Two events in the recent past have served to direct the attention of the military and strategic community in India to Professional Military Education (PME). In September, Stimson Centre, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank in the US, published a book by Colonel Dave Smith. Entitled ‘The Wellington Experience’, the book examines the observations of US military personnel who attended India’s Defence Services Staff College (DSSC), Wellington. Although focused primarily on the Indian Army, its observations bear relevance to the Indian approach to PME and invite attention of military analysts with Indian interests at heart. The second occurrence was a tweet on October 13 by former Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Arun Prakash, in response to a new faculty member announcing his arrival at Pakistan’s Air University, Islamabad; the Admiral’s tweet lamented that, “Pakistan’s Air University was founded in 2002 & its National Defence University in 1970. The Indian NDU was conceived in 1967 & proposed in 1999. The foundation stone, laid in 2013 stands forlorn on a field in Haryana, as the INDU Bill (2015) languishes in Lok Sabha.” (INDU: Indian National Defence University). The oft-repeated lament in think tanks that India does not appear to have a strategic culture is corroborated by our half-hearted national security strategy, our step motherly budgetary treatment to our defence forces’ legitimate modernisation needs (not wants!) and our national security structure, badly in need of urgent and critical reforms. The largely tactical preoccupation of our PME is both: a symptom and a cause for this strategic thought deficit. This article critically evaluates our PME and makes some prescriptive submissions; the scope, due to space constraints, is confined to officers.
PME: The Nature of the Beast
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Napolean defeated the Kingdom of Prussia and, under the Second Treaty of Tilsit, usurped half of Prussia’s territory in addition to extracting substantial tribute as war booty. Prussia’s consequent introspection led to a reform movement which encompassed all aspects, including military. A group of officers (which included General Carl von Clausewitz) led the military reforms and initiated a system to impart professional education to officers; inarguably, this was the beginning of PME. It paid rich dividends to Prussia by way of military victories in coming decades; perceiving a lesson there, all major European armies emulated the model by establishing their Military Staff Colleges.
While the process of preparing a person for executing repetitive, specified tasks is referred to as training, PME is the realm of developing problem solving and decision making abilities as also of thinking independently. Whereas training aims at preparing the soldier for known situations and inculcating physical strength and courage, PME’s objective is to develop the more important aspects of leadership, autonomous thought processes, honed intellect, out of the box decision making and refined judgement. Training is relevant to the tactical levels but PME becomes more relevant to the operational and strategic levels.
Status of PME in India
The Indian military is served by an extensive array of institutions which impart professional skills to its personnel throughout their careers depending on their seniority levels and potential. The pre-commissioning training is carried out for all three services at National Defence Academy (NDA) Pune where a little over half the training content is joint and the rest single service. Besides NDA there are other routes into the services which run under the auspices of individual services with no joint content. Once commissioned, an officer undergoes basic orientation courses specific to his arm, service or branch in the initial years and a junior command course with around 6 to 7 years of service. Around 9 to 10 years of service brings him to the rank of Major/Lieutenant Colonel or equivalent and a selection based opportunity to undergo the joint staff course at DSSC which dates back to India’s independence. This author had the privilege of being on its faculty for three years (1994-7) during which an interesting visit transpired; the Chief of Air Staff of the Royal Air Force came to the College to look at how the joint institution worked as he had been tasked to recommend the modalities of merging the three individual service staff colleges that existed in the UK at that time! One imagines that a great deal of pride swallowing by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) would have preceded the visit, considering the fact that all Indian services all have their origins in the British ones but got their joint staff course right before they did. India did get the joint institution bit right but the content of the course is largely tactical and a lot of emphasis is given to Minor Staff Duties content which relates to the language, layout and appearance of written documents and spoken presentations.
The next PME level is for command of a battalion in the Army with no exact equivalent in the other two services. However, each service runs a Higher Command Course (HCC) at around 20 years of service and a couple of officers from each service cross over to one of the other two for this course. While this course is designed to prepare participants for command, another course — the Higher Defence Management Course (HDMC) — instructs officers with 20 years of service (same as for higher command course) for defence management at directional levels. The latter has substantial quantitative content and leans heavily towards number crunching, management theories and computation. Both are considered equivalent for purposes of command as far as annual report assessments are concerned. PME for service officers climaxes at the National Defence College (NDC) in New Delhi where they mingle with the civil services and are exposed to strategic studies and national security. However, this course has limited seats; not all officers who go on to become generals or equivalent undergo this course although most who hold command appointments in those ranks do.
