In Conversation with Col. David O Smith (Retd), Author of ‘The Wellington Experience’

‘The American Philosophy of Professional Military Education is Completely Different from Both Pakistan and India, the Latter Two Being Virtually the Same’


In Conversation with Col. David O Smith (Retd), Author of ‘The Wellington Experience’

(Editor’s Note: This interview of Colonel David O Smith (Retd), a former United States Army officer, Distinguished Fellow with the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center, and author of the book the Wellington Experience has been reproduced from the November 2020 issue of the ‘Force Magazine’ in the larger interest of military fraternity, both serving and retired.)

Q: Your book The Wellington Experience has generated a lot of discussion in India, especially amongst the Indian Army officers. How much of this did you expect? Did any part of the reaction take you by surprise?

I am not at all surprised that the book generated discussion—and probably a lot of criticism—from Indian Army officers; I fully expected it. To provide a bit of context, in October 2018, I made presentations on my then newly-published book about the Pakistan Army, The Quetta Experience, to several think tanks in New Delhi. Not surprisingly, because the book was critical of the Command and Staff College and the Pakistan Army, the presentations were well received.

I was more surprised, however, when several senior retired military officers suggested I do a similar book about the Indian Army, surely knowing that because Wellington and Quetta share the same origin and use the same pedagogy that the criticisms levied on the Pakistani system would likely also apply to India.

Accordingly, last June the Stimson Centre arranged for me to make a virtual presentation of selected key findings in The Wellington Experience to a small group of top-flight Indian academics and retired senior military officers. Again, not surprisingly, this presentation received mixed reactions—a few that were negative, but many others that were positive.

The areas of agreement, or at least those that resulted in no significant pushback during the event, included my criticism of the lack of ‘jointness’ in the Indian armed forces; the Defence Services Staff College’s (DSSC’s) curriculum, pedagogy, and organisational culture; attitudes about Pakistan, China, and civil-military relations; and the lack of preparedness of the Indian Army to operate in a nuclear environment.

Two areas of pushback were that my findings about the Indian Army ignore its own counterinsurgency doctrine in Jammu and Kashmir and is involved in the extra-judicial killing of militants, and that my findings in the nuclear area reflected a basic lack of understanding about India’s deterrence doctrine. I carefully reviewed those sections of the book but did not make any change to the findings.

The most significant pushback came from an offhand comment I made that the Indian Army had not engaged in high intensity combat since 1971, an observation that can also be applied to the Pakistan Army, as well as to China since 1979. In response, a senior retired officer tartly declared that the Indian Army had been facing bullets in Jammu and Kashmir for more than 30 years. Since this was clearly an emotive issue, I took care to clarify a comment in the book and wish to do it here as well.

What I mean by intensity combat is large-scale manoeuvre warfare against a similarly organised and equipped, competent foe that requires the application of combined arms operations by ground forces, systematic cooperation between at least one other service, and sustained logistics operations—the kind of warfare the Indian Army will face in a future war with Pakistan or China.

I continue to believe my definition does not include counterinsurgency operations or incidents along the Line of Control (LoC) in which the forces of both sides are, for the most part, safely protected in bunkers during the brief periods of small arms, machine gun, mortar, and artillery firing that characterise such incidents.

Book Available on: Pentagon Press

Q: One of the criticisms against your book is that your research sample is small and is unmindful of the cultural, traditional and historical context. How do you respond to that?

This criticism reminds me of the well-known quote by American poet and historian Carl Sandburg, “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell”—in this case, criticise the study’s methodology.

It is an undeniable fact that in both India and Pakistan, all but the most superficial access to the armed forces is denied to diplomats and military attaches, journalists, and foreign researchers like me. Critics of my methodology, who question the validity of relying on the recollections of a small number of US military personnel as the basis for making judgments about Indian Army attitudes and values, know perfectly well that any request by me (or anyone else) to interview a large number of the Indian Army personnel on this topic would never be permitted.

Even if it was, the interviews would necessarily have been limited to a relatively small sample in a fairly recent time frame. My purpose in doing the study was never to capture one snapshot in time of the attitudes and values in the Indian Army, but to determine if they had changed over time.

As for ignoring culture, tradition, and the historical context, this is simply incorrect. The impact of South Asian culture on the pedagogy of Wellington is addressed explicitly on pages 109-100, the Indian Army traditions and ethos are frequently referred to throughout the book, and there is a chapter on the history of the US-India relationship plus a full treatment of the evolution of civil-military relations in India.

