All ‘Chiefs’ and no ‘Indians’!

Yet another case for the Chief of Defence Staff

Adm. Arun Prakash (Retd)

“In a strongly worded letter to the Raksha Mantri, the Army Chief has stressed that the Navy and IAF were unfairly trying to usurp more posts than they deserved. If the government accepts their unjust demands, the Navy and IAF will wield more influence than what is desirable in military matters.”
Times of India, 17 September 2007

It was disconcerting to read in the press, accounts of a disagreement between the three Services, over competing claims for additional vacancies at senior ranks; some sections of the media going so far as to term it as a ‘war’ between the Services. India’s gallant armed forces surely have enough challenges to face on land, sea and in the air, and the last thing they need is, to fight each other. In the context of the recent controversy, it was therefore most reassuring to hear the Raksha Mantri telling the media that there was no ‘infighting’ and that each Service was only ‘presenting its case’.

However, it would have far better, had the Service Chiefs resolved their mutual differences behind the teak doors of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) room, and presented a joint case; not to the media or bureaucracy, as has happened recently, but to the government of India (GoI). This would have occurred naturally, had a genuine spirit of Jointness actually prevailed in the COSC. But each Service Chief is hostage to the demands emanating from within his Service, and sometime tends to heed the loudest, and not the most reasonable counsel from his Principal Staff Officers (PSOs). This is a world-wide phenomenon, and not something unique to India.

It does not help that we are stuck with an archaic system of Higher Defence Management which often rotates the Chairman COSC at absurdly rapid intervals (the current incumbent is the 4th successive Chairman in the past 12 months). Nor has he been adequately empowered to ensure that cogent decisions (unanimous or otherwise) emanate from the Committee. So, this is yet one more reminder to the nation and the GoI that if they do not wish to witness spectacles of inter-Service squabbling, a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) must be put in place.

If a CDS is not considered acceptable at this juncture for political or other reasons, even the appointment of a ‘full-time’ Chairman COSC, with a fixed tenure, would overcome many critical shortcomings in our existing higher defence framework. Such a functionary could then take a holistic and objective view of issues, and provide badly needed professional advice to the GoI on most military matters, especially those cutting across Service lines.

Knowing that some sections of the Indian media suffer from a deficit of comprehension as well as empathy where the country’s armed forces are concerned, I am not sure about the veracity of the news item displayed above. But true or not, it is bound to have created misgivings within the Services fraternity as well as amongst concerned civilians, and there is a need to set the record straight.

The original purpose of forming the Ajai Vikram Singh Committee (or AVSC as it has come to be known), was to find a way to ensure that officers placed in command of the Indian Army’s basic combat units, were in a younger age bracket. Over the years, a number of factors had combined to push the age of battalion and brigade commanders to an average which compared unfavourably with their counterparts in other armies; and it was felt that as a result their physical and mental dexterity may be severely tested under fire.

The Navy and IAF did not have a similar difficulty, and initially these two Services believed that the Army would be able to resolve its problem by making necessary changes in personnel management and promotion policies. However, a degree of unease began to be felt in NHQ and Vayu Bhavan, because the army had, just a few years earlier, departed from a pre-Independence Indian Army tradition, and upgraded battalion commanders from the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel to full Colonel (which was till then not so much a rank, as an appointment). The simplest way of reducing the ages of both battalion and brigade commanders would have been to revert to the old rank structure, but it became evident that the favoured route was to seek more vacancies in the latter rank.

‘Selection and maintenance of aim’ is a cardinal principle of war, but somebody, somewhere seems to have lost the thread, and the aim got shifted from ‘reduction in age of battalion commanders’ to the more ambitious one of ‘improving upward mobility and career prospects of officers’ and this resulted in a wide-ranging quest for additional higher ranks, including the creation of a new rank to be known as ‘Colonel-General’!

