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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2557

Lalin’s Column :Pending retirement of Army Generals

By Major General (Retd.) Lalin Fernando

A slew of Army Generals, unless their service is extended, are due for retirement soon. Among them are Army Commander Lt Gen Crishantha de Silva (end Aug 2015), Maj Gens Jagath Dias (Chief of Staff-Dec 2015), , SWL Daulagala Jan 2016, M Hathurusinghe (Jan 2016), SR Manawaduge (Jul 2016) Milinda Peiris, (Aug 2016)

This is either because they will reach the maximum service in the rank or the current retirement age which is 55 at the time. Their retirement will deprive the army not only of senior officers including the Commander of the Army who has hardly begun his tenure who can still contribute much to the service. It will also affect some of its battle hardened commanders who led troops in the last few years of the victorious but bloody conflict. It however also serves to create room for the next level of younger and as much battle tested officers to show their prowess before the sparkle in their eyes becomes dull by waiting in the wings. Non interference by politicians and better career planning by the army may ease the position in the future but raising the retirement age to 60 is the immediate best course of action.

It may also be an opportune moment to review the mandatory retirement age of the Army Commander. The age (55) was decided when the army that is now nearly 200,000, was only 5,000 strong, 66 years ago. By increasing the retiring age to 60 years it should at least be able to reverse any adverse effects of having stop gap Army Commanders. They will hardly be able to adequately achieve their planned objectives and policies unless they serve the norm of 3 years which is adequate. Due to political patronage one Army Commander (Attygalla) remained nearly 10 years in the post making the army effete in the process. Consequently many of the blunders in the 26 year conflict including having misfits in key positions that led to debacles can be traced to this.

Normally the appointment of Army Commander is made by the President after procedural selection is made by MOD based on seniority as well as clearance from Intelligence. That should prevent anyone with security problems (including financial, personal, integrity etc) being included. This procedure should take several months. If an election is due the Election Commissioner should give clearance. If such procedures are followed the professionalism of the service will be established. In fact in SL the army is more often than not seen if not used as a political measure. The result of political interference especially in the selection of senior officers and army commanders and sometimes in strategy, was 30 years of unmitigated, horrible agony that ended in 2009 with the loss of it is said 100,000 citizens. Of them 19,000 were from the army.

The mandatory government retirement age in most countries is 60 or above, as in Pakistan and India, our neighbors. In western countries it is mostly 65.The age is normally decided taking into consideration demography, fiscal cost of ageing, health, life expectancy, nature of post and the labor market. None of SL’s Asian other prominent neighbors (China, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Korea) retires its public servants at 55 or before. SL’s retirement age was fixed virtually during British times when the conditions for the decision, if it was laid down at all, were vastly different. It is time the age for retirement was raised to 60 as the benefits of retaining good if not the best people far outweigh whatever disadvantages may be trotted out by bureaucrats .This applies not only to the military.

As this process will take time, action should be taken to extend the military retirement age of senior military officers to 60 years as soon as possible. This will enable, so far as the Armed Forces are concerned, in retaining at the top, the present highly experienced senior officers who have had battle experience from the day they joined the army. This is unique in the SL now and cannot be duplicated. It is a crucial requirement for any armed force to succeed in conflict times. It should not be wasted. Some of them as very young officers served with the innovator and founder commander of the crack Special Forces (SF), the one eyed Maj Gen Gamini Hettiarachchi (he lost his eye in the attack on the formidable One Four base in the Wanni) nearly 25 years ago .That is the depth of crucial battle experience the army possess. It can ill afford to lose it in any measure. The IPKF of the 3rd largest army in the world did not have such experience when they ‘invaded’ SL . They learnt very hard lessons while in SL at the cost of nearly 1,200 men killed in 3 years. It will also help to retain the next best senior officers for longer periods and so contribute to the effectiveness of each force. It will also ease promotion and serious career blocks especially at Major level.

Moreover, it may, and we can only hope it will, prevent service officers going behind politicians and to MOD to improve their lot including promotion, appointments and posting and courses abroad etc. Austin Fernando and other ex civilian defence Secretaries can vouch for this. It will also hinder and discourage politicians from developing so called ‘loyal’ cliques. This did much damage to the careers of other officers, caused so many debacles and thousands of deaths and prolonged the conflict. The PM and 2 previous Presidents know.

Further it will hopefully stop Army Commanders and senior officers from becoming stooges of politicians to get DPL and other appointments. With their knowledge and experience they should be able to command top jobs in the civilian sector. If they cannot, it will expose them for what they are really but after the damage is done to the army.

The example of India’s first ever Field Marshal (FM) Sam Manekshaw is a shining example. He refused his PM Indira Gandhi’s offers to make him Governor of Bombay or High Commissioner to UK after achieving India’s greatest victory in the 1971 war with Pakistan that led to the birth of Bangladesh. He had served 40 years which is the norm for COAS before he was made FM.

It is best that politicians do not feel tempted to make such offers and for army officers to reject them if made. They should also refuse to obey illegal orders as clearly laid down in the Army Act.

It is also time that the anachronistic designation of the Commander of the Army (given when the army was 5,000 strong) be re designated Chief of Army Staff (COAS). The same will apply to the SLN and SLAF. This is universally in all other recognized Armed Forces and in the Commonwealth. AHQ could also be re designated GHQ (General HQ) as with our neighbors.

With an army of 200,000, even before the retirement age is made 60, the incumbent should also be a 4 star General. This will give him equal status with heads of forces among other nations especially SL’s bigger neighbors. When Parliament had only 101 members the boss man was designated PM not chief minister (CM).So why except as a hangover from the British does SL’s Army not have to call its commander of 200,000 troops, COAS .The UK army is now about 65,000 strong under its COAS.

The COAS (Army Commander as at present) should be the most senior officer, normally from the teeth arms, infantry or armor. In fact there is a strong army lobby that believes that in SL that had about 95% (19,000) of the casualties in 26 years of conflict from the infantry and because of its experiences,only an infantry officer should command the Army. The Indian and Pakistan army have had a few artillery officers as COAS. However SL’s best Army Commander was Gen Denis Perera, an Engineer. The present incumbent is an Engineer too.

To sum up it is imperative that that the army retains its best officers in command for as long as they are needed but only up to their 60th birthday. By raising the mandatory retirement age senior officers especially will not need or try to influence politicians and become obliged to them for their career path and service extensions. Political influence must be eliminated if not diminished if the Army is to be effective. The Army will aim to be always a professional meritocracy serving the nation and not an appendage or stooge of political parties looking after the government. After serving a full 40 years senior officers will not have to demean themselves to please politicians to get favors for jobs in retirement and in the process make the Army weak, less effective and less reliable. The Commander of the Army should be re designated COAS in the rank of 4 star General. AHQ should be re designated GHQ.

- Asian Tribune -

- Asian Tribune -

Lalin’s Column :Pending retirement of Army Generals
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