Major General equals Brigadier: How does that work?

Image result for pics of general rawat in company of other officers

(COAS Gen Rawat with the red-banded possibly Nepal army brass)

Reorganizing, restructuring and generally getting the fighting forces fit for future wars is a good thing and the exercise undertaken by the army chief General Bipin Rawat to do just this needs to be commended. Some four sets of studies are underway, with some of them in a more advanced state wending their way up the army and MOD bureaucracy.

A startling proposal (commented on in an earlier post) in one such study — if the balloons being floated for some time now in the press and electronic media to gauge public reaction are any guide — relates to doing away with the posts of Second Lieutenant and Lieutenant Colonel, and eliminating altogether the process to select officers for the Major General rank from among the pool of eligible Brigadier-rank officers. Any person making it past Colonel-rank, in other words, automatically becomes General! A lot wrong here.

Before discussing the problems that will be spawned by such a move, let’s be straight about the intent behind this automatic, double-promotion measure, because there’s nothing very secret about it. Military officers, top to bottom, have resented the fact that officers in the Indian Administrative Service and Indian Police Service step on a career escalator that takes them to the top most levels without a hitch. The army’s peeve is that 80% of IAS officers make it to Joint Secretary in the government of India (or Additional Secretary in state governments) where as only 6% of military officers become Major General — the Joint Secretary equivalent in the Warrant of Precedence.

The Army HQrs (representing the senior and largest armed Service)  have tried long and hard and by all means at their disposal over decades  to even things out some for its officer cadre in terms of salaries, perks and other career benefits by improving the odds of mid-level officer attaining two-star flag-rank. The trouble is the babus and the police  have steadily created more posts at the higher levels (Inspector General rank and above) allowing more policemen to occupy them resulting in army officers of the same age and commissioning year being soon superceded in rank and salaries by their counterpart  police officers. This rankles and the army has sought to match by inflating the strength pf officers at higher ranks and conjuring up new posts for them to fill.

In 2007, in the wake of recommendations by an in-house study, COAS Gen. Deepak Kapoor pushed for Brigadier rank to be re-designated ‘Brigadier General’ (as in the US military) with the accompanying uptick in salaries, perks, and allowed officers in this rank to, for the first time, fly their flag on staff cars, etc, a privilege hitherto reserved for Major General rank officers and above, which privilege they retain. Defence Minister AK Antony did not, however, approve the nomenclatural-cum-substantive upgrade to Brigadier General. There the matter festered and is something the Rawat plan for restructuring the army hopes to address. Except, the scheme equating or merging Brigadier and Major General ranks and the related move to fill the Staff roles at Army HQrs with Lt. Colonels and Colonels and reverting Captains, Majors et al to the field, may not be the right tack.

It is a truism that not every officer who excels in leading men in battle or in the field  necessarily makes a good General. Indeed, the colonel-rank terminus for most army officers is the standard for most armies, and  the Indian army too has hewed to it since 1947. To man the army’s 14 corps, 49 divisions, and 240 brigades, the government has authorized 49,933 officers.  The shortfall is of some 7,000 officers per news reports. A recent, credible, approximate breakdown (available on Quora) of the strength of officers is 60 Lieutenant Generals, 270 Major Generals, 850 Brigadiers, 4,500 Colonels, and 41,000 Lieutenant Colonels and lower, for an army cadre of 46,681 officers in all in a 1.3 million strong army. These are credible figures because 6% of 4,500 (colonels) — which is presumably the personnel base in the army’s calculation for promotion to higher ranks — making Major General is 270 (Refer 3rd para above.)

How does this compare with the situation in other major armies/militaries? While in the Indian context, the Major General to Brigadier ratio is 1:3, the Brigadier to colonel ratio 1:5, and the Major General to colonel ratio 1: 16, the respective ratios for the US army are 1: 0.96, 1:33, and 1:33. For the Russian armed forces as a whole (after the reforms initiated in 2007 by Defence Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov and the slicing of the higher ranked officer strength by half),  the ratio of higher ranked officers to colonels is roughly 1:6; and in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army the promotion climb is steeper still (no figures are hazarded by experts re: the breakdown of PLA officer cadre by rank). In this comparison, the US army boasts of the brightest promotion possibilities for colonel rank officers, and the absolute certainty that those who make it to Brigadier-General will go on to sport two stars.

