Why Should Armed Forces Officer Selection System Be Reviewed? A Debate

"As they go up the ladder, the closeness with troops and junior lot of officers becomes thinner and appeasement of their IO/ RO as well as environment gains precedence over everything else. Now one can clearly see the I,ME&MYSELF "


Why Should Armed Forces  Officer Selection System Be Reviewed? A Debate

Editor's Note: What started off as a debate for review of the DIPR based SSB officer selection system (triggered by news of  Cadet Gaurav Yadav of 143 rd NDA course winning coveted gold medal and news of him being rejected by SSB in his first two attempts for NDA 141 & 142 courses ) led to many responses to our MVI article/ interview of Lt Gen DB Shekatkar on DIPR based SSB selection system. Several responses received also covered other linked aspects like training and grooming of cadets in military academies, the ACR system and connected promotion system / policy for officers and other issues. All these responses from veterans have collectively thrown much light on various issues and technicalities of our officer selection, training, grooming and promotion system. We hope these responses enrich the environment and trigger more responses to take the debate further.

The Trigger:

Country first: NDA gold medallist clears IIT entrance but lies to parents so he can pursue his dream of joining armed forces
While Gaurav Yadav cleared the NDA entrance exam twice, he couldn’t clear the SSB interview.

Responses From Veterans

MAJ GEN CD SAWANT        

Corruption by officers posted in SSBs is seemingly an aberration. After all we all are chips of the same block, if we look at it our society today, we witness corruption in every aspect. During conflicts since 1971, we have always witnessed young officers leading from the front at the cost of their lives. These officers were selected by the same system which is believed to have failed. A young officer is always enthusiastic and ready to take initiative especially during the tough field conditions. However after sometime he gets exposed to his seniors and prevalent malpractices that go on and after that due to such unwarranted exposures these young officers also start following their seniors. They also witness some good officers getting side lined due to no mistake syndrome and problems related to confidential report system and get disheartened. As the officer starts getting exposed to the attitudes and activities of Flag Rank officers, he further gets disillusioned and result is there to see. There is a definite requirement to revise existing selection system but that revision only may not produce better officers, there is a need to revamp existing systems prevalent in armed forces, especially IA.

MAJ GEN A K SHUKLA                

SSBs have always been a subject of debates, discussions and subjected to much criticism and voices to shut them up, close DIPR in the past, now there is increase in decibel as well as frequency for such drastic steps.

Interestingly  ,these voices are being heard from senior veterans, most of them who have risen to such coveted posts, courtesy the same SSB which they so vehemently are trashing. So do I take it their selection was also a mistake?
Amongst all services I find defence services are the only ones who wish to axe their own feet at slightest pretex. We feel and believe we are the only bastion of honesty, and straightforwardness. We also take onus for the entire country. The case of irregularities of one SSB has prompted few amongst us to paint the entire system as rotten .

Time and again we cast aspersions on SSB but in all wars fought our junior leaders have proved their mantle. Then why are we so critical of our system? Have we not seen corrupt bureaucrats, IPS and other civil servants?  Have you  seen their own veterans calling for change in selection strategy? Big No!. But surprisingly veterans who are not very well versed with selection process are most vocal in criticism.

In my opinion the political bosses are looking for opportunities to sneak in our process. Till now we have warded away intrusions under the umbrella of rules framed by DIPR, they are our biggest safeguards. Unfortunately, senior leadership expect them to become sub servient to them which is resisted and not appreciated, hence the clamour to downsize them.

The SSB  procedures are being introduced by many other organisations as they find this selection process to be scientific and appropriate. My experience as a manpower man in AGs branch and as an assessor says that the system is time tested and needs no major changes. Minor modifications to keep with changing times are needed but not a butcher’s knife as is being suggested. If the protective shield of DIPR is lifted it will lead to avoidable interference and pressures which will trigger disastrous results. Let’s not give them that opportunity.

