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Indian army battles manpower crisis

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Rajasthan

T-72 tank
The army is now seen as less than attractive by many potential recruits

"Your mission is to move to the area marked Charlie Papa One Six and fire on receiving the command."

Maj Amit Sood sits on top of his Russian-designed T-72 tank surrounded by soldiers from his unit, as he traces his finger across a map mounted in front.

"Does anyone have any doubts?" he asks his men, all dressed in olive-green battle fatigues.

"No Sir," they shout in unison before scrambling off to board their tanks.

Ear splitting explosions

We're in the Rajasthan desert in western India, less than an hour's drive from the Pakistan border, witnessing an Indian army training exercise.

What motivates recruits at India's top military academy?

Minutes after the order, the tanks roar across the sandy landscape, their giant wheels churning up dust, as they zero in on their target.

A burst of ear splitting explosions follow - and then plumes of smoke to denote a perfect hit. The "enemy" had been eliminated.

As tensions rise with Pakistan after the Mumbai (Bombay) attacks, the movements of the Indian army have taken on a new urgency.

No one actually believes a confrontation will take place but the intent to signal a state of readiness is clear.

All this at a time when the Indian army, the world's fourth largest, is also facing a major crisis, one that could affect its battle-readiness.

It's facing a shortage of more than 11,000 officers - many of them from middle ranks such as Maj Sood, men who would actually lead it in battle.

That is something of major concern to the government. On Monday, the Indian army chief, Gen Deepak Kapoor, said he felt the armed forces were no longer an attractive career option for young Indians.

Maverick Scotsman

"Post-independence, our youth would forego much higher paying job opportunities to serve in the military," the Press Trust of India quoted him as saying.

Maj Amit Sood
It's feared there may not be enough officers to lead men into battle

"But some of [that] ethos has perhaps undergone a bit of change."

It's the spirit of adventure and sense of history that have drawn men like Maj Amit Sood to the army.

He serves in the Skinner's Horse regiment, one of the oldest in the Indian army which was set up by a maverick Scotsman in 1803.

His father also served in the same regiment and a large portrait of him adorns the regiment's ornate mess, which also has regalia from the various campaigns the unit has fought through the years - the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 and the Anglo-Afghan campaigns of the 19th Century.

But increasingly, you also find people like Maj Amar Kwatra.

A fourth-generation, highly-decorated army officer whose grandfather fought for the Royal Indian army in World War I, he has left the army to fly private jets for the rich and famous.

As he casts his eye over a gleaming Hawker 750 eight-seater aircraft in a private hanger at Delhi airport, Maj Kwatra talks about his frustration with the army.

"I was disillusioned - there were many things that bothered me.

"I mean, no one joins the army for the money but you have to draw the line somewhere. You need a basic minimum to maintain your standard of living."

Like many officers, Major Kwatra believes that it takes too long to make your way up the ranks and that the armed forces no longer command the respect they used to.

National pride

At the stately Ministry of Defence headquarters in Delhi, it's something that has not gone unnoticed.

"We have taken a number of measures including improving pay and taking on board recommendations that would help improve career prospects," says India's Minister of State for Defence, Pallam Raju.

Soldier receives counter-insurgency training
Many army recruits forego much higher paying job opportunities

But he acknowledges that the government can never compete with the private sector.

"The economic downturn has meant that jobs in government or the armed forces may still be attractive. But we cannot take it for granted. Eventually when the economy improves, the private sector becomes a much more attractive option," he says.

Many Indians joined the army after the country's independence because of a sense of national pride but also because it offered a stable income.

The army also offered a relatively comfortable life in large cantonments with plenty of institutional support - hospitals, schools and subsidised rations.

'Straight into battle'

That's one reason why quite a few Indians still head to the elite Indian Military Academy (IMA), set up during British colonial rule along the lines of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.

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Indian cadets are put through their paces

The cadets are initiated into a tough, regimented life - that includes waking up at 0430, military drills, commando training, 11km (6.9 miles) cross-country runs carrying a 10kg load and plenty of firing practice.

"When he is finally commissioned from here, the cadet will have the qualities of leadership and intellect imbibed in him," says Lt Gen RS Sujlana, who heads the IMA.

"From here they'll go straight into battle - in Jammu and Kashmir and the north-east," he adds, referring to counter-insurgency operations almost exclusively conducted by the army.

Increasingly, and especially after the Mumbai attacks, the focus is shifting towards counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations, which is reflected in the cadets' training.

In a new drill conducted at a special facility at the IMA, top recruits are trained in close-combat fighting.

Armed with Insas rifles they burst into a building. Moving from room-to-room in semi-darkness they fire at cut-out models representing militants holding hostages.

"It is to train them for operations in built-up, urban centres, something which is increasingly relevant in the present environment," says their instructor, Lt Col Gunpal Singh.

It's a role that represents a new challenge for the Indian army. The question is - can they still find the men to lead them in battle?



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