Performance, not age - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 23 January 2012

Performance, not age

In selecting senior Indian commanders, age is everything. Gen Hasnain, the highly effective commander of 15 Corps (pictured talking to locals in Kashmir) is blocked by his age from becoming army commander

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 24th Jan 12

The public battle over the army chief's age bears a larger lesson for the government: the undesirability of letting a date of birth determine which generals are appointed to senior military command and, especially, to the crucial appointments of army, navy and air force chiefs. As India now knows, the army chief (like those of the navy and air force) is appointed based not on merit but on when he was born. When a serving chief retires, his senior-most army commander is elevated to the top job. Only once has the government deviated from this: in appointing Lt Gen A S Vaidya instead of Lt Gen S K Sinha in 1983. Rather than exercise judgement in selecting a suitable chief from its 85-odd lieutenant generals, the government acts as if all of them are equally good, or bad.

Rather less known is the fact that the army chief’s key subordinates — i.e., army commanders and, under them, corps commanders — are also appointed based on when they were born. Of the officers promoted to lieutenant general, only those with at least three years of residual service (i.e., those below 57 years) get to command corps, while the rest of them warm desks. This even though a corps commander’s tenure is just a year. After commanding a corps, a lieutenant general is elevated to army commander only if he has two years of residual service.

These are not mere guidelines that are waived for exceptional officers, but ironclad rules that waste exceptional military talent for insufficient reason. An example of this is currently playing out. Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain was brought in as Srinagar corps commander in autumn 2010 to staunch three years of bloodletting on the Kashmiri street. He successfully calmed tempers and dramatically boosted the army’s image, achieving in Kashmir what Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus could not in Afghanistan. Based purely on performance, Hasnain is an outstanding field commander. But, since he has less than two years of service left, he will not even make army commander, leave alone army chief. Instead, he will push papers in Delhi.

This ill-conceived “date of birth” approach to top-rank promotions sits atop a bitterly resented quota system in the ranks just below. The army’s “Mandalised” system of promotion quotas (described in this newspaper’s Weekend supplement on January 14) grants promotions at the key ranks of colonel and brigadier not to accomplished officers with the best career records; but distributes them between various arms on a pro-rata basis. That guarantees each arm — the infantry, the artillery, the armoured corps, etc., — proportionate representation in those crucial ranks, regardless of merit. Every promotion board rejects some outstanding officers because of “lack of vacancies” in that arm; while officers with notably inferior records get promoted because their arm’s vacancies must be filled.

No other country that I know of fetters its senior military command so. The United States government, like most others, selects its top soldier from a broad panel of generals, often picking up a relatively junior officer with an exceptional service record and the potential for bridging the sometimes opposing interests of the military and the political class.

Such systems of “deep selection” create incentives amongst the generals for bold decision-making and eye-catching performance. But Indian generals who are in the running to be chief (by virtue of their correctly aligned dates of birth!) need only to ensure that they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. This encourages conservative decision-making, the absolute avoidance of risk, and the “servicing” of personal relationships to ensure that nothing derails their candidacy.

The argument against “deep selection” sounds superficially convincing: that a compromised polity and an inherently anti-army bureaucracy can hardly be trusted to select the military chiefs. This argument suggests that dhotiwalas and babus (the military’s mocking reference to politicians and bureaucrats) would unleash patrimonialism and politicisation within an organisation that has remained relatively honest and functional only because of its complete segregation.

This argument is flawed, not least in regarding the selection of senior officers free of such influence — something that has been disproved in the debate over the army chief’s birth date. By promoting a chasm between the military and the political and bureaucratic elites, the military damages its own interests. With no political and bureaucratic investment in a military chief (we didn’t select him, he just happened to be born on a certain date and came up the chain) the civil-military relationship remains fundamentally adversarial. Any reform measure — the creation of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS); an integrated defence staff (IDS) headquarters, or the cross-posting of officers between the MoD and the IDS — founders on the rocks of inter-agency hostility.

A system of “deep selection” would galvanise the military’s leadership; lead to longer tenures for service chiefs, during which they could drive home key initiatives; promote a meritocracy from the top down; and, most importantly, create an incentive for elected representatives and government bureaucrats to pay closer attention to the military and the management of defence. For entrenched interests within the military, greater civilian involvement in promotions and appointments is threatening. But this must be the lesson that emerges from the current unsavoury face-off.


