SELECTION OF ARMY CHIEF: IS TRADITION SACROSANCT?

The announcement in mid December that Lt Gen. Bipin Rawat would be the next Army Chief when the present incumbent superannuated on 31 December, became an immediate talking point across the country, as two officers senior to Gen. Rawat were overlooked for the post, thus giving a go by to the principle of seniority. Though seniority has generally been followed while selecting the Chief, it has not always been the case. In 1957, Gen. Thimayya was selected for the top job in the Army, superseding Lt Gen. Sant Singh, who resigned, as well as Lt Gen. Kalwant Singh, who decided to continue. In 1983, Lt Gen. S.K. Sinha, the senior most officer, was overlooked for the post and Gen. Arun Vaidya was appointed to head the Army. So precedence exists for overlooking the seniority factor, though in all other cases, the government of the day has appointed the Chief based on seniority.

Operational Experience
What factors need to be considered? Does the Army Chief need operational experience at every level? General George Marshall remains, after George Washington, the most respected soldier in American history. Yet he never held command of troops in battle, the customary path to greatness for a military leader. Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, a Military Cross winner in Burma, took no active part in the 48 war with Pakistan, the 62 war with China and the 1965 Indo-Pak War. That did not stop him from orchestrating brilliantly the 1971 Indo-Pak war as Chief.

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel- a typical infantry officer, became a brilliant Panzer leader following auftragstaktik. Similarly, Field Marshal Heinz Guderian- a Signals Officers, became one of the founders of Blitzkrieg. One of the most illustrious soldiers the Indian Army has produced, was the Victoria Cross winner Lt Gen. Prem Singh Bhagat. He was a Sapper (Corps of Engineer) officer. By the criterion cited today, he would not have gone anywhere. Gen. B.C. Joshi, one of the most dynamic Chiefs we ever had, was from the Armoured Corps. His unfortunate demise while in Service cut short his tenure, but what he achieved during his short tenure as Chief, in terms of Army Educational Institutes, Rashtriya Rifles etc., remains as milestones for all latter day Chiefs to come.

It is hence a no brainer, that while experience in Counter Insurgency/ Counter Terrorism Operations (CI/CT Ops) is important, it cannot by itself be a deciding factor in selection of a Chief. Officers serve where they are sent and all officers do not serve in all types of environments. That is why the reasoning given by the Ministry of Defence that Gen. Rawat was selected as Chief based on his experience in CI/CT ops, lacks logic. The Eastern Command which Gen. Bakshi heads looks after the China border as well as insurgency in India’s North east. China is India’s major adversary, making the Eastern Army Commander a very important cog in the wheel. Under his watch, the strikes against terrorist camps located in Myanmar were successfully carried out, so in any event, the argument of superseding the Eastern Army Commander based on operational experience rings hollow. Does the lack of experience in plains and desert sector for conventional operations make Gen. Bipin Rawat less suitable as Army Chief? These are all untenable arguments. The job of the Army Chief remains at the strategic level and has little to do with tactical level operations. In any case, the Eastern Army Commander had adequate exposure to CI/CT ops, is his various stints in Delta Force, Chief of Staff, HQ Northern Command and his current appointment as C-in-C of the Eastern Army.

Selection System in the Army
There is cause for concern in the selection system for promotion of Indian Army Officers. to senior ranks. War, off course is the acid test of military leadership. In the 1965 Indo Pak War, Lt Gen. Harbaksh Singh removed two of his frontline divisional commanders during the war. Out of 24 brigades committed in battle, ten brigade commanders were sacked for incompetence in battle. Of the remaining, only four earned command of a division. Out of 11 divisional commanders committed in battle in 1965, only three became corps commanders. In Kargil, performance of GOC, 3 Infantry Division came under scanner and GOC 15 Corps did not exactly cover himself with glory. So, is something wrong in the Army selection system?

Parochialism within the Arms and Services is an issue which needs to be addressed. The Regiment of Artillery is the largest arm after Infantry. Yet, from 78 to 81 batch Artillery officers, only one was approved for command of a corps. On the flip side, artillery officers got an advantage when the Chief was from that Arm. This augurs poorly for a professional army. Merit must be the sole criteria for promotion to the top ranks and not the colour of the lanyard one wears.