There is an innovation the PLA has introduced in its structure in terms of designating higher ranked officers — especially with two grades in the crucial Brigadier category, one stream sent on “combat zone” postings, the other on Staff duties, because all higher formations  in Chinese land forces are being reformed to brigade size as the optimum and highest formation in war and peace. There is some slight similarity here to what the Rawat reforms are envisaging with the contemplated merging of the Brigadier and Major General ranks, with the former designation reserved for field postings and the latter — seemingly higher  rank for those pulling Staff duties. It would make more sense if the designations were reversed, and the Major General rank given to officers in the field, unless this is by design because desk jockeying is considered a higher calling. Though the immediate model may have been the navy where Brigadier-level officers afloat are called Captains and those ashore Commodores.

But whether this correction is made or not, such a measure would embed unresolvable tensions and friction between Brigadiers and Major Generals and generate perpetual bureaucratic feuding at the expense of operational efficiency. A now manifestly top-heavy structure — all Chiefs and no Indians! — will further dysfunctionality. If, on the other hand, the scheme sugars up the Brigadier category of officers in the field with promise of career incentives to compensate for the perceived designation edge, then the Major Generals will rise in revolt. In any case, what different metrics would be used for posting an officer as Brigadier or, alternately, Major General?  How does the army plan to deal with the ensuing disaffection?

A more problematic aspect of this slate of reforms is the proposed zeroing out of the numbers of Captains and Majors at the Army HQrs supposedly to save money. The Indian Army, owing to its colonial past when Indian officers were denied posting and therefore experience in General Staff work, i.e. in war planning, force structuring, strategy, higher logistics management, etc. has always been handicapped by a  weak General Staff. The failure to come up with  imaginative offensive and defensive war plans is a stark evidence of that. (No, the success of the “blitzkrieg” in East Pakistan in 1971 doesn’t count, because the original operational plan under COAS, Manekshaw, and theatre commander Jagjit Singh Aurora, was for Indian forces to merely capture a thin sliver of East Pakistani territory and for the provisional government of a free Bangladesh in exile based in the Salt Lake area of Kolkatta to be installed there and to have it negotiate separation and freedom from Pakistan with General Yahya Khan’s regime. But for the Chief of Staff, Eastern Command, then Major General JFR Jacob’s inspired plan fashioned on the move of the forces deployed around East Pakistan to avoid Pakistan army strong points and to rush pell-mell towards Dhaka, the results would have been nothing as decisive as what transpired.)

The ultimate example of a brilliant General Staff tradition was the Prussian General Staff, founded in 1807 by General Gerhard von Schornhost who intended this body to “support incompetent Generals, providing the talents that might otherwise be wanting among leaders and commanders”. This General Staff reached its acme during WWII as part of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (High Command of the unified German forces), and is still the wonder of the military world in the imaginative war plans it time and again came up with in war and attendant crises.

The German General Staff, it must be noted, was formed out of a select group of officers, subaltern up, picked for their military intellect and skillsets, and rigorously trained in all aspects of war, posted to the field and back again, who enjoyed the right to appeal to a higher commander if they felt the plan of their field commander was flawed, and formed the spine of all military campaigns.

If Lieutenants, Captains and Majors in the Indian Army are to be denied intense General Staff experience and GS duties are to be the bailiwick of Lt. Colonels and Colonels with the background only of regimental work and holding down rotational posts then the army’s General Staff is destined to remain its greatest infirmity.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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18 Responses to Major General equals Brigadier: How does that work?

  1. Satvinder Singh says:

    Dr Karnad I generally do not agree with your hawkish posts in general and anti IAF posturing in general . However congrats for a brilliant post , your comparison with German general staff was apt. Wished you have also added at height of German retreat they did not lower their stds for officer induction. If any country really understood the maxim of staff duties and PME ( prof mil education ) it was the Germans .

