(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allowing more policemen to occupy them resulting in army officers of the same age and commissioning year being soon superceded in rank and salaries by their counterpart police officers.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.