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Lt Gen Manoj Pande, a Corps of Engineers officer, will be Army Chief. Here’s why this is significant

Lt Gen Manoj Pande, who will be the next Chief of Army Staff, is the first officer from the Corps of Engineers to reach the topmost position in the Army. What is the significance of this, and the long term implications for the Army?

Written by Man Aman Singh Chhina , Edited by Explained Desk | Chandigarh |
Updated: April 20, 2022 10:15:31 am
Lt Gen Manoj Pande will take over as Army Chief on April 30.

Lt Gen Manoj Pande, Vice Chief of Army Staff, will be the next Chief of the Army Staff (COAS). Lt Gen Pande, who will succeed Gen M M Naravane on April 30, will be the first officer from the Corps of Engineers to reach the top post in the Army.

Is this unusual?

Army Chiefs in India have always been from either the Infantry, Armoured Corps, or Artillery. The Army’s system of Corps and Regiments is divided into two broad categories: Arms and Services.

Infantry, Armoured Corps, Artillery, Engineers, Signals, Army Air Defence, Army Aviation Corps, and Military Intelligence fall under the category of ‘Arms’. Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps, Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineering, and several other minor Corps are in the category of ‘Services’.

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Positions of field command in the Army in Brigades, Divisions, Corps, and Commands are held only by officers from the ‘Arms’. These commands are essential to get on the path to future selection as Army Chief.

Technically, eligible personnel from all ‘Arms’ can be selected or opt for the General Cadre, wherein command of these field entities would be open to them and they would be eligible to rise in rank and be eligible to be appointed COAS. If these officers do not opt for General Cadre or are not selected, they can still rise to the rank of Lt Gen in their respective ‘Arms’. But they are not eligible to become the Army Chief as they do not command field formations.

In practice, most officers who are selected in General Cadre for command of field formations mentioned above are from the Infantry, Armoured Corps, and Artillery. The first two are sub-classified as ‘fighting arms’ while Artillery, Engineers, Signals, Army Air Defence, Army Aviation Corps, and Military Intelligence are described as ‘supporting arms’.

What about the Corps of Engineers?

Many officers from the Corps of Engineers have risen to be Corps Commanders, Army Commanders and Vice Chief of Army Staff after being selected in General Cadre, but due to the twin criteria of age and seniority, not many were in the line for a shot at the top office. At present, apart from Lt Gen Manoj Pande, another officer from the Corps of Engineers, Lt Gen Yogendra Dimri, is GOC-in-C of the Army’s Central Command.

By comparison, fewer officers from Signals and other supporting arms opt or are selected for General Cadre. Only a handful of Signals officers have made it to Corps Commander level or GOC-in-C of a Command, and it was only in November 2021 that Lt Gen Nav K Khanduri became the first Army Air Defence officer to be appointed GOC-in-C of a Command.

Why is an officer from the Corps of Engineers becoming Army Chief significant?

It is widely acknowledged that any officer who rises to the level of Army Commander (GOC-in-C) is considered to have the capability of leading the Army regardless of which ‘Arm’ he is from. However, since fewer officers from supporting ‘Arms’ like the Corps of Engineers either opt or are selected for General Cadre at the rank of Brigadier compared to Infantry, Armoured Corps and Artillery, it follows that more officers from these three ‘Arms’ have risen to become Army Chief.

The appointment of an Engineers Officer as Army Chief is as significant as the appointment of Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major, a helicopter pilot, as Chief of the Air Staff in 2007. Until then, the Air Chief had invariably been a fighter pilot. Such appointments break a glass ceiling for the respective Arms and branches in the military, and re-emphasise the maxim that at the level of Army Commanders there are no restrictions on supporting ‘Arms’ officers from reaching the apex office.

What is the operational role of the Corps of Engineers?

The Corps of Engineers performs a variety of tasks in war and peace, which are spread across several spheres of operations.

The Corps consists of four major constituents: Combat Engineers, Military Engineer Services (MES), Border Roads Organisation (BRO), and Military Survey to a limited extent.

Combat Engineers are deployed in war time, and perform several crucial tasks. Every Army offensive and defensive formation has Engineer Regiments permanently embedded with them to provide crucial support during attack or defence.

The assault engineer regiments with the strike formations of the Army have special equipment that enable them to lay bridges across water bodies, lay and clear minefields, construct tracks and helipads, and demolish bridges if required. Modern warfare is very mobile and requires the quick movement of forces, and the Engineers play a vital role in ensuring that no impediments delay the march.

Conversely, the Engineers play a role in delaying the advance of the enemy by putting obstacles in their path by blowing up roads, culverts, and bridges, and laying anti-tank and anti-personnel mines.

The Engineers have played crucial roles in all wars that the country has fought. In the Kargil conflict of 1999, many Engineer Regiments were awarded Chief of Army Staff Unit Citations, and also Theatre Honour.

The Engineer Regiments also serve in UN Peacekeeping Operations, and are involved in humanitarian relief missions during earthquakes, floods, or accidents.

The MES, BRO and Military Survey have officers and personnel from Engineers on deputation. The MES takes care of the infrastructure requirements of the three services and allied defence organisations, while the BRO plays the vital role of constructing roads and bridges in the border areas. The Military Survey is involved in meeting the mapping needs of the three services.

What is the history of the Corps of Engineers?

The Corps of Engineers in the Indian Army traces its origins to 1780 when two regular pioneer companies of the Madras Sappers were raised. The term Sapper is used to denote all those persons who serve in the Corps of Engineers. Originally, Sappers dug ‘saps’ or trenches to undermine the walls of fortifications during the era of siege warfare. The name has remained with the troops of the Corps of Engineers ever since.

The British later raised three separate ‘Groups’ of Sappers in each of the three Presidencies. Thus, the Madras, Bengal, and Bombay Sappers were raised. Today, the home of the Madras Sappers is in Bengaluru, that of the Bengal Sappers is in Roorkee, and that of the Bombay Sappers in Pune. They are known as the Madras Engineer Group, Bengal Engineer Group, and Bombay Engineer Group respectively.

In 1932, the three Groups were merged to form the Corps of Engineers in the present form.

It is pertinent to mention that until 1911, the Corps of Engineers also performed the duty of providing communication links to the Army. Following the raising of the Corps of Signals in 1911, this responsibility was taken up by the Signallers.

The Sappers have won the highest gallantry awards in the pre- and post-Independence era. In the Second World War, Lt (later Lt Gen) P S Bhagat was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest British gallantry award, for gallantry while clearing minefields in East Africa. In 1948, during the Kashmir operations, Major R R Rane was awarded the nation’s highest gallantry award, Param Vir Chakra, for clearing minefields that enabled the Indian troops to link up with Rajouri in Jammu and Kashmir.

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