Talent Management is another area of concern. Increasing use of technology in warfare requires tech savvy human resources. How to recruit, train, retain and look after their career interest is a complex issue. These human resources are in short supply and get much better remunerations outside. There also needs to be greater clarity on how we select an officer for a particular formation. When an officer is selected for say, two star rank, the difference in quantified merit is in decimal places. How do we select, say GOC of 19 and 20 Division.

Equal opportunity should be given to everybody. In the present system, a younger age profile carries a distinct advantage, regardless of merit. While there is no doubt that selection of Chief is the prerogative of the Government of the day, merit too must be factored in the equation. The Chief is appointed from amongst the Army Commanders. These in turn are made not on merit, but on the age profile. Should such a system be allowed to carry on, or is a review here in order?

While the selection and appointment of Army Chief is the prerogative of the Government, there are equally valid reasons to keep seniority as an important criterion for selection. There are only two cases where this seniority condition was overruled. There are rules and there are conventions or traditions. Though the rules are there but when you break a well established tradition in the selection of a very sensitive and critical post of Army Chief, there has to be some sound well grounded reasons to do that.

In other countries also, the same procedure is followed. It is the Government of the day which appoints the top post. The most powerful Secretary of Defence after Robert McNamara, Donald Rumsfeld in 2003 appointed Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, who retired from the U.S. Army in 2000.However, one has to be careful while appointing Chief of Indian Army.

The challenge lies in evaluating merit and in bringing objectivity to the evaluation. Is such objectivity possible when both the Prime Minister and his Minister of Defence have limited interaction with the contenders for the top post? The system and processes for such selection have to be in place before the Government starts taking such decision. Otherwise a very unhealthy process of senior officers cozying up to political parties in power or the vice versa can happen, which could impact on the apolitical nature of the Army.

We can look at the systems followed by other countries. For example in USA, Chiefs and senior officers are grilled by Senate Committees/ Congress before their appointment is confirmed. Even Secretary of Defense, when nominated are asked tough questions by the Armed Services Senate Committee. Prospective officers in contention may be asked to give presentations to the Prime Minister about their future plans as Chief. Lt Gen. H.S. Panag in his article, ‘The COAS Controversy Shows Need For Reform In Army’ has laid down certain competency requirements and qualification for the post of the Chief.

Cost Benefit Analysis
A cost benefit analysis of the decision of the present government to appoint Lt Gen. Bipin Rawat as Army Chief brings forth the following:
• Lt Gen. Praveen Bakshi’s career profile was well rounded and ideal for Army Chief. As the senior most officer in contention, had he been made the Chief, there would have been no controversy.
• There is little to differentiate between the top six to seven officers considered for the post. What has the Government gained by this appointment?
• The reasons given out unofficially by MoD sources on conditions of anonymity and also some defence experts for abrogating the seniority principle have little merit. In the present case, it is hard to justify the decision to supersede two officers for the post of Army Chief.

Conclusion
There is a need for uniform policies in promotion to higher ranks. Many laid down policies continue to be flouted with impunity, such as appointments to the post of Principal Staff Officers or critical posts such as the Director General of Military Operations. This must cease, or the policies must be changed.

The Raksha Mantri must step in to correct anomalies in the present system. Every appointment/posting in the senior ranks get stamp of approval from the Ministry. When there is so much competition for three star rank, how does one explain the fact that for long periods of time, about 15 posts of three star rank have remained vacant.

Selective leaks from Ministry of Defence on conditions of anonymity must stop. If some statement has to be made, it should be made publicly by a responsible officer. Ease of doing business is being quoted as a possible reason for this decision. Ease of doing business by whom? It must be clarified whether it is by bureaucrats or politicians.

Maj Gen. PK Mallick, VSM is from Corps of Signals, specialises in Cyber, Signals Intelligence and Electronic Warfare issues. He has been Senior Directing Staff (Army) at National Defence College. He does freelance writing, enjoys travelling and is interested in Military History. He runs a blog site and website http://strategicstudyindia.blogspot.in and http://indianstrategicknowledgeonli ne.com for benefit of people interested in strategic issues.

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