Grim Portents Redux

Raj Mehta takes a macro look at the end-state a democracy expects from its Armed Forces and how this has historically been met successfully or unsuccessfully by selected world armies including India.


Grim Portents Redux

Editor's Note: It's been well over 7 years since this landmark piece was published by Geopolitics magazine in their January 2015 issue. How many concerned serving officers  or veterans have read it ? Kindly read ,reflect ,review and revert with your frank and forthright comments on the issues raised in this article. Are the issues still relevant and valid today after almost 8 years? If Yes Why? If not Why Not?

Your Responses will be highly appreciated. With Regards and Best Wishes,

Col. Vinay Dalvi, MVI


The Article

This essay is an attempt to revive the angst of the ‘Grim Portents’ article by me that Geopolitics front-paged in November 2011 with a follow up ‘Unleashing the UPSC’ piece in January 2012. Both focused on our antiquated military selection and training systems. Three years have passed, but redemption isn’t in sight, even if tacit functional-level acceptance to upgrade stands established. This ‘improvement’ is contradicted by the deafening silence of the apex level decision-makers.

The Armed Forces supreme commander is the President. He constitutionally expects his forces to defend India from inimical external and internal forces, and, besides, assist when disaster or unforeseen contingencies confront India. As a follow-up, the Ministry of Defence provides the ‘policy framework’ and the ‘means’ (the italicized irony is implicit), to the Armed Forces to discharge these responsibilities. This then is the desired end-state that India expects from its Armed Forces. To attain it, the Armed Forces which rank among the largest and most battle-tested in the world, have to be carefully and wisely selected, trained, educated and motivated to serve their country supported by prescient war strategy, high-grade weaponry, warfighting resources, defence infrastructure, adequate budgetary support and attractive in-service and post-retirement pay, allowances and perks. Bureaucracy, both military and civil, is expected to support this vision and facilitate its speedy and sensible ground implementation.

Learning from the Past A researched study by Donald Vandergriff has examined the historical profile of some successful and unsuccessful armies and associated reasons why the same army could succeed or fail when its skilling and approach to warfare underwent change. A few revealing excerpts relevant to our situation are laid out in the succeeding paragraphs.

DNA of Successful Armies

The Israeli Army of 1948-73 had high initiative, a decentralised operating style and valued battle leadership. Assignments and promotions were based on combat success and taking initiatives. In the German/Prussian Army of 1809- 1942, merit was rewarded; not class. It maintained rigorous but fair standards. The officer establishment was lean: 3.5 per cent of its enlisted men. The educational focus was on character development and mastering the art of war at tactical and operational levels. In the French Army of 1798-1807, merit mattered. All ranks displayed the infectious moral and physical energy generated by the French Revolution. Individual operational initiative was demanded from tactical to strategic levels. Talent was admired if based on battlefield performance – mentally, all ranks were made to feel that there was a “Marshal’s baton in every knapsack”.

Overall, in successful armies, extensive early military schooling was insisted upon and military courses of instruction were intellectually demanding. For example, inability to crack the German General Staff Examination wasn’t considered demeaning at all; having the courage to sit for the exacting test being rated as more important. The ideal officer/enlisted ratios were: 1:33. They permitted faster Observe-Orient Decide-Act (OODA) decision cycles. Commanders and staff in key slots were retained for 3-5 years. Most importantly, the basic combat Unit was central to military thinking and was considered sacred; deeply respected and left tamper free. The combat CO mattered more than star ranks did and that conveyed valuable moral and motivational signals to rank and file.

DNA of Unsuccessful Armies

In the French Army of 1919-1940, trust and mutual respect were missing; careerism, lack of solidarity, excessive officer strength, centralised control and lack of contingency planning being its characteristics. Senior rank automatically implied assumed knowledge which was an ill-founded, demoralising anachronism. The cynical thrust was on career management based on “Social Darwinism”: survival of the fittest. The Israeli Army, savagely bruised by officer losses during the 1973 Yom Kippur War which it won against all odd is in decline since then, with indifferent performances in fighting asymmetric/hybrid war in Lebanon in 2006 and later in Gaza where victory went to the opposing ‘non-state’ actors. It needs to reboot as do the USA/ ISAF forces (with honourable exceptions) in Af-Pak because they have also been largely unable to cope with the challenges of asymmetric war where friend or foe are difficult to discern and where internet driven social connectivity with its simultaneity, anonymity and global reach have become major players. The British Army of 1856, 1898 and 1939-42 was not interested in developing their officer corps. With no France-like social revolution to confront, foreign policy was based on maritime superiority and colonial dominance. The British Regimental system was, however, excellent even if based on aristocracy with all its attendant strengths and weaknesses. However, when faced with rapid expansion in both World Wars, the officer system performed badly with merit getting side-lined and “gentlemanly amateurism” becoming the norm; a piquant development which was a throwback of the British colonial hangover. Rigid doctrine, close control, lack of initiative stood out despite a strong Regimental system where the NCOs, not officers were the redeeming factor. Overall, in unsuccessful armies, the officer/enlisted ratios varied from 1:13 to 1:6. Swift rotation in key command and staff assignments every 10 months and mutual recrimination between ranks was the norm.