Q: Would you say that the reactions to your book in India by default proof your point of the Indian Army being resistant to criticism and change?

It is grossly unfair to single out the Indian Army on this score. All military establishments and services tend to resist change, and all are sensitive to criticism from foreign observers. For example, the US Army continued to field horse cavalry units long after World War I and the US Navy greatly preferred battleships to aircraft carriers well into World War II.

Nor should it be forgotten that the US military’s present commitment to jointness (‘jointmanship’ in India) was literally crammed down its throat by the Goldwater-Nichols legislation passed by the Congress in 1986. This said, it is also undeniable that in both India and Pakistan, the army is the dominant military institution, and such institutions are generally loath to give up positions of ascendency unless they are forced to do so by their civilian masters or accept the need to do so by changing circumstances.

Book Available on Amazon & Pentagon Press

Q: Officers from the other two services often say that in the Indian Army the focus is on training rather than professional military education. Is this something unique to the Indian Army or do you think that the land forces by their very nature need to focus more on training instead of Professional Military Education (PME)?

On the surface, this appears to be another unfair criticism of the Indian Army. The principal focus of every operational unit—land, sea, or air—should be training to accomplish their assigned wartime tasks; the principal focus of institutions like the DSSC, however, should be professional military education.

If what the navy and air force officer you cite actually mean by ‘training’ is the preoccupation in the Army Wing at DSSC of studying the tactical level of warfare instead of the operational or strategic levels of warfare, then the criticism is valid.

There is indeed too much emphasis in the Army Wing at DSSC on what US Army calls TTP—tactics, techniques, and procedures. The navy and air force wings appear to have more latitude to address the operational and strategic levels of warfare.

As I point out in the book, the DSSC website features a quotation by a former commandant, Lieutenant General F.N. Bilimoria: “It is here at the Staff College, the ‘think tank’ of the services, that the middle piece officers of the Indian armed forces and selected civil servants upgrade their knowledge from the mechanics of soldiering to the level of conception of ideas in the sphere of military, socio-political, economic and scientific fields, and integrate them into the larger aspects of national life.” Probably not a single western foreign student would have agreed with this description of the DSSC curriculum.

Q: Would you like to compare your personal staff college experiences in the US and Pakistan, in terms of syllabus and understanding of geopolitics, future warfare and technology?

Having already completed the US Army Command and General Staff Course by correspondence in 1978, I requested that I be considered to attend the tri-service Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia in lieu of the resident CGSC course at Fort Leavenworth. After completing AFSC in 1981, I attended the Pakistan Army Command and Staff College in 1982.

The two courses could not have been more different. Both of my American staff courses were primarily focused at the operational and strategic levels of war as well as gaining an understanding of the nature and application of the components of national power.

Both used a wide variety of electives and guest speakers to cover geopolitics, future warfare, and the influence of newly emerging technologies on the art of war. Quetta, on the other hand, was focused almost exclusively on the tactical level of war and what the Pakistan Army termed ‘minor staff duties,’ learning the routine tasks and formats required to turn the outcome of the appreciation of situation into an understandable and easily executable operational order.

However, any comparison between the two systems is an apples and oranges exercise because the American philosophy of professional military education is completely different from both Pakistan and India, the latter two being virtually the same.

In the American system, promotions and the determination of future potential are made based on demonstrated performance during operational assignments; the selection to attend a staff college is merely one result of that determination. Therefore, the purpose of our staff colleges is purely to impart a broad professional educational experience and not to make an independent evaluation of a student’s potential for onward promotion.

The difference between the top 10 per cent and those finishing in the middle of the pack is meaningless in terms of their future assignments and promotions. This was certainly not the case at Quetta in which evaluation of future potential, not professional military education, was always the number one priority. Wellington is a close second to Quetta in this respect.

Q; In The Quetta Experience you wrote that the current generation of Pakistan military officers are less obsessed with India than the previous generation. Would you say that the current generation of Indian military officers, in contrast, are disproportionately Pakistan-centric? What do you think is the reason for that?

It is important to remember that the information cut-off date for The Quetta Experience was in mid-2016. I wrote then of a growing ‘generational divide’ between the senior and mid-level officers and Staff College students about the priority of external and internal threats to Pakistan, that the traditional view of India appeared to be moderating, and I opined that future senior leaders in Pakistan might be more amenable than those currently in charge of contemplating peace with India.

Two major changes have occurred in the intervening four years: first, the internal threat to Pakistan from anti-state militants has eased dramatically, and second, the situation in Jammu and Kashmir (and along the LC) has deteriorated sharply. All Pakistani officers today are now laser-focused on India.

