Thursday, 30 June, 2022
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Direct enrolment of JCOs fixes officer shortage, but still won’t fill Army’s leadership gap

In World War 2, the German Army never lost its cohesion in battle because junior leaders were its backbone.

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A proposal to grant direct commission in the rank of Junior Commissioned Officer, or JCO is under consideration by the Army. The proposal, according to a report in ThePrint, aims to offset the shortage of 7,399 officers by inducting a fixed percentage of direct-entry JCOs, who can subsequently be promoted up to the rank of Colonel by selection. This entry would be over and above the current authorisation of JCOs and will be offset against officer vacancies, and hence will not impinge upon the promotion prospects of Non-Commissioned Officers, or NCOs.

On the face of it, this proposal appears to be a major reformatory step to address shortage of officers and improve the quality of JCOs. However, a critical evaluation shows that it fails to address the biggest weakness of the Army, which is directly linked to the shortage of officers — non-empowerment of soldiers and junior leaders.

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JCO: A colonial legacy

British officers of the Indian Army were not familiar with the language, socio-economic status, caste, religion, local customs and lifestyle of their Indian soldiers in a region/religion/caste-based army. To bridge this gap, the British Indian Army felt it needed to have junior leaders of similar background as the native soldiers.

As a policy, Indians were not considered worthy enough to be officers and another reason was to proof the empire against a mutiny. Thus, the rank of a Junior Sahib — Viceroy Commission Officer (VCO) — was introduced for management of soldiers. Also,  the number of British officers was never adequate and VCOs catered to this shortage. The designation of VCOs was later changed to JCOs. JCOs rose from the ranks, and loyalty to the crown was a major factor for promotion. They were made Gazetted Officers Class 2 and were given higher pay and privileges like separate messes to enhance their authority. It became a coveted rank for which all soldiers aspired. 1922 onwards, Indians were gradually commissioned as officers, first through Royal Military College Sandhurst and later through Indian Military Academy. However, even post-Independence the JCO rank was retained because by now it had become an important cog in the system and part of the Army’s traditions.

Over the years, the quality of JCOs has deteriorated due to an archaic system of training and age factor. Ideally, junior leaders should be below the age of 40 to effectively lead soldiers in combat. Due to enhancement of age of all ranks and stagnation, most of the JCOs today are in the age bracket of 40-50 years.

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Officer shortage due to non-empowerment of junior leaders

For the last four decades, the shortage of officers has been a major issue adversely affecting the operational efficiency of the Army. The situation became so serious that it had to be made mandatory for young officers commissioned into the Services to do a one-to three (now one to two) year stint with infantry/Rashtriya Rifles units in operational/insurgency areas.

This shortage is due to rapid expansion of the Army post-1962, limited capacity of military academies, poor quality of candidates appearing before Services Selection Boards, disproportionate increase in authorisation of officers in units to compensate for non-empowerment of junior leaders and a poorly managed, unattractive Short Service Commission.

The capacity of the military academies has been increased to the optimum, and over the years the shortage of officers has been reduced from 20 per cent to a manageable 15 per cent. With the present capacity, it shall take another 15 years at the rate of 1 per cent per year to completely wipe out the deficiency. A related problem is that due to poor quality of candidates, the military academies are functioning below their capacity. Efforts are in hand to make the Short Service Commission more attractive to achieve the ratio of 55:45 for short service and regular officers.

However, the main cause of the shortage — over reliance on officers due to non-empowerment of junior leaders — is not being addressed. The issue of non-empowerment is relative as in matters of leadership at this level, good is not good enough. Our Infantry Battalions fought in World War 2 with 11 officers and 24 JCOs. Today, we have 21 officers and 55 JCOs authorised in a unit. Similar situation persists in other arms and services.

Despite a quantum technological jump in terms of lethality and accuracy for fire power, even today, ground positions or the enemy personnel still have to be captured/destroyed by close combat, which is undertaken by sections and platoons commanded by NCOs/JCOs. If officers have to, every time, lead sections/platoons from the front in battle, then it reflects poorly on the calibre of the junior leaders. There is a need to optimise the authorisation of officers in the units and not view them as a convenient tool to compensate for poor junior leadership.

To empower our junior leaders, as first step, we need to raise the standard of educational qualification from matriculation to 10+2/graduation in an appropriate ratio for recruitment. Graduates are required for technical operations and high-technology weapons and support systems. The selection procedure must be reviewed to include intelligence and aptitude tests on lines of Services Selection Boards.

In the German Army, even during World War 2, no NCO could command a section or a platoon without graduating from the NCO’s academy. It began the War with an officer-to-soldier ratio of 1:30. Due to casualties, this ratio fell to 1:300 by the end of the War. But the German Army never lost its cohesion in battle because junior leaders were its backbone. Our training establishments for junior leaders have inadequate capacity and most of training is done in units which neither have the time due to peace/operational commitments nor the necessary infrastructure. There is an urgent need to establish dedicated junior leaders’ academies. No one must become a section or a platoon commander or equivalent without requisite formal training in a junior leaders’ academy.

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Direct entry JCOs

There should be no doubt that this type of entry with graduation as a prerequisite will offset the shortage of officers. It will also improve the quality of junior leadership. But due to small numbers, the impact would be marginal. However, it is only a quick fix solution and the root cause of officers’ shortage — non-empowerment of junior leaders — remains unaddressed.

There is a need to radically reform and overhaul the training of junior leaders. The Army must pay heed to empirical wisdom — a unit is only as good as its section/platoon. And sections/platoons are commanded by junior leaders.

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.

