My op-ed in Mint: Conscription is not the solution

The solution to officer shortages is military modernisation and liberalisation of education

In our op-ed in Mint, Sushant Singh and I argue that the shortage of officers in the armed forces is not an anomaly, and merely raising take-home salaries isn’t going to solve the problem. First, India needs a capital-intensive army and must allocate more resources to military modernisation. Second, the armed forces need to deepen their officer training programmes and build what they can’t readymade. Ultimately, India needs to increase the supply of employable graduates—for that, setting education free from government control is a must.

Read on…

Rough diamonds into leaders
Talented graduates are increasingly scarce and the search for ‘officer-like’ qualities will be increasingly futile. It’s time for other, harder strategies

What does the Indian Army have in common with the National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom), the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the National Manufacturing Competitiveness Council? Answer: They are all complaining of a shortage of employable graduates. The army is short of more than 11,000 officers. In 2005, a Nasscom-McKinsey report projected that the IT industry would face a potential shortage of 500,000 people by 2010.

The army may be looking for young people with “officer-like qualities”, while the private sector is looking for people of “management calibre”, but they are essentially fishing in the same pond. India produces three million graduates each year. But as Satyam’s B. Ramalinga Raju noted, “most of these are uncut diamonds that have to go through polishing factories, as the trade requires only polished stones”.

It is more than a coincidence that the Armed Forces were unable to fill available seats at the Indian Military Academy since the early 1990s—just after the P.V. Narasimha Rao government’s reforms dismantled the licence raj. Steady economic growth over the last two decades and the emergence of globally competitive IT, financial and manufacturing industries has increased the opportunity costs of joining the Armed Forces. Furthermore, productivity growth in these sectors is increasing wages: A young Indian will have to give up even more to join the Armed Forces, which offer relatively lower take-home salaries.

It is tempting to believe that merely raising military pay will address the issue of officer “shortages”. To do so would be to ignore the fundamental changes to the relative abundance of capital and labour in India’s growing economy. Continue reading “My op-ed in Mint: Conscription is not the solution”

Between impressiveness and delusion

Patriotism, power over people’s lives and the army

“Twenty years from now, men will be ready to die for me, but not for you.” This is what a cadet at the National Defence Academy in Khadakvasla, Pune, tells his friends pursuing engineering when they discuss how much money they will make in their careers compared to him. [Rediff]

Rediff’s Archana Masih thinks the cadet’s words are ‘staggeringly impressive’. Amit Varma argues that they are ‘staggeringly delusionary’, because, he explains ‘there are better reasons to feel proud of being an army man than the power you have over people’s lives’.

As indeed there are. But Amit misunderstands the import of those words. Ask soldiers what makes them rush into combat in war zones, when there’s a good chance that they’ll lose their lives and they’ll tell you that its for their paltan (platoon). And it’s not just the men that are ready to die for their officer, the readiness to die for their platoon-mates extends to the officers who command them. A look at the officer casualties in the Kargil war and in counter-insurgency operations in Jammu & Kashmir and elsewhere reveals that the Indian army’s officer casualty ratio is among the highest.

In a follow-up post, Amit quotes a journalist’s reply to a general who had berated the media for being un-patriotic. “You are paid to be patriotic” the journalist told the general. That’s a nice one-liner to put down someone talking down to you, but neither is it reasonable to suggest that soldiers are patriotic because they are paid, nor is it wrong to be paid to be patriotic. If anything, the army’s shortage of officers shows that India expects patriotism (of the risk-to-life kind) to come at a discount rather than at a premium.

Liberalise the defence industry

And thank Russia for shaking India out of its lazy old ways

What stands in the way of the Indian armed forces using indigenously developed main battle tanks, fighter aircraft and aircraft carriers?

Answer: Cheap Russian imports.

Years of dependence on Russian military hardware—which could be obtained at rather attractive prices—simply meant that the armed forces preferred readymade products they could use, rather than take more risky route of using the gear that the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) was developing. Giving the armed forces roughly what they wanted was a less risky option for the politicians heading the defence ministry. The relative ease with which Russian arms could be imported meant that there was no real incentive for India’s policymakers to think how domestic defence production could be improved. This is an oversimplification, of course, but it is the nub of the issue.

India needs a crisis, it is said, to jolt it out of its ways. Russia’s behaviour over the refitting and delivery of the aircraft carrier should provide one. Not merely because it upsets the navy’s plans to have two carrier groups by the end of this decade, but because the possibility of a Russia-China equation is real. India should develop a reputation for standing up to Russian armtwisting. Reliance on imports from Russia—cheap or otherwise—, however, poses long-term strategic risks.

Now, building main battle tanks, fighter aircraft and aircraft carriers is not trivial. But there is no reason to believe that India can’t develop and build them indigenously. It’s time to liberalise the defence industry. Transforming defence procurement policies to ensure that there are strong domestic manufacturers is not rocket science. It can be done.