One of the fallacies of the discourse on professional military education (PME) is the delinking between the military and the political. In a country like India, where the post-independence political journey began with the distrust of the military, it was only to be expected that the military would be kept out of the policy-making loop. Perhaps, sensing the national mood, even the military, then largely the army, also voluntarily took a step back allowing the civilian leadership, including the bureaucracy to take precedence.
As a consequence of this, the military leadership, despite its stature, was seldom asked to sit at the high-table of decision-makers. Its domain remained military affairs, and even there, its decisions had to be endorsed by the civilian bureaucracy, often junior in hierarchy (perhaps intellect too) before they could be implemented. These stifling chambers of power, where authority flowed from access to semi-literate politicians, were crucibles of mediocrity. Individual brilliance, or even initiative, was frightening, hence undesirable.
How could the military then think? Or apply itself to the wider understanding of geostrategy and geopolitics. After all, its job was not to think, but follow orders. Its advice was hardly sought. And whenever required, advice was given to it. This progressive intellectual diminution had a cascading effect on generations of military officers. Development of intellectual ability calls for a very different kind of incubatory environment. To begin with, it needs the courage of non-conformism; and then independent, individualistic retreat for reflection.
Both are anathema to the military. Nothing could be more terrifying for the hierarchy than a non-conformist or an officer with an individualistic streak. And the hierarchy is not just the military hierarchy; but the one above it—the bureaucracy and the political class. Hence, officers, who showed streak of going beyond the routine, were either weeded out early or they quit. Over the decades, as largely mediocre rose to top, they nurtured, knowingly or unknowingly, the culture of mediocrity; creating a corpus of ‘officers like them.’ Perhaps, that is what they understood as best.
“One of the fallacies of the discourse on professional military education is the delinking between the military and the political. In a country like India, where the post-independence political journey began with the distrust of the military, it was only to be expected that the military would be kept out of the policy-making loop.”
Conflating non-conformism or independent thinking with indiscipline is a convenient excuse. Discipline is a matter of training, which includes inculcation of values. Independent thinking is an attitude towards learning and widening one’s understanding. There is no conflict between the two. In fact, an officer with evolved thinking faculties would better understand the importance of discipline and following orders in war or operations. He/ she wouldn’t just follow them as a standard operating procedure.
Hence, when we talk of absence of strategic culture in India it has to be seen in context. Culture, of any kind, needs years, perhaps, centuries to evolve. It is an amalgamation of experiences, habit, beliefs, learning and self-reflection. It can neither be air-dropped on a community nor swallowed like a bitter pill. If India lacks strategic culture, then perhaps, strategic pursuits have not been a part of Indian culture. No point labouring over Kautilya after all these years. Arthashastra was composed over two centuries ago. Realities of the city-state where it was composed and present-day India, as well as the world, are very different.
The truth is, India as a nation-state is a modern entity. Barely 73 years old. And increasingly insecure in its own skin; hence the constant need to define and redefine itself in the image of what the world sees. In these 73 years, India’s outreach to the world—a prerequisite for strategic thinking—has been professedly peaceful. When we did participate militarily in international operations, we did so without responsibility. We merely followed orders and SOPs under the United Nations Peacekeeping rubric. With no responsibilities, we had no liabilities. Hence, no need to think of the larger picture. Or how we could use our military power to shape our neighbourhood in a manner that would further our influence and interests.
“The military leadership, despite its stature, was seldom asked to sit at the high-table of decision-makers. Its domain remained military affairs, and even there, its decisions had to be endorsed by the civilian bureaucracy, often junior in hierarchy (perhaps intellect too) before they could be implemented.”
As far as war-fighting was concerned, we operated on inherited or borrowed doctrines. Too much to expect that we would thrash-out our own, when we have not bothered to create an India-specific legal system; still following the British ordained sedition laws, official secrets law and so on. Till a few years back, we even followed the British law on forest’ reserves and homosexuality, unmindful of India’s centuries’ old history and traditions (including military history).
This historicity is necessary to understand why PME has been low priority in India. In a democracy like ours, the political leadership has to give the direction. It has to tell the military what the threats are, based on which the military evolves war-fighting doctrines. This collaborative process should ideally form part of the education that young and middle level military officers get at various stages in their career.
Just as they read about military history and international military campaigns from World War I onwards, they must also read about the threats that India faces, the strengths and limitations of the future Indian military campaigns; and most importantly, they must learn about how emerging geopolitics of the Indian neighbourhood is altering/ determining India’s geostrategic options/ choices.
“Officers, who showed streak of going beyond the routine, were either weeded out early or they quit. Over the decades, as largely mediocre rose to top, they nurtured, knowingly or unknowingly, the culture of mediocrity; creating a corpus of ‘officers like them.’ Perhaps, that is what they understood as best.”
This will set the ground for learning about new warfare technologies and how these technologies are shaping new doctrines. Unless young and middle level officers don’t learn about these, they will neither be able to appreciate the quantum of the military threat India faces and work on solutions to offset/ counter/ deflect those threats. And unless they interact closely with other instruments of geo-strategy—the political leadership and the diplomatic corps—they wouldn’t be able to realistically assess where political/ diplomatic options stop and military begins or the vice versa.
