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'Make in India' needs ex-servicemen

By Air Marshal PV Athawale (Retd)
Last updated on: March 18, 2016 21:24 IST
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'Ex-servicemen engineers and technicians are true professionals worthy of being 'Make in India' agents.'
'They can be trusted to bring long term dividends -- it is in their character to be long term loyalists!' says Air Marshal P V Athawale (retd).

The Indian Air Force

During interaction with MBA students at an IIT, I asked "Do you know any national industry bigger than the Indian Air Force?"

I expected someone would name the Indian Railways -- there was only inquisitive silence. So I continued, "I know one, and that is the Indian Army."

However, when you consider sophistication and size, there are few that match the Indian Air Force. But you don't consider the military an industry because we don't make money!

Most management philosophies have originated from the military. You may not wish to join the armed forces, but inclusion of pioneering military logistics and supply chain management philosophies will enrich your studies and research.

Countrymen naturally see the armed forces as combat forces comprising infantry/artillery/ warships/submarines/fighter planes. We fail to see the huge industrial world behind the icons like infantrymen, submariners and fighter pilots.

Without adequate industrial capability to balance it, the Indian Army would be something like a paramilitary outfit while the Indian Air Force would be akin to Indigo Airlines, which depends on a Sri Lankan facility for routine aircraft servicing.

Army Base Workshops, Naval Dockyards and Air Force Base Repair Depots, carry out hi-tech work of Maintenance/Repair/Overhauls (MRO). Besides Depot Maintenance, especially on air force bases, naval ships and special army units, engineers handle technology superior to most industrial houses.

Army engineers specialise in specific streams like operational aspects of engineering and signals (communications and IT) or maintenance support to electrical and mechanical systems of the army. Engineers in the navy specialise in marine engineering, electrical systems or aviation engineering. Each one is among the best in their respective disciplines.

Air force engineers from the aeronautical engineering branch have a purview covering a range of systems wider than any other contemporary industry. Fighter/transport aircraft, helicopters, missiles, radars, communication, IT, electronic warfare systems, real time avionics software and flight testing and certification make a huge scope of responsibilities. One engineer excelling in at least three or more fields is a common occurrence.

Questions are often raised about the quality of engineering graduates joining the armed forces. Let me not delve into the reasons, some of which are evident and well known to the national leadership. Let us look at whether engineers in the armed forces measure up to the assigned tasks. The answer is an emphatic 'Yes.'

A sizeable number of armed forces engineers regularly undertake post graduate studies at IITs. Many come out in the top 10%, a few topping the list with a flawless CGPA of 10.

Armed forces engineering institutions groom the incoming engineers at par with the best elsewhere. These engineers should therefore be known by invaluable tags representing their respective Army, Navy and Air Force institutions.

Everyone in the private sector does not reach the vice-president or CEO level. But one does not face embarrassment in being visibly compared with those running ahead in the race. In the civil public sector, the journey is assured to the joint secretary level while perks and privileges remain attractive at all levels.

In contrast, the command and control needs of the combat forces require them to have pyramid-like structures. They have steep promotion ratios for engineers aspiring to be colonels and equivalent.

The adage goes to say that tens not making it are not inferior to the one who performed better under the circumstances. Most superseded officers find it embarrassing to continue as ranks displayed on shoulders play a significant part in fauji life. Even if they do wish, they can continue only as far as the rank permits -- after all, we can't have generals commanding armies having colonels originally senior to them.

Not all colonel/captain/group captain level officers leaving service are superseded. A significant number applies for relief on compassionate grounds on account of family problems and commitments that cannot be met while being in the highly demanding service life.

The fact is that a huge number of highly qualified/experienced engineers, and above all extraordinary professionals, regularly come out of the armed forces. Industry hugely unaware of this potential is unable to tap this resource.

Most industries often measure ex-service officers with their potential to add to order book entries. Instead, companies need to employ ex-service officers to blend seamlessly within their organisations.

The armed forces industry is not about officers or graduate engineers alone. The backbone -- its technicians -- are a brand of their own rarely matched by anyone outside.

I have worked with Indian Air Force technicians for nearly four decades. I have no doubts that they are among the best in the country, if not the world.

Unfortunately, many prospective employers see only security management roles for ex-servicemen employment. Here is a huge opportunity for private sector industry in general, and one especially dealing with or initiating into the defence domain.

The defence R&D and manufacturing industry comprising DRDO, DGQA/DGAQA and DPSUs has huge empires somewhat isolated from the armed forces. They have their own gaps in understanding the whole process of design and development to field trials and induction. Ex-servicemen retiring early can be an asset and should be absorbed. 

Subroto Bagchi in his book The Professional distinguishes a true professional from the one only professionally skilled. These ex-servicemen engineers and technicians are true professionals worthy of being 'Make in India' agents. They can be trusted to bring long term dividends -- it is in their character to be long term loyalists!

Air Marshal P V Athawale PVSM, AVSM, VSM (retd) is the former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Maintenance Command, IAF. He is an alumnus of IIT-Roorkee and IIT-Kharagpur.

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