The issue of Human Resources in the Indian armed forces is likely to throw up progressively increasing challenges when the Theatre Command System becomes operational. It has, therefore, become absolutely necessary to resolve those issues before the restructuring gets underway. This article seeks to examine three HR issues that have lingered and defied resolution despite their manifestation since long in the integrated tri-Services structures such as Andaman & Nicobar Command, Strategic Forces Command, and several other establishments. Resolution of these issues can no longer be ignored lest solutions emerge in more painful ways.
The three issues pertain to different standards of numerical assessments in the Annual Confidential Report (ACR) format prevailing in each Service, variance in tenure policy in higher ranks, and equivalence and variations in rank structures. None of these issues is new. But their salience will get magnified as integrated organisations come into being.
The ACR system
The ACR system, across all governmental organisations in India, acts as the sieve to determine officials’ suitability for promotion and potential for higher posts. In the military, due to its pyramidical structure, the competition for selection is comparatively far more acute, and its severity increases as one ascends the ladder. The ACR channel follows a reporting chain that mirrors the command and control system and in the case of officers, consists of the Initiating Officer (IO), followed by the Reviewing Officer (RO), Senior Reviewing Officer (SRO), and in some instances, by the Next Senior Reviewing Officer (NSRO), who is usually the Chief of the Service.
In joint/integrated organisations, which can be expected to significantly multiply in the Theatre Command System, the IO/RO/SRO could be officers from a different Service than the one being reported upon. An Army officer’s report could thus be initiated by their commanding Naval officer and followed by a report by an Air Force officer who is the SRO. The problem is that officials in the reporting chain are enculturated in the prevailing norms of numerical assessment standards of their respective Services that have marked variations.
The ACR reporting system of the Army has become so liberal over time that a large percentage of officers are marked closer and closer to the highest grade of nine. This is the prevailing norm that will inevitably manifest itself in the ACR rendered on all officers, including those from the Navy and Air Force. Naval and Air Force officers receiving reports from their Army counterparts in the chain of command are advantaged over their peers who are reported upon by officers of their own Service. Meanwhile, the Navy is the strictest and the Air Force slightly less so. Therefore, an Army officer getting a report from a Naval or Air Force officer is disadvantaged in relation to his peers from his own Service, and that would impact their promotion, which, out of necessity, has to be conducted by the promotion boards of the respective Service.
The point is that unless this anomaly is addressed and a system worked out to harmonise the differences, court cases are likely to multiply and could cause major problems in the personnel management systems of the three Services. Admittedly, the problem already exists in a number of existing joint Service organisations. So far, no joint Services measure has been worked out to tackle the issue. Instead, each Service has formulated its own methods, most of which are not in the public domain but occasionally surface through the proceedings of cases in the military tribunals. The need to harmonise the ACR reporting standards at the joint Service level is all too obvious, but easier said than done.
Also read: Why Theatre Commands must be accompanied by a Uniform Military Code
Tenures of commanders at higher levels
In the Theatre Command System, two levels of appointments will pose challenges in terms of tenure if individual Service policies that relate to commanders-in-chief are not coordinated and reconciled.
When the appointment of the theatre commander-in-chief is formalised, they necessarily have to be equivalent to the existing chiefs, since they will be operational heads reporting directly to the Permanent Chairman Chiefs of the Staff Committee (PCCOSC). There would be a requirement to specify the minimum tenure with the ceiling decided by the age of retirement. It is a given that the theatre commander would have to have a retirement age ceiling of at least 62 years to facilitate senior serving officers to be elevated to theatre commander-in-chief and a minimum tenure of two years ensured. This is a policy issue that has to be decided by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Currently, the retirement age of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) is 65 years, and no length of tenure has been defined.
In the existing structure, there are differences in tenures at the commander-in-chief level between the Air Force, Navy, and Army. Till recently, the senior most Lt Gen of the General Cadre was eligible for commander-in-chief if their age profile provided for a tenure of two years. For some unexplained reason, this was reduced in 2020 to 18 months. The Navy and Air Force have had one year as the minimum for long.
The differences in minimum tenure for eligibility will have to be uniform as in the Theatre Command System — the commanders-in-chief are all heads of functional commands/organisations that constitute the joint Service specific entities that are either directly under the command of joint headquarters at the apex level/Theatre Command/Service chiefs. Thus, Air Defence command may be under the apex joint headquarters and Service-specific training commands under the Service chiefs. Here, again, the need for harmonisation is obvious and the tenure should be at least two years for all commanders-in-chief.
Also read: Here’s how India’s political and military class can see eye to eye on tri-Service integration
Inter-Services rank equivalence and variations
We have generals in the Army from major general onwards and flag officers in the Navy from rear admiral onwards. As against this, the Air Force has officers from air commodore onwards. General/flag officers commanding (GOsC/FOsC) and air officers are clubbed as in Section 3 of the Inter-Services Organisations (Command, Control and Discipline) Bill 2023 for instance. This works to the disadvantage of brigadiers and commodores.
There is also the issue of the equivalence of the JCOs rank with their parallel in the Navy and Air Force. The JCOs are Junior Commissioned Officers, unlike their equivalents in the other Services (Chief Petty Officers in Navy and Warrant Officers in Air Force). This disparity gives rise to housing and ceremonial issues in joint Service organisations. The issue has to be resolved and parity ensured.
There is also an issue of rank equivalence between military and civil services posts. The issue is important and rankles military personnel when they get posted to civilian organisations. But exploring this disparity lies beyond the scope of this article.
Who will bell the cat and how?
The responsibility for addressing the above-mentioned issues rests with the Principal Personnel Officers Committee (PPOC), which functions under the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC). It consists of the three principal staff officers of the Services and also has two joint secretary (JS)-level members from the MoD. In practice, and for long, the JS-level officers have hardly ever attended these meetings. Although some efforts could be ongoing to address the HR issues, there has been no mention of resolution measures in the public space.
There is, therefore, the need for urgency and they should certainly be resolved before the Integrated Theatre Command System is instituted. If left unaddressed, some matters will reach the Courts of Law and complicate resolution of the issues in the future. These are not intractable issues. For starters, the ACR assessment standards could be addressed. Since showing ACRs has become the bane of the prevailing ACR writing culture of the Army, it should change its policy of ‘open ACRs’ and adopt the ‘don’t show’ policy of the Air Force and Navy.
Regarding the general officer of the Army, flag officer of the Navy, and air officers of the Air Force, one solution is to create the brigadier general rank as it is in the US’ Army and Air Force. Commodores can, of course, be brought into the flag officer category without such issues. Tenures and equivalence of JCOs are not so complicated, as all they require is the will to reform.
The CDS, who also wears the hat of PCCOSC, must provide the prime motive force and effectively tackle the issues that pertain to the efficient functioning of joint Service organisations. We must always remember that it is the quality and morale of the human capital that determine, in an incalculably large measure, the effectiveness of the armed forces of a country.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)