April 20, 2019:
The rapidly modernizing Chinese military and increasingly aggressive Chinese demands to settle old border disputes have forced India to take a realistic look at its defense spending and the current state of its armed forces. For the first time in its history, the modern state of India faces a very real military threat. That’s because China considers colonial-era border agreements illegal and wants 90,000 square kilometers back. India has refused, especially since compliance would mean losing much of the state of Arunachal Pradesh in northeastern India and some bits elsewhere in the area.
There is one glaring problem with this Indian situation. The more Indians examine the state of their military, especially compared to what China is doing with its military, there is growing alarm. China not only spends more than three times as much as India each year on defense but gets better value for what it spends. China spends much more on modernization (and has the equipment to show for it) while the Chinese procurement bureaucracy is far less corrupt and inept. Both nations have problems with corruption but China has made a more determined effort to curb the corrupt practices in the military. India is only starting to uncover hidden corrupt practices that generations of politicians and bureaucrats have deliberately ignored (and profited from). But with the growing Chinese threat, there have been more investigations and honest audits of the Indian military. Some details have been painfully obvious for a long time but not publicized. For example, Indian army weapons are primarily Cold War vintage and even back then the Indian military did not have world class stuff. Equipment and capabilities in support services, particularly logistics and intelligence, are woefully inadequate. Stockpiles of ammo for wartime use are often so old that the munitions are unusable and often dangerous to handle.
Over half the Indian defense budget goes for personnel and many military personnel are holding jobs that are more political patronage than militarily useful. At the same time, India has a chronic officer shortage that it cannot seem to find a solution. Although being a military officer was always considered prestigious, not enough people wanted to make a career of it. As a result, overall officer shortages of more than ten percent have been common and shortages in some areas are two or three times that.
The problem began in the late 1940s after India achieved independence from Britain. To lower the risk of military takeovers (coups) the military received lower pay and benefits than the rest of the civil service and never received enough money to keep all equipment and weapons up-to-date. This worked, as India has never had a coup. Indian history is full of military takeovers and next door in Pakistan (the all-Moslem part of British India that elected to be a separate country) there has been a coup every decade or so. In Pakistan, the military, especially the officers, were better paid than their Indian counterparts. Pakistan also gave the military a larger percentage of GDP than in India. Faced with all that, and the fact that the much larger Indian armed forces have regularly defeated their Pakistani counterparts, India has never felt sufficiently pressured to raise military pay that much. India has six times the population of Pakistan and an even larger GDP. India spends nearly five times as much on defense as Pakistan. But that no longer matters because China is now the primary threat and suddenly India is the underdog.
To make matters worse the founders of modern India, to further reduce the possibility of military coups, established better-paid para-military forces to act as an armed counterbalance to the military. Thus while the Indian military has 1.3 million personnel the paramilitary forces come to about the same number. While not as glamorous as the military, some of the paramilitary forces see more action and have quite a lot of prestige because of that.
But it's not just officers that are hard for the Indians to recruit and keep. Technical specialists are in short supply, which is a growing problem as the military, especially the army, adds more high tech gear. This is because the army must compete with the civilian economy for highly trained or educated personnel. Another aspect of this is that the Indian military maintains high standards for officers and rightly refuses to compromise.
The military has tried to eliminate the officer shortages by more aggressively recruiting young NCOs for officer candidate school. But that doesn't always work, because too many of the NCOs cannot pass the entrance exam. The source of that problem is the corruption in the Indian primary school system. Teaching jobs in many parts of the country are considered political patronage. These teaching assignments are handed out to political activists, often with the understanding that they are no-show jobs. So, despite a lot of money being put into primary education over the last half century, the illiteracy rate is still 39 percent. The Chinese rate is 9.1 percent.
The Indian military has long been an all-volunteer force and had no trouble filling the ranks. Then in the 1990s India dismantled controls on business and privatized many government-owned companies. There was less socialism and more free market and the economy boomed. But there were not enough qualified technical and management people to fill all the new skilled jobs. India has been looking at how other nations solve these problems. They have noted American Department of Defense success (since the 1960s) in outsourcing a lot of support jobs. This is almost a necessity with some high tech specialties, where even civilian firms face shortages. Another American technique, cash bonuses for jobs with shortages, is more difficult for India, which much less money to spend on defense.
India also has some unique cultural problems. While the caste system is, in theory, outlawed and not fully functional, it is still there. Which caste you belong to not only influences who you can marry, but, to a lesser extent, where you can work. And when the word gets around that the "wrong kind of people" are becoming army officers, many (a large minority) potential officers suddenly show no interest in a military career. Coupled with the high illiteracy rate, small number of college grads, and huge competition from the booming economy, it's a wonder the shortfall isn’t a lot higher. That may be due to patriotism. India is at war, with troops (both military and paramilitary) getting killed and injured in Kashmir, the northeastern tribal areas, and fighting Maoist rebels in eastern India. The casualty rate is actually quite low, but just serving in a combat zone is hard on the nerves, and not attractive to many educated young Indians. Overall, bright young Indian men are competing to get into business and technical schools, while the military academy cannot fill vacancies. On the other hand, Indian officers are getting invaluable combat experience, much more than their Chinese peers.
Some Indian military leaders want officer conscription, via mandatory officer training and service for university graduates. But the majority of citizens and politicians oppose this. China has a system similar to the American ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps), where the costs of college are picked up by the government for those who study military subjects in college, and then serve as officers for a few years after they graduate. China also has more military academies than India, and is also having a hard time getting young men to attend them. China still gets a lot of officers via NCOs taking officer training. This provides good military leaders, but ones lacking the technical skills that are increasingly important. Thus for India, there is no obvious or available solution to the officer, and other shortages, at least not yet. Meanwhile, China becomes stronger relative to India.