In The Wellington Experience, I wrote about a similar generational divide concerning China in which from 1998 until 2010 there appeared to be a clear divergence in the attitudes of senior and mid-level officers and those of the DSSC students about whether China or Pakistan was the greater threat to India.

After 2010 that divide ceased to exist and now all three groups of officers consider China to be the principal threat to India with Pakistan being the lesser threat, but one that from time to time may require short-term attention. The present concern about India’s ability or inability to fight a two-front war (or possibly a two and a half front war) increasingly blurs the issue of which threat is more salient at a given point in time.

Q: Why do you think there is reluctance in the Indian armed forces to identify China as an enemy, unlike Pakistan?

First, I need to emphasise one fact about the findings in my book: they describe only the attitudes observed in three discreet groups of officers at DSSC—senior officers, faculty, and students.

While it might be logically inferred that those attitudes are widely shared by the rest of the Indian armed forces, this supposition should not be taken for granted because foreign researchers have no access to the roughly 75 per cent of Indian military officers who never attend DSSC and none at all to Indian junior commissioned officers, non-commissioned officers, or soldiers.

What was observed at DSSC is that the most frequently used word at DSSC to describe China was ‘competitor’ despite the fact that all three groups ranked it (by the end of the study) as India’s principal external threat.

Prior to Doklam, such ambivalence was reflected in the country as a whole by Pew Global Research polls showing that only 56 per cent of Indians believed China’s growing military power was bad for India and that only 51 per cent thought China’s growing economy (with which India runs a growing trade deficit) did not bode well for the country.

The post-Doklam meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping at the BRICS summit reinforced another attitude observed at DSSC, confidence that border disputes could be de-escalated or contained through diplomacy and that a peaceful resolution of the entire issue was possible. Whether these attitudes about China have changed appreciably since Ladakh remains to be seen.

These observations at DSSC can be explained by a variety of factors, the two most important being the sensitivity of the Indian Army about its poor performance in the 1962 war with China and fear of a similar ‘embarrassment’ in the future, and the relative absence of an emotional lens about Sino-Indian relations unlike those that distort India’s relations with Pakistan and, to a lesser degree, with the United States.

Q: You have been closely associated with South Asia, both during service and later. What would be your prescription for sustainable peace?

I am flattered you think my years of experience in dealing with South Asia qualify me to offer a prescription for sustainable peace between India and Pakistan. I had hoped to end this interview on a positive note, but sadly, on this subject at least, I have little to offer that is positive.

Henry Kissinger once observed that Americans have a tendency to believe that every problem has a solution. However, my experience leads to an opposite conclusion. There are many problems around the world that are simply too complex and intractable to resolve absent the willingness of the contending parties to accept a compromise solution.

Kashmir is one such intractable problem. Sustainable peace in South Asia requires a solution that fully satisfies both India and Pakistan, but today I see little appetite on either side to abandon maximalist positions.

Therefore, the best that I can offer at this time is to suggest that absent of will on either side to compromise the most realistic way forward is to find ways to ‘manage’ the problem without resorting to a fourth war between India and Pakistan. This in fact has been done in the past with at least partial success.

First, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and for 10 years afterward, President Zia put the issue of Kashmir in the ‘deep freeze’ while he focussed on Pakistan’s western border. The issue was unfrozen only after political mismanagement in Jammu and Kashmir kindled an indigenous insurgency in the state that ultimately was hijacked by Pakistan’s Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) after Zia died in a plane crash.

A second example was the agreed ceasefire along the LC that was negotiated in 2003 that sharply reduced the level of violence and was more or less in effect until 2016. The reduction in violence enabled President Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to employ backchannel contacts for the next two years to discuss potential arrangements for Kashmir that included a phased withdrawal of troops, self-governance for Kashmiris, and making borders irrelevant without redrawing them.

Tragically for both countries, the talks foundered after Musharraf lost power in Pakistan in 2007 and ever since the Mumbai attack in 2008 the bargaining positions of both parties have hardened.

(Ghazala Wahab is the Executive Editor of the leading monthly Defence & National Security magazine 'FORCE'. She has co-authored the book 'Dragon on Our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power'. She can be reached on email: ghazala@forceindia.net, Twitter: @ghazalawahab)

(This article was first published in FORCE magazine and has been reproduced with due permission from the publication in the larger interest of spreading awareness on the need for PME amongst the Indian Military fraternity. Views expressed are the interviewees own and do not reflect the editorial policy of MVI)

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