Splitting the Anatomy of the Indian Military's Officer Selection Woes

"Scrap the existing screening test since it is superficial, arbitrary, and does injustice to the candidates who come through strenuous written examinations."


Splitting the Anatomy of the Indian Military's Officer Selection Woes

The Indian Armed Forces Officer selection procedure: The Services Selection Board (SSB) has been long considered sacrosanct and beyond scrutiny. However longstanding lapses in the officer cadre has brought the need for closer introspection.

The SSB procedure designed by the Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR) has not been reformed or revised in over seven decades, begging the question; Is India’s Military Officer Selection keeping up with the evolving trend in military leadership and the evolving nature of modern warfare?

Speaking on this pertinent issue Brigadier Rajbir Singh, a psychologist who has had extensive experience with the selection system shares his insights, calling for a change in the now antiquated selection procedure.

Brig. Singh was commissioned in the Army Educational Corps in June 1975 from the Indian Military Academy (IMA). A postgraduate in Psychology, he held a number of Instructional appointments including one in the Army Cadet College.

He worked in all the three Service Selection Centres  as Technical Officer and as a Psychologist. He retired from IMA where he was last posted as Head of Academic Department. He is presently working as a consultant in an organisation engaged in assessing the corporate managers.

Q: What is the primary cause for the lack of reforms in the SSB? Has the DIPR been resisting changes in a bid to hold monopoly over the selection procedure?

Ans: The question that no significant change both in the concepts and the procedure has taken place in the last over seventy years needs serious deliberation. The answer that the present format is good enough is illogical. All armies are revising their respective selection techniques based on the latest psychological findings and environmental requirements.

In my personal view, it is a case of mega procrastination and lack of accountability by everyone concerned. DIPR (Defence Institute of Psychological Research) is one of the units of DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation), which is an autonomous organization, and the Recruiting Directorate has no control even in terms of issues related to SSB testing and the connected research on selection.

SSBs are sanguine in the situation that they do not have to effect change, which is always troublesome, and DIPR does not have to institute a mage research project for review and up-gradation of the present system.

Q: How does the SSB cater to the different categories in terms of qualitative needs, potentiality and trainability? Has it been effective in addressing these?

Ans: The question is relevant whether the same leadership qualities are good enough for IAF ground duty engineers and the fighter pilots?! The SSBs tests all candidates on the fifteen qualities. The same question is also relevant for the Special Forces officers and those who remain engaged in sedentary duties in the Army Service Corps and Army Ordnance Corps and several others.

The justification provided by the Selection Boards is that they test candidates on the fundamental leadership qualities. Concerned organizations IAF or the army further hone these essential qualities to meet special needs. Whether it is possible to upgrade the qualities in training for specific needs is again a matter of research by the scientists.

Logically speaking, a fighter pilot having cleared PABT still needs a much higher level of a quick grasp of the emerging situation, split-second decision making, and much higher reaction time. Fighter pilots fly very modern, sophisticated, and costly machines, which leads to enormous pressure and the ability to withstand that stress is an additional need. In this context, DIPR has a higher responsibility to have a relook at the system.

Q: Some veterans feel that the quality of officer intake has deteriorated post the 1971 war, do you agree with or dispute this characterization?

Ans: The concern of the veterans is genuine. The expression that the quality of the officers joining the defence services has gone down may not be entirely accurate. Young officers have done exceptionally well in engagements, be it in Kargil or elsewhere. There seems no lack of motivation and pride.

It is, however, true that the social profile of candidates appearing in the SSBs has undoubtedly changed. One rarely finds a candidate from the elite schools and belonging to so-called wealthy families. I never saw even a single candidate whose parents worked in higher administrative services. Most candidates who passed out in the last December 2019 from the Indian Military academy are sons of lower-middle-class families.

Large numbers were sons of the serving or retired JCOs and NCOs. It is also a fact that all three assessors do not recommend a large number in the SSBs. They are recommended with specific observations with the assumption that the training in the academies, and later in the units will take care of minor negative observations. Such discrepancies may remain unaddressed or get exaggerated for the detriment of the service.

Along with this trend, standards for clearing for the training have also gone down. However, the motivation of young officers is still intact. This situation seems contradictory, but the relaxed standards in assessment and later disconnect with the trainers in the academies may prove detrimental in the long run.

Group discussion at SSB centre (File photo)

Q: Do you believe that the SSB procedure is fool-proof? Does the system fare well in terms of objectivity and the quality of candidates selected?

Ans: The assessors in the SSBs are the individuals with the highest integrity. They do exceedingly well within the testing system provided to them by the DIPR. The issue is with the testing instruments, which remain unchanged for over seven decades. In that context, speaking only for psychological testing, the assessors are not even aware that they are selecting the right material or not.

The projective tests, TAT (Thematic Apperception Test) and WAT (Word Association Test), have low reliability. Ratings of the two assessors invariably vary in the absence of assessment manuals for these tests, which do not exist. No foolproof manual can be designed since the responses to the stimuli presented in the projective tests would vary for every individual.

Q: How does the SSB effectively cater to the demands of 21st century warfare, given that the system has not been reformed in over 70 years? Is there a disconnect between selection standards and the nature of the current defence and security environment in which they are to operate in?