BRIG IS GAKHAL                            

The story of Gaurav Yadav itself shows that the SSB system has sustained over time. He made it the third time, and went on to win the Gold Medal. Any system has to remain dynamic to stay relevant. The capability and profile of the candidates has changed due to more information at their disposal. The assessing standards and procedures must also change. It's true that ACR syndrome does make leaders 'show window performers' . A motivated and performing YO in a space of 5-7 years starts converting into a spectator specific performer. The ACR orientation is to blame. Another aspect these days is the growing gap between Senior leaders and Junior leaders. The effort to bridge that must come from the Seniors .

COL PARMESH MEHERISHI          

All SSB tests are subjective and  suffer from a flaw called the 'confirmation bias', more on this later.

My question is - why does a so called leader in his senior days trained in the best of academies wilt under political / bureaucratic pressure? Almost all become: I, ME & MYSELF. Some training flaws, human nature, greed, self promotion, lack of V & E or all of the above. What good is years of training and military ethos then and if the end  result is a senior product who is  spineless and wilts under a politician or a babu? I have constantly being saying that our young officers have led from the front and got us victories in 1948, 65,71 & 99 and died fighting for a cause in 1962 without flinching or asking any questions.

What happens to the eco system which nurtures them when young and as they grow older and  become senior / corrupted / non- professional. Is it only ACR and course gradings or something more that we are looking for in our senior leadership?

I Don't know,  you tell me? Given the present state of higher leadership one wonders whether leadership is to be taught and learnt or practised by men of conviction who stand up for what they strongly feel as right?

Battle field or operational leadership is different as it normally involves young officers leading their men from the front.

Does something happen to our fauji leaders in general as they grow in service?
We seem to wilt under political/ bureaucratic pressure.

It is action in motion of , thoughts, words, decisions and deeds. It is standing by your decisions, should the consequences not turn out favourably. It is definitely long term, not tenure based. Should a military decision taken while in service later on be proved on scrutiny to have been taken for considerations not purely military the concerned senior should present himself for an open inquiry. How many up to it ?

BRIG DJ GOVADIA

I endorse the views expressed by Maj Gen CD Sawant. We are all chips of the same block. As one advances in service and  rank, it is up to individual officers to stand up and  be counted, when required.

BRIG BK PONWAR

Wonder to what extent does the  integrity drop from CO level upwards? Is it by everyone or just a small percentage or by different Arms and Services?

We all practice 'Self Discipline' to a very large extent. No harm can come to an Honest Devoted Soldier.

During the 71 War Leadership on the Frontline and at the HQ levels was Outstanding.

GP CAPT JOHNSON CHACKO

Rigidity in adherence to one's principles based on professionalism is projected as lack of flexibility and hence unsuitable for higher ranks, I guess?

BRIG SARVESH DANGWAL

Appropos Gen CD Sawant's response to the subject under discussion. What he says is a given, an au fait and therefore to continue parroting the same reasoning ad nauseum will not resolve the problem. "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” These wise words were spoken by Albert Einstein and represent the first hurdle we face when it comes to solving problems. Modern Society pedestalises success irrespective of the means to achieve it.  Rank/ Position in hierarchical military/ civil/ corporate  organizations is equated with success and that is where we have the problem. More so in an extremely pyramidical organization as the Military, where the competition has made itself cut throat and engendered a rat race.

This encourages sycophancy as a tool to manipulate seniors with, to earn undeserving gradings in reports. The situation requires an organ transplant than  mere surgery to improve the moral and ethical health of the Military. It has become rather impossible to replace the ACR system as evaluation is a tool of HR management to promote and select the right persons for the next rank/ office/ position. Without it , we will be worse off. Over the years the consumer and market mentality of individuals has overtaken societal thought and the means are relegated in favour of ends. We suffer from the same syndrome.

