Grim Portents (Redux)

This article breaks fresh ground by takes a candid, macro look at the end-state India expects from its Armed Forces in war and peace and how such expectations have historically been met by some armies including by India.


Grim Portents (Redux)

The Oxford dictionary defines ‘redux’ as something that has been ‘brought back; revived’. No better word can describe the ‘Grim Portents’ article by this writer that Geopolitics carried as a cover story in November 2011 with a follow up ‘Unleashing the UPSC’ piece in January 2012 about the dismal state of our military selection and training systems. Though the National Defence Academy. (NDA) was taken as the key point of reference, it was candidly affirmed that conditions weren’t better; may be worse off.

Sadly, three years have passed waiting for Godot, but redemption isn’t in sight, though acceptance of reality at functional levels albeit in a spasmodic manner has occurred. This is in contradicted by the deafening silence of apex level decision-takers across the military-civil divide.

What has proactively occurred is the wide release of  an ‘Approach Paper’ on which concerned of the twin volume Victory India – A Key to Quality Military Leadership books authored by Col Vinay Dalvi (Retd) which came into the public consciousness after the Geopolitics articles referred to above that highlighted our selection and training voids. See the

Approach Paper Box for Details.


This article breaks fresh ground by takes a candid, macro look at the end-state India expects from its Armed Forces in war and peace and how such expectations have historically been met by some armies including by India. The article thereafter goes into redux mode to recall what our voids are and post any progress that has occurred since 2011, before re-examining how quality selection, training and education of military rank and file, not just officers, can help achieve that end-state in line with our military ethic of Honour-Integrity-Flag (Naam, Namak, Nishan) and best practices world-wide.

The Desired Armed Forces End-State


The Supreme Commander of India’s Armed Forces, the President, constitutionally expects his forces to defend India and every part thereof from inimical external and internal forces and, besides, assist in times of disaster, natural or manmade or any other crisis that may confront the state – always and every time. By theoretical construct (the irony is implicit), the Ministry of Defence provides the ‘policy framework’ and the ‘means’ to the Armed Forces to discharge these stated and unstated, contingency or incident driven  responsibilities. This is the desired end-state that India expects from its Armed Forces.

To attain it, these forces which rank among the largest in the world, have to be selected, trained, educated and motivated to serve their country with cutting-edge skills, sense and sensibility, weaponry, resources, infrastructure, budgets, attractive pay and allowances, forward looking, soldier-friendly manpower handling of serving, retired and dependents political understanding and unstinting resolve. Bureaucracy, both military and civil, is expected to support this vision and facilitate its ground implementation in a realistic time-frame.

A View from the Top


Let’s take a macro view before examining why there are serious problems afoot at the conceptual and, more importantly, at the execution level at Valhalla (NDA) and like academies, where the ideal setting and the delivery of such establishments has for decades set standards before the dream, unable to adapt to changing mores and emerging military and social challenges, went into decline and has started turning rancid. Readers are again reminded that while the spotlight remains on the NDA, this is because it best symbolizes both its India’s military prowess as well as its perceived deficiencies/areas of improvement.  

That said, the real subtext involves the state of the overall Armed Forces with the Army leading. Readers will note too that the issue isn’t about unparalleled heroism, bravery, sacrifice and nation-first ideals. That was never in doubt, even during the 1962 debacle, so it shouldn’t generate distracting negativity. The focus is on the brass-tacks of where we are today and the way ahead if we wish to get away from our ‘slough of despond’.


Let us for a Moment; Get back to our Larger Examination.

http://www.johnsmilitaryhistory.com/Vandergriff_Officers_Briefing.ppt This deeply researched, objective long duration (1997-2003) study by Donald Vandergriff, has examined the historical profile of 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.

The DNA of Successful Armies


The Israeli Army of 1948-73 had high initiative, had a decentralized operating style and valued battle leadership. Assignments and promotions were based on combat success and initiative. 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% of its enlisted men. The focus of education was on character development and imbibing the art of war at the tactical and operational levels. In the French Army of 1798-1807, merit mattered.

There was display of moral and physical energy generated by the French Revolution (1789-98). High 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 “Marshals baton in every knapsack”.

