Challenges Before the New Army Chief

T72 Tank of The Indian Army
Image by jeffjose via Flickr

Modernisation is main challenge for new army chief says this article. And there is no doubt that a great deal of his energies will be spent in this high priority area. The delays in procurement of equipment have received adequate press in the last few years. Interestingly, the outgoing chief had also spelt this out as his primary goal on taking over in Oct 2007, as had his predecessor in Jan 2005. The fact that this continues to be a major challenge points to the plethora of ponderables and imponderables that make the modernisation process so complex.

But modernisation of the force in terms of induction of state of the art equipment is only one facet of preparing to face the challenges of the future battlefield. Another important aspect is adapting to the changes that the current environment necessitates, and taking corrective actions where required.  These relate to the very fabric of the force, which has withstood the tests of time to emerge victorious every time. The rising challenge is in preserving that fabric while adapting to the changes.

The core of this fabric is the regimental system, which grooms young officers into leaders of men by instilling in them values and ethos that transform them from ordinary young men into extraordinary leaders of men.  Of course, there are no formal classes that achieve this transformation. It is achieved through spending formative years in the unit going through the grind with the men, with continuance guidance by senior officers through words and by setting personal examples.

Today this regimental system is under threat due to a number of factors. Changing socio economic values is one, but that is a part of the overall environment about which nothing much can be done. Two additional factors, about which action can be taken, are shortage of officers and the performance appraisal system in vogue.

Impact of shortage of officers is axiomatic – with fewer officers in the unit, each officer is taking on more and more, severely impacting the process of grooming. The young officer who is to be groomed, and the senior officers who are to groom him, are so caught up in just getting through the day that the urgent overshadows the important.  One would expect the system to take corrective measures by cutting out a great deal of minutiae and allowing the reduced strength of officers to focus on the high importance but low urgency tasks of regimental soldiering. A lot of well intentioned expressions of doing this are regularly articulated but unfortunately what is manifesting on ground is the opposite.

Interestingly, major contributing factors for of this are the other two mentioned earlier – the changing mores and performance appraisal system in vogue.  Changing mores because career progression is valued over other considerations – and, as mentioned, nothing substantial can be done about individual aspirations caused by changing mores. The appraisal system therefore, lies at the core of the ‘area of influence’ – a contributing factor about which it may be possible to do something about, but first it must be understood and acknowledged that a problem exists.

The problem is that at every level, obtaining a ‘good chit’ is becoming exceedingly important. In fact, actually merely a ‘good chit’ is not adequate to ensure the next career course and as a logical adjunct, the next rank. So the aspiration is outshining peers and obtaining the prized string of nines. The path to this is seen to be through the never ending stream of minutiae, and the window very short due to limited tenures of people at either side of the ACR. Of course, the equally damaging adjunct is the extreme aversion to risk of any kind in any activity, which might lead to an abrupt end to a promising career. This has a spin off effect of making caution rather than audacity a way of life – not something one wants to instil amongst soldiers and their leaders.

A young officer who joins the unit all charged up and full of ideals drilled into him at the academies soon faces these realities. It doesn’t take him very long to gauge the situation and understand where the focus lies, and adapt himself accordingly. Grooming and regimentation are prime casualties, and disillusionment brings with it a degree of disdain for seniors and cynicism about the values professed. A strong organisation like ours can carry on for a while on the strength of resilience – and that is what is happening so far. But it needs to be taken off resilience and put back on values before things start to unravel.

The two areas of focus for preserving the fabric therefore are:-

  • Adapting to the inevitability of shortage of officers, preventing it from affecting the fabric by allowing the reduced strength to focus on core regimental activities through ruthless and proactive pruning of minutiae.
  • Transforming the performance appraisal system and the selection system for promotions, to engender an environmental change.

Understandably, it is easier to comment on these issues than actually do something substantial about them. And it is not that these are not on the radar of the decision makers. The point is that the damaging potential of these are probably not yet apparent due to the cloud brought about by insulation through command chain and the reluctance to talk about negative issues for fear of being seen as cribbing. But it must be emphasised that this is a negative spiral that grows with every whorl, and must be arrested before it does more damage.

The only way it can be significantly arrested is if the Chief recognises their criticality and makes addressing them amongst his primary challenges, at par with modernisation.

Post Script- Army Chief to focus on internal values, says today’s news. This is a very heartening news, and one hopes that realistic identification of root causes of the threat to values will be a first step.

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2 thoughts on “Challenges Before the New Army Chief

  1. The appraisal system had been changed innumerable times and the experimenting had adverse career impact. Many reporting officers did not have the time to understand and correctly implement new systems. Though there was a system inbuilt to correct mistakes up the chain but who had the time. Only if one was aware of the errors committed by the reporting officers and represented could one get timely relief.
    A static appraisal system is required & it should encourage bold,upright & professionaly competent officers to be identified and not using other unprofessional means to get nines. Objectivity over subjectivity is required, may be subjecting it to mathematical valuation also correction for varying assessment standards exercised by different reporting officers is necessary.
    More clarity and openness is the need.

  2. @Col Mathur – you are quite correct in the diagnosis. But what, if any, are the solutions? The recently introduced ‘quantification system’ is one measure, and the long term impact remains to be seen.

    To my mind, the solution lies not only in judicious distribution of the pie, but increasing the size of the pie itself. Irrespective of the appraisal system, 70-80% officers will continue to retire without getting any selection grade rank. The solution is NOT increasing the number of appointments in higher ranks arbitrarily without commensurate growth in the organisation. It lies in a better policy of lateral absorption and similar measures. Since this would trespass into the domains of other services more influential in the scheme of things, it would be very difficult to propagate.

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