Unfortunately, all of this is in the realm of theory and fantasy. For several reasons.
One, to study all this, the pupil would need textbooks and reference books written on these subjects. The dearth of India-specific strategic, forget technology-specific literature, is unbelievably appalling. When no reading material is available, education is based on, at best, western literature and worst on conjectures.
Two, the political class is petrified of naming the threat. For decades, Indian political leadership told the military that it need only worry about Pakistan; that China would be taken care of through diplomacy and politics. With the focus of military thinking on Pakistan, it developed or deteriorated following the ebb and tide of Pakistan’s perceived military strength.
Once the nuclear weapons came out in the open, even this thinking was constricted, because the political and the military leadership could not mutually decide where Pakistan’s nuclear red lines would be. Or what the appropriate response for battlefield use of tactical nuclear weapons would be. Given the ambiguity about all this, diffidence and hedging of bets were considered the best policy. It is only understandable that this would percolate down to the level of military education.
Three, the roiling insurgency in Kashmir, aided, armed and abetted by Pakistan gradually sucked in the Indian Army totally. Half of Indian Army at any given point is engaged in some manner of counter-insurgency (CI); either directly carrying out CI operations (CI Ops) or preparing to get inducted in the CI theatre.
The other half, even when not directly engaged in CI Ops is intellectually and in terms of training/education involved in it. Giving it fancier names like Low Intensity Conﬂict Operations (LICO), hybrid war, fourth generation warfare doesn’t take away from the fact that all of these revolve around CI Ops. And in most war-gaming the theatre remains Kashmir; the enemy Pakistan.
“How could the military then think? Or apply itself to the wider understanding of geostrategy and geopolitics. After all, its job was not to think, but follow orders. Its advice was hardly sought. And whenever required, advice was given to it. This progressive intellectual diminution had a cascading effect on generations of military officers.”
Underscoring the importance of PME in creating ‘thinking’ military officers, a Vivekananda International Foundation paper, Professional Military Education—An Indian Experience, gives the following example:
‘Consider the scenario. An officer gets critically wounded while leading operations against the most wanted terrorist in the Valley. Women and Children come out on the road and prevent medical evacuation of the officer. Or while the operation is in progress a mob collects and start stone pelting and hinder the operations of the Army and help the terrorists to get away. What does the Army do? Does it open fire to evacuate the injured soldiers where women and children would be casualties? Is it time to consider use of Non-Lethal Weapons specially by forces like Rashtriya Rifles. Are we discussing such issues in our training establishments?’
Such deep-rooted is this conviction that even when India is facing one of the worst military crises in Ladakh, not only popular media but senior retired army officers are still focused on Pakistan. Writing in an online portal on fourth generation warfare, ironically the same old variation of LICO and hybrid, a senior officer, who is also a visiting faculty in a University says,
‘In Pakistan, we have an adversary that has had the experience of fighting an offensive hybrid war in Afghanistan and winning it. From recent events in Kashmir, it is apparent that the intensity and tempo of the proxy war in Kashmir can be controlled by Pakistan’.
This article, part of a series on Pakistan Army, was being run in October.
A few days after this article appeared, The Hindu newspaper reported, quoting a former member of Parliament from Ladakh, Thupstan Chhewang, that China has encroached even further inside Indian territory in the Pangong Tso region. Talks have reached a dead-end. Since the beginning of the crisis in May, China now occupies nearly 1,000sqkm of Indian territory in Ladakh.
As of now, this occupation appears permanent. China has laid fibre optic cable in the occupied territory. It has proceeded to build permanent structures for its troops, including high-altitude specific insulated habitat. The Indian troops, meanwhile, are currently staying in tents, according to the same Ladakhi leader, who makes this claim on the basis of information shared by the local villagers and porters that the Indian Army has employed.
No portal is running a series on Chinese military capabilities. The maximum that Indian military officers are doing is assuring the readers how Indian Army is capable of giving China a bloody nose; and how 2020 is not 1962. In doing this, none go into the specifics of Chinese military technology. Even the two-front war, and now two-and-half front war formulation is largely frozen in the time it was conceived with minor tweaking.
However, it is unfair to blame the military. It does not know because it was never told that it needed to know this. Operating in isolation from the political and diplomatic leadership, retired Indian military officers aspiring for strategic understanding feed on western literature and expound on issues like Saudi Arabia-Israel relations, Syria-Russia-Turkey triangle, Pakistan-Afghanistan-US ties. If at all they comment on India, they talk of some permutation of hybrid war.
The boldest of Indian Army officers’ comment on the Indian Navy’s options in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) against China! With this resource pool, who will impart the knowledge and how far will it go in preparing the next generation of officers in future warfare is the moot question. Hopefully, the next few pages will help in finding the answer.
(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: [email protected], Twitter: @ghazalawahab)
(This article was first published as the cover story in the November 2020 issue of 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 authors own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India)