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Categorising India’s Armed Forces

India’s Armed Forces have been around for millennia in a country that is one of two great ancient civilisations that are still flourishing; the other one being China. Historically, we are an inward looking culture where the focus has been on metaphysical rather than on physical war fighting. Consequently, while we have perfected what it takes to win internally, we have had more failures than successes in the battlefield; the “Porus Syndrome” of heroic defeat standing out more than untrammelled military success. So, while great warriors like Ashoka, Chandragupta Maurya, the Cholas, Shivaji and Ranjit Singh have made stellar warfighting contributions, it is our celebration of heroism in defeat through the ages and our overall pacifism in conflict-resolution that has been glorified more.

It was Lord Kitchener’s reforms of 1898-1902 that for the first time in Indian military history, forever-at-war provincial (Presidency) armies were forged into what we now know as the Indian Army. The Navy and Air Force are also colonial constructs even if India had a superb maritime past in ancient trade; during the aggressively-led Chola period and certainly during Shivaji’s reign.

How do we rate?

The facts speak for themselves. The 1947- 1948 and 1965 Indo-Pak wars were closerun affairs with India nosing ahead. The Sino-Indian 1962 war was a military debacle whose impact on the national psyche still rankles though the military bounced back, commencing with the 1967 Nathu La and later the 1986 Wangdung standoff. The 1971 Indo-Pak War was an unqualified success in the east and a military stalemate in the west, with India incrementally but successfully upgrading its ‘positional warfare’ skills to unexpected manoeuvre warfare success ending in the capture of Dhaka and creation of a brave new nation: Bangladesh. The Op Pawan intervention in Sri Lanka was forgettable though the Op Cactus intervention in the Maldives was successful. Kargil was a hard-fought victory after initial setbacks and Op Vijay an ill thought-through, costly standoff. So far as proxy war is concerned and its asymmetric complexities, we have come of age after a period of learning and unlearning. We are setting standards even if we occasionally make errors of judgment in the moral, tactical and politico-military space.

Reality Check

Ours is overall a mixed-bag performance, with the refreshing caveat that we no longer eulogize heroic defeat. Our profile is now of more success than failure but we still have a long way to go in terms of achieving the skill-sets needed for guaranteed consistent success in all planes of military endeavour and in top grade politico-military interaction. We figure in both the successful and unsuccessful armies’ categories cited above. On the plus side, we have early military schooling at the NDA, even though its quality is an area of abiding concern. We have a good Regimental system in place but its JCOs are a distinct weak link even if the NCOs are adequate. The officer/ jawan ratio is 21/800 for Infantry (1:30) and 27/550 (1:20) for the Armoured Corps; the distaff side being that we are 10,000 officers short in the Army and over 15,000 short overall. The linear mindset that knowledge automatically enhances with rank continues unabated with no serious effort to make our military training and education more intellectually challenging.

Professional Military Education (PME), both Service-specific and joint, needs a serious upgrade from the current linear, rote-driven learning we unquestioningly emphasise in our training approach starting with the NDA. In a nuclear-weaponised world, it is the hybrid and more significantly asymmetric war that the world is combating, driven by exploding social media and cyber imperatives, whereas our training approach is still focused on fighting and winning ‘the last war’. This is a serious indictment. We need to seriously upgrade meeting the emerging challenges – to critical thinking driven by reflection, option formulation and handling contingencies.

Officer Management Travails

The Army’s career-management system inexplicably promotes and rewards mediocrity and conservative outlook with excellent/maverick officers being exceptions because of our don’t-rock-the boat obsession. Also, younger officers see “Social Darwinism” flourishing at star ranks. Equally distressingly, battle performance goes largely unrewarded. The career-management system bases its officer promotion on paper-profiling, success in rote-driven courses which haven’t changed for decades; on “streaming” based on “quota” not merit driven promotions and paradoxically structured, linear confidential reporting regulations as far away from wide-spectrum, objective 360 degree reporting as we are from upgrading our anti-China defence infrastructure.

Cocooned in numbing opacity, archaic mindsets, “lanyard/Regimental association” biases and inadequate individual career-counselling for officers, the system hasn’t ensured longer rotations for COs or even nor for star ranks, who command for rapidly reducing periods with tenures ranging from two years for COs to lesser for Brigade Commanders and just a year in more senior ranks.

The credit for the Army remaining strong despite these aberrations goes to the excellent/maverick 20 per cent who are survivors. It also goes to the humble soldier, deeply rooted to his deathless son-of-the-soil outlook and ever dependable. That said all ranks need priority skill upgradation in all planes of their endeavour to cope with emerging and future military challenges.

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Back to the Beginning

With our current situation and future expectations mapped, let’s return to the micro redux. The selection process begins with the UPSC examination. It recently upgraded the civil services entrance examination norms after much dithering but hasn’t extended that largesse towards the military. Resultantly, “right” candidate selection doesn’t begin with the UPSC but, illogically with the SSB interview. The UPSC examination remains rote-based instead of focusing on morality, ethics, mental fitness and integrity; qualities that should define today’s soldier-scholar.

