LiveFist Column: Is AVSC the Panacea?

Sharad Y Savur (Retd)
Former AOC-in-C

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was not convinced till 1962 that there was a need to expand the Armed Forces. When it was done, what followed was that young men in their hundreds (yours truly included) joined the Army (Emergency and Permanent Commissions) and the Air Force (Permanent Commissions only). Army and Air HQ must have been happy that the long awaited expansion was taking place but were they aware of what they were letting loose on themselves?

Perhaps, having served in WWII, a mass mobilisation would be followed by de-mobilisation scenario was visualised. It might have been forgotten that most of newly commissioned officers would serve for 20, even 40 years thence. IAF never had its 40 combat squadrons. The number of squadrons and other increased, many on paper, but did not keep up with the human tide. Fighter Squadrons (Sqns), each with between 10 to 14 serviceable aircraft, were flooded with anywhere from 40 to 60 often more, pilots. Transport aircraft Sqns had between 120 and 150 pilots to fly a similar number of aircraft. Often the junior-most officers were at the “disposal” (no pun intended) of the Sqn Adj. The best solution then was to attach these officers to different units away from their parent units – often for months on end. The Flt Cdr neither had the time nor the flying effort to keep them occupied. Fighter pilots flew as supernumerary pilots in transport aircraft (note the irony?) to meet the requirement of 12 hours a month to be eligible to draw Flying Bounty. The transport Sqn’s own pilots often flew as supernumerary to the 10th degree for their flying bounty. It was joke that the Il-14 (seating capacity 28), had 10 pilots as supernumerary pilots. Dispersion of pilots, lack of flying effort with resultant lack of job satisfaction was combined with dilution of authority, responsibility and accountability and de-motivation followed.

Add to this stagnation for till 1976 eligible officers were considered for promotion in their turn and placed in waiting lists – to be promoted when or if a vacancy arose before they superannuated. In 1978, the first signs of the problem of the influx started to show. So the first cadre review to increase the vacancies at the Select grade – Wg Cdr and above was proposed and implemented. It was to provide career progression to the 1963-1969 commissioned officers (known as The Bulge). Armed Forces got a large number of higher vacancies after sacrificing some lower vacancies, at the insistence of the Finance (Defence) – some sort of no loss, no gain basis (I cannot recollect the term used but it was quaint).

It was followed by the New Promotion Policy (NPP), also called Deep Selection Policy (DSP). DSP would consider all eligible officers in a seniority band for promotion against expected vacancies in the period April to March. The promotions were based on merit and not on seniority. It was reported that there were hiccups in the discussions, humourous suggestions. How could IAF have two Air Marshals in a Command HQ – the AOC-in-C and SASO? Should Vice Chief of Air Staff, AOsC-in-C Western Air Command and Eastern Air Command be designated Vice Air Chief Marshals? Promotion Boards (PBs) were conducted and officers selected by the PB placed in two separate lists - the Main Select List (sure to be promoted) or MSL and the Reserve Select List (RSL) – might be promoted in the eventuality of a vacancy arising (if some one from the MSL was medically unfit etc).

So the bulge started to move upwards (unlike what happens in real life). But the next hurdle was that the DSP was confined to Sqn Ldr to Air Cmde ranks. Air Cmdes were empanelled and cleared for promotion on “Minimum Performance Criteria” and medical fitness. Every Air Cmde waited for his turn that determined promotion – a mixture of the date of birth, seniority in the list, and the availability of a vacancy.

Around the time the Ajai Vikram Singh Committee (AVSC) was constituted in 2001, there came about a change in the promotion policy for Air ranks in the IAF. CAS discussed a New Promotion Policy (NPP) in January 2002 and it was approved by MoD and implemented in March 2002. It was intended to remove stagnation and accelerate promotion of air officers purely on merit. The NPP followed the same norms of PBs to provide career progression for Air Cmdes and AVMs by merit, but a separation policy was not included, perhaps intentionally. Most Air Cmdes and AVMs had between 1 to 2 years to superannuate in the ranks at first consideration or two attempts more at attaining the higher rank. Therefore separation would be more or less automatic, unless an air officer preferred to leave earlier. The CAS also encouraged any officer who wanted to leave the IAF to do so. Both actions resulted in addressing the issue of stagnation and upward career mobility.

The Army continued with its old policy – briefly, “be approved” for promotion and wait for a vacancy when one’s turn came up. The Navy professed that it had no problem of stagnation. In the meantime, in 2003 the AVSC forwarded its recommendations to the Govt. The first instalment of AVSC proposed vacancies were released in December 2004 by the COAS at the Army Day Parade, much to the chagrin of the CNS and CAS. It was to be the panacea for stagnation of Lt Cols and below and their equivalents. Much clamour followed on the timing and much else of the announcement. But lost in the dust of the clamour was whether the Armed Forces were diluting all that they held of value – responsibility, accountability, and izzat.

