Army Officers Career Management: Take the Bull by the Horns!

Officers Management in the Army is demanding recognition as a controversial issue that has reached cul de sac.  This clarion call comes with five rationales. One, say within the next two/three years, the armed forces will be prepared for Integrated Theatre Commands.  This will have deep repercussions on the Officer Cadre promotional structure, as the three services follow a dissimilar path in entirety, and inter-se seniority is a bugbear currently. Two, the Hon’ble Supreme Court decision on Women Officers has significantly opened the field for their taking over Command of units, which will also have a material effect. Three, the promotion opportunities for commissioned officers from all arms and services, should largely be similar, to be motivating enough to new inductee Young Officers to retain a modicum of ambition. That does not exist presently for the Services officers. Four, warfare is dramatically changing, the foci is shifting to modern, information age conflicts.  There would be a transition to newer units and to the new cutting edge in warfare.   And, five, cases are yet subjudice in the Hon’ble Supreme Court for allocation of additional vacancies at higher ranks to combat arms, the decision to which will have a more far-reaching effect.

   The Army has to resolve the internal officer’s career management policies, which have been under considerable strain for the last nearly twenty years.   It is necessary to first address the Army’s imbroglio, with a short backgrounder, though majorly, it will be known to all readers.  Consequent to the lessons learnt of the 1999 Kargil War, it was considered necessary to manage the reduction of ages of officers commanding infantry battalions and brigades. With that term of reference, AV Singh Committee (AVSC) was formed, which came up with a mathematical model (colloquially later called Command Exit Model – CEM). The chronology that followed needs recounting with certain specifics:

  • The CEM was based upon two variables – the Command assignments allocated to an arm or service, and the tenure in command. The first variable, the numbers of Command assignments, was left open-ended by the AVSC and has consequently witnessed large increments.  The second variable, the command tenures was fixed, with a wide span from Infantry Commanding Officers (COs) having 30 months to Services COs of 60 months. AVSC having been approved by the Union Cabinet, made the Report as if etched in stone for times immemorial, except in 2016, when in a judgment, the Hon’ble Supreme down-scaled the command tenures for the Corps of Engineers, Signals and Air Defence.
  • AVSC rested on many basic premises, the most important of which was to make Short Service Commission (SSC) attractive, to ensure the ratio of Permanent Commission (PC) to SSC to be as near to 1:1 as possible. This would have enabled batch construction at intake in a manner that would have retained equivalence in promotability at the level of Lt Col to Colonel (for taking over Command). The second important premise was lateral absorption of Army Officers in other Governmental Ministries. Despite the two pay commissions – 6th and 7th, and countless representations, these two have not fructified. The SSC has remained singularly unattractive as an intake option, and PC: SSC ratio has largely remained in favour of PC, up to the extent of 1:4.7, with an immensely adverse effect on promotional structures.  With the finite number of promotion avenues to Colonel, say 500 a year, and with say 1600 under consideration, the promotability ratio reduces to a little over 30%.  However, cumulated with command tenures variation, the promotability can vary between 20 to 60%, between various arms and services causing great consternation. Number of Command assignments at Colonel rank also have a commensurate effect on balance colonel vacancies – for example, if the total command assignments were 1500, and total Colonels authorised on establishment were 5500, then balance 4000 vacancies were allocated on the pro-rata of the ratios of the command assignments held by that arm or service. Hence, the race commenced on designating more and more command assignments by each arm and service.
  • Since 2011 to 2019, there have been a number of Army-internal and MoD study groups that have delved into the issue. The first broad based study group in 2011-2013 was headed by an esteemed Army Commander, had made important recommendations. Subsequently, seven or eight (one looses count) studies were undertaken, even by the College of Defence Management, though none met success on the altar of unanimity, or reached fruition by dedicated decision making.
  • In the interregnum, the CEM reached the stage of litigation at the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) initially and Hon’ble Supreme Court later. Being subjudice, the issue was denied the requisite opportunity to be addressed internally as an Army-Government policy. While in 2015, the AFT had stuck down the CEM, the Hon’ble Supreme Court upheld it in 2016.  The Hon’ble Supreme Court also allocated additional vacancies at Colonel Rank to the Corps of Signals, Engineers and Air Defence, which still did not benefit the Services.  The case is yet subjudice, for the same arms seeking commensurate vacancies at even higher ranks.