  2. pegasus191 says:

    Mr. Karnad..your thesis is flawed as you lack (to quote Nassim Taleb and our own MM) ‘skin in the game’. A spectator can make every suggestion but will always lack the feel of the real since he lacks actual experience.
    That is way too stark in your writings. Theory accompanied by experience is the key to actionable decisions.

    You have made it a habit of stating half truths and extrapolating what you really don’t know as if you know it. The vehemence with which you state your conclusion is deafeningly loud and bombastic !

    You are wrong in bringing in the Prussian example. Again, not your fault. You lack ‘skin in the game’. you tend not to make an objective comment without deriding what exists, as it doesn’t agree with your theoretical knowledge.

    Scharnhorst created scholar warriors… institutionalising merit and excellence in the selected few irrespective of their class of origin. He derided the nobility and aristocracy for taking on leadership, as if it’s a birthright. These were his lessons from the lost wars against Napoleon. Therefore, he created a breed which excelled in clarifying their thoughts through the sieve of taught, experienced and acquired wisdom. He made focussing on intent as the main task of the staff…rather than on following processes only. He bred confidence through knowledge and boosted core competency as the main determinant to rise within the German Army.

    Charles White has written a wonderful book about this very articulately in ‘The Enlightened Soldier’.

    You should have brought out the relevance of Scharnhorst to the debate of reorganization within the Indian Army needs to be put in the right perspective. Panning the Army’s Staff without direct knowledge is plain reprehensible. Certainly, DSSC produces the best of the staff officers the Army needs. How else can you explain the effective functioning of the Indian Armed Forces despite a huge crunch in resources , a illogical political leadership with despicable knowledge of military affairs (4 RMs in 4.5 years) and five All India Civil Services plus the horrible AFHQ cadre a Class B Service, which were founded to assist administratively but ended up ruling the roost and pummeling the military into abject submission under the garb of civilian control. That the Indian Army is effective today despite these ailings, is a tribute to its staff and DSSC.

    My humble suggestion, therefore, to India’s foremost conservative strategist thinker…..focus on the civilian side of the military establishment, nuclear affairs, international relations and grand strategy….you could perhaps make some difference as you have some ‘skin in the game’. Kindly stay off commenting on the Military !!!

    A bientot, Monsieur BK !

    • This was not a disquisition on General Staff, rather an observation about the Indian GS. The ultimate hard standard of judging General Staffs being the quality of war plans they continuously finesse and the success they garner, the Indian variety falls short. An example, the army still swears by Cold Start but is oriented on the same old Rahim Yar axis, which hasn’t been too successful in the past and won’t in the future for reasons discussed in my new book ‘Staggering Forward’. This when better results could be secured by pursuing what I have elaborated in my books as the ‘Sialkot grab’ strategy, etc. Something seminal happened post-Op Parakram: the Pakistan army became aware of their sensor and surveillance gaps and filled them, conveniently leaving an inviting gap on the Rahim Yar Khan front to draw Indian armoured and mech forces for easy destruction once they close the gap, etc.

  3. ALOK AWASTHI says:

    Deficient commentary. Little knowledge they say is very dangerous. There can be an elaborate point by point rebuttal, but……nah what a waste of time.

  4. Himanil Raina says:

    My understanding was that India’s 14 Corps comprise 40 divisions with the following breakdown: 18 infantry divisions, 12 mountain divisions, 4 RAPID’s (Reorganized Army Plains Infantry Division), 3 armored and 3 artillery divisions. You have stated that there exist 49 divisions. Could you then clarify as to what is the breakdown of these 49 divisions.

  5. Abhi says:

    esteemed Generals Harbaksh, Hanut and JFR just turned in their graves.

