Time To Reflect, Review & Review Officers Promotion Policy

"The top scorers in this 'lottery' of rankings are recommended for promotion, and it should not come as a surprise, if a number of undeserving 'bad eggs' slip into higher (and highest) ranks."

Time To Reflect, Review & Review  Officers Promotion Policy


In a rebuttal by former Navy Chief, Admiral Arun Prakash to an obnoxious piece by Mohan Guruswamy  in an acerbic critique titled, "Flawed Generals; Who Will Bell the Cat", (Asian Age June 30, 2016) the eminent economist, has flayed the upper echelons of India's military as "visibly dense" and "obviously incompetent". These "uninspiring leaders", he says, rose in service, by managing to "get good ACR's year after year with bland obsequiousness". When an intelligent, tax-paying Indian citizen suggests that "the military must look within"; it calls for introspection.

The crux of Guruswamy's criticism lies in his assertion that a "stubborn seniority system, adopted from the bureaucracy" eliminates military officers with talent, personality and intellectual curiosity. While there may be a kernel of truth in his perceptions, certain facts about the selection/promotion system followed by the military must be clarified. The military has not "adopted" any system from the bureaucracy and has its own, perfectly fair, methodology for selection of officers for promotion from the rank of Colonel to General (and equivalents in other Services).

The very fact that between 60-70 per cent officers fall by the wayside, at each stage of promotion, speaks of the fierce competition and stringent selection criteria. Promotion boards are convened periodically for placing officers on a "select-list" for promotion to ranks of Colonel and above.

The boards examine only the annual confidential reports (ACR) rendered on the candidates, which contain numerical grading for a number of attributes, as well as a "pen picture" to substantiate the grading. The numerical grading, awarded out of a (notional) maximum of 10 points should correspond to one of five classifications: "exceptionally outstanding", "outstanding", "above average", "average" and "below average".  

Unfortunately, progressive inflation in ACR marking, has over the years, undermined the reliability of the system, and it is not uncommon to see a majority of officers in a unit graded "outstanding" or even "exceptionally outstanding".

The reasons are two-fold: (a) the apprehension of the reporting officer that should his grading become known to the appraise  he will become a disgruntled element in the unit and (b) a parochial spirit which compels reporting officers of a certain arm, regiment or specialisation, to boost the gradings of their ilk. Since the numerical gradings have lost their significance, the boards seek illumination from the pen-pictures. But here too, stilted English prevents the reporting officer from conveying a meaningful depiction of the officer.

The boards are, consequently, forced to fall back on the expedient of  using computer generated "merit lists" based on the ACR numerical grading; averaged out to the third or fourth decimal point. The top scorers in this "lottery" of rankings are recommended for promotion, and it should not come as a surprise, if a number of undeserving "bad eggs" slip into higher (and highest) ranks.

Guruswamy makes a valid point about the necessity of "obsequiousness" for advancement. But this is a cultural trait in our society and we all know that age, rank and financial status demand much more deference in India than anywhere else in the world. Consequently, many fine officers do get eliminated at an early stage for their non-conformity or forthright views. There is no doubt that the evil of sycophancy - so prevalent in India's politics and society - will undermine the roots of our military unless the senior leadership curbs it ruthlessly.

Another area of disgruntlement arises from the fact that the service chiefs are entitled to have the last say as far as ACRs of Maj Gen, Lt Gen and (except in the army) C-in-C rank officers are concerned. This is quite appropriate, and the chief's numerical grading can over-ride any other assessment in the ACR.

However, like other reporting officers, the chief, too, must provide full justification, via written remarks, for overruling the earlier grading(s). Given the fact that the chief has the power to change relative ACR rankings at the highest levels, there have been allegations, of late, regarding chiefs contriving or fixing "lines of succession". The fact that such a contention, however implausible, keeps cropping up; should be cause for reflection.

Ways Forward

Major General Anil Sengar (Retd), ex-ADG MF & Author

I am as die hard a fauji as anyone else. What is said about incompetence at higher ranks, has more than iota of truth. Why it happens is the fault of the superiors who are incapable of acting against incompetent or corrupt subordinates because lack of moral uprightness, which makes themselves vulnerable and hence inaction.