Owing largely to its evolutionary process, PME has remained concerned more with the tactical and operational rather than the strategic. The first exposure to strategic studies is rather late in career (around 30 years of service at NDC) and even then the education at NDC shies away from relating strategy and warfare to political objectives. Possibly that is so because, in a stance reactive to our leadership immediately after independence, the military overdid the apolitical posture and thus consciously veered away from politics (which inarguably impinge on the strategic). The view that it was coerced into doing so is probably closer to the truth. Nevertheless, it is poignant that in a country where Kautilya authored Arthashastra, a perfect PME combined manual for military strategy, statecraft and economics, PME should remain largely devoid of strategic content and the average general blinkered to ignore the political nuances of strategy.
Role of Universities and Think Tanks
Policy matters related to national security have been the domain of several excellent think tanks in India, the leading ones being Manohar Parikar Institute for Defence studies and Analyses (MPIDSA), Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS), United Service Institution of India (USI), Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), National Maritime Foundation (NMF) and Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS). Except for MPIDSA (which has predominantly civilian scholars), all others have a substantial presence of serving and retired defence officers and contribute significantly to educating the service officer inclined to orientate himself to national security matters. These think tanks also have close interaction with universities that have departments looking at allied areas of study.
According to an article in Millenial Asia, there are 29 universities in India that offer security studies programmes leading to degrees in defence and strategic studies while 137 other colleges associated with other universities have courses covering various aspects of security studies like military history, military studies, military science, strategic studies, diplomacy, disarmament and conflict studies etc. While the military institutions mentioned above are affiliated to some of these universities for award of their degrees, teaching takes place on military campuses and the pedagogy has military connotations. Physical contact with university faculty and visits to universities are sporadic and inconsequential.
The defence services theoretically have a system of officers being permitted to proceed on study leave for a period of up to two years and this could be used for gaining knowledge and qualifications related to security and strategic studies. However, in practice, very few officers apply for study leave as the appraisal system (informally) looks disparagingly at such officers as unprofessional and assesses their employability for command appointments accordingly. Moreover, due to the overall shortage of offices in all the services, the proportion of officers who are successful (triumphant!) in obtaining study leave sanctions is very low. Those officers who do get study leave prefer courses/ programmes that would help them rehabilitate themselves after the service shed them at comparatively young retirement ages with many more useful years to go. National security and strategic studies are neither subjects of interest from point of view of rehabilitation, nor available in most universities. Indeed, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) sponsored a Committee of Experts headed by Air Commodore Jasjit Singh (Retd) in 2011 to assess the contribution of existing defence and strategic studies departments in universities towards national security. The Committee’s Report declared that ‘national security studies and education in this field as a discipline is nearly absent in the curriculum of our universities and colleges.’ The Committee made wide-ranging recommendations and called for a major revamp of the existing educational infrastructure in the discipline of national security studies. Although its Report was accepted, implementation thereof has been inconsequential.
Nevertheless, these universities have generated some general awareness, interest and expertise in national security matters. Indeed, the University of Pune even has a think tank based on the university system called National Centre of International Security Analysis (NISDA) since 2005. However, the need for a national defence university has been a nagging notion for more than five decades and is a PME craving waiting to be gratified.
The concept of a national level university to deal with defence matters was first proposed by the Chiefs of Staff Committee in 1967 but, like many other defence related proposals, remained an idea only on paper until the Kargil operations provided a push and a Committee on the National Defence University (CONDU) was set up under the chairmanship of late K Subrahmanyam in 2002. In 2010 the Union Cabinet gave an “in principle” approval for setting the university up and three years later, the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, laid the foundation stone of the university at Binola in Gurugram. The Indian National Defence University Bill was tabled in Parliament in 2015 but not much progress has been made on it during the last five years. It did not feature in the Parliament’s business during this year’s monsoon season which saw a flurry of bill passages including one entitled the Rashtriya Raksha University Bill, under which, the Raksha Shakti University, Gujarat will be upgraded to Rashtriya Raksha University and given the status of an institution of national importance. This university is proposed to be a multi-disciplinary one to create new knowledge through research and collaboration in various wings of policing, criminal justice system and correctional administration. Possibly, the INDU Bill’s stagnation is due to the fact that, given India’s morbid apprehension about national security matters, an open discussion and debate on anything to do with defence remains hard to initiate in India. When the Cabinet had approved the setting up of the university, it had commissioned a public sector undertaking Educational Consultants India Limited (EdCIL) under Ministry of HRD to prepare a detailed project report detailing the physical construction of the university, its acts and statutes, plans for its faculty development and its overall intellectual approach. Astonishingly, the EdCIL report as also that of CONDU remain classified; discussion on the contents thereof remain out of public domain. Thus, the future of INDU appears nebulous.
