Indian Military’s Shortage of Officers and Potential Areas for Improvement

Recently, India has been upping its efforts to modernize its military as it finalized the $5bn S-400 deal with Russia earlier this year. There is no doubt that India needs to address the fact that it is still dependent on old defense technology. However, the focus of New Delhi should not just be on acquiring new weapons but also on making sure whether it has enough military officers for efficient operations. Currently, the “Indian military suffers acute shortage of officers,” a situation that hinders the operational capacity of the Indian armed forces. In terms of manpower, the military has only 64,000 officers against a sanctioned strength of 74,000, raising questions about the Indian military’s operational efficiency.


The Indian military is faced with threats that are both external and internal. On the external front, Indian military shares a 3,000 km border with Pakistan and a 4,000 km LAC (Line of Actual Control) with China. India does not have the best of relationships with both these countries and has repeatedly been engaged with them in military hostilities throughout its history. Internally, the country is suffering from prolonged insurgencies in the northeastern states and Kashmir. Amidst such threats, reports that the Indian military suffers from a shortage of officers do not bode well for India’s defense capacity.


Reasons for this deficiency are manifold. According to Lt. General (retd) Rameshwar Yadav, one of the reasons is the unattractiveness of military service compared to the Indian civil service and corporate sector vis-à-vis pay, perks and avenues of promotion. In contrast, the Pakistani army remains an attractive option for the middle class because of its perks and social status.  While Pakistani officers enjoy a level of perks that is arguably more than optimal, Indian policymakers need to address the declining attractiveness of its armed forces.


The shortage of officers is not because of the lack of applications. Around 4 lac people apply for the 900 spots at the National Defense Academy. Thus, the scarcity of officers is not a matter of attracting a higher number of applicants but of attracting more quality applicants.


A reason behind the low quality of applicants lies in the investigation of the diversity (or rather the lack) of the officers. The Hindi Belt, consisting of north Indian states, is overrepresented as shown by the composition of recent graduates from the Indian Military Academy at Dehradun. According to official statistics, UP, Haryana, and Uttarakhand alone accounted for around 669 out of the 1787 officers that were passed out in the last two years. While these three states represent around 19 per cent of India’s population, their officers represent around 38 per cent of the recent graduates.


On the other extreme, the numbers from the northeastern states are negligible. This composition suggests that states represented proportionately less supply a lower number of quality candidates. Such states need to be especially targeted for recruitment in the Indian military because it can be inferred from their lack of representation in the officers’ cadre that their talented youth are finding an outlet elsewhere for their energies. In the case of northeastern states, it cannot be argued that the youth are finding more economically attractive opportunities elsewhere because the region lags behind in socio-economic development compared to the overrepresented states among the Indian officers. Thus, special efforts are needed to recruit officers from northeastern states. Such efforts will not only help India increase its total quality of applicants that want to be military officers but also help India push back against insurgencies in that region.


Encouraging more women to join the Indian military will also help alleviate the shortage of officers.  While in the last few decades militaries around the world have accepted more women in both non-combat and combat roles, the numbers of women in such roles still need an improvement. In the US, 15% of military personnel are females while in India the percentage is abysmally low at 5%. In India’s case, the challenge of inducting more women in the military is not that of legislation but of countering traditional attitudes, both within and outside the military, which hinder women from joining the military. The Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat’s recent comments against the induction of women in combat roles certainly will not help. Attitudes within the military can only be changed if the leadership is willing to change them. General Bipin Rawat’s counterparts in the Indian Navy and Indian Airforce have publicly taken stances for women induction. As a result of their strong leadership, attitudes have shifted in their respective institutions. 


India, as said before, is faced with both external and internal threats. The current predicament of the number of officers in the Indian military is alarming. The dearth of officers stems mainly from socio-economic factors; the civil service and corporate sector both provide better pay and privileges. In order to address this paucity, policymakers should make military service more attractive than it currently is. Along with increasing attractiveness of military service, policymakers should focus on targeted recruitment from areas that supply proportionately fewer high quality applicants. Also, negative attitudes towards women officers need to be countered so that more women officers are able join the military, a shift that is happening all around the world.