Schooled to Think

Governments have to look beyond just good military training college

RAdm. Sudhir Pillai (retd)

Winston Churchill (addressing the Pentagon in 1946 after World War II), highlighted that, ‘Professional attainment, based upon prolonged study, and collective study at colleges, rank by rank, and age by age — those are the title reeds of the commanders of the future armies, and the secret of future victories’.

Sudhir Pillai
The writer welcomes Ambassador Ashok Kantha at Defence Services Staff College

Seeking to analyse the state of education of Indian military leadership, I aim to focus on the education of ‘higher’ leadership. They need to be educated with the wisdom and vision to create and execute long-term plans. Consequential decision-making in the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous strategic environment that waits ahead can be a critical attribute of our higher leadership.

Historically, the Indian military due to the very specialised nature of the skills required, have focussed more on training. One often encounters quotes such as, ‘the more you train in peace, the less you bleed in war’. However, I argue that ‘the more you educate (professional military education, PME) in peace, the fewer mistakes will get committed in war’. This flows from the axiom ‘Battles are won and lost at the tactical level, but wars are won and lost at the operational and strategic levels’.

While the Indian military is amongst the best trained military forces in the world, is the force and its leadership educated enough to handle the challenges of the modern battlefield? Have we ignored some key facets when it comes to educating Indian military leadership?’

The Pre-Independence PME Experience
The Indian military has a proud tradition that goes back centuries, and the British role in it needs no emphasis. While the British invested heavily in training the Indian Army into an excellent tactical force, they did not divest strategic leadership to Indian officers, and retained valuable education, and grooming to that end as a preserve of the colonial masters. They would allow Indian officers and clerks into the Military Operations Directorate of the Indian Army only by 1945 when Lt Col. SHFJ Manekshaw, Major Yahya Khan and Captain S.K. Sinha would get appointed as staff in the MO Directorate.

As the military historian, Hamid Hussain, has written, ‘Ninety per cent of officers of (the) Indian Army, both British and Indian, were groomed for regimental service. It was envisioned that the highest rank an Indian could achieve was the command of a battalion. In 1947, only a handful of Indians were at colonel and brigadier ranks. What else describes the anomalies of that time-period than the fact that (the) first Indian C-in-C jumped six ranks from Major to four-star General in six years while (the) first Pakistani C-in-C accomplished this feat in five short years?’

Generals K.P. Cariappa was the first Indian Army C-in-C, and Iftikhar Ali Khan was to have become the first C-in-C of the Pakistan Army before his death in an air crash. They would be the first native officers to be nominated for the Imperial Defence College, from the two countries, as late as in 1947 and 1949. The aim would be to afford them an advanced education when the British accepted the necessity of preparing Indian officers for leadership positions.
As Vijay Kumar Singh writes in Leadership in the Indian Army: Biographies of Twelve Soldiers, General Cariappa expressed his concerns at inexperienced Indian officers taking over higher commands without the help of British officers.

Even Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw had this to say about himself, ‘I am a simple ‘infanteer’ and a Gorkha at that, and I want everything cut and dried. Complicated stuff is for the intellectuals!’

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