retrograde policy. Women have made creditable contribution in the medical, dental and nursing services. They have done India proud. Grant of permanent commission to them in legal and education departments of the three services, accounts branch of the Air Force and constructors of the Navy is undoubtedly a sensible move forward.
The services should stop chasing the mirage of retaining parity with the civil services. Bureaucrats govern the country and call the shots. They will continue to concoct ingenious stratagems to maintain their supremacy. It is a losing battle for the services. By rampant proliferation of top brass, the services are harming their own cause. It is time a stop is put to further upgradation of appointments.
Although acceptance of own mistakes and fallibility is yet to acculturate the system, the top brass must show sufficient moral courage to admit that the present mess demands a holistic review of the related policies. It is much better to accept mistakes honestly rather than continue with them indefinitely to the detriment of organisational interests. Defence matters cannot be treated in a slipshod and sloppy manner. Most importantly, no decision that affects the primary role of the services should be taken as a compulsion of populist expediency and without studying its long term consequences.