Military & Aerospace

Selecting Military's Top Brass
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 19 Nov , 2010

Indian armed forces have many unique organisational features. Most of them have been discussed frequently in public debates. One lesser known aspect is total lack of meritocracy in higher appointments. Though equally applicable to all the three services, further discussion shall be restricted to the Army for the ease of understanding the issue.

As per the current system, a general cadre officer of the rank of Major General is approved to be a Lieutenant General (Lt Gen). The army has over 70 officers of the rank of Lt Gen in the general cadre at any time. Every Lt Gen with more than three years’ residual service becomes a Corps Commander.

Quality of top military brass is too serious a matter to be left to the whims of service Chiefs.

Subsequently, on the basis of seniority they become Army Commanders in their own turn, provided they have two years’ residual service. The senior-most serving Army Commander gets appointed as the Chief of the Army Staff (Chief). As there is no selection beyond the rank of Lt Gen, all Lt Gens are considered fit to assume the appointment of Chief. Their inter-se seniority and age-wise placement in the hierarchy decides their future. Thus, at any given time there are over 70 officers who stand approved to head the Army.

Critics call such an arrangement as ‘auto-pilot ride’ – an army officer is required to prove his competence till he achieves the rank of Lt Gen. Thereafter, he rides auto-pilot and makes career advances purely on account of his date of birth. The services are perhaps the only organisation in the country which throws up top leadership solely on the basis of seniority. Merit ceases to play any role.

The wisdom of accepting the logic that every Corps Commander is fit to be the Chief is also questioned by many. A Corps Commander is a field commander of around 50,000 troops whereas a Chief wears multiple hats while heading 1.1 million-strong army. To equate the two appointments is highly untenable as leadership qualities required for a Corps Commander and a Chief can never be the same.

The spectacle of an Army Commander questioning his transfer to another command and two top ranking officers fighting in public for chairmanship of Delhi Gymkhana Club testify to the above.

The current system has two major drawbacks. First, the services are deprived of quality leadership. Many brilliant military officers fail to move up solely because of their unfavourable age-wise placement. In the absence of merit, mediocrity prevails. Indifferent quality of senior commanders can be attributed to seniority based promotions. The spectacle of an Army Commander questioning his transfer to another command and two top ranking officers fighting in public for chairmanship of Delhi Gymkhana Club testify to the above. Similarly, apathetic quality of leadership was also on display when Chiefs found it irksome to travel to Nilgiris to pay homage at the demise of a Field Marshal. Recent media reports have also highlighted the deficiencies of higher military leadership with regard to land dealings.

Secondly, the system lends itself to manipulation by smart functionaries and thus, perpetuates a regime of patronage. Every Chief, on assumption of office obtains details of the dates of birth (and thus retirement dates) of senior officers and thereafter, identify prospective officers from his regiment or ilk. Before his tenure ends, he ‘manages’ the system to ensure that the selected protégé are suitably placed and all likely challenges to their advancement are nipped in the bud. In other words, he firmly plants them in the line of succession. Earlier such manipulation was done in a discrete manner. Over a period of time, the practice has become so well entrenched that Chiefs have no qualms in openly flaunting their preferences. The worst, the environment has got so used to this partisanship that it has come it accept it as a normal practice.

Sadly for the country, most Chiefs remain myopic in their regimental allegiance and fail to grow up. Instead of selecting best talent for higher commands, their blinkered approach fails to see beyond Infantry, Armoured Corps and Artillery loyalties. Chiefs who have benefited from such preferred dispensation feel morally obliged to carry on in the same vein and extend similar benefaction to their regimental subordinates. Most representations and court cases to seek redressal of grievances are on account of this partisanship.

As there is no selection beyond the rank of Lt Gen, all Lt Gens are considered fit to assume the appointment of Chief.

According to many observers, the Government has abrogated its responsibility under the plea that it does not want to be seen meddling in the internal functioning of the services. It lets the services throw up its leadership even at the cost of depriving the nation of the best talent available. This is a highly specious excuse. Government’s attitude of non-interference is construed by many to mean that it is not unduly concerned about the quality of leadership of the services as it matters little in their scheme of governance. Chiefs are not part of any major decision making apparatus. Even critical proposals affecting national security are discussed by bureaucrats without any inputs sought from the services.

The current system is most unacceptable. For selection of Army Commanders (and equivalent Naval and Air Force appointments), a selection board under the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) should be constituted to recommend names as per the laid down criteria. The board should have the three service Chiefs as members. The concerned Military Secretary should be the member-secretary. Board recommendations should be put up to the Cabinet Committee on Appointments (CCA) after obtaining the concurrence of the Defence Minister. Selection of a Chief should similarly be done by a board under the CDS. The Defence Secretary could be a co-opted member to provide government’s inputs. Final approval should be granted by CCA, as per the prevailing orders. Till the government approves appointment of CDS, the boards should be headed by Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee.

Quality of top military brass is too serious a matter to be left to the whims of service Chiefs. Date of birth cannot be the sole deciding factor. It is time the Government puts in place a well evolved selection system to ensure that merit becomes the main criteria for promotion to higher ranks. The Indian armed forces deserve the best leadership.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen Mrinal Suman

is India’s foremost expert in defence procurement procedures and offsets. He heads Defence Technical Assessment and Advisory Services Group of CII.

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3 thoughts on “Selecting Military’s Top Brass

  1. There is much merit in what Mrinal says. In a democracy like ours which perpetuates sycophancy any solution with human intervention is fraught with adverse scenario.

    Is it possible to digitise the criterion for assessment since the days of an officer as a subaltern.This can be fed into an algorithm to ensure the each officer is rightly moulded into a morally upright, ethical, empathetic gentleman while retaining his killing instincts.

    Material needs must be assessed in consonance with the changes in the civil society.

    Continuous Corrective counselling must be introduced both for the officer and his wife. More so as he rises up the ladder.

  2. The quality of talent which reached the bucket of 70 – is that not the concern which needs more attention? As the climb is upward, so the criterion and methodology of selection should be scrutinized at the lower levels – so as to not let the undeserving be overlooked. But, alas! this will never happen, and General Suman and all of us will continue to seek only a new CCA – with composition as suggested.
    I eavesdropped into a senior offrs’ conversation once where, I heard them quote a MS though unofficially,”if given a choice, I will rpomote only the low rated” – and he qualified his opinion by the vitiation of ACR by methods which will not be limited by any imagination – wildest too.

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