Guest Column | Schooled to Think

Governments have to look beyond just good military training college

RAdm. Sudhir Pillai (retd)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’.

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.

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

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!’

PME in Independent India
The British would call the Staff College the Brains of the Army, while creating such a College in India during World War I. But, when it came to strategic and operational-level leadership, the brains would be British. Maj. Gen. WDA Lentaigne, the second Commandant of the Defence Services Staff College, based on the British WWII experience, would urge that the Indian Staff College (replacing the College at Quetta) be an Inter-Services Staff College. To convince the Indian Army leadership and its military training directorate, he would need to raise the issue with Lord Mountbatten, the Governor General and a former Allied Supreme Commander. India, thus, has a Defence Services Staff College with all three Services grooming their leadership through this Staff College system. With the departure of Gen. Lentaigne in 1955, an indigenisation of the Staff College would be started. But was this Indianisation correctly focused?

While ordinarily, military education would come into scrutiny in the aftermath of military defeats as happened after the Prussian defeat at the hands of Napoleon or the American defeat in Vietnam, systematic educational research and analysis would elude India even after its defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War. While the need for reform would be raised from time to time, significant changes would not take place given the vulnerability of military education to ‘short-termism’ and a ‘flavour of the week mentality’ as Kennedy and Neilsen (eds) wrote in ‘Military Education: Past, Present, and Future (Praeger; London 2002).

The Indian military, schooled, groomed and organised in the British colonial military system, continues to follow practices abandoned by the British, to this day. The doctrinal focus for conventional warfare has also not seen many alterations. The British would learn from their wartime and educational experiences and would evolve into a new staff system and a realigned PME focus.

It would be worth remembering Gen. Lentaigne’s remark to his successor that Col Palsokar writes about: ‘I only wish the Army could cut down its syllabus and get more time for research and discussion’. This statement needs careful analyses as this is central to the pedagogical processes that goes into educating adults and fostering critical thinking that can be crucial to strategic decision-making.

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