Overall, extensive early military schooling was insisted upon and military courses of instruction 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 was considered more important.

In successful armies, 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 cadre strength, centralised control and lack of contingency planning were its operational signature. Senior rank automatically implied assumed knowledge which was a demoralizing, unsustainable and baseless anachronism.

Individual career management was selfish and based on “Social Darwinism” - the survival of the fittest. The Israeli Army, savagely bruised by officer losses during the 1973 Yom Kippur War which it won against all odds, has been in some 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 seriously needs to reboot as do the USA/ISAF (with honourable exceptions) 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, 1939-42 was not interested in developing their officer corps. There being no social revolution to confront, foreign policy was based on maritime strategy/superiority and in being a dominant colonial power. The British Regimental system was excellent but 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.

Aristocracy was rewarded more than merit and the basic approach to war was “gentlemanly amateurism” whose focus laying in warding off colonial threats. Rigid doctrine, close control, lack of initiative stood out despite a strong Regimental system where the NCO’s were the redeeming factor.

In unsuccessful armies, the officer/enlisted ratios were 1:13 to 1:6. Swift rotation in key command and staff assignments every 10 months and mutual recrimination was the norm.

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 still  flourishing; the other one being China. Historically, we are an inward looking culture where the focus was on metaphysical than on physical warfighting.  

Consequently, while we have perfected what it takes to win internally, we have had more failures than success in the battlefield; the “Porus” syndrome of heroic defeat standing out more than unqualified military success. So, while great warriors like Ashoka, Chandragupta Maurya, the Cholas, Shivaji and Ranjit Singh made stellar military contributions, it is our celebration of heroism in defeat through the ages and our overall pacifism in conflict-resolution that was valued more.

It was Lord Kitchener’s reforms of 1898-1902 that, perhaps for the first time in Indian military history, the forever-at-war Presidency Armies were forged into what we know as the modern Indian Army. The Navy and Air Force are again colonial developments 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?

So where do the Armed Forces of India figure in the success/failure continuum? The facts speak for themselves. The 1947 and 1965 wars with Pakistan were close run affairs with India just nosing ahead. The 1962 war against China was a military debacle whose impact on national psyche still rankles though the military bounced back, commencing the Nathu La standoff of 1967 and later the Wangdung imbroglio of 1986.

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’ competence to unexpected manouevre warfare success resulting in the early capture of Dhaka and  creation of a brave new nation; Bangladesh.  

The Op Pawan intervention in Sri Lanka was unsuccessful, though the Op Cactus intervention in the Maldives was well conducted. The Kargil War was a hard fought victory after initial setbacks and Op Vijay was a costly standoff. So far as proxy war is concerned and its complex, asymmetric nature, we have come of age after a period of learning and unlearning and are setting standards for asymmetric warfare watchers world-wide to learn from.

A Reality Check

An objective judgment would be to call ours a mixed bag performance, but with a refreshing much needed break from our past legacy of eulogizing heroic defeat. Our profile is now more success than failure but we still have a long journey to complete for which we have much learning and unlearning and much enterprise to exhibit at all levels of military and politico-military interaction.

Look dispassionately at the successful/unsuccessful Armies DNA cited above and you find we figure on both counts. On the plus side, we have early military schooling at the NDA, though its quality and focus is an area of abiding concern.

We have a good Regimental system still in place but the JCO’s in it are a distinct weak link even if the NCO’s are adequate. The officer/enlisted man ratio is 21/800 for Infantry (1:30) and 27/550 (1:20) for the Armoured Corps, the distaff being that we are almost 10,000 officers short in the Army and 15,000 short overall, with remote hopes of making up the deficit. The linear mindset that knowledge automatically enhances with rank continues unabated with no serious efforts 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 regimen starting with the NDA. We need to switch over to critical thinking driven by reflection, option formulation and the ability to conjure and handle contingencies.

The Army’s career management system inexplicably promotes and rewards mediocrity with excellence/maverick status being the exception, not the norm. It has certainly not eliminated “Social Darwinism” in terms of ambitious careerism and ticket-punching officers. Battle performance is not particularly rewarded.
Cocooned in opacity that invites trepidation and staffing shortages that do not convince, the Branch has a near-total lack of interest in transparent, scheduled career counseling for officers and is riddled with “lanyard” biases.