The promotion system has major flaws. At the COAS level, in the army, he has become the king maker without accountability. It is impossible that COAS will have the opportunity to see every Major General, commanding a formation well enough to judge him objectively. How does he justify upgrading someone’s ACR to 9 and down grading other’s to 8. We know it, that COAS grading a  Maj general 8, puts him out of contention, and he is not even required to inform the ratee.

There is enough evidence, I too have in my own case, where number of ACRs were written by the COAS together in a short period of time before the promotion board to shape the promotion merit. Why is it that ACRs written by General Bikram Singh, were directed against by the AFTs and even supreme courts where officers chose to go to the court.

Why is there is far more acrimony on promotion in the army as compared to the air force and the navy. We need to introspect on what is pointed out, while we may not like a civilian criticising us, we need to put our house in order. The first step in correcting the wrongs is to acknowledge that a problem exists.

To cite an example, while we know that in Mech Forces, the officers go through a strict elimination process through pro-rata vacancies in HC/HDMC/NDC nominations and in the promotions  to the ranks of Brig, which means, the real cream reaches the rank of Major Generals, will the army explain how in the promotion board of 1980 and 81 batches to Lt Gen, only one out of about seventeen Maj Gens was approved for Lt Gen. Is that not true, that suddenly the promotions of officers from the chief’s regiment or arm shoot up during their tenures at the expense of other meritorious officers.

I have heard many retired service officers preach the obvious, as if the wisdom has dawned on them now. They also did the same when they were there.

Please tell me, how is it that officers graded outstanding 9 in integrity over last 20 or 25 ACRs by 20 different reporting officers as IOs, ROs, and SROs, awarded VSM, AVSM and recommended for PVSM , approved for Lt Gen land up to be investigated by CBI or court martialled for lack of integrity or corruption.While junior officers raise our stocks in the country, Generals  have been in the news for wrong reasons. Sukna, Adarsh, meat general, dal general, booze general, misconduct with lady officer and the others under CBI investigation.

As the GOC who had an incident of mass insubordination in one of my units and I served as Officiating DGMF for one year before superannuation and saw the functioning at higher echelons from close quarters, but I would rather not wash our dirty linen in public. Let us be honest. There are problems that need to be addressed. If we have the courage to do it in house, we will not give others’ a chance to go after us. Pl ask junior officers to name their role models in the higher ranks, you will see the draught. I did that often, whilst I was in service. It is revealing.

Col Rajinder Kushwaha (Retd), Author & Analyst

Fact cannot be denied that Generalship today is at its lowest ebb. Therefore Guruswamy has made a very valid observation. You see,  as it happened in OP Pawan, so it was happening in Kashmir and North East, today.  Posting in Insurgency and Terrorist infested areas is a passport for higher ranks. The case of a Divisional Commander is well known, who led the peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka, initially. He thought it was a ceremonial job and it was all glamour for this man with handle -bar moustaches and multicoloured scarf .  

But when LTTE revolted, he was a big failure. There have been reports of knee jerk reactions by senior commanders in Kashmir after a mistaken killing of a youth in Anantnag sometimes back. Even the killing of a known terrorist Burhan Wani in South Kashmir, in July 2016, there have been uncalled for statements, contrary to military ethos, by Generals amounting to betraying of subordinates.

It clearly shows when the 'going is good', General was there to take the credit; moment something went wrong, attempt is made to palm off the blame to Subordinates. The hallmark of good Generalship is for a General to back up his subordinates when unintentional mistakes occur. One can not turn back and say that action was not "sanctioned" by him or his staff.

Counter Insurgency operations succeed primarily because of initiative of platoon and company commanders. To say a particular act was not "sanctioned "   by a "General" shows the operational and executional bankruptcy of a Military commander. And Indian army has them swarming at the top ,  today.

Question arises : How and when the slide down of Generalship had begun? It is not a sudden phenomenon. Have a look at your last few Chiefs of the Army in the recent years. I do not have to reiterate about their caliber and competence. One of them became Low Medical Category ( LMC) for impaired hearing just a month before he had retired. Sure, he had not damaged his ears while occupying Air Conditioned and Sound Proof office at army HQs.