Thus, Ajai Vikram Singh, an able and forthright civil servant, when asked to consider a substantial increment in the number of senior ranks, posed a very pertinent question: what functions do two and three-star officers perform today, and when you have a 150 more of the species, how will they occupy themselves? Since the query remained unanswered, he held this issue in abeyance, and moved on to the more pressing problem that the AVSC had been convened for: how to bring down the age of battalion commanders?

The Indian Police Service seems to have found a panacea for such problems by somehow acquiring the discretion to instantly incorporate large number of senior vacancies without awaiting ‘cadre reviews’. A state may thus have one DG Police, but can arbitrarily create any number of Additional DGs to serve alongside or under him. However, Service ethos requires that the structure of the armed forces must remain sharply pyramidical in shape, with the Chief at its apex. Similar pyramids have to be replicated in each unit of the armed forces, and ‘bulges’ become awkward to manage.

Of all the methods available to the armed forces, of bringing down the age in a particular rank, the easiest one is to ask for more vacancies, and promote hordes of people. But once you promote officers in large numbers to a particular rank, it is only a matter of time before they fall due for the next promotion. So in order to get over the ‘bulge’ in this rank, you will need more vacancies in higher ranks, and that is what has happened in this case.

The AVSC in Part I of its report, while telescoping the time scales for promotion up to the rank of Colonel, also recommended a large increase in vacancies in that rank. This recommendation was based on two fundamental and vital premises. Firstly, that a very high proportion of the intake would be of Short Service Commission (SSC) officers, who would leave on expiry of their engagement. And secondly, that those who could not be promoted would be absorbed laterally in the Central Police Organisations (CPOs) or find alternate avenues in the industry. This was to constitute the so called ‘Peel Factor’ which was meant to ensure that adequate vacancies in higher ranks would be available for the hard core of deserving permanent commissioned officers; thus improving their promotion prospects or providing a ‘Pull Factor’.

That was the theory. In real life, the numbers joining through the SSC entry stagnated, because many young men did not relish the thought of being put back on civvy-street at age 30-35? The home ministry (perhaps with good reason) refused to absorb anyone in the CPOs, and the industry just continued to disregard ex-Servicemen, except as security staff.
All this is in conformity with the Great Indian Tradition of paying lip service to the soldier in times of war, and totally neglecting him in peacetime. If the political parties truly had the interest of the armed forces at heart, they would have sought the implementation of these measures through parliamentary legislation, instead of devoting themselves exclusively to vote-catching issues. The USA has enacted a comprehensive Veterans’ Bill to cover issues of this nature, and we should have taken a lead from it.

Although the army seemed very upbeat with the immediate prospect of early promotions and many extra colonels, the Navy and IAF were not happy with this sudden (and unwanted) jump in ranks, because it upset the traditional rank structure in their combat units. After all, a ship commanded by a Captain (Colonel equivalent) could not have more than one officer of that rank on board. Similarly, an IAF Squadron commanded by a Wing Commander (Lt. Col equivalent) could absorb one or two additional officers of that rank, but things would become awkward when close to half the officers sitting in the Crew Room became Wing Commanders. But that is what happened when AVSC Part I suddenly flooded the Services with extra officers in ranks that they found hard to accommodate. The result was a foregone conclusion: devaluation of ranks, for short term gains.

Having partaken of the benefits offered by AVSC Part I, the birds have now come home to roost for the Services. The large number of officers promoted under its provisions are coming up for the next rank, and unless many more vacancies are made available in higher ranks, (through AVSC Part II) a substantial percentage of officers will be passed over, resulting in much dissatisfaction. By starting the rank inflation game, the Services have regrettably walked into a dangerous trap, and triggered off a vicious cycle which can only result in proliferation of ranks and their consequent devaluation; thus damaging the time honoured pyramidical command structure.

The press has made mention of the IN and IAF ‘unfairly trying to usurp more posts than they deserve’. This is a misleading statement, which needs to be dealt with in some detail, in order to limit its potential for damage. Firstly, nowhere (since Independence) has a quota been laid down for senior appointments in the three Services, nor is there a need to maintain a pro rata relationship in numbers. Each Service justifies senior ranks according to its unique operational and administrative requirements, as well as its customs and traditions. In this respect, the IN has been the most conservative, retaining many appointments at one rank lower than sister Services.