  1. Ajai, you're also ignoring the corruption that will come henceforth. The system that we have is not that of U.S. Here corrupt rules. So it's better the Armed forces is kept away from the corrupt hands of politicians. Otherwise everyone at the top will be corrupt and inefficient in the Armed forces as well.

  2. Gen Bewoor's appointment superceding Prem Bhagat is another case worthy of notice.

  3. An excellent writeup. Age overshadows every other criteria in critical appointments in senior military command structure. The argument that, favouritism might creep in is no reason for sticking to the one major objective criteria, the date of birth. It is a different matter that, today, even that has become subjective.

  4. Please refere to following for the data:

    Various entry schemes to be an officer in the Indian Army are:

    [u]10+2 TECHNICAL ENTRY SCHEME(10+2 TES)[/u]

    16 ½ to 19 & 1/2 yrs
    Last age of commission ; 23 1/2 yeras
    vacancies 85 per year

    16 ½ to 19 yrs
    vacancies Army - 390 per year.
    Last age at Commission : 23 years

    19 and 24 yrs
    Vacancies per course :250 (Twice a year) Total 500
    Last age at commission 25 1/2 years

    19 and 25 yrs
    Vacancies 175 (Twice a year) Total 400
    Last age of Commission 26 1/2

    [b]Toatl intake per annum : approx 1400[/b]
    Considering that only 50 per cent of the SSC officers would remain in service after five years of their commission the total batch strenghth of fofficers would be approximately 1200.

    It may seen from the above data that from the toatl intake percentage of entry in a batch of 1200 is as follows:

    NDA - 32.5 % last age of commission 23 years
    DE - 41.66 % last age of commission 25 1/2 years
    SS - 16.66 % last age of commission 26 1/2 years
    Tech -07.5 % last age of commission 23 /12 years

    The figures above state following thing:

    SSC is the wastage entry. Even after perment commision and being most capable SS entry can forget about age driven higher rank ranks.
    DE is the filler entry who will fade away as they climb up. Capabilities or no capablities.
    NDA and TE is elite entry who will be generals even if they do not desrve it by mere virtue of pattern of intake and residual age.
    The age system is thus a conspiracy by NDA generals / cadre specially coming from institutions like Sainik / Military Schools where age at entry is easily manipulated.

    This is thus an aristocratic system where the rank is being ditermined by virtue of entry rather than merits solely for advantage of age.

    Army conducts a serious war of business where such scheming rules and QRS should not be followed or officers would be preditermined based on their age and entry and thus harm the sytem.

    Gen Hasnain is precisely victim of the above preplanned and well thought conspiracy.

    Adjust the upper and lower bars of age for all entries and bring them to equal intake level at commission. Why the DE are made to lose six months of extra training at IMA. If NDA is training so is any college !

  5. Col. Shukla

    You have raised the right issues, but you are portraying it incorrectly. Indian military has a organisational set up, which is archaic currently, I certainly agree. But lets not forget that this was made with some reason, to cater to the needs of our country way back in 1970's, or even earlier.

    The security scenario changed drastically since early 2001 and now we are in the middle of a paradigm shift in our security set-up, needs and expenditure.

    Hence, what is much more important now for us, is to do a study and ask ourselves how to align our organisational set up which best serves our security needs for the next 30-40 yrs(the average serving tenure of a soldier)or even more!

    If we are spending hundreds of billions of dollars in buying hardware, we must ensure that our 'Method & Discipline(in Sun Tzu's words)is best organised as per our needs as well.

    And that is something, which I haven't heard much news about.

    So I would urge a respected soldier and journalist like yourself to inform us about the same.