He was an arty officer and might have damaged his ears decades before he rose to be a General. These are the moral values of present crop of Generals. Adarsh Society scam in Mumbai has clearly shown as to how low Generalship has stooped ! Succession plans of Army Chiefs really damaged the Army.

We all know that officer cadre of army has been "Mandalised" and "Kamandalised". During the Kargil war,  DGMO was sent to brief MPs of a political party. A retired Brigadier becomes a RSS leader in Punjab--- most shocking news. Those who wrote his ACRs could not see this  leanings of the officer. Within the army, there are  ‘ Corps and Regimental  Loyalties’ - which ensure mediocre subordinates are pushed up. Most of the Generals from some infantry regiments did not deserve to be even Lt Cols - but patronization led them to become senior officers.

You see the slide down began at the end of 1971 war - when an upright GOC , General E D Souza (Maratha Light Infantry) was sacked and a manipulating Brigadier under him rose to be a Lt General. It was a trickle. By the mid 90s, when militancy in Punjab was dying, it became a deluge. And after the succession plans were launched in 2005, it became a Tsunami and today I do not see how any well meaning and a straight forward officer could rise above a Col's rank.

ACR oriented promotions have done the maximum damage. One or two 7’s in any traits of your ACR, then one must prepare to hang one's boots. Performance and competence be damned. When I reflect on the Officers of my time, who became Generals, I get shocked. No wonder Kashmir is boiling hot today.

You know why Kargil  happened? Sorry, I should be asking why shouldn't have Kargil happened?

Also Read: The Skeletons of Kargil, Revisited

Also Read: PME: Poor Military Education & its Impact on Leadership

Maj Gen V K Madhok (Retd), 1st Course JSW

Rajinder  is right. But the Gens have risen from the officer cadre.What is the state of our officer Cadre? Gens are the effects(products) of a confused officer cadre.Culprit is the ACR. Entire emphasis is on the ACR.9 forms have to be filled for Brig/Cols.Lt Gens will be reported on By Lt Gens. No where is mentioned that the officer being reported upon has Guts. Some one who has made the current ACR forms, is totally ignorant and lacks understanding of soldierly Qualities. If Alexander, Rommel, Montgomery, Macarthur were to be reported upon by the current ACR, they will retire as Majors.

An Army cannot be run by ACRs. It needs combat leaders, who have guts, character, ability to standup to Politicians and courage to set an example. If we had such combat leaders, Hajipir Pass would not have been given to Pak and we would have demanded a passage Through Bangladesh to NE. We did not. There is much revamping to be done particularly in the Army. Only a clued up RM - with a military background could do it. Let us leave it at that.

Also Read: The Indian Army’s Officer Promotion Policy Needs Urgent Overhaul!

Gp Capt Johnson Chacko (Retd), ex-Instructor, DSSC, CDM, AFA, NDA

Never has so much positional power been concentrated in the hands of superior officers than now. In fact it should be Personal power that should endear the juniors to the leaders. Personal power being the power an individual has over his subordinates if he does not wear the rank or hold a position of a higher order.

This has crept into the IAF too after the change in promotion policy for ranks above Gp Capt to "one in three". Before that there were two tough selection boards. Sqn Ldr to Wg Cdr which makes him eligible for command of a Sqn and Wg Cdr to Gp Capt denoting a successful command. If he made these in the first look, he was considered fit to be an Air Mshl. Thereafter it was age and vacancies that mattered provided he did not do anything negative that reflected adversely on his honesty or integrity.

So a Gp Capt could air his professional views without fear and the Air Force got the benefit of all kind of opinions and an Air Mshl could take a considered decision. Now we have yes men whose work is five by the "Focus" of his suprior than his own judgement of what he needs to do in his job. Professionalism goes out of the window, ACR is of prime concern.

I know of a Gp Capt who antagonised his IO and RO with his professional opinion and yet was approved for Air Cmde. C in C changed his decision by 180 degrees based on an input by a Gp Capt in a conference where he was supposed to announce the decision.

The ACR systems in the Armed Forces need a major overhaul. Whenever I had the opportunity to write an ACR, I let the assessed write it as philosophically I felt that I should not sit in judgement over  someone else's career. I gave them a rider that i will change what they write only if i could covnince them withput the backing of my rank or position. Surprisingly the self assessment  by them were always below what I would have assessed them. I had to raise them in most cases. In the dialogue that ensued they knew what their worth was. It was open and there was no cause for being disgruntled. I couldn't have done it if I lacked professionalism.