INDU remains the first area that needs urgent and pathbreaking architectural endeavour — not only in the brick and mortar that will go into its construction, but also in erecting an academic organisation that has the right mix of military and civilian faculty to provide much needed “national defence” ingredients to the education it imparts. Given the sullied civil-military relations in India, historically the worst ever at the current time, the university should have as its prime objective the right edification of national leaders for good governance and of military professionals for well rounded comprehension of all aspects of strategy with its military and political nuances. The preparation of military leaders while retaining the apolitical character of the defence services needs to be interwoven into the university’s academic curriculum as a part of an integrated HRD strategy. The qualifying requirements for its faculty need to be carefully drafted and tailored to have a mix of civilian academicians and defence practitioners. There is no dearth of retired military officers with proper education, above the average intelligence, deeply honed critical intellectual abilities, and experience in teaching and writing on professional matters; their hands on experience in variegated command and staff appointments would provide much needed value addition to theoretical constructs on professional education. The ultimate aim is to strengthen PME for military leaders by weaving together tactical, operational and strategic concepts keeping in mind that while the first two may be construed as combat related tools of conducting battles, strategy per force relates to waging a war which, as Clausewitz put it, is simply the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means.
In the long run, INDU needs to be part of an ecosystem that includes the existing military organisations conducting PME, think tanks and government organisations that are concerned with national security. The services need to take a new look at study leave and encourage the right kind of officers to use it to work with INDU, other universities offering courses related to national security as also think tanks in India and outside India.
So as to increase the strategic content of PME, elements of military history, international relations, national security, defence studies, operational art and strategic affairs could be introduced into curricula right from the time a candidate enters his pre-commissioning training stage. This may be difficult given the fact that the current syllabus is already heavily loaded towards the academic to meet the requirements of a graduation degree by the end of the pre-commissioning training. One solution could be to emulate the Australian Defence Forces Academy (ADFA) which separates education and training temporally; while the initial part of training is essentially academic in nature with physical activity being restricted to games and fitness drills, the subsequent military training phase concentrates on tough physical conditioning and professional grooming while keeping academics away from the curriculum.
As the officers rise in seniority, social sciences need to be increased in the PME content so that the tendency to stick to professional (essentially tactical) knowledge is tempered by broader perspectives preparing officers for strategic cogitation commensurate with their seniority. In fact, throughout their career they should have access to presentation material, lectures, journals, service papers, course material etc online for them to be able to increase their knowledge and achieve — through self study — the aims of PME.
There is also scope for improving PME with the use of war gaming and simulation empowered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and more modern techniques of online learning. Indeed, distance education (essentially online courses) can be the option for all the officers who do not make it through the selection process for various courses like the Staff Course, HCC, HDMC or NDC. Needless to say, the online course would not match up qualitatively with the contact one because of the value added by inter-service integration opportunities.
In the Indian military psyche, professionalism is inclusive of an apolitical disposition and the military has been steadfast in its aloofness from anything political in its training, education or action. The general public opinion about the military is one of respect for the military’s apolitical nature. However, the isolation from politics has meant that the political nuances of strategy have been kept at arm’s length by senior military leadership. This remains the biggest frailty of our PME. Indeed, it could be argued that, were some of the recommendations made above be implemented, it may be possible for our PME machinery to educate the political leadership and the omnipotent, intervening bureaucracy to grasp the tenets of military strategy and its relationship with the way a nation conducts its international affairs. Were that to happen, our PME would have become a veritable hand maiden of the nation’s strategic interests.