To compete for a rank / office the waiting line is big and hence the malaise which Gen Sawant and others talk and refer to. The idealism and utopian thinking of the youth gets blunted in the quagmire of materialism, which has managed to supersede nobility , rectitude, probity and morality in individual behaviour and conduct. It will not happen and to keep repeating the same sentiment is rather passe.  "Many of the unethical traits imbibed by Smart people in their formative years, mutate over the years into major character flaws that blight our senior military leadership. The early erosion of a person's moral fibre , if not stemmed , can allow him to rationalise serious misconduct in later life.

Lying, cheating, stealing, manhandling of juniors, forgery and impersonation defines a smart cadet". ex CNS. In no other profession are the consequences of being led by incompetent persons greater than in the military and hence the Services is required to be led by character driven leadership. Or else there will be serious consequences with cost to life of soldiers. The Army and Navy assume greater importance in this as the IAF is more platform oriented (Aircrafts than personnel). We all are acquainted with the truism that No Lord is a Hero to his valet. Therefore, leaders have to model themselves more on character than strategic ability. If of the two qualities one is to make a choice then it is the former than the latter .

There is some very serious thinking which is required to make Good and Successful mutually possible. Our selection , training, grooming, on job nurturing, unit values (doing wrong with the excuse that it is for the unit), syllabi, assessment and evaluation system et al require a paradigm rethink and not incremental changes. It will not work. If market psyche has overtaken our fundamental thought then it is time that we predicate our leadership learning on the pedestals of both military and contemporary  corporate thinking. We need to build the brick and make every soldier a leader from a follower, because with this a process of reverse osmosis shall be initiated where leadership will be 'Bottom Up ' than 'Top Down'  to start with. So let each and every soldier become an epitome of character qualities and thus help create an ambient culture of  Harder Right than the Easier Wrong which is at opposites to the current thinking of Do as I say and Not what I Do. But instead Do as I Do and even better!

While writing all this , I acquiesce to the saying that the greatest service  a retired General can do is to turn in his suit and his tongue and to mothball his views.

LT GEN HS PANAG                              

I endorse what Brig Dangwal has said. Character is the key. It is the selection board to select the best and the leadership development and character building at the military academies. Of course it is a continuum while in service with gaps being bridged by an ethical enforcement system. Character without requisite intellect may at worse lead to mediocrity, but intellect without character is useless and will lead to disaster.  I wrote a few articles on this issue 4-5 years ago. Will post them.

COL PRADEEP DALVI                    

The present SSB system as reiterated before is vintage of 1940 and needs urgent upgrade. We need to post best officers as GTOs and IOs. It is seen very few officers posted as GTO gets promoted to the rank of Col/ Brig. Off-late superseded officers are being posted  at the SSB. HOWEVER, THE SELECTION OF CANDIDATES AT THE SSB IS FAIRLY BALANCED WITH SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR OF TRAINABILITY   KEPT IN MIND FOR NDA AND DIRECT ENTRY CADETS.

It is seen that officers' children do not do well at the academy compared to JCOs/ ORs/ Civil background cadets. It’s all about trainability and exposure a cadet receives. TAKING NDA IN VIEW IT WAS NOTED THAT PERFORMANCE OF CADETS IN  FIRST AND SIXTH TERM IS ENTIRELY DIFFERENT KEEPING IN VIEW THE TRAINABILTY FACTOR. I am also of the opinion that DS posted are young Capt with five yrs of service with  little experience of assessment of cadets and their personality development. No scientific instruments are used to assess the cadets during their six terms at the NDA.

Most importantly ,the follow up is hardly done by DIPR and by units once GCs  are commissioned. Their is an urgent need to carry out overhaul of the selection system at SSB/ DIPR using combination of present system and various scientific instruments available keeping in view the present socio- economic environment and society at large.

MAJ GEN VIJAY PANDE            

"The essential thing is action. Action has three stages: the decision born of thought, the order or preparation for execution, and the execution itself. All three stages are governed by the will. The will is rooted in character, and for the man of action character is of more critical importance than intellect.