It hasn’t ensured longer rotations for CO’s;  the bulwark of a professional army, nor for star ranks, who command for reducing periods as they go up the ladder with tenures ranging from two years for Brigade Commanders to a year or less in more senior ranks. The Army, despite this aberration, remains strong in its middle, junior officer ranks and NCO cadre. The humble soldier maintains his Alpha status as all past wars including the 1962 debacle have conclusively proved.
The Military Selection Conundrum

With the macro issues culled after an objective international analysis, let us get down to micro levels to examine our selection processes de novo – and this is where the redux shames us. Military selection processes begin with the UPSC which, having upgraded the civil services examination norms after great reluctance hasn’t extended that largesse towards the military which is as much in transition as civil society is.

Thus “right” candidate selection doesn’t logically begin with the UPSC but with the SSB interview which only candidates who pass the UPSC examination can attend. This test focuses on memory more than on morality, ethics, mental fitness and integrity; all qualities that are the basic DNA of a 21st century soldier-scholar.

In addition, the civil academic faculty at our training academies is also selected by UPSC. For over three decades now, the NDA for instance had had a standing deficiency of over 40 against 162 academic staff, including their inability to place a Principal for a decade. The general impression is that from a period when the best available teachers, entered the Academy because of its world class environment, attractive pay, allowances and perks, today’s inductee is often of indifferent standard.

Add to that the need to hire ad hoc lecturers on per lecture/monthly payment, inability to run a worthwhile “Orientation” course for inductees on military modes/life and low pay scales made worse because of UGC norms that are academic qualification not competence driven and you have an unholy mess on your hands. To add fuel to the fire, there are 21 pending legal cases filed by academic staff currently posted to the NDA for various reasons.

The DIPR Imbroglio

The Directorate of Psychological research (DIPR); a DRDO laboratory is the next selection system that is in denial. It handles the SSB which is responsible for officer selection including the training of SSB staff. It is not answerable to the Services and maintains a mutually apprehensive relationship with them. Its functioning is cloaked in opacity.

The SSB Personality-cum-Intelligence Interview is spread over five days and analyses each candidate's potential/ compatibility for commission into the Armed Forces. It is worth pointing out that the selection norms, which the war time British authority copy-pasted from German wartime selection practices remains unchanged since first introduction in May 1942, although DIPR has been threatening changes for the past decade.

What hurts is that both the Germans and the British have long upgraded their processes but we remain rooted to vociferously defending the past. The only “new induction” that DIPR has made with potentially disastrous consequences is that on Day 1, they hold a “Screening Test” which after a scratchy four hour psychological testing regime, dumps over 60 percent candidates as “unfit” – shamefully without lunch. The candidates leave shouting anti-SSB slogans; many psychologically maimed for life by unexplained rejection.

Grim Portents had painstakingly pointed out the world best selection practices, giving details of how leading Western powers, China, Pakistan go about selecting their officer candidates. In particular, the British, Australian and Chinese systems were found noteworthy in some aspects. Regrettably, our system remains frozen, with no changes in sight. Thus, reliability, security clearance checks, moral character screening, emotional stability, physical fitness testing is mandatory in most of these countries but remains largely scoffed at by DIPR.

Prediction of future success is now being done keeping combat performance in mind, but we’ve no such regimen, with prediction restricted to mainly SSB and, later, academy performance; an approach Dr Daniel Kahneman, Cognitive Psychologist, Princeton Univ. Talk calls the “Illusion of Validity”.

“Strategic Corporals” Needed

At the training academies, the previous article had pointed out a long litany of woes, which are addressed in some manner of speaking in fits and starts, being a personality driven change more than apex realization that sustained change taking all players on board is necessary.

In the case of NDA in specific, what was once the world’s first tri-service academy when raised in 1954 has today been left behind because it has not kept pace with the rapid changes taking place in all planes of human endeavour and specially in the military sphere where brains are as much needed as brawn once was and where the concept of “Strategic Corporals” is now relevant. These are junior leaders operating in an asymmetric warfare environment. They may have to make spot decisions whose effect if wrong may have strategic consequences. They also need to shoulder the moral consequences of failure.

