Arresting the Decline in India's Professional Military Education

"There is not much need for education when the only agenda is to follow orders – training is just enough. Being a hierarchical organisation, the organisational direction is always dictated from the top."

Arresting the Decline in India's Professional Military Education

While discussing Professional Military Education (PME) in the Indian Armed Forces, the natural flow of argument would normally revolve around whether PME has declined in the Army relative to the yesteryears or not. However, the moot question is not whether the decline has occurred, because the answer is an absolute affirmative. The more relevant question would be what the causes were, so that they could be addressed and the trend reversed.

The symptoms of the decline are everywhere, from the manner in which we have been fighting Counter-Insurgency (in the absolute same manner since the last three decades), to the manner in which Operation Vijay was executed, the pervading sentiment of despondency amongst the officers and veterans, the widening schism between the officers and enlisted men, increasing levels of animosity against the General Officers, right unto the perceived persona of the Chief of Defence Staff as a politician amongst the uniformed. The ramifications of the decline in PME are wide-ranging and debilitating.

Education is different from training in that education involves an iterative employment of data cognitively to arrive at solutions. We may be trained by the Army and its courses, but education is completely personal and requires aptitude. Military education involves mental scenario building and constant revisions of perceptive end-states based on different permutations of actions applied.

This process develops naturally during war-time, but in the present geopolitical situation long wars will not be the luxury our generation benefits from. PME is also not always kinetic and involves various kinds of educations necessary to prosecute military operations. Hence, emotional education is also a part and parcel of PME. Therefore, a General bereft of Emotional Intelligence – and lacking emotional connect with his army - can never be relied upon to deliver victory.

What are the reasons for the lack of Professional Military Education in our Army? Some of them are outlined in the paragraphs below:-

The Microsoft Bug: Like William Morrow’s theory of Freakonomics, the advent of computers and the reliance on the Microsoft Powerpoint is probably one of the major reasons for the decline of PME in the Armed Forces. The power-point not only gave endless powers of projection to the pseudo-tactician but also enabled retention, reuse and plagiarism of ideas. It was safer to project a validated presentation (taking refuge in the fact that it had been accepted once in a different formation) rather than try something divergent and incur the wrath of the inspecting officer.

Even in courses of training, from the academy onwards, power-point presentations enabled students to learn by rote only the pertinent aspects and also made it much easier for instructors to frame questions from that database. From the National Defence Academy to the Junior Command Course, the Higher Command Course and the National Defence Course, it is the Power-point Presentation that reigns supreme. Power-point killed ingenuity in the Indian Army. Eliminate Power-Point altogether from formations and courses of instruction.

Group Think: In her book ‘Fighting till the End: The Pakistani Army’s Way of War’, Dr Christine Fair characterises the Pakistani Army being afflicted by ‘Group Think’. It is not much different in the Indian Army where bad decisions are taken based on validations within a coterie headed by ‘Strong Generals’ (known for their ‘Strong’ likes and dislikes).

Many of Indian Army’s drills and battle fighting methodologies (such as fighting in obstacle ridden terrain) are derived from such ‘Group-Thinks’. Loyalties to the group prevent the presentation of counter-arguments. Presenting divergent views or harbouring different opinions is a sure way to end an otherwise promising career. It is no secret that Generals across our army head various coteries.

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The Military Secretary’s Branch: The MS Branch of the Army (considered as the most important branch) also has a hand in preventing PME. It creates an artificial segregation. Staff tenures hold greater weightage than a regimental tenure. It is ridiculous to imagine that a staff posting in Leh can have greater weightage than a regimental tenure on the Line-of-Control.

Repeated staff tenures in field and the Army HQs creates a false sense of superiority in the minds of both the individual as well as the assessor. Lacking valuable ground experience, such individuals rapidly rise up the career ladder (helped by the coterie) and make cardinal errors.

Every recent debacle from the Kargil Operations up until the recent Chinese aggressions validates this issue. The MS Branch’s requirement to segregate officers has also lead to an over-objective Confidential Report. The ACR report has little subjectivity resulting in inflation and a misplaced importance of the ACR.

Surprisingly the selection process into the Higher Command Course or the National Defence Course solely based on ACR rather than any meritorious or intellectual achievement/contribution. The result is that only intellectually subservient individuals rise up to the top echelons promoting a culture of servitude rather than intellectuality.

The Annual Confidential Report: The Annual Confidential Report has been over-hyped. While the ACR is definitely important, it should not be the sole basis of promotion. Higher weightage should be given to professional competence of the individual. In order to enhance PME culture within the Army, it is important to ensure the weeding out of non-professional individuals especially from the top echelons. Professional competence should not only be assessed from above, but also by those below. It is time that a 360 degree evaluation comes into existence and the one-sided approach be relegated.

Need for Critical Cognisance: The recent paper written by US Colonel David O Smith, titled ‘Wellington Experience’, brings out all that is wrong with our educational process. Instead of critically analysing the paper and taking cognisance of the causatives that resulted in the paper, our Army (especially the hierarchy) takes simple recourse to the logic, “We know better”. Brushing away symptoms and pointers that indicate the malady is not a professional method of addressing lacunae.

There is no doubt that the manner in which we impart training (which in turn forms the bedrock of military education) is fraught with inconsistencies and fakery. As an instructor in the Army War College, I have witnessed first-hand how assessment exams were deliberately kept so simple and the marking so liberal so as to project good course performance (an indirectly portray good instruction capabilities).

The other reason was that the student officers were found so bereft of common military knowledge that it entailed a huge effort on the part of instructors to bring them up to a common datum. Even in the Higher Command course the main objective was to complete the bugbear of research and thesis and get it over with.

Divergent thoughts and nonconformist plans are shunned in our training establishments. This is not just because of culture, but also because the instructors in these institutions lack intellectual depth and capacity to comprehend, moderate and refine maverick thoughts of their students.

Conclusion: The character of our Army has gradually changed over the years. Our Generals consider the organisation as an extension of the political apparatus. Rather than educate the political hierarchy of the feasibility of military options and its manifestations, they have succumbed to the ‘Yes Sir’ mentality.

The politicians on the other hand have once again started to politicise the armed forces by selecting the most pliant of individuals in the top echelons. As a stake-holder in National Defence, the Armed forces have been left to an ‘Obey & Execute’ role rather than a participative one.

There is not much need for education when the only agenda is to follow orders – training is just enough. Being a hierarchical organisation, the organisational direction is always dictated from the top.

(The author during his service in the Indian Army had served in Counter Insurgency Operations both in Jammu & Kashmir & North East India. Highlights of his service include participation in Op Vijay in 1999, rendering service as an aviator for eight years, as a Staff Officer in UNIFIL during the Israeli Hezbollah Conflict of 2006, commanding a battalion in Kargil, a tenure in Information Warfare (IW) & as an instructor in Army War College.)

(Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')

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