by Air Chief Marshal Srinivasapuram Krishnaswamy (Retd)

Recently, the Ministry of Defence announced their intention to change the existing policies for promotion of Commanders-in-Chief, which is currently based on seniority alone, to merit-based selection. This has caused some flutter in the media. This could lead to some excitement in the Services and interesting forecast on which horses may win.

Generally, the policies and procedures of Ministry of Defence (MOD), and in fact the Government of India, have been too slow to change with time and in keeping up with the challenges, modernisation, technology and greater expectations of personnel. Considerable effort has been made by the three Services towards overhauling their policies, especially after the formation of Integrated Defence HQ. But an important area for review is personnel and promotion policies. The rank structure in the military is pyramidal with a clear recognition of leadership and subordinates. A ratio of vacancies against the numbers available for promotion is considered to maintain the pyramidal structure. For the Air Force, it could be as high as 1:20+ to Group Captains level reducing to as low as 1:4 for the higher levels. Those who don’t make it may get a couple of more chances before becoming ineligible for promotion.

The pay and perks increase with higher ranks so also the retirement age. Most of those who don’t make it to higher ranks elect to retire or continue to serve in the same rank till they reach the retirement age that is set for each rank. Appointments are tenure-based. The end effect is competition to move up the ladder. The officer corps must continually work hard, stay fit, improve qualifications, and remain professionally well-informed. Their performance is evaluated once a year and at the courses of instructions that they undergo.

Merit-Based Selection At Each Step

Merit is the single important criteria to move up the ladder and to secure challenging leadership appointments. Promotion Boards scrutinise the records of every individual coming up for consideration for promotion. Officers’ performance records, appointment held, and seniority besides medical fitness are considered by Promotion Boards. The Board consists of designated senior members of the Service, approved by the MOD. Promotion Board for one star rank and above go to the MOD for approval. Air Force and Navy Promotion Boards to Group Captain/Captain (IN) need to get approval from the MOD. After consideration of the Board, promotions are approved at the level of Minster of Defence.

Appointments of Commanders-in-Chief are recommended from those found eligible by the Chief of Staff and sent to the MOD for scrutiny, approval for which is done at the level of the Minister. It is usual for the MOD to seek clarifications on the recommendations of the Board or the recommendation of the Chief of Staff for C-in-C appointments. It is also not unusual for the MOD to ask the concerned Chief of Staff to reconsider the Board recommendations that may call for the Board to deliberate again.

Thus, we see that merit-based selection process for promotions/appointments/courses are strictly followed, most of it overseen by the MOD. The MOD has the veto power over any of the recommendations made by the selection/Promotion Boards. The Chief of Staff is selected from a shortlist of four who are found eligible. This process is done in a strictly confidential manner by the MOD. The final approval is given by the Cabinet. While it is usual for the senior-most among the four to be selected, it is not uncommon for someone with lesser seniority among them to be selected. With this new announcement, it seems the government has now decided to select the Commanders-in-Chief on merit basis. Towards implementing this proposal, a committee consisting of the three Vice Chiefs is to be formed which will suggest the merit criteria to be considered.

MOD’s Right To Approve

All promotions from the bottom to the top are subject to approvals by MOD, especially one star rank and above. Thus, the MOD is already exercising their prerogative in examining the recommendations and their right to approve. Selection of the Chiefs of Staff is the prerogative of the government only and the Services have no say in the selection. If the existing processes already follow this pattern, why the uproar to merit-based selection of Cs-in-C?

When the vacancy occurs for C-in-C positions, the senior-most in the list may barely have the required minimum years to serve after the promotion. This may not serve the interest of the concerned Combat Command. It is also known that Cs-in-C are shifted from one Command to another in less than a year’s time that pose severe strain on the quality of operational management. It is more noticeable with respect to those under Integrated Command. When the country is facing war-like situation at its borders, the quality of the leadership and continuity are essential. Merit involves the right man for the right job and greater accountability.

Further, the government, in consultation with the Chiefs of Staff, may have been working towards the objective to build certain capabilities over and above the routine to accelerate modernisation and quality of training. To execute such objectives, the top echelon may wish to select the right leadership who will have continuity. One cannot brush aside such objectives as ‘Politicisation’ of the Armed Forces.

Since merit-based selection has been in vogue from day one in the Defence Services, certain instances of currying favour are unavoidable. But usually, the ‘superior reporting officer’ gets the opportunity to right the mistakes. Selection at C-in-C level has got to be done with care, and the government has the right to make a choice, preferably in consultation with the Chief of Staff of the respective Service.

It is a wise move of the government to direct the Vice Chiefs of Staff Committee to suggest the merit criteria, giving them the opportunity to reflect professional and Service views on the issues. They could then take the cue from the recommendations and formalise the process. The move cannot be rebuffed as unethical. It will be absurd to believe that if the selection is by merit, the Commander-in-Chief will ‘give into’ the whims of the political system. In any case, they would have gone through a ‘political scrutiny’ when promoted to a three-star rank.

Interestingly, the Chiefs of Staff are selected by the political system and the Cs-in-C are subordinate to the Chief of Staff. The writ of the Chief of Staff will in any case prevail. India has grown in strength and confidence and is well recognised globally. Its military is respected as a ‘professional’ force. The nation should come out of the cocoon and take pride in participating in the democratic process and professionalism.

The author is a retired Air Chief Marshal, who was Chief of Staff, Indian Air Force, 2001-2004