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.
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.
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.
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