Ageing Defense Forces- The Enemy Within

The profession demands a younger profile, whereas due to the narrow pyramid of promotional avenues, the age profile in various command assignments continues to soar upwards, notwithstanding the Ajai Vikram Singh Committee report. There are now six to seven Lieutenant Colonels or Colonels in a major unit. If we continue in the same manner, we will end up very soon having units commanded by Brigadiers. Instead of addressing the core issues, we try to push the main problem under the carpet. Quoting Central Police Organizations (CPOs), Central Para Military Forces (CPMF), State Police Force or State Armed Police, example of having a top-heavy rank structure is not going to solve the problem of an ageing profile of the Defense Forces in any way. The aim of this very exercise is not achieved, as there has been a marginal reduction in age profile in command assignments. Even the life expectancy in our country continues to soar upwards, further compounding and complicating the problem. The trend, therefore, is to keep increasing the average age up the ladder with a view to give employment till as late in life as is possible. On the face of it, it looks good but it militates against the needs of the job content.

This issue has been repeatedly raised in many a forum but to no avail. We don’t have the will and the desire to address contentious issues; we have the enemy within. We don’t have to wait for our adversaries to cut us to size by throwing up most experienced but older defense personnel.

Instead of tackling the basic problem on a long-term basis, we end up carrying out upgradations giving temporary relief. This has resulted in an upside down pyramid, which means chaos and instability. The working hands or the functional cadre is shrinking every day. Sanctity attached to a particular rank has been eroded so much that it has not only lost its charm but at times it is demeaning. Some monetary benefits have accrued, but at the cost of depleting efficiency and counter productive work culture. Recent recommendations given by the Ajai Vikram Singh Committee have certainly assuaged the sentiments of the Defense Forces personnel. But how long will this euphoria of rank upgradations last? The top will become so heavy that the organization will crumble under its own weight. From time immemorial, Captains, Majors and Colonels (and their equivalents in the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force) had an aura attached to them and they commanded a certain authority, which has been diluted to a great extent. This is amply evident from the current rank structure of having six to seven ‘Bagga’ Colonels or Lieutenant Colonels in an Infantry Battalion or Artillery Regiment or Armored Regiment (These are the basic fighting units and cutting edge of the Indian Army). Have these upgradations really solved the ageing profile?  Temporarily yes, the age of a Commanding Officer may have been brought down to 38-39 years from the erstwhile 40-41 years. Still far from the desirable, if he has to lead from the front. The age of a Commanding Officer needs to be brought down to 34 - 35 years. In the next step you will have to give hundreds of additional appointments of Brigadiers and Generals to maintain upward mobility. Ultimately, the jobs which were earlier being done by Captains / Majors shall be done by Colonels or Brigadiers and jobs being done by Colonels or Brigadiers would be done by Maj. Generals or Lt Generals. This is applicable in a similar way in the other sister services. What are we heading for? A Welfare Armed Force or a Combat fit Armed Force?  In our country, we are known for fire-fighting actions in which we are very proficient and efficient. We either don’t take serious measures and steps to anticipate or prevent the fire, nor seriously take up the follow-up activity to its logical conclusion. Most of our actions are personality oriented and lack continuity. Invariably we lose sight of our needs and requirements. The Defense Forces are seized with the problem and some very brilliant and pragmatic studies have been undertaken and most workable solutions have been given. The decision-makers have always brushed these solutions under the carpet. This action by them is certainly not for economic reasons but because they feel threatened, as their authority and functioning ethos may be challenged and questioned because of the very nature and the character of the Defense Forces personnel. The bane of this problem is not lack of solutions but the ‘will’ to accept workable options.

Post 1962, the Defense Forces have been continuously undergoing trimming exercises as well as all organizations have been made leaner and meaner. The teeth to tail ratio has been continuously pruned down and superfluous flab removed. However, stagnation continued as no concrete steps were accepted by the Government to absorb highly trained manpower laterally or elsewhere with statutory support. Lip service has not yielded results.