Secondly, the only time that officers of the three Services serve within a common chain of command, is in tri-Service organisations or formations, where each appointment is held strictly in rotation between the three.
An issue that does crop up occasionally relates to Naval and IAF officers at senior ranks being sometimes younger than their Army counterparts. But age plays no part in military relationships, and seniority is decided strictly by the date of promotion to that rank. Promotion prospects vary from Service to Service, but to insist that Air Marshal ‘X’ should always remain ‘senior’ to Lt. Gen ‘Y’ because he was commissioned earlier is inappropriate by military custom and regulations. As a matter of fact, such variations occur between different streams even within a Service; for example officers from the Infantry, Armoured Corps, Artillery, EME or Engineers progress up the ladder at different rates, and ‘seniors’ (of an earlier commissioning date) often have to serve under ‘juniors’ (of a subsequent commissioning date) who have attained a higher rank or seniority.

Retaining a youthful profile for senior officers of the armed forces is a most desirable goal, but a price has to be paid for attaining it. For 50 years, the Navy followed what was known as the ‘tenure rule’, which stipulated that in each higher rank an officer could serve only a fixed number of years, and was thereafter compulsorily retired, if he did not get promoted. This ‘up or out’ policy which had kept the navy young at the top, was unfortunately done away after the 5th Pay Commission. It could (and should) be brought into force for the three Services if everyone agrees.

The AVSC had a tri-Service composition, and although the Services differed on many issues, there was never any doubt that its final recommendations would be applicable to all three across the board (the record of proceedings says as much). This was inevitable because the basic ‘conditions of service’ must apply uniformly to officers of all three Services, especially since many of them graduate together from the National Defence Academy. For this reason, Part I of the AVSC report, when it was announced in end-2004, came as a bolt from the blue for the Navy and IAF because it had been approved only for the Army. It is very rare for the MoD to adopt such an approach, and was apparently done since the COAS was due to retire in a fortnight.
This placed the other two Services on the horns of a dilemma, since standing their ground meant depriving their own officers of the benefits of AVSC I, with resultant confusion. Confronted with a fait accompli, they had no choice but to accept its provisions. However, it took many months, and much persuasion on the part of NHQ and Vayu Bhavan to convince reluctant MoD and MoF officials that the GoI had no choice but to accord the same concessions for their officers too, because uniformity in conditions of service was sacrosanct.

A very similar situation seems to have arisen today, and since two out of the three Services have expressed serious reservations, it would be prudent for the GoI to shun haste, undertake a deliberate reappraisal of the whole issue and then decide the course of action; even if it takes a little more time.

On their part, the Services must undertake some serious soul-searching. Do they want to stick together, evolve consensus decisions and be the masters of their own destiny? Or will they continue to bicker and have the civil servants tell them how to run their affairs? In the latter case, India could well end up having a civilian as de facto Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee!
One final and unsolicited word of advice for the Service Chiefs. Whatever else they represent to the 6th Pay Commission, one issue that they should consider seriously fighting for is: parity in pay with the Class I civil servants for the same years of service put in. There is no reason why after 10, 15, or 20 years of service, an armed forces officer should not receive exactly the same basic pay as his IAS, IFS and IPS counterparts. While basic pay should decide inter se civil-military equivalences, what rank an officer is given after how many years of service should remain a matter for the armed forces to decide on the basis of operational requirements and combat effectiveness of units.

Cadre reviews and extra vacancies in higher ranks are ‘lollipops’ that will often be freely offered to keep the armed forces happy. But the temptation to accept them should be firmly resisted, because rank inflation, will in the long run, blur the distinction between other central police organisations and the armed forces, and adversely impact the latter’s élan, fighting efficiency and esprit de corps.

Besides, the last thing we need are armed forces which have ‘all Chiefs and no Indians’!

(November 2007)


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