Future Challenges


In sum, modern war needs brains as much as it needs 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 he needs technological prowess. As he grows in rank, he also needs to learn the skill- sets needed to better understand the politicians he may have to advise.

It is pretty clear that creative thinking, meticulous planning and the ability to inspire through personal example; be savvy; be at ease with high technology and have the ability to be successful in amorphous battle conditions under testing circumstances is what we need to look at in our selection processes. Thereafter, training and educating these officers are the new challenges we need to tackle besides developing a culture of self education and skill-sets thereto.

Not the least, the military system/political authority both need understanding that the selection of soldiers needs a radical upgrade because of the “strategic corporal” reality and the fact that they will be penalized if deficient. Their testing has to evolve from the officer selection system as per enlisted men’s operational needs. ‘Waiting for Godot’ isn’t therefore a sustainable option - Acting on the road map is; and with grim resolve by the apex civil-military authorities.
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Approach Paper by Defence Veterans

The Approach Paper highlights shortcomings in selection and training of Armed Forces officers and provides a comprehensive road map.  In 2010, Col Vinay Dalvi (Retd) wrote his first book, ‘Role Model’, based on his experiences of conducting physical training at the  NDA, IMA and OTA. He conceptualized the Approach Paper from reader responses to ‘Quality Military Leadership – A Key to Victory’ Volume 1 (2013) and Volume 2 (2014). The subject received wide coverage after appearing as a cover story in Geopolitics in November 2011, with a follow-up article in January 2012. On 8 December, 2014, Sakal Times, Pune, carried a pithy article on it by Shashwat Gupta Ray.

The road map indicates improvements sought in selection/training issues from the entire gamut of players - MoD, UPSC, COSC, Service HQ, the officer cadet incubation and finishing academies and diverse Institutions across a wide spectrum of activity including wellness, physical training and sports medicine.
The Approach Paper was dispatched by Col Dalvi to the Service Chiefs on 18 September 2014. On 3 November 2014, Col Dalvi sent the Approach Paper to the PMO with a copy to the then RM, Shri Arun Jaitley. In early December 2014 it was sent to the newly appointed RM, Shri Manohar Parrikar.

On a parallel track, ex-Commandant NDA and later Naval Chief Admiral Arun Prakash, an early supporter of radical changes in our current training methods, sought the active intervention of the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) in a hard hitting 25 October 2013 letter. It was reproduced as a ‘Curtain raiser’ to Volume 2 of the Victory India book.

He brought out that it was in Indian supreme national interest to get the defence forces back on track by invoking  prescient, well thought-through changes in our approach to producing officers with high-grade mental, moral and physical attributes across the Services; officers who can fight and win in emerging warfighting scenarios.

Military veterans whose opinions helped the Approach Paper to fructify include Admiral SCS Bangara, ex-Commandant NDA, Lt Gen Gautam Banerjee, ex-Commandant OTA, Lt Gen RS Sujlana, ex-Commandant IMA, Air Marshal Narayan Menon, ex-AOP, Air HQ, Lt Gen Ashok Joshi, ex-DGMT and Gens VK Madhok and Harbhajan Singh, both from the first NDA course (when it was JSW, Dehradun).

Lower down the ladder but equally significant, were inputs from Brig Rajbir Singh, AEC, SSB Psychologist and later Head, Academics, in IMA, Brig LC Patnaik, President SSB and an ex-NDA, Col Arun Joshi, an ex-NDA Instructor and GTO at SSB, Col Pradeep Dalvi, qualified GTO and IO, and academicians on NDA staff; Profs Jayant Dasgupta, Dr. Meharanjali Bade and Mr. Nixon Fernando. Col IVS Gahlaut ex-CO, Military Hospital, NDA, also made a signal cadet health related contribution.

By way of shortcomings, DIPR, which runs the SSB; the UGC, which lays standards for academic staff, the archaic Services officer-management systems and the criteria for soldiers selection/training were inadequately referenced or ignored. That notwithstanding, the Approach paper it is a timely interjection needing focused, dynamic and time-bound action.  

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