The Armed Forces were simultaneously clamouring for more officers as massive shortages in the Officer cadre were projected and reported. Let us step aside and consider – 1. Does a situation of 2001 still exist in 2004? 2. Is there some other method to ensure the career progression of deserving officers? 3. What would be the effect of such a large number of upgradations on the existing command, communications and reporting, more importantly the authority, responsibilities and accountability from which the Armed Forces derive their strength? 4. Finally, do the Armed Forces have the infrastructure to fit in these “upgraded” vacancies? Even as late as 21st October 2008, the RM is reported to have stated that there is a shortage of 11,119 officers in the Army, of 1359 officers in the Navy and 1352 in the Air Force. Have the Armed Forces taken these into consideration while accepting the increase to AVSC II levels?

The vacancies were identified prior to 2001 but how does it help the Armed Forces if the approval and release is in 2008? Weren’t at least 500 officers retiring per year from the 1963-69 batches? Weren’t the course after 1969 smaller – firstly because the Armed Forces needed lesser number of officers? And that led to the beginning of the shortages cycle – more superannuating from than joining the Armed Forces? AVSC II gives 1896 higher posts now - 20 new Lt Gen (+ 68 existing ones); 75 new Maj Gen (+216 existing ones); 322 new Brig (+ 866 existing ones) and 734 new Cols (+ 4288 existing ones); 4 VADM (+14), 14 RADM (+62) and 324 Cmde & Capts (+474); Air Mshls 6 (+14), AVM 21 (+52), Air Cmde 62 (+155) and 415 Gp Capts (+635). In all there will be 8789 officers of the rank of Col and above vis-à-vis 45000 officers’ cadre strength. Soon, will there be adequate numbers for the PBs to consider, say in 2 years when the last of the large courses retire? Promotion Policy states that the ratio of those considered vis-à-vis the vacancies has to be 3:1. So what happens when there will be more vacancies than eligible officers– another committee by another name?

It is going to be a glut of vacancies in the IAF because many squadrons have already been “number-plated” and more than 450 MiG-21 will be mothballed by 2010. The replacements will nowhere match these phase outs. So will the IAF be again in the 1969 situation with a difference – too many senior officers to preside over fewer junior officers who will have lesser number of aircraft to fly? Perhaps an otherwise obdurate bureaucracy must have been gently prodded into accepting the arguments and agreeing to the recommendations of the Armed Forces because there was a concrete precedent – the IAS and their creation of posts to accommodate as many as possible in every IAS batch at levels of Jt Secy and above.

Perhaps the Govt approval is linked to the fracas over pay anomalies, perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps the timing is good enough reason for speculation. Perhaps my pet bogey, that invidious CoS, precipitated the approval as a “decoy.” It obviously does not matter to the IAS whether they have 10 or more Secretaries in a Ministry. Most often, though interconnected, they operate in compartments. Look at the Finance Ministry (5) or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (3 +). Interesting isn’t it that there isn’t a Def Secy each for Army, Navy or Air Force? But the IAS also has a tacit command and control structure. Else, why is it that the IAS does not have two District Collectors? Why don’t they have two Chief Secretaries in the State? But the IAS did not object to many Directors General of Police (DsGP) - one who is the head of the police forces in a State and other DsGP (full-fledged) who preside over sundry portfolios like Jails, Vigilance, HQ, any of whom might be appointed chief of police at any time!

My unsolicited solution: - 1. Assimilate officers who are promoted into the system in a Career Officers’ cadre. They will be considered for promotion. 2. Select officers who are not promoted due to lack of vacancies but who have scored high in merit (7 or more in the ARs) to be placed in Professional Officers cadre. They will continue to be paid increments in salaries but will not be considered by PBs and will retire at the age of 55 years. 3. Severance for those whose report status (6 or below) entails their never being promoted in the 3 chances the NPP propounds. Severance must be started with PB-III onwards. It will leave enough officers to man the posts and depleted cockpit vacancies. Perhaps, as a “wise after retirement” air marshal, I can only caution the Armed Forces to show as much prudence in implementing the AVSC II as they did in not implementing the flawed recommendations of the CoS. Jai Hind.

P.S. Now, my unsolicited solution is ASS (for Assimilation, Selection, Severance) for two reasons -- since acronyms are the order of the day and also pre-emptively agreeing with what many serving officers will call me after reading this post.

(Air Marshal Savur retired in 2006 as AOC-in-C, Southern Air Command. A decorated transport pilot, Air Marshal Savur has flown several VIPs, including former PMs Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. He now lives and works near Bangalore.)

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