Intellect without will is worthless, will without intellect is dangerous."
Generaloberst (Colonel-General) Hans von Seeckt, Thoughts of a Soldier, 1930.

BRIG SANJAY SANGWAN      

Growth, change and evolution are inherent in nature. Physical growth, strengthening and then decay is part of nature and beyond human control. Knowledge, Psychological and Emotional growth is what humans try to direct and control through various educational, social, political, economic, cultural, religious tools and techniques. Human behaviour is guided by values and ethics which are formed early in life through observation and interactions with the environment. These are formed by early adolescence and form the subconscious which guides his/ her decisions and behaviour in the conscious world. These behaviours guided by values and ethics combined form the personality of an individual with identifiable traits. SSB endeavours to assess individual personality on the identified 15 traits considered important for military leadership. The system is fair, mature and proven by our military leadership in various wars, Disaster Relief operations, Aid to Civil Authority and even non/ quasi military areas like Sports and Adventure activities. While analysis of human behaviour can never reach Six Sigma standards, only rare errors or deviants are noticed who could be termed as masters of pretense or possible errors of assessment at SSB.

Post SSB, one lands up at the training academies where the environment is quite at loggerheads with what one has been assessed on in SSB. Guiding Principles in academies, pushed by seniors are Manage, Smartness, Shirk and almost all have to adapt and imbibe these to a varying degree though these are short term deviations which are not permitted to subjugate his values or ethics by his subconscious and prevalent formal environment, Academies is also where the latent leadership qualities get exercised and firmed up. Junior leadership of our military has invariably proved itself in discharging its responsibilities both in war and in peace. Along with the training academies, our Units Culture too plays a major role in this where Unit Izzat is supreme and our junior leaders have willfully walked into fixed line fire, fought with bayonets/ even bare hands and laid down own life just to save an injured buddy.

If our junior leaders have proven themselves repeatedly, where does the problem lie? It is largely in the organizational environment outside the units, society at large and human behaviour itself.

While Ambition is an inherent trait in every human being and more pronounced in Leaders especially Military Leaders, means to that ambition and how arduously it is pursued affects growth post commission. No doubt military life is tough and demanding with a hierarchical organization exercising strict control over almost all aspects of life. YOs tend to look at senior officers and aspire to the rank for the attendant status and privileges which is but natural. It would be unfair to generalize but the environment offers all kinds of examples to emulate. These desires get reinforced by exposure to the civil society and through media and human weakness usually falls for the easier wrong than stick with the harder right. It also gets an informal acceptance when he sees the rampant parochialism, favouritism, unfair practices even in the military. It is said children don’t do what they are told but do what they see. Humans learn and adapt all their lives and it applies to adults too.

While every individual tends to overestimate his own potential and expects commensurate reports, gradings and postings but gradually one learns where he stands and accepts it. However, there are a lot of anomalies in the environment especially when perceptibly less-deserved achieve higher than them and it is human tendency to attribute it to favouritism of some sort and this lures him into that walk of pleasing his IO/ RO/ SRO and turning him subservient and at times even unethical, quite contrary to what he believed in all his life and service. To make matters worse, military has lost most of the decision making powers over the decades to bureaucracy and the polity which often forces even senior officers to choose unwillingly.

It is also human tendency to deflect blame on to others/ other systems as ONLY A FEW  EVOLVED HUMANS ACCEPT OWN MISTAKES/ ERRORS. Errors by junior leaders have limited impact as their responsibilities and powers are limited with restricted sphere of influence. IT IS THE SENIORS WHO MOULD AND SHAPE THE ENVIRONMENT AND SET EXAMPLES TO EMULATE. Not everybody can resist social and family pressures or forsake personal ambition to ethics almost absent in the society. IT MAY BE EXCESSIVE TO HOLD SSB RESPONSIBLE FOR IT.

