It is high time the National Defence University takes off

In this May 2013 picture, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lays the foundation stone of Indian National Defence University at Binola in Gurgaon.   | Photo Credit: PTI

Back in 2018, strategic analyst B.A. Friedman highlighted the track changes needed for the U.S. military. Among those are two interrelated pointers for the Indian military that merit serious attention. The first is that Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals must move away from their comfort zone of “being in charge” on the battlefield, and smoothly make the transition to being “combat enablers and policy advisers”. While there is certainly a need for classical generalship while orchestrating large forces in conventional battle scenarios, the more immediate challenges rest in the sub-conventional and limited war domains. It is these domains that demand high levels of proficiency and autonomous leadership qualities at the unit, battalion, squadron and brigade levels, with the senior leadership playing primarily a facilitating role. If this is an outcome that India’s military needs to strive for, the path must be shaped by a new kind of education.

Mr. Friedman suggested that “the military’s existing educational institutions should remove training from their curriculum”. This, he argued will “free up time for academic study in subjects such as international relations, strategic theory, geopolitics and conflict analysis and resolution”. Senior leaders, he suggested, need to retrain themselves to move away from rigid chains of command, and learn to “respectfully disagree, balance multiple viewpoints and opinions, and present complex arguments” to diverse audiences.

Demands on senior leadership

Here, I want to revisit some points on Professional Military Education (PME) that I had expressed through two articles written for The Hindu in 2012. I had argued: “If we are prepared to accept that we are entering a period of momentous change in which the war of networks and ideas is overtaking the established state, we need to take a close look at what propels this warfare... If chaos is the signature of modern warfare, it must be countered with more unpredictability and chaos, something that is alien to structured militaries the world over. Traditional military skills, systematic problem solving and structured thinking have to be supplemented with creatively modified academic and intellectual skills at every level.” Some of these reflections should strike a chord in India among those within the national security establishment who feel that educational reform is long overdue in the Indian military.

The process must begin at the top. One of the major responsibilities of the armed forces’ leadership is to crystal gaze into the future and suggest military capabilities and structures that would keep pace with the rapid changes in warfare, geopolitics and technology, and arm the man behind the machine with the necessary skills and intellectual armour required to stay ahead of competitors and adversaries. This is an imperative if India wants to move up the strategic value chain, from being a regional power to a leading power. Of the several attributes that a military leader in India must possess, it is not so much the operational or technological domain that demands special attention, but the intellectual dimension.

The legendary strategic affairs thinker K. Subrahmanyam, during a conversation with me in 2006, had said: “[W]e need to put our house in order. While creation of world-class infrastructure is important, unless we have the right faculty, and idea/content developers, the NDU [National Defence University] stands no chance of matching up to similar institutions on the global arena. I only hope that the same turf wars that plague inter-service synergy do not hamper the putting together of the core group that is entrusted with building the institution.” His views need to be revisited now and a renewed momentum given to the NDU.

The pace at which the building blocks of the NDU have been erected is much like India’s growth rate in the 1970s. Though conceived earlier, it gained momentum in the aftermath of the Kargil conflict and was given form over a decade later when it was inaugurated in 2013 with a stone-laying ceremony in Binola, near Delhi. There are some who believe that the envisaged four-pronged structure of the NDU with security studies, technology, leadership and management and distance learning is far too ambitious. Others argue that it is important to think big if India is to emerge as a leading power. The bottom line is that the desired outcomes and the quality of human resources must dictate the trajectory of how the NDU comes up. It must be the prime mover of intellectual capital in a reformed Indian military.

Arjun Subramaniam is a retired Air Vice Marshal of the Indian Air Force and a former faculty member at the National Defence College

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Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 5:24:43 AM |

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