If modern conflict is all about ideas, then it follows that the soldier must also wield the pen as deftly as he does the sword.

It was indeed heartening to see that Lt.Gen. Prakash Menon (retd) and Capt. Srinath Raghavan (retd), two soldier-scholars of some distinction, were co-authors of Non Alignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty-First Century, an important foreign and strategic policy document that was released on February 28, 2012. Though the document has not received as much attention in the media as it deserves, I felt that it has enough to spark a debate within the armed forces on whether we are doing enough to equip our officers and men with the wherewithal required to cope with the rapidly changing nature of modern conflict and the global geo-strategic landscape. So here are some thoughts!

The National Defence College (NDC), New Delhi, is the last bastion of semi-formal education in the Indian armed forces. It provides a fantastic opportunity for budding senior leaders in the three services and the Civil Services to widen their horizons and graduate from being “top class operational practitioners” to becoming active participants in both military and national strategy formulation; or so everyone wishes it to be! In reality however, most of us return to our operational cocoons, talking wistfully about the truly wonderful times at the NDC without trying hard enough to uphold one of the prime missions of the college, which is to “Nurture the Soldier-Scholar and the Bureaucrat-Scholar.” There is the adage “the pen is mightier than the sword,” but what history does not stress is that many a time it is the soldier-scholar, wielding both the pen and the sword who has shaped the destinies of nations and dictated how wars are fought, and how the peace is won.

Treatise on modern warfare

The motivation for me to write this article emerged while I was reading a book “The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World” by Gen. Sir Rupert Smith (retd), a British general, and one strongly recommended to us by the Commandant at the NDC. The finesse with which Gen. Smith traces the evolution of modern warfare and intrinsically links it to the contribution made by intellectually gifted soldiers like Clausewitz, Bismarck, T.E. Lawrence and Mao in shaping not only the principles of soldiering, but also those of statecraft too is wonderful. Has anyone given a thought to who are the drivers of modern Islamic extremism, one of the primary tools of current conflict? Surprise! Surprise! It is the intellectual and scholarly capabilities of soldier-clerics like Osama bin Laden and Ayman-al-Zawahiri who managed to first corrupt, then simplify, communicate and finally convert the tenets of Islam into operational concepts of “Jihad.” If we are prepared to accept that we are entering a period of momentous change in which the war of a “network and ideas” is overtaking the established state, we need to take a close look at what propels this warfare. A reality check reveals that the terrorist-scholar, the cleric-scholar and the insurgent-scholar have outmanoeuvred the soldier in recent years. Therein lies the heart of my argument that calls for nurturing of the soldier-scholar in the Indian armed forces.

Are we adequately nurturing our soldiers to expand intellectually and be nimble and flexible in thought and action? The answer is fuzzy — maybe yes, maybe no! The NDC is too late a stage to nurture them. The process has to start much earlier and as soldiers we need to question more, research more, read more and write more; not because it is a bonus for our climb up the pyramid, or a fashion statement, but because it is an absolute imperative to “stay ahead and stay alive.” If chaos is the signature of modern warfare, it has to be countered with more unpredictability and chaos, something that is alien to structured militaries the world over. Am I suggesting a change in the core competencies of the armed forces? Absolutely not! What I am suggesting is that traditional military skills, a systematic problem solving abilities and structured thinking has to be supplemented with creatively modified academic and intellectual skills at every level.

Encouraging higher education among mainstream officers has been a weak area in our manpower planning and skill accumulation strategies. We need to aggressively pursue affiliations with the Indian Institutes of Management/Indian Institutes of Technology and other premier postgraduate institutions, and send officers with academic potential to pursue fellowships/post graduate courses that are exploitable in service, as well as those that provide security in a second career.

We need to network with high quality foreign universities and send our officers to do PhDs in diverse disciplines. The armed forces must upgrade their academic and research skills in various realms. Nation building is a complex issue in today's fast changing environment. Nurturing the soldier-scholar is one such strategy that is bound to pay rich dividends in the years to come.

(Air Vice-Marshal Arjun Subramaniam is a serving officer from the Indian Air Force. He is presently the Assistant Chief of Air Staff looking after Space, Concepts and Doctrine at Air Headquarters in New Delhi.)

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