  6. @Ajay,
    Are we sure that so-called `deep selection' will be pancea for the ills of poor performance. If that be so let us start even ealrier. 1. As it is Army promotes only half of Lt COls to Col. Why not send non-empanelled home.2. Merit may even be found amongst Other Ranks. So what about starting the deep selection at Sepoy level itself. Jokes apart, what we need is firstly, a common definition of Merit to start with. Second, we need a quantifiable 360 degree appraisal system. Thirdly, we need an efficient and quick in-house vigilance system. Fourthly we need a fair, time-bound and transparent redress system. Fifthly, we need to combatise the Army by shedding many trades and specialities to civilians on contract basis. Example, Specialised fields in Medical, major Repairs, transportation. In other words all such assets beyond Field Force (Corps) level ought to be civilianised. Sixthly we need to empower the commanders by designating Authority and Responsibility Nodes. Long! Cheers!!

  7. Deep Selection indeed the need of the hour. The present quantification method taking and weighing the ACR earned in the last rank as the major input is absolutely faulty and wrong. It suddenly makes one virtuous and washes down the drain your past. The last rank environment might have been one of the sour points in ones career that should not make an officer otherwise with proven capabilities to be written off. But that"deep Selection" requires to be carried out within ones conditions and environment and not over the board as many AC and Mech officers would like it to happen. The competitive environment or criteria to determine merit must be equal.

    I suggest look three down policy as applicable to selection of Lt gens must be applied to all ranks above colonel within so called Mandalised framework. There is no comparison between ethos and conditions of work between mechanized , Arty and Infantry officers. They can not and should not be put together. that is the only way of stemming the rot that had set in in terms of inflated rating and cutting down officer of other Arms under false notions.

    Proportionality of vacancies is called for so that the organisation has best of the officers at higher level from all Arms and Services and with all kinds of varied experiences and envornment to be representative of the entire spetrunm of the organisation. The organisation has seen domination of tank men when it suffered the most. That is a matter of fact and not prejudicial.

    Secondly, after selection to higher ranks based on deep selection merits, age should not be the criteria and the govt should grant extension to meritorious candidates based on the recommendations of the board.

    However govt selecting candidates will bring back Menon and Nehru era which is fraught with grave dangers. The system has been evolved to avoid that but anomalies have cropped in> Let the system do away with anomalies.

    The intake age for all entries should be similar or less there be no age bars. Let there be no cadres with the cadre.

  8. I do not think the quota lower down is the problem - that has been put in for a reason. But rather than be negative let me say few words on this issue.

    In some Western nations students get priority to those high schools in their neighbourhood. But these schools may not be the best or up to the mark. In order to get a high school of your choice one must earn a scholarship. This scholarship goes to the top 2% in the student community.

    Now if we try to see how this would work in your case. The various arms would nominate their candidates less 2%. The candidates over and above the quota would be sent to HQ and the most deserving of these from the various arms would fill the remaining vacancies.


  9. I agree with both the first @Anonymous (Jan 24 08:16) and with Yogi. The Indian army is far, far more diverse than the US army or any of the world's armies. In order for deep selection to not become yet another face of corruption and nepotism (and we all know just how deep the corruption can run - CWG, UTI, defence deals), we need to first come up with a *common definition of merit*. Otherwise all it will take is one George Fernandes or Krishna Menon to destroy a fine institution and leave the borders defenceless.

  10. Ajai-ji,

    Great piece of writing. The whole age thing in promotions and retirement has always seemed mindless to me. Technically speaking this can be classified as age discrimination. Age has nothing to do with ability. It's the ability that should count, and not age. Thank you for bring this issue to light.

  11. The recommendations are very well intentioned. In India however, such a policy will set the stage for politicization of the Armed Forces. We need to understand the quality of our politicians and their unending hunger for power. The CVC issue should throw enough light on how things may shape with the kind of politics that our politicians play. The Supreme Court judgment in General VK Singh’s case will amply bring out the game and the purpose behind this age row.

  12. Dear Ajai,
    Good angreezi written in your article, well some recent articles written by you lack maturity,and thaught.It is clearly evident that you have been sponsored for that, If you colud mull over these the following:-
    1. What performance you are talking about, the reports one earn sitting in five star culture.. well different conditions... different operational requirements... different pressures... then you want to equate them...
    2. Are selection boards real meausre of a good and bad officer( empanelled vs non empanelled)
    3. what is a better measure, request suggest...
    i feel you should think in detail , if feasible take advice before jumping the gun in media.... or you will loose credibility...

  13. its unfair to compare Kashmir to Afghanistan,situation and env are completelyt different.


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