The government deciding on selection for the appointment as Army Commanders and equivalent ranks in the three services based on merit rather than seniority has an inbuilt risk of politicisation of the senior military leadership. Of course, merit needs to be the foremost criteria in deciding such appointments, but the hazards of such a process also need focus. Further, the process of annual confidential reporting on officers in all three service have their own pronounced anomalies. The author presents the details of the issue with facts and figures.
Recent media reports suggest that the government has decided to select military Commanders in Chief (Cs-in-C) on a merit basis. The government already chooses the Chiefs of Staff of individual services, supposedly on merit from the top three or four senior-most officers. Such a selection system is now likely to be applied to the Cs-in-C too by taking into consideration the eligible 3-Star officers from all three services, the Army, Navy and the Air Force. A committee with the three Vice Chiefs of Staff of the services and MoD officials is reportedly discussing the issue and the modalities of its implementation. While some, including retired chiefs, have supported the move, nobody has been able to explain how merit is to be defined leading to fears of political or bureaucratic interference or preferences in the selection process.
In theory, the move is laudable since merit must always be foremost in the selection for any post, and particularly posts of the highest level of military, civilian as well as corporate hierarchy. However, in government service, the merit principle is not always followed and sometimes even subverted. In support of the proposed move for the military, some have even cited the process in vogue for selection and promotion of officers in the military from Colonel equivalent ranks as if the system is perfect. For this, the selection boards claim to base their selection on all the previous annual confidential reports (ACRs) raised on the officers in the past, or at progressively senior levels on a specified number of ACRs. Needs to be changed.
The actual situation or the real-life problem with this avowedly fair and transparent selection process is that the reporting system itself in the armed forces is broken or largely corrupted over the years and later further manipulated, in the promotion boards, to put in place the preferred candidates at higher ranks and appointments.
The armed forces had devised a good reporting system to establish performance on merit from the beginning for its officers, and even other ranks to a large extent, by defining the qualities on which the observed performance of the officer would be graded on a 9-point numerical scale. To help the reporting officers in the whole chain to assess each officer, a transit cover was also formulated which described and defined each quality or trait in great detail at each level of performance. The grading had to be substantiated by a pen picture to highlight the observed special qualities, achievements or shortcomings of the officer during the period of the report.
An appraisal workshop was also conducted regularly, at least in the Air Force, to explain the nuances of the system to all officers in an attempt to make the reports as objective as humanly possible and minimise subjectivity. Undeniably, such a numerical grading system was, and continues to be, the best way to assess and record the performance and thus merit of the officer at each level and assignment over the years, if followed correctly in letter and spirit.
The civilians in government service did not have a numerical grading and relied on broad categories from unsatisfactory to exceptional which made it extremely difficult to distinguish the performance of one officer from another except by the write-up which largely depended on the power of the pen of the reporting officer. Thus, the selection and promotion of civilian officers are essentially based on seniority except at the highest levels of secretaries, something that was always in the hands of the political masters.
In any event, the civilians have not built a pyramidal organisational structure for themselves so minute comparative differences are not really required or used since there is almost no elimination at various levels.
Unfortunately, even in the armed forces, over the years, we have corrupted the reporting system to such an extent that in most branches and arms, to ensure “my/our boys” get promoted, it has become imperative to grade most officers as high as possible. Particularly in the Army today, the situation is such that unless an officer has a grading close to 9, at least at the first Initiating officer (IO) level, even as a Lt Colonel, he/she is unlikely to make the grade for the next promotion.
Unfortunately, despite a system of moderation at higher levels, such inflated reports still largely get through. If one were to objectively compare the grading with the description of each quality given in the guide/transit cover, almost every officer is exceptional or a genius since the final grading of most army officers is reportedly somewhere between 8.8 to 8.9.
In the Air Force, the level for senior ranks, after filtering at lower levels, used to be somewhere between 7.3 to 7.4 with some semblance of objectivity. Unlike the Army, the Air Force did not show the report or the pen-picture to the officer being reported on and kept a check on the percentage of above-average officers being graded above 7.5 based on the law of averages.
The Navy may fall somewhere in between. After progressive elimination at lower ranks, this bracketing becomes very prominent at the higher levels since, after 30-35 years of service, the difference in grading between surviving officers becomes even narrower and, generally, in the second place of decimal or less than 0.1 in the 9-point scale. It has been observed even in the judicial review of such cases.
When such officers come up for selection or promotion, the Board has no clear merit in front of it and the subjectivity of the Board Members, read the Chairman, now has a free hand to choose almost anyone.