In addition, UPSC also selects the civil-academic faculty for our training academies. For decades now, NDA, for instance, has had a deficiency of over 40 academic staff against the authorised 162 and was inexplicably deficient of a Principal for a decade. This is a savage come-down from the period when the best available teachers vied to teach at NDA because of its world-class environment, perks and attractive emoluments. Add to that the need to hire adhoc lecturers on per lecture/monthly payment; inability to run a worthwhile “Orientation” course for inductees on military modes/life; low pay scales made worse because of UGC entry norms that are ‘academic qualification’ not attitude/ competence driven and you have a problem. How this has impacted on National Defence Academy (NDA) is evident from the fact that it is fighting 21 legal cases filed by academic staff, besides facing an escalating “We” and “They” divisiveness between officers and academic staff.

The DIPR Imbroglio

The Directorate of Psychological Research (DIPR), a DRDO laboratory which handles the SSB testing and training of SSB staff, also continues to be in denial mode. Not answerable to the Services, it has a mutually apprehensive relationship with them. Its inner functioning is cloaked in opacity. The SSB Personality-cum-Intelligence Interview is spread over five days. It analyses each candidate’s potential/compatibility for commission. Its norms for selection which the British copy-pasted from German wartime selection practices remain unchanged since first introduction in May 1942, although DIPR has been threatening changes since 2000. It is ironic that while the German and British selectors have long since upgraded their processes, we keep vociferously defending the past.

The only “new induction” that DIPR made in recent times with disastrous consequences (using the specious excuse of manning shortages) is that on Day 1, they hold a “Screening Test” which after a professionally indefensible psychological testing regime, grades over 60 per cent candidates as “unfit” – sending them packing in cattle-class transport without lunch (MoD budgeting constraints). The candidates leave, shouting anti-SSB slogans; many psychologically maimed for life because of not being told why they were rejected.

The 2011 article had painstakingly pointed out how leading Western powers, China, Pakistan go about selecting their officer candidates. In particular, the British, Australian and Chinese systems were found noteworthy. Regrettably, our system remains frozen, with no changes in sight. Thus, reliability, security clearance checks, moral character screening, emotional stability, physical fitness testing, which has now become mandatory in most of these countries as is individual counselling pre-SSB and after failure, is scoffed at by DIPR. Prediction of future success of officers is now being done in some countries keeping combat performance in mind, but DIPR does prediction restricted mainly to SSB staff observations and, later, academy performance; an approach Dr Daniel Kahneman, Cognitive Psychologist, Princeton University cynically calls the “Illusion of Validity”.

Emerging Challenges…“Strategic Corporals” are needed

At the NDA, the previous article had pointed out a long litany of shortcomings. These have been sporadically tackled with indeterminate success based on the personal involvement and outlook of successive Commandants. What is disconcerting is that apex authority remains either untouched or secretive about its outlook, leaving the environment concerned and apprehensive. The NDA in particular, was in 1954 when it came into being, the world’s first tri-service academy. Faced with visible decline on most counts - A recent Commandant and some officers were removed on charges of gross financial turpitude – a cadets ragging-related death; escalating physical fitness issues in cadets (the “stress fracture” rates at NDA remain the highest among similar academies world-wide); archaic military and academic syllabi and promotion of physical activity over academic excellence, there is serious need for introspection. Our training academies haven’t kept pace with changes in all planes of human/information/ technological endeavour, especially in the military sphere.

Brains are as much needed today as brawn once was and in a world where the concept of “Strategic Corporals” is now relevant. These are junior leaders operating in an asymmetric warfare environment that may have to make spot decisions whose effect, if wrong, may have strategic consequences. They have to have the moral strength to accept punishment as a consequence of failure.

Connecting the Dots

In sum, modern war needs brains alongside cold courage because most killing/ disabling (as in cyber war) will be information-driven and remote controlled. A quality officer will need character as much as technological prowess.

Our selection processes must therefore accord value to a cadets creative thinking, meticulous planning and ability to inspire through personal example; be savvy; at ease with high technology and have the ability to be successful in amorphous battle conditions under testing circumstances. By the same measure, our training academies and subsequent training and education Institutes should handle these new challenges besides developing a culture of self-education and the skill-sets for officers to educate themselves for facing emerging challenges and winning.

In addition, apex military and political authority need to realise that the selection of Jawans also needs radical upgrade because of the “strategic corporal” reality that confronts them and the fact that they will be morally culpable if found deficient. Their selection has to evolve from the officer selection system as per their perceived operational needs. ‘Waiting for Godot’ isn’t therefore a sustainable option but acting on the road map is; and with grim resolve by the apex civil-military authority.


About The Author

Maj Gen. Raj Mehta, AVSM, VSM is a highly distinguished flag officer and a renowned defence and strategic affairs columnist with the ‘Force’ and ‘Geopolitics’ magazine. He retired in June 2006 as the rising Chief of Staff of a Corps and has commanded an RR Sector in the Valley, an Armoured Brigade in the desert and an Infantry Division on the LC in Kashmir. He has served at Army Headquarters in the Military Operations Directorate. He has also been Instructor NDA and DSSC.

(Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Mission Victory India)

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