My appointment as the Commandant of the National Defence Academy (NDA) in January 2003 surprised some in my service. I was not a product of the NDA. Given the short notice to assume command, I did the only two possible things I could. I read the history of the NDA and selected a few of my ex-NDA colleagues to discuss the macro issues related to this prestigious training institution, which had invited the attention of the Prime Minister himself when it was being built. In the 1950’s, there was not a single joint services training academy-not even among the victorious allies of World War 2.
In fact, the United States Armed forces continue to train their officers in single service training establishments despite having integrated their armed forces in late 1980’s. Much of the layout, design, construction, accommodation and training methodology was adopted from the United States Military Academy, West Point(USMA). Ironically, they did not integrate their armed forces at the bottom but did so at the middle and top and we were the first to integrate at the bottom and to date remain divided at all other levels.
Having completed over 36 years of service when I took over, I was fortunate to have been exposed to training in the erstwhile Soviet Union, staff college at UK, a stint at Harvard and scores of operational and training interactions with leading maritime powers. More importantly, in 1995, I led a delegation to the United States to study the training features across numerous establishments of the US Navy including Annapolis.
Earlier, three years of observing our consanguineous neighbour between 1985-88, while posted at Islamabad gave me insights into the internal dynamics of adapting a British trained force, to train and man American sensors/weapons while also struggling with theocratic intervention by President Zia’s Islamicization. Consequently, issues related to education and training, essentially to meet the demands of Revolution in Military Affairs were uppermost in my mind, even as I stepped into NDA on 31 December 2002.
The first task while acquainting myself with the training curriculum was to study previous assessments, if any, on the quality of training imparted at NDA. The only study by a committee appointed by MoD, as a result of the direction of the then PM, during the Senior Officers conference in 1986, was the Committee For the Review of Training of Officers of the Armed Forces(CORTOS) which submitted its report in Aug 1987. The twin aims assigned to this committee were: to make the technical content of the training such that the officer corps will be able to handle the new technologies in battle today and tomorrow and to increase inter-service interaction at all levels.
The recommendations contained in the report were partially approved by the Government in 1991, after four years of discussions and procrastination, thereby diluting the urgency displayed at the conference. Crucial recommendations on financial and administrative reforms to run the academy by constituting a NDA Board with eminent members of academia, services, both serving and retired, was not approved. That led to a virtual status quo on implementation of much needed prophylactic measures.
CORTOS had made scathing comments on the sorry state of the academic department of the academy. The academic department had suffered due to a combination of factors which were caused by formulation of educational policy of India, which at the inception of NDA was three tiered, i.e. matriculation, intermediate and degree. Later, NDA switched to a three-year course to accommodate more technical inputs. However, soon thereafter, the nation's education policy which introduced the 10+2 concept along with stipulations by UGC on qualification for teaching staff, further aggravated the situation.
Coupled with attrition of the original teaching staff due to stipulations introduced by UGC and cadre management issues which failed to be resolved by pay commissions, the academy was left with less than 50% permanent staff. The other 50% had to be temporarily recruited from unemployed members of the academia.
The chair of Principal/Vice Principal remained unoccupied for almost a decade, which in turn caused dilution in the academic syllabus and a feeling among the cadets that academics per se were not important when compared to physical activities such as parade training, PT, games and cross country runs. The recruitment of professors and lecturers remained under the direct control of the UPSC; even the MOD had no say in the matter of filling permanent vacancies.
Thus, I inherited an organization which had not been audited for over a decade by an independent committee as recommended by CORTOS. Consequently, COSC did not receive independent assessments of the quality of training at NDA since ‘there was no authority to examine the causative factors in generating the standards it examines.’
The first deduction from observations within the first few hours revealed that in many ways, time had stood still. Past patterns of training continued with momentum only because all seemed to be going well. Often one heard the comment," it is as good as it was in my days". Much has changed in most training academies of the world. The cliché – ‘don't fix it if it isn’t broke’ certainly does not apply to us.
In view of increasing demands on academics which is dictated by the concerned host university, 67% of the cadet’s time is meant to be devoted to academics. If 33% is adequate to make him a soldier/warrior before he goes to the next stage, every moment of professional training becomes precious. Hence the over emphasis on parade training and other physical training carried out as extra-constitutional late night toughening- measures would need to be critically re-examined. This became one of my priorities.
The cadet who enters the portals of NDA today is a very different specimen compared to his predecessors a decade ago. Being older in comparison, after 10+2, he belongs to a generation which is knowledgeable and much more aware of the environment than his predecessors. He also belongs to a highly undisciplined society in which fear of law and order is virtually absent. Corruption is the order of the day as bribing the policeman, wireman, meterman etc is a regular feature for survival.
He does not look at his superiors in awe. He belongs to a society where violence and crime including domestic violence are a part of life. He may not have had the opportunity to live in a hygienic environment. Deportment, dress code, discipline, élan, military ethos and value system are all alien to him. To his credit, he imbibes most of them with time and a bit of coercion. He is fiercely competitive.
The present method of converting this individual into an officer cadet needs a boot camp phase dedicated to reorientation/indoctrination. There is a need to structure close interaction with instructors to enable him to slide into the training curriculum. Parade training, inculcating discipline, military terminologies and social conduct would need to replace the existing process of molding through coercive means alone. This then prompted the need for a separate study.
To those who think that it is unique to India, when I led a delegation in 1995, I was surprised to see Admiral Charles R Larson in Command of the famous US Naval Academy, Annapolis. He had retired from active service as a 4-star Admiral heading the Pacific Command.