COL RAJINDER KUSHWAHA

Interesting discussion has taken place . Some very relevant issues have cropped up. But Brig Sarvesh Dangwal has hit the nail on the head , which has been very rightly endorsed by Lt Gen HS Panag. After all whole issue revolves around moral turpitude and individual character.

My analysis is that system might not be bad but the individuals who constitute the system, ought to take the blame for its dilution / degradation. However , whole issue has to be reviewed keeping in mind the socio- economic transformation of the society from which the material for soldiering, both leadership and lower cadres , emerges .

BRIG PRADEEP SHARMA              

Look at this as follows:-

  1. As a junior leader, say Capt, NCO, JCO personal honour and respect amongst peers, village types and within the unit is primary. Therefore, professional integrity, physical courage ,morals and ethics, the Chetwode Code mean a lot .
  2. Company Cdr to Bn Cdr also it is mostly applicable as they are being watched by the men they command. But here is where dilution too begins! ACRs start to influence actions. The CO wants HC/HDMC and Company Cdr wants a 9 point report. Both look for opportunities to get Awards and be on the right side of respective IOs!
  3. At Formation levels it is more of appeasing the environment which includes his IO/ RO. Chetwode goes into the Shadows.
  4. As they go up the ladder, the closeness with troops and junior lot of officers becomes thinner and appeasement of their IO/ RO as well as environment gains precedence over everything else. Now one can clearly see the 'I,ME&MYSELF '.
  5. This is where the organisational interests can go to hell as long as long as ' I , ME,MYSELF 'get the next rank ,the NDC or a plumb posting. It is these individuals who leave a bad taste in the mouths of the 'junior' lot, they seek plumb post retirement jobs ,honorary memberships to clubs and institutions as part of the Freedom Fighters Association!

I THINK THIS SHOULD CLEAR THE AIR !?

Editor's Note Continued: With a view to prevent mixing up of responses the debates for SELECTION, TRAINING & PROMOTION SYSTEMS are intended to be conducted separately. This will enable specialized/exclusive debates on different systems with inputs/responses from qualified and experienced officers/veterans in those systems/fields. To trigger the debate exclusively on the SELECTION SYSTEM respondents are requested to kindly read the six MVI articles/interviews that were published in Mar/Apr 2021. Based on their personal knowledge, experiences and perceptions, respondents are requested to kindly send their views, comments and suggestions on the main issues raised /covered in these six articles/interviews. Point Wise/Crisp Responses will be appreciated and facilitate sequential/methodical compilation to facilitate drawing some logical conclusions on issues covered.

Link of the six articles:

Does The SSB System Need Overhaul? In Conversation with Brig. Rajbir Singh (Retd)
Brig. Rajbir Singh (Retd), a former SSB Psychologist & Technical Officer spoke to MVI in part-3 of this ongoing interview series on the Shekatkar Committee recommendations calling for a closure of the DIPR & its SSB system.
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.”
Analysis of Screening Test at SSBs
Former Deputy President of 19-Services Selection Board, Colonel RK Sinha (Retd) analyses the screening tests at the SSBs as part of an ongoing series on SSB reforms.
SSB Screening Tests Need Introspection: In Conversation with Brig. Rajbir Singh (Retd)
Brig. Rajbir Singh (Retd), a former SSB Psychologist & Technical Officer spoke to MVI in part-4 of this ongoing interview series on Services Selection Board (SSB) reforms.
SSB Screening Tests Need Introspection: In Conversation with Col. Pradeep Dalvi (Retd)
Col. Pradeep Dalvi (Retd), a DIPR/SSB qualified IO & GTO spoke to MVI in part-5 of this ongoing interview series on SSB reforms.
Does The SSB System Need Overhaul? In Conversation with Col. Pradeep Dalvi (Retd)
Col. Pradeep Dalvi (Retd), a DIPR/SSB qualified IO & GTO spoke to MVI in part-2 of this ongoing interview series on the Shekatkar Committee recommendations calling for a closure of the DIPR & its SSB system.

(Views expressed are the respondent's own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Mission Victory India)

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