Edited by Anurag Chaubey

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  1. We need major overhaul of defence services. Use new technology like drones to man borders and ships in lieu of manpower such as sentries and lookouts to a greater extent. Do away with support non- fighting personel. JCO ranks should be abolished, let NCOs report to commissioned officers. Short Service Commission should not be continued ,as it is , these personel are looked down upon. We need to trim the total strength to 40%. This restructuring process needs to be out sourced to foreign experts say Japanese, Singapore or US or even Taiwanese. Because our own generals or admirals will not be able to take hard decisions so as not to annoy fellow serving collegues.
    Th supervisory ranks , like inspectors in police, MCD, revenue, irrigation, electricity services, are legacy of colonial era, They have corrupted the national character and system ever since independence, hence should be done away with.

  2. Plz give the responsibility to those JCO who are already serving in Indian Army and physically and mentally fit. This leads high morale of the presently serving Junior Commissioned Officer in Indian Army.

  3. If leadership is not developed at all the levels of an organisation, this situation arises. Who stopped the top brass from revising the qualification for JCOs or from encouraging the NCOs to acquire education and become JCOs? I suspect that complacency is the cause. “What has worked for a century will work in future too.”

    Another important factor is that service in the armed forces is no longer an attractive career for the youth. Patriotic speeches alone won’t do. Pay and career prospects should be made attractive.

  4. For the last 4 decades or more ,Army had been facing shortage of officers ,& unfortunately this defficency could not be made good.,from among 133 crore population.

  5. No Brainer. Another faux pas to overcome officer shortage.better to commission short service officers with a fixed tenure of 5 years extendable by 2 years.

  6. Change your stupid recruitment policy. WHAT criterta do you use to select/reject people in SSB? I have seen hatte khatte mushdande fut fut ke rote hue, just because they got rejected in SSB. This for people who have set their heart out for a army commission. Do you even check the motivation levels? I met thousands of cadets during my NCC days who couldnt think anythin outside of a career in the army. shortage of officers, my ass !!!!!

  7. How can the ability to lead depend on the ability to follow. You might as well say that the ability to float depends on the ability to sink. Direct entry jcos will be a dampener in the unit morale and administration. You are buying chalk to replace cheese.

  8. A I’ll thought of and dangerous action to reduce officers shortage . The serving JCOS will disregard the young recruited JCOs who invariably will be selected from candidates rejected during officer selection . If direct JCos are to be recruited than existing JCos rank be abolished as in any case men over 40 with family dependant parents and children are risk averse and unsuitable to fight on glacial heights or high altitude . Like the British army the army must learn to fight with NCos after grooming , training them in leadership and section and platioon skills . The age profile of Indian solders is high and unsuitable for combat operations .

  9. The good General, fails to mention one major, in fact The Major reason, for this shortfall in numbers of officers in the Army. One wonders why he did not do so, surely it must be obvious to him, as it is to most educated and thinking persons. And he certainly is one.

    The reason for this shortfall is that a career in the Armed Forces is no longer attractive enough for the youth of India. It does not attract the best, most talented, intelligent and dynamic youth of India who can see the perverse degradation of the Armed Forces officer cadre as compared to the bureaucracy and babus of the government, to say nothing of what the private sectors offer the youngsters in terms of a career.

    No amount of propaganda and appeal to patriotic fervour by the Recruiting Directorate is sufficient to overcome this, till such time, the Armed Forces are brought back to their original status as existed .

    This the good General needs to emphasise to all who would listen to his words… And act on them.

    • Slowly and quietly, over a period of time, the Armed Forces’ ranking in the hierarchy of Govt has been degraded

  10. So convenient to say that candidates appearing before SSB are poor. Recommendations have been far too few and merit in candidates are even lesser than The vacancies. On top of that academy drop out is at a all time high. Maybe instead of blaming the candidates or the army, selection procedures and transparency needs to be boosted to address the leadership crisis.

  11. For JCO ‘s recruitment of post which types of candidates are eligible. The age limit and qualifications for that post could you please provide the details.

  12. If the direct entry JCO after their induction in Indian Army later assume the rank of young commissioned officer to fulfill the efficiency of officers. In that case the JCOs those who are already serving in the Army has to loose their superiority and obey to work directly under the newly commissioned officers. Why should this chance given to young JCO those who are already serving in Indian Army and physically and mentally fit and having the high morale of the Army? We should also give apprutinunities to even to serving JCOs.

  13. If the direct entry JCO after their induction in Indian Army later assume the rank of young commissioned officer to fulfill the efficiency of officers. In that case the JCOs those who are already serving in the Army has to loose their superiority and obey to work directly under the newly commissioned officers. Why should this chance given to young JCO those who are already serving in Indian Army and physically and mentally fit and having the high morale of the Army?

  14. ***** The only permanence is change. Yet, we have to be aware that change for change’s sake or if the expected result of the change is not commensurate with the implementation of the change, there is a problem. I have an issue with the aim to induct JCOs directly to overcome the shortfall of officers. The aim may have to be restated like “… improve the efficiency of the fighting machine..” or some such.

    Induction of qualified persons as JCOs directly, of course after prescribed military training, for specific roles in technical arms like Engineers, Signals and services like EME (maintenance engineers again), Services Corps (supply chain management), Education, Judiciary etc. makes immense sense as it means adoption of latest technologies and methods in the respective areas faster.

    Direct induction of JCOs into leadership intensive Infantry, Armoured Corps etc. may not get us the desired results.

    With all these changes and reorganization of AHQ etc. there is but one chink in the Military armour of India. Successive Governments have been shying away from revamping the MOD. As in all democracies, there is a requirement to have a mix of uniformed and non-uniformed persons manning the MOD. This is an essential prerequisite for smoother interaction between Defence and the Government (politicians). Wil the present dispensation bite the bullet?

    Tailpiece: I hope the bureaucrats, who I feel do not want to part with part of their turf see reason and realise this absolute necessity.

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