Having broadly chronologised the last sixteen years of CEM, it is apparent that the issue has far-reaching ramifications. The Army has yet to define command, whether it is designated on the basis of the strength of personnel in a unit, equipment held or based upon the functionality of operational or administrative tasking and financial outlay. Indeed in retrospective, many command assignments may not measure up to the original rationale.  In trying to adjust to meeting some satisfaction, allocation of vacancies has witnessed many a tweak and a number of loan vacancies, all of which have further muddled the issue.  With the passage of time the positions of arms and services have hardened, with all silo-ed in individualistic concerns and believing in their indispensability and meritocracy!

            The Army has large officer corps with over 42500 officers, all of the high calibre and near incessantly employed in operations.  Career management of the officer corps is a sacred responsibility. The issue has procrastinated for a very long time and cannot be allowed to fester on the doorsteps of the Courts and be decided through a litigative process.  Inability to create a policy bespeaks of avoidance of an all-important measure of cohesiveness of the organisation. Also, individual Court decisions on petitions provide solace to a number of litigants within finite numbers of promotional assignments, but it would have a corresponding negative effect on the satisfaction of many others.

            The issues that need addressal at this juncture are holistic in nature. Two of these must be considered before making recommendations. First, the CEM was approved by the Union Cabinet and second, the Hon’ble Supreme Court has upheld the CEM. Any significant change hence cannot be initiated internally; it will be challengeable with the Government or litigable in the Courts.  Some views are proffered below:

  • Short service commission is not much sought after, as it causes a mid-life crisis for the officers who do not achieve permanence in the Army. Making of Short Service Commission attractive, is absolutely mandatory, for which detailed proposals exist, like for a ten year SSC, allow an officer last year of study in a professional change-of-career institute, like IIMs and IITs ( for E-MBA or M Tech), and then placement. A gratuity had been recommended that provides for each year of service rendered in the Army. This must be pushed in with vigour. This will assist in constructing a balanced PC-SSC batch for each arm and service, and assure better than 50% promotability for all from Lt Col to Colonel.
  • The Hon’ble Supreme Court has given a decision on Women Officers being granted permanent commission and command of units. This will also mandate a share of vacancies at Colonel rank.  A proposal on the methodology of implementation was recommended earlier.[1]
  • Tri-service organisations are a reality, and the difference in service profile of equivalent ranks is irksome in managing command and control. With Theatre Commands this will be even more problematic.  The joint-service experienced officer will be obligatory, prior to reaching higher rungs in the three or joint Services organisation.
  • New realms of warfare– like cyber, information, precision and hypersonic projectiles, space and drones, are in themselves wholesome in nature, and maybe deciders of future wars. There will be requirement of reconfiguring specialist multi-domain warfare units in future, with differing command expertise, equipment profiles and manpower. For career management, these will have to put inside the CEM.
  • Command has to be redefined. The logic of deciding command was that a unit ought to be operational in nature (which includes arms and services units so committed), manpower or platform (equipment) oriented. The quantum of equipment that a unit ought to be authorised with, has to be credible enough for the operational task.

      Status quo is not the answer.  To ameliorate it, there are many ways and time is ripe to take the bull by the horns!  It is clear, that this cannot be done internally – for there are too many vested, parochial interests. Even at the very higher rungs, individual corps/ regimental parochialism will mar effective visionary decision making, and subsume broader organisational interests.  Any significant change will require obtaining Union Cabinet approval, superceding the previous cabinet approval and issue of a formal policy.

There can be three options. One, a well conceptualised Intra-Arm/Service Track 2, (that can involve retired seniors officers too) that will bring about a rapprochement, a balance and a via-media within the parameters of laid down CEM. At this juncture such an option seems a non-starter, due to sharp cleavages. Two, under the powers of the Union Government, a Blue Ribbon Committee be nominated, to study the gamut of the issue and make recommendations, for a Cabinet approval. Three, an HR Management Consultancy to be engaged through the Government, to study, obtain approvals, facilitate implementation and undertake a couple of years of hand-holding!  There are also Research Organisations that specialise in Human Resource issues, like XLRI, Jamshedpur and TISS, Mumbai which can be requested to study the same. Though there may be resistance to an outsider agency, for lack of in depth knowledge, for HR Professionals, adjusting policies may be a minor impediment. It is opined that obtaining professional expertise from outside the realm of Army-Government should be the best.  This will also require Government sanction/ approvals. The Courts can be informed that the issue has been taken up at the Governmental policy levels for decision-making, and details can be submitted on finalisation.

In sum, there has been undue procrastination, that has caused ill-will and it needs to put behind.  Sooner the better!

End Notes

[1] Rakesh Sharma, Supreme Court Decision on Women Officers: Need for Holistic Policy Planning, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), 20 Feb 2020, accessed at https://www.claws.in/supreme-court-decision-on-women-officers-need-for-holistic-policy-planning/