  6. Vishnugupt says:

    @ Prof. Karnad

    Spotted a typo “Lt Gen. TFR Jacob” its JFR and he was a Maj.Gen during the 1971 war, but he retired as a Lt.Gen

  7. Puneet Raina says:

    Brigadiers have always flown flags on cars — a triangular pennant ( historically it showed his location in battle ) — Maj Gens fly swallow tails – Lt Gens and above Rectangular flags ( with fmn signs ) –; the only addition has been the addition of stars to these flags

    As regards Brig Gen — historically there is precedent – since brigs were a temp rank ( the rank insignia was akin to Maj Gen except the pip) 8e sword and baton without star — see Aus Army in WW1 — in fact Brigs in British Army were referred to as Brig Gens till 1922

    While no one can argue against posting young officers at Army HQs ( especially when the civil services are posting officers fresh from LBSNA as Assistant Secy ) to learn the ropes, the LT and Captains don’t hold any GS appts at Army HQs even presently

    – Gen staff — the Prussian Gen staff (soldier monks )- with distinctive gold trim — was actually because the rest of the army was not proffesionalized — the Generals who led campaigns were landed aristocracy not professional soldiers — the head of General Staff – Chief of Staff — therefore had the right to approach the Kaiser — and in fact represented the deep state — It was for the Prussian army that the adage — An Army with a country was first used ( now applied to Pak ) — in fact Churchills solution for peace in Europe was to shoot every general staff officer

  8. K.Rajendran nair says:

    The other ranks below officers are closely watching this mad move by senior officers only to promote their interests, not the Army’s. The real soldiers are the others ranks below officers. They are not yesterday’s soldiers but educated, able and know the world.They are well trained and are seeing the tamasha that’s going on.. Today real wars are not fought on battle fields but in the areas of economics, trade innovation, education and world politics. Future war may quickly transition to nuclear and chemical war. So we don’t want more seniors officers just for salary and pension. What about the OR case? Senior officers should be careful, they are watching and listening to your moves. You cannot fool them anymore.The world has changed.

  9. TR Ramaswami says:

    Somebody has morphed Rawat’s face on a Chinese army uniform.

    • Rocky says:

      That is the Nepali Army uniform, not Chinese. The COAS of the Indian Army has traditionally been made a Honorary General of the Nepali Army & vice-versa for their Chief. So Gen Rawat is in his appropriate uniform.

  10. Bharat- You got it right in the beginning. The rest is superfluous.
    It indeed is a measure to get more goodies to more of army officers. Everyone else is having them, so why not us. Anything wrong in that? If so, get the government to increase our pay and perks in existing rank structure. No problems. If not, please don’t go around theorizing about the possible ill-effects of such a move.
    Someone, somehow, somewhere, sometime HAS to think why our army officers, whom the country loves much more than IAS officers surely, get the worst packages. And when the Chief tries to do something about it, we moralize him to think of the consequences?
    If your own children are suffering due to the society, would you first think of the society?

    • Never understood, leave lone appreciated, why generalist civil servants (IPS included), have higher salaries than military officers. The onus is then on the Chiefs of Staff of the 3 armed services to mount a strong and concerted drive to convince the political class to rid themselves of the paranoia about the military from the Nehruvian era (that continues to be stoked by the CabSec and the IAS fellows running MOD), separate the military pay scales from that of the civil services, police and the paramils, and to begin to treat the armed services as nationalist, not mercenary, forces. But the sort of ruses the Chiefs have pursued, like this one of removing/merging Brigadier and Major General ranks, etc. won’t cut the mustard, but will muddy the operational aspects.

      • axe2 says:

        All positions have a limited area of control. Of course, it is up to the Chiefs to work to increase that area. But, they surely can’t revolt to do same. If the powers that be keep a very tight leash on it due to they sitting at the toll gates, this sniping is inevitable. The country can’t say – न इधर से देंगे, न उधर से ‌ ( Neither will we pay you this way, nor that).
        Let there be no doubt that this measure is possibly, harmful, just possibly, but still ethically right for the Chief to take. The country has left him no options. Why complain, then?

  11. Amit Menon says:

    Mr Karnad, could you please change or remove the Photo of the “Red Banded Army Brass” (to use your own words) ? It’s a photoshopped image of the Nepalese Army top brass.

    Thanks

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