August 29, 2009:
Despite having only one soldier (sailor or airman) for every 866 people, India has a chronic officer shortage. The United States, with one soldier for every 187 Americans, has no shortage . China, with one soldier for every 591, has no shortage either. What is going on here? What is happening is a global officers shortage. Until the last few decades, it was considered prestigious, and career enhancing, to serve at least a few years as a military officer. These days, no more. Shortages are often filled by lowering standards, which can have disastrous results in combat.
The Indian Army is short 24 percent of its officer strength, while China has the numbers, it is seriously concerned with the quality. Meanwhile, the Indian army has had a shortage of officers for decades. The air force and navy are also short, but only by 12-15 percent. In China, the problem is growing as the economy continues to boom (despite the global recession.)
But it's not just officers that are hard for the Indians to recruit and keep. Technical specialists are in short supply, which is a growing problem as the army adds more high tech gear. The basic problem is that the army must compete with the civilian economy for highly trained or educated personnel.
The Indian army maintains high standards for officers, and has tried to eliminate the shortages by more aggressively recruiting young NCOs for officer candidate school. But that doesn't always work, because too many of the NCOs cannot pass the entrance exam. The source of that problem is the corruption in the Indian primary school system. Teaching jobs in many parts of the country are considered political patronage. These teaching assignments are handed out to political activists, with the understanding that they are no-show jobs. So, despite a lot of money being put into primary education over the last half century, the illiteracy rate is still 39 percent. The Chinese rate is 9.1 percent.
The Indian military has long been an all-volunteer force, and had no trouble filling the ranks. But over the last decade, as the government dismantled controls on business, and privatized many government owned companies, the economy has boomed. There are not enough qualified technical and management people to fill all the skilled jobs. India has been looking at how other nations solve these problems. They have noted American success (over the last four decades) in outsourcing a lot of support jobs. This is almost a necessity with some high tech specialties, where even civilian firms face shortages. Another American technique, cash bonuses for jobs with shortages, is more difficult for India, which much less money to spend on defense. India also has some unique cultural problems. While the caste system is, in theory outlawed and not functioning, it is still there. Which caste you belong to not only influences who you can marry, but, to a lesser extent, where you can work. And when the word gets around that the "wrong kind of people" are becoming army officers, many (a large minority) potential officers suddenly show no interest in a military career. Coupled with the high illiteracy rate, small number of college grads, and huge competition from the booming economy, it's a wonder the shortfall is only 24 percent.
China has similar problems, although there are differences. The Chinese education system is more efficient, or at least less corrupt. Although China still has conscription, the armed forces are basically staffed with volunteers. But the three decade economic boom has made it difficult for the military to get the quality people it wants. Thus many Chinese officers are, for want of a better word, losers. The same could be said for many Indian officers, but India, or at least many parts of India, have a military tradition. There, bright young lads will forgo higher pay to serve as officers. But that is not as fashionable as it used to be, and the Indian army wants to double the pay of junior officers to make it competitive with what civilian employers are offering new college grads. China recently gave its junior officers a raise.
Moreover, India has a problem that China does not have. India is at war, with troops getting killed and injured in Kashmir, the northeastern tribal areas, and fighting Maoist rebels in eastern India. The casualty rate is actually quite low, but just serving in a combat zone is hard on the nerves, and not attractive to many educated young Indians. Overall, bright young Indian men are competing to get into business and technical schools, while the military academy cannot fill vacancies. On the other hand, Indian officers are getting invaluable combat experience, much more than their Chinese peers.
Indian military leaders want officer conscription, via mandatory officer training and service for university graduates. But the majority of citizens and politicians oppose this. China has a system similar to the American ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps), where the costs of college are picked up by the government for those who study military subjects in college, and then serve as officers for a few years after they graduate. China also has more military academies than India, and is also having a hard time getting young men to attend them. China still gets a lot of officers via NCOs taking officer training. This provides good military leaders, but ones lacking the technical skills that are increasingly important.
Neither India nor China have found a solution for their junior officer shortage, and until there is a solution, the quality of their armed forces will suffer.