Ans: This issue poses the question of research by social scientists and psychologists. Minds have evolved in the last seven preceding decades. The testing instruments provided to the assessors are based on the research carried out in the late thirties and early forties of the previous century. World armies continue to upgrade their testing kits continuously based on the evolved consciousness of the affected population. Why haven't we done is a mystery.

Q: There have been a harrowing rate of relegation's in India's officer training academies, as is evident from each course; This year witnessed mass relegation's of Lady Cadets from OTA Chennai on grounds of poor physical fitness.

Given the fact that all of these relegated cadets are recommended by the SSBs, does this not highlight a major discrepancy between what is required by the SSB, and what is expected at the respective training academies and ultimately the individual arms and services, who are the final stakeholders?

Ans: This failure is the question that Col Vinay Dalvi is addressing to the authorities that matter since the last one and half-decade. There is no one better than him since he worked as the PTO in the academies. He deserves to be heard. Strangely, his counsel is being ignored. Cadets entering the academies with poor physical fitness standards face an uphill task in training.

A maximum number of relegations is for not clearing even the necessary physical tests. This attrition not only results in a waste of precious time by the cadets who go down in seniority compared to their colleagues but considerably lowers their self-worth and motivation. It dents the self-image of future officers for life. Only and the only answer is to include physical tests in screening before subjecting candidates to SSB testing.

Lady Cadets at OTA Chennai, descending from an obstacle course

Q: What are your views on the disconnect between our 73 year old DIPR selection system selection system and actual training requirement to which DIPR/SSB qualified officers (GTO, IO, and Psychologist/Technical Officer) have become captive to?

Ans: Having worked in the academies, I am aware of the disconnect between training in the academies and the SSBs. Standardization exercises are conducted to address this discrepancy. In that, teams of the SSB assessors visit academies to ensure that observations made in respect of some candidates are being ironed out in training. These visits are infrequent, and discussions are superficial.

Academies have their own agendas. Competencies of the cadets on which the trainers' work do not match the fifteen qualities tested in the SSBs. The only solution to this pressing issue is to associate officers posted to academies with SSBs. They must physically stay in the SSBs for a reasonable time and participate in the selection process.

Q8: Do you feel there is a lack of coordination amongst the agencies involved in terms of selection requirements at the SSB? If so, what solution do you propose?

Ans: This disconnect is serious, particularly in the fast-changing world of today. This matter must engage the highest authority in the defence forces and the Government. The only answer to my mind is to institute a standing committee to address this issue by way of continuous monitoring and research.

Q: What are your recommendations to reform or review the SSB procedure and how would they help deal with the problems plaguing India’s officer selection?

Ans: Nothing earth-shaking is required to reform the system. Any thinking person given a chance will take a few logical steps. These are:

  1. Scrap the existing screening test since it is superficial, arbitrary, and does injustice to candidates who come through strenuous written examinations of UPSC and Army Headquarters in the case of ACC candidates. An intelligence test can be introduced for screening non-UPSC entry candidates, as was the case before 1998 when the present screening system was introduced.
  2. Introduce physical fitness screening tests in consultation with the physical training officers working in the academies. Higher fitness will infuse confidence in future cadets and enhance their overall performance in the academy.
  3. Institute a research team to review, revise, and upgrade the existing test battery. It is to be done in a time-bound manner. The project must be completed and introduced expeditiously.
  4. Instructors getting posted to academies must remain attached to the SSBs for a reasonable period before taking up jobs as trainers.
  5. SSB selectors must necessarily visit units posted in the forward areas in insurgency prone regions at least once in one year.
  6. Standardization exercises of the selectors need to be taken up in an in-depth and serious manner.
DIPR Insignia (File photo)

Q: Do you believe that the DIPR has by and large lived up to its mission? If yes, how? If not, why?

Ans: The answer is NO from me. Why the DIPR has not lived up to their mission statement is a mystery and needs to be probed. It can be mentioned in the passing that they must be made accountable to the Recruiting Directorates of the three services in matters of selection.

Q: How should the SSB selection procedure change or be reformed to improve the quality of officer intake, our training methodology and grooming to give the end users qualitatively better officers?

Ans: The comprehensive answer is contained in the five painstaking volumes produced by Victory India under the energetic guidance of passionate Col Vinay Dalvi and his colleagues. I am only qualified to answer psychology-related pertinent questions contained in this well-drafted questionnaire.

Q: What could the armed forces learn from the corporate sector in terms of selection and delegation of authority?

Ans: I worked with a team to test senior corporate managers for over six years after superannuation. We tested and counseled persons working in prestigious corporations like TATAs and Reliance to include several others. Indian corporates are quite confused about the qualities they require in their senior managers.

They would hurriedly draft un-researched competencies needed in their managers for the assessment teams to probe. This form of testing in respect of Indian corporates is a recent phenomenon to stay in line with the foreign corporates who are already well organized. They call this form of testing 'assessment centers,' and we in India have borrowed the idea.

Corporates conduct only discussion and unstructured interviews before shortlisting candidates for employment. We have nothing to learn from them. Only agencies that can provide valuable inputs in revising our system in armed forces are the tests and procedures presently in use in the modern western armies.

(Views expressed are the interviewees own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India)


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