Changes in Army’s Senior Officer Promotion Policy
Understanding the Army’s promotion policies especially at the officer level is something not easily comprehended by many because of the complexities involving Arm/Service, type of appointment and nature of duties and responsibilities of the myriad sub cadres. Policy on senior officer promotions is usually even more difficult to glean. In fact, it takes a degree of specialization before personnel management policies of the officer cadre relating to career management are understood. Very few in the cadre ever get to handle such policy in all its complexities. In terms of senior officer selection and promotion these are handled either by the Military Secretary himself or through assistance by a set of officers from the Armed Forces Headquarters Cadre, none of whom are Service officers.
There is very intense competition and wastage of some very fine talent while selecting officers for higher posts in the pyramid shaped cadre, the kind which exists nowhere else in government. The intent of any policy should always be to draw a balanced compromise between the interests of organization and that of the individuals under consideration for promotion and appointment, with the former taking priority. However, correct policy formulation can overcome most challenges and timely decisions can ensure that policies which no longer serve the purpose of the times and are prejudicial to both interests are tweaked for positive effect for the larger good. This is exactly what has happened in the case of the long awaited decision which has finally become policy on 27 Dec 2017.
So, what has changed in all this with the tweaked promotion policy for senior officers? First, the residual service clause for the appointment of Army Commanders (C-in-C) which was thus far 24 months when the vacancy arises has now become 18 months. The same has been made applicable to Heads of Arms/Services (HoA/S) for whom it rested at 12 months. These HOA/S (s) have tremendous responsibility in terms of equipment, personnel management, training and various facets of the development and modernization of their respective Arms and Services. They occupy a position between being commanders and staff, although many would argue that they have no command responsibility.
Effectively the change in rule alters the dynamics of succession to the posts of 7 x C-in-C plus the Vice Chief, and thus in turn possibly for the appointment of the next and successive Army Chiefs. However, it is important to first explain why the erstwhile 24 month rule was adopted in the time of General K Sundarji (1986) and why it is being reduced to 18 months today. Incidentally the Navy and the Air Force both sister Services follow a 12 month rule for their Cs-in-C, and have followed it for some time even as the Army was having severe self-doubts about changing to 18 months.
If you remember that the appointment of Chief Justice of India was once tenanted for just 18 days it will be easier to appreciate the original 24 month decision. For a
non-uniformed reader it needs to be known that there is a common rank of C-in-C and Corps Commanders; Lt Gen. The former are comparatively senior Lt Gens and the latter relatively junior. When a C-in-C of that time (1986) retired at the age of 58 (increased to 60 in 1998) the next senior fully qualified Lt Gen, who could be of age 57 years and 9 months, would have to be appointed C-in-C even if it meant serving just three months in that appointment. A piquant situation had arisen with a number of such Lt Gens being appointed Cs-in-C only to hold appointment for a short period. To stabilize tenures in the appointment of C-in-C to a minimum of two years and allow Corps Commanders to give back to the system some of the experience they gain at their all-important appointment, a policy decision was taken. As per this, Lt Gens could be appointed C-in-C (after commanding a Corps) only if they had a minimum of 24 months of residual service and Corps Commander if they had 36 months to serve in the rank (both ranks being Lt Gen). An effect of this policy has always been that some Cs-in-C may actually be junior to the Lt Gens who could not be promoted due to not meeting the clause of age. Some of these Lt Gens get appointed as Principal Staff Officers (PSOs) at the Army HQ but majority of them go into appointments where they could even be serving under some of their former subordinates; an embarrassment not sufficiently catered for in the policy.
In 1997 the Army adopted the vacancy based promotion system, the essence of which manifested in a calendar batch of officers being given the number of vacancies of the rank arising in a year. It meant that the age profile of officers in various ranks would remain static. For colonels to brigadiers the age profile was effectively reduced through the subsequent additional vacancies given by the government after the AjaiVikram Singh Committee (AVSC) report in 2003-4. However, the additional vacancies of Lt Gens and Maj Gens being limited, plus the re-entry of many aspirants for promotion through the statutory complaint and legal intervention routes upset the annual vacancy equation and the age profile at these ranks actually increased. This made it difficult for some outstanding Lt Gens with a slightly older age profile to be appointed Corps Commanders and in turn some Corps Commanders could not be elevated to C-in-C because the residual age clause could not be met. Some younger but less qualified and lower profile officers benefitted. Many within the Army continued to justify the policy with the belief that once an officer was promoted Lt Gen there was no comparative merit and all Lt Gens were fit to be the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS).
The principle belief is that all promotion in government is to have the best possible talent available at leadership levels at all times. The 24 and 36 months residual service rule compromised this leading to a less than optimally talented leadership emerging to lead the Army (one perception, not that of all, as explained earlier). The Army has now altered its policy with approval of the government and limited the residual service for Cs-in-C to 18 months but has left the 36 month rule for Corps Commanders untouched. The latter part could have been reduced to 30 months except that the Army wishes to have its Corps Commanders command their formations for more than 12 months for better tenure stability and yet be eligible for C-in-C; the age equation does not permit that if the residual tenure is reduced to 30 months (some elementary mathematics in involved in understanding this). That is all the more reason for the Army to endeavor to reduce the overall age profile of its senior cadres. Till the mid Nineties, General Officers of the Indian Army remained in two and three star rank for ten years. This permitted them to spend two years or more in various appointments and there was little problem in senior most Generals having residual service for higher appointments. However, today General Officers in these ranks serve a maximum of seven years which has caused problems, tenure stability and residual service for C-in-C rank.
The age profile can be reduced through a drastic step such as reduction in approval percentages for senior ranks or by giving more upgraded appointments but there is a finite limit to those numbers of appointments. The intent should be to have a General Officer serve five years each as Maj Gen and Lt Gen. This will ensure the best talent is always available to tenant crucial senior appointments with officers of sufficient experience and not just quick ‘promotees’; it is no fault of those ‘promotees’ though, the system having evolved them.
Apparently, the Army has also decided to now conduct four promotion boards for Lt Gens in three years so that progressively, over these four years, the age profile is reduced by a year.
Lastly, the other decision to increase the residual service period for Heads of Arms/Services (HoA/S) from the current 12 months to 18 months is apt but again unless the system endeavours to reduce age profile many of the best Lt Gens (other Arms/Services) with proven talent will be axed out making way for average talent as per law of averages.
With change in this policy the dynamics of appointments of a few Cs-in-C will alter as will be the identity of officers who will be in contention for the appointment of the next Army Chief to succeed General Bipin Rawat at the end of 2019. The current decision will no doubt throw up more talented officers to remain in contention.