The academy is normally commanded by a serving 2 Star Admiral. A series of incidents among trainees, pointing to severe erosion in the ethical and moral values of the Midshipman came under scrutiny of the media and the Congress. On the recommendations of the enquiry committee, Admiral Larson was brought back from retirement with the single objective of reviving the value system of the academy. This is a radical but prophylactic measure which cannot be replicated in India due to nonexistent structures of oversight and accountability. The societal problem, however exist in most democracies where 'Mallyas' and 'Kanhaiyas' coexist.
Training versus Education
A common debate world over is how much education is good for a professional soldier. Concepts such as galloping technology, RMA, Network centric operations etc may tend to suggest that we prepare the trainee to meet the intellectual elements of such a challenge. Does it mean that every cadet in NDA has to be an Engineer or a B tech? That debate has been set to rest by the experiences gained at West Point, when the decision to peg the academic input to engineering was rescinded in the 1950's. What was done is to enhance the academic inputs on science and mathematics to the best that is available within the country.
The Australian Defence Forces Academy(ADFA) which studied the NDA model and adopted an indigenous solution instead, opted to separate education and training such that each is conducted independent of the other and not parallel. A mutual exchange of visits between our two academies revealed that they had resorted to more innovative thinking. They commence the session with educational inputs provided by the finest university in Australia, during which basic physical fitness is ensured through compulsory games and fitness drills. The focus being on education, it ensures whole hearted participation of cadets in honing their intellectual skills. Likewise, when the Military phase starts the cadet is subjected to tough conditioning and professional grooming with no distraction on academics.
USA and other Western academies provide quality education through highly qualified and well paid professors as well as retired officers with Doctorate qualifications. Merely converting the syllabus to B Tech and depending on uniformed personnel with inadequate teaching and academic proficiency, now being proposed, is a recipe for disaster, for, the quality of teaching depends largely on the infrastructure and reputation of the host university.
JNU which is currently contracted to grant suitable under graduate and technical degrees to our establishments is neither equipped to deal with undergraduate studies nor technical education. We appear to bank on institutions that oblige us for a payment of consultancy fees and not on their capacity to oversee and deliver.
In view of the above it is incumbent on the policy makers to define the vision and missions for training future warriors with clear objectives for each phase of training. Should it be necessary to enforce engineering standards at primary training establishments, it should be mandatory to raise the bar of UPSC examination and make the minimum qualifying marks to 75% as opposed to the current standards of 45% which goes against the basic principles of admission to technical stream of education.
The second option would be to induct B Tech students directly into NDA and focus on the military inputs needed to make him a warrior. This would do away with most of the academic staff except a few like languages, computer science, etc.
Bang for the buck
CORTOS had set the stage for reforms in 1987. Appreciating that the financial powers and administrative powers were not vested in the armed forces at that time and armed with the delegated powers post the Kargil Review Committee report and the Committee on Defence Management headed by Arun Singh, I sought the constitution of two committees. The first to identify the changes to the military training process and the second headed by a Vice Chancellor to suggest the educational reforms to meet the emerging challenges in science and technology through infrastructure up gradation and positioning qualified academics of eminence. The COSC agreed to both.
I had to move on promotion to C-in-C in Jul 2004. I later learnt that the first committee recommended token changes to the curriculum and the second made a meek attempt to rationalize the ongoing academic content as they could not find a suitable Vice Chancellor to head the committee. Ironically, the evolution of academic syllabi of NDA was overseen by the Jha Committee in 1948, the Mahajani Committee in 1954-55, and finally the Mahajani Committee in 1972 (all of whom were reputed educationists) when the three-year degree course was sanctioned. In 1989 the syllabus was further revised to suit the 10+2 entry. Yet we could not find an eminent Vice Chancellor when we most needed one.
Unless there is clear definition of what we expect from the soldier of tomorrow and we understand the difference between training and education, we are likely to blunder our way through the battle field of tomorrow. If the role of a soldier is to' manage violence' he needs to be equipped with the means for just that.
Here a quote from Plato would be appropriate - “The purpose of education is not merely to produce an abstract mentality or a high-class technician, but to produce a cultured person with restrained behavior and civilized manners.”
Incremental changes and status quo-ism for tackling inadequacies in training are bound to have repercussions on the battle field. There is a distinct possibility that we could compress the training time by removing repetitive activities during the next higher level of training i.e. NDA to IMA, NDA to NAVAC/Training ship and NDA to AFA.
Now that we are dealing with adults of 19/20 years of age, we need to replace ‘denial regimes’ with ‘empowering’ regimes. ‘Effective training tools’ of the past need replacement to meet the aspirations and capabilities of the new generation. We need to focus on assessing the comprehension, imagination and creativity levels of a trainee and his ability to conceptualize and analyze-not his capacity to learn by rote.
“When the best things are not possible, the best can be made of those that are” - so said a wise man!
Vice Admiral Suresh Bangara retired from the navy in 2006 after four decades of service. The last two assignments he held were Commandant National Defence Academy (NDA) and Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Southern Naval Command. He is a graduate from St Joseph’s College Bangalore, the Royal Naval Staff College, Greenwich - London, National Defence College and is an alumnus of the John F Kennedy School of Government (Harvard University). He was engaged till recently in structuring new generation political parties in India. He continues to advise apex level bodies both in public and private sectors. He can be reached at Email: firstname.lastname@example.org