Wednesday, December 21, 2016

On Army Chief Selection, Seniority and Merit

The elevation of Lt. General Bipin Rawat to the post of Chief of Army Staff (COAS) after superseding two other Army Commanders’ senior to him has created the quite expected controversy. There are as many arguments out there against this act of the government as there are in its favor.

The political establishment has hitherto stuck to the seniority principle more out of indifference than any love for the armed forces. Simply put, our political class does not understand the armed forces (with due exceptions) and has never made any effort to do so. Our political and bureaucratic set-up simply lacks appreciation, appetite and mechanism for any long term strategic thinking. This explains lack of strategic foresight and our inability to undertake complex geo-political manoeuvres. Ergo, we’ve never seriously explored use of military power as a means of extending and safeguarding national interests. And this manifests itself in us lacking in higher defense management. Everything else which ails our security set-up from investment in R&D to weapon production stems from this lack of understanding about the armed forces.

We continue to carry forward the dubious legacy of Nehru days.     

Indian armed forces are so far removed from the country’s critical decision making set-up that I doubt it matters to the political class who becomes the army chief. Except of course, if the potential candidate has in some manner rubbed the powers-that-be in wrong manner. So, Indira Gandhi ensured that Lt. General Bhagat never became the Chief through a sleigh of hand. While in case of Lt. General S.K. Sinha, she was more forthright and appointed his junior as the army chief.

This is where the present government seems to have broken the existing protocol of simply appointing the senior most Lt. General as the Army Chief. It has gone for deep selection and has proactively chosen a candidate. Not that I agree with it, but this is where we are.

The government has a certain view about the evolving scenario on our western border and how it is likely to play out in immediate future. As per media reports, the government in its wisdom has chosen to go with a candidate with proven track record in the Kashmir theatre from lowest to pretty high level. Lt General Rawat has commanded troops in counter-insurgency operations (5 Rashtriya Rifles Sector commander) as well as in conventional posture - he commanded an infantry battalion along LOC as and later as Major General, the crucial 19 Infantry Division which overlooks the most sensitive part of LOC.

Government has gone with a candidate who literally knows the ‘lay of the land’ than with others whose understanding stems from staff appointments and that too, at higher level. As per media reports, Lt. General Praveen Bakshi has had two staff appointments in ‘Valley’ – one as Colonel in Doda and others Chief of Staff (COS) in Northern Command.

Some respected ex-army officers have rightly countered this line of argument. 

I quote Lt General H.S. Panag from an article in Indian Express dates 18th December 2016:

“It is the government’s prerogative to select the new Army Chief. It has only happened once earlier that the senior-most officer was overlooked, in the case of Lt Gen S K Sinha in 1983. But the criterion for deep selection by the government is not clear as it knows little about the job of an Army Commander. There is nothing spectacular about serving in J&K. If there is a war tomorrow, it could be fought in plains and deserts. What happens then?” said Lt Gen H S Panag (retd), a former Northern Army Commander, who has taught the three contenders at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, and at the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington.


Ajai Shukla (himself an ex-Armoured Corps Officer) made this very important comment in his article dated 19th December 2016 and posted on this blog:

Separately, the defence ministry spokesperson has told journalists over the phone that Bakshi, a tank man who has spent many years in the deserts of Rajasthan and in Punjab, was ill-equipped to handle the internal security challenges of Jammu & Kashmir and the northeast. Bakshi’s tenures as chief of staff at the northern command and at the eastern army command apparently count for nothing.

Nor apparently does the fact that war with Pakistan would centre on swift tank offensives under the ‘Cold Start’ doctrine. “The army believes peacetime operations are more important than preparing for a real war,” says a senior serving general.


Long story short, the above two observations intend to convey the point that an Army Chief is guided by his army commanders who actually command India’s field armies and undertake battle in their respective ‘Area-of-Responsibility’ (AOR). So, even if Lt. General Bakshi did not have operational experience of the kind that Lt General Bipin Rawat had in Kashmir theatre, he would have been relying on Lt. General Devraj Anbu, the present Northern Army Commander for advice and to handle that sector. Lt. General Anbu is an Infantry officer who’s served earlier in the ‘Valley’, Siachen and last commanded Tejpur based 4 Corps. 4 Corps looks after both internal security and the crucial western Arunachal Pradesh-Tibet border. Lt. General Bakshi would’ve had the advice and counsel of a seasoned infantry officer and old ‘Valley’ hand in the Northern Army commander.

At the same time, as Lt. General Panag (retd.) and Ajai Shukla mentions above, if yellow matter hits the fan with Pakistan, the real action will be in the plains. Ever since 2001 mobilization post Parliament attack, Indian Army has been perfecting the art of quick mobilization and rapid, mechanized warfare under the Cold Start doctrine. The act of bringing Pakistan Army to its knees will most probably be played out in the plains of south Punjab and Rajasthan. Where bulk of Indian Army’s offensive potential will be deployed.