Today the Defense Forces personnel are best trained in a host of disciplines viz. organizational acumen, human resource management, human resource development, material and resources management, inventory control, financial management including funds control, security scenario management, event management, environment management, automotive management, administration, marketing, and so on. In addition, the Defense Forces have a vast potential in IT and technical manpower. A line about our marketing capability i.e., we are able to sell a concept to our men who gets so motivated, committed and convinced that he is prepared to give his life for his ‘Leaders’. Having worked in the private sector for almost two years, it is revealing and painful to see that the best-trained and disciplined manpower being wasted in our country. Personnel of Defense Forces, who are wasted out at a very young age, are left to fade into oblivion when they still have a lot of flame and energy.  A gross national waste and neglect! This problem is more attitudinal in nature, and needs to be changed. When you talk to people in the public domain (public sector) and corporate world, they very well realize the capabilities of Defense Personnel but do not want to acknowledge, as they feel threatened. They are neither interested in productivity nor in enhancing national output. They feel insecure due to reasons best known to them. Notwithstanding the above, an attitudinal change will prevent criminal waste of this highly trained and potent national resource (manpower), which needs to be harnessed to increase national productivity. Discipline and grooming in an organization, which is over 350 years old, can invigorate not only the public sector and private sector but also improve governance, which is so very badly needed by our country. Proper and timely utilization of this highly accomplished manpower will not only meet the peculiar service conditions on account of lateral induction, even while in service and on superannuating. If utilized, they can contribute immensely towards nation building. This very live and acute problem can be addressed by lateral absorption and lateral adjustment. This can be achieved by not only societal obligations towards the saviors of our nation but by certain statutory provisions enforced by our government through legislation. Short Service Commission (SSC), is one measure to improve promotional aspects. Therefore, this avenue needs to be made more lucrative as had been done earlier. Age relaxation and certain concessions as were offered earlier i.e., exemption of one paper should be restored for the entrance exam of IAS, IPS, IFS and other allied services. Similarly, all other public sector organizations and undertakings, including railways, to give certain concessions for smooth career transition. Special courses for career transition should be conducted for all SSC officers under the aegis of the Director General Resettlement, as also for all other officers when they are due for their next rank. Institutions like Grand Career Transition Center, New Delhi have done yeoman service. More such institutions should be encouraged. While discussing with potential employers, it emerges that they are sensitive to getting rejected material from the Defense Forces. The term ‘rejection’ has since been discarded by the Armed Forces and it is now ‘empanelment’ for future promotion based on vacancies. Whether you use the word ‘rejection' or ‘empanelment’ the stigma continues to be attached. This problem can be very convincingly solved by empanelling say 110 officers against 100 vacancies and then offering headless list of 110 officers to prospective employers with star rating for some officers who can be better utilised in the Defence Services. This is a matter of detail which can be resolved by mutual discussions and understanding. Sidestepping to start with should be on deputation. On completion of tenure, an offer should be made for permanent seconded or permanent absorption. This proposal is not free of attendant problems but over a period of time they can be overcome.

Lateral movement should be planned not only for SSC officers but also for permanent commissioned officers at Major to Lt Colonel, Lt Colonel to Colonel, Colonel to Brigadier and Brigadier to Major General levels, and equivalent rank structures in the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force with ‘seniority protected’. Low Medical Category officers, by virtue of condition of service, may not be most suitable for Defense Services but could well be absorbed in civil set up profitably.

The government should also bring out legislation to earmark a reasonable number of vacancies in all public and private sector undertakings for the serving and superannuated defense personnel. This single measure will inject discipline and a productive work culture into any type of organization, which is very much a need in our country to be a ‘ Japan ’ or a ‘ Germany ’. The normal wastage rate of approximately 80,000 personnel annually can be judiciously utilized by harnessing their tremendous potential. This will greatly assuage the feelings of otherwise traumatized retiring defense personnel who start fading from the age of 35 for a sepoy, 45-50 for a JCO and 52 years onwards for an officer. Our country is going through the transitory stages of a budding democracy, which provides an ideal breeding ground for certain fissiparous tendencies to grow. For countering external threats, we certainly require strong Armed Forces but for maintaining internal security, we require highly motivated and trained SPF, CPOs and CPMF. There cannot be a much better trained and disciplined force than the Armed Forces personnel. Again, there is an attitudinal problem to accept personnel from the Armed Forces or perhaps insecurity because of rampant corruption?  There is no reason why the earlier trend should not be restored. Vacancies need to be set aside in all SPF, CPOs and CPMF for the retired and serving defence personal with ‘seniority protected’ and no restriction on promotional aspects. These measures will not only give the much needed younger profile toour Defense Forces but will also greatly enhance the fighting potential of our SPF, CPOs and CPMF for maintenance of normal law and order. These forces will also be able to effectively neutralize the growing menace of Insurgencies, Naxalism and Maoist activities and so on, which divert much-needed national resources from development purposes. The measures suggested above are neither all-encompassing nor new but they need to be addressed with compassion and urgency to be able to surge ahead towards a logical conclusion. There is no point in appointing high power committees and then implementing little. The buzzword, therefore, is ‘lateral induction’ for a ‘better tomorrow’. The Indian Armed Forces with a younger profile will be able to meet the security challenges in a better manner so that the taxpayer gets a fair deal. At the same time, the need to harness such a vast potential of superannuating personnel which otherwise is going waste will be utilized for nation building. This article first appeared in the Indian Defence Review Volume 20-1, Jan- Mar 05 and has been reproduced here with the permission of the editor.