Only to explain this point, the Air Force came up with a merit-based promotion policy for air ranks in 2002, initially with 80 per cent marks based on the ACRs and 20 per cent Board Marks in the hands of the Board members. For promotion to Air Commodore and Air Vice Marshal, the Promotion Board comprised of 10 members with a total of 1000 marks out of which 200 marks were to be allotted by the Board Members. For promotion to the rank of Air Marshal, there were six Board members with 480 marks for the last five ACRs and 120 Board marks to be allotted based on certain qualities, as discerned from the (older) reports raised on the officers, out of the total of 600.
Simple maths would prove that only a slight variation in the award, just 5.3 marks out of 120 or 4.4 per cent of the total Board Marks, was adequate to overturn a 0.1 difference in ACR grading when most officers at that level have a difference in the second place of decimal in the last five reports, as mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, while the possibility of such arbitrariness and its implications on the results was noticed, no preventive measures against such manipulation in future promotion boards were taken.
In 2004, the courts accepted a reduction in such discretion or Board Marks to 5 per cent instead of the existing 20 per cent. However, even therein with just 30 marks now out of 600 in the hands of the Board members in the case of promotion to Air Marshal, a variation of just 6.3 out of 30, or 21 per cent, overturns the difference of 0.1 in grading. That really amounts to giving a little over three marks more to the favourite person than actually deserved and three marks less to the officer with the higher ACR grading to destroy the latter’s lead of 0.1 difference in recorded merit. In some cases, the board members have signed on blank Board Proceedings letting the Chairman and the secretary fill up the marks to manipulate the selection as per their likes and dislikes.
To hide such manipulation, even the board proceedings were sometimes not placed in front of the courts on the patently false plea that these were destroyed for the sake of maintaining secrecy. So much for transparency and fair play. The courts have also been reluctant to take any firm action against such false affidavits and arbitrariness. It has only emboldened the services to find even more innovative methods to manipulate the selection process. The lack of clear numerical differentiation between officers also opens the doors to outside interference even in routine administrative matters such as postings or placements.
To overcome such subjectivity, which causes much heartburn and leads to pleas of external review including judicial, a few simple measures were suggested in the Air Force in the 1990s. It included a self-appraisal for the period of the report at all levels. A self-appraisal makes over-rating of favourites and under-rating of truly meritorious but upright officers far more difficult in the ACRs, most of all by the IO since he has to justify his grading against the claimed performance with recorded facts.
The reviewing officers at higher levels also have a ready comparison available for their assessment as well as the questioning of the initial grading, if required. It minimises subjectivity to a very large extent while promoting true merit along with a clear difference between recorded performances, which progressively builds up over the years.
Unfortunately, these measures were only partially implemented and were thus ineffective. As an example, self-appraisal in the Air Force was introduced only till Wing Commander (Lt Colonel equivalent) level thus leaving higher ranks open to subjectivity and favouritism. For more details on such measures, read this piece “Politics invading the Armed Forces”.
While the merit even within the service and branches are blurred in this manner, another obvious current difficulty in choosing officers from different services for filling senior positions like the Cs-in-C of the proposed joint commands is the existing difference in grading levels between the services mentioned earlier. If implemented in the current state of affairs, the system would soon be even more corrupted by encouraging all officers to be rated at the highest possible level, close to a rating of 9, by each service in an effort to grab as many of these posts as possible for the parent service in yet another turf war.
The fact also remains that ACRs are the only means of assessing the past performance and capabilities of the officers and the intent should be to make the system as objective as humanly possible. Unless a truly objective and meritorious system of assessment, selection and promotion is uniformly implemented in all the services for a period of at least 10 years, we would be unable to determine true comparative merit of officers and the selection system would invite interference and politicisation of the organisations. In the current state, one could be given ten officers, instead of three or four in the panel, and it would be possible to justify picking any one of one’s choice in the name of merit without inviting adverse scrutiny. For national security, that does not bode well.
Past performance of the individual services from 1962 to Kargil in 1999 are clear examples of the price the nation pays for such shortcomings, that too without any responsibility being fixed for failures or reward for good performances. One just has to look at the case of Lt General Sagat Singh, the true hero of Nathu La in 1967 and Bangladesh in 1971 who was not even made an Army Commander to realise how we treat the meritorious while promoting the less deserving, and then sweep the costs under the carpet, so to speak.
To quote General Omar Bradley, “In war, there is no prize for the second-best”. So, till we have a clearly established and working system of merit, let us not fiddle with selections and promotions, at least in the armed forces, in the guise of merit.
Air Marshal Harish Masand (Retd)
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