Lt. General Praveen Bakshi is an outstanding Armoured Corps officer and he would be the best man to be at the helm of affairs in such an eventuality.

However, the biggest example of an Army Chief’s abilities being not linked to his parent fighting arm or earlier operational experience lies in our near past.

General Sundararajan Padmanabhan or Paddy as he was more affectionately known as, was the Army Chief when mobilization under Operation Parakram happened. It is acknowledged that during initial mobilization immediately after the Parliament attack, army lost dash to the border and hence, the initiative, because one of the Strike Corps, situated deep in the hinterland, took a long time to mobilize.

But it is also a fact that the bold repositioning of Indian Army’s three formidable armoured divisions during mid-2002 in the desert and aimed at the center of Pakistan, had led to serious issues within the Pakistan Army. This is something which had never been done before and led to some serious problems for Pakistan Army. In that one move, General Padmanabhan has turned the traditional way in which Indian Army fought its war on its head.

And General Padmanabhan was an Artillery Officer! He had an outstanding stint as Corps Commander, XV Corps in Srinagar and then as Northern Army Commander.

However, the argument made in support of Lt. General Bakshi and against Lt. General Rawat (lack of exposure to mechanized warfare) can be turned around in equal measure. Lt. General Rawat will be advised by the Army Commander of Western, South-Western and Southern Commands which hold bulk of army’s mechanized assets and will lead the charge into Pakistan.

Present Western Army Commander is from Brigade of Guards – one of Indian’s two mechanized infantry regiments. Southern Army Commander (Lt. General Hariz) is also from mechanized infantry – though he is expected to resign now that his junior has been made the Army Chief.  South-Western Army Commander is another infantry officer.

All the above points to one important fact – beyond a certain point, officers from different combat arms are considered equally competent to lead Corps and Field Armies in battle. Yes, it is preferable that an officer from Armoured Corps or Mechanized Infantry command the Strike Corps but even that does not happen often. At Army Commanders’ level, question about competence cease to exist because an Army Commander leads a heterogeneous mix of formations and capabilities. And his job is to ensure that he maximises their utilization to achieve the best possible result.  

Again, I quote Lt. General Panag (retd.) –

“Though it is good to have a meritocracy, there must be clear criteria for determining merit. Otherwise, generals will start approaching politicians who can promote them to the top, and that will end the apolitical character of the army,” warns Lt Gen H.S. Panag, a former army commander.

Looking at the precedence and the way army functions, the above question has not been satisfactorily answered.

Having said that, there is one very famous example from army’s past which comes to mind and which validates the probable reasoning behind selection of Lt. General Bipin Rawat. During the 1965 Indo-Pak war, Indian Army had its finest hour in the Battle of Asal Uttar when it halted the advance of Pakistan Army’s much vaunted and formidable 1st Armoured Division and its running mate, the 11th Infantry Division. One of the reasons which allowed Indian troops to organize and mount such a staunch defence was the knowledge about the lay of land of the Western Army Commander – the redoubtable Lt. General Harbaksh Singh. The act of breaching the nallas to flood the area to restrict movement of Pakistani armour and channel them in particular direction(s) happened because the Army Commander understood the lay of the land.

Whether something like this is relevant in present scenario or will be relevant as the new Chief discharges his duties, remains to be seen.

Will this decision politicise the army and henceforth, the selection of the Chief? As supporter of Narendra Modi and this government, I think the government has taken the decision with best intention in mind. Even if I don’t agree with it.

The reason I don’t agree with it is because it creates a window of opportunity to play favourites. No institution has been spared from the ill-effects of this disease of favouritism save the selection of Service Chiefs (with some exceptions, of course). Some senior ex-servicemen have opined that selection of COAS only on the basis of seniority has meant that less than worthy candidates have been elevated to the position and deep selection can ensure that this does not happen.

Well, if someone was/is not worthy of becoming COAS after having reached the level of an Army Commander, then it speaks about flaws in the process which allows undesirable officers to reach this level in first place.

Secondly, for every one ‘bad’ Army/Service Chief, if the system throws up 4-5 good Service Chiefs, I’ll take it with all its warts and pimples.

Third – how do we know the next government will not pick up a more pliant or accommodative junior candidate over a forthright and honest senior-most candidate?  

While I support the present government and the Prime Minister, I do not consider the overall political establishment to be mature enough to take a call on deciding the merit for deep selection and discarding the seniority principle. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Previous govt. and JJ Singh was accused of manipulating succession line by retiring General V.K. Singh 1 year before and promosing BS in his place who would otherwise have retired before becoming General.

So maybe govt. is breaking this manipulation.