The character attributes from selection to retirement needs to be the same. Unfortunately they are different at SSB, NDA and thereafter among the three Forces. Professional attributes would need to be different at each stage and in different services. Two trials by fire are adequate for him to qualify for General/Flag/Air ranks. Remove the sword of democles hanging over him in the former of ACR and see professionalism bloom. Of course babudom won't be able to handle too many professionals at the top who "will express their opinion irrespective of the consequences".

Col P K “Royal ‘’ Mehrishi (Retd), ex-Infantry, Clinical Psychologist & Author

Any system is as good as the people who operate it. The ACR system in its present ' Avataar' has systemic flaws! Three filters which one should apply before writing an ACR are:- First - The person writing an ACR should be Fair, Just & Honest. Second - Should have the courage to transcend his parochial vision & understand diverse human nature. Third - Have organizational interest above all. How many seniors who write ACR's in present scenario would pass this three filter test?

I propose a 360 degree appraisal company cdr level up wards, four subordinates, two peers one immediate senior and one officer from staff / neighbouring unit etc. All except senior should be randomized so that one does fall to the level of cheap popularity/cultivating people for ACRs. Rapid promotion for combat zone service should be introduced for persons who excel in operations.  Again ones peers & subordinates are very good judges of one's performance ( this format can be worked out & standardized)

All unsoldierly activities need to be curbed ruthlessly viz:-

  • Ostentation in any form
  • AWWA activities
  • Moral turpitude
  • Obsequious behavior
  • Giving & accepting expensive gifts.
  • Excelling in courses does not translate into good soldiering, many slog on courses to avoid field postings & lead a cushy life.

Have a minimum count of Regimental soldiering (say 14 years aggregate without which no promotion to 2IC or CO should be possible) MS branch should be open to an yearly internal audit by a team of randomly selected regimental officers ( all arms) who should be tasked to audit postings & find manipulated ACR's if any (this top secret audited document should be meant for COAS only)

The Road Ahead

Our 70 years old military officers’ selection system and its intricately linked promotion policy have been a subject of much debate and discussion but limited to the senior military fraternity, involving  policy makers, think tanks and analysts. However, since this subject is of  paramount  importance, as it decides the very quality of our military leadership - at all levels, there is an imperative need for an objective and meaningful debate or discussion on all the vital issues of this sensitive subject, especially in deciding the appointments and senior  ranks at the higher echelons of our pyramidal rank  structure, which severely restrict the rise of many deserving officers  through a fiercely competitive selection and promotion system.  

The  above well considered and analytical responses  amply highlights the imperative need  for serious reflection, review and renewal of our existing 70 years old system , to enable the rise of the best and finest of officers through a more objective and acid  selection system  that can give our Armed forces the highest quality of military leadership that they rightly deserve! It is hoped that the above perceptions would   initiate a healthy and meaningful debate not only amongst  our readers  but positively impact  the apex military hierarchy!

It has been repeatedly advocated, at least for past five years, by several respected , reputed  and  renowned military veterans, that there is an inevitable and imperative need  to carry out serious and holistic introspection of all our systems of nurturing, selection, training, grooming and promotions for the military officer cadre. Unfortunately, for many reasons, nothing seems to have been done in this regard!  Hence, the time has come for neutral or impartial  agency to do this for us.

As the Services have been involved with their own internal turf wars  not only within each Service but also in the Inter –Service Turf  Wars on several issues, the MOD under the Defence Minister have  decided to intervene and set things right! With the promotions of all senior military officers (of the rank of Brigadier and above) now coming under the RM himself  and his ‘Appointments Committee’ only time will tell if things will be any  better off than in the past? Obviously, a decision of this type could not have been taken without getting all the relevant inputs and analyzing  all the likely implications?

As a very eminent and highly respected former Service Chief aptly said in this context “Whatever good that can happen to the Armed Forces, in respect of our 70 years old selection, training and promotion system can only happen at the behest of the RM himself - the question is: how far is he prepared to go?”

(Views expressed are the respondents own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India)

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