Army Officers and Professional Military Education (PME):Need for Focussed, Systemic Change

Profession of arms is unique because of lethality of weapons and breadth of operations. Warfare, including virtual ones like cyber and electromagnetic spectrum, and military strategy has become interdisciplinary and multi-domain, aimed to create capabilities to win or create strategic advantages in complex wars. Battlespace will extend beyond earth’s atmosphere with informational, economic and social content.  Cyber domain, mass and social media have empowered newer garrisons of warriors, with skills and access to technology.

Contextually, with this transition in warfare, armed forces leadership of tomorrow, the quality of policy-makers, strategicians, operational and tactical planners, has to become commensurately intellectual and professional. PME, hence, must look up, and not stagnate in the armed forces on the altar of careerism. Imperative it is to develop leaders by imparting vast breadth of professional knowledge, to develop habits of mind, of analysis, central to military profession.

What are basic issues in imparting PME?

There are four foundational premises. First, Management of Officers Human Resource in the IA cannot be de-linked from PME. Over last couple of decades, social sciences or humanities intake has been killed, seeking 100% engineers and technical graduates. There are many military fields of genuine social sciences inquiries, like area studies strategic history, strategic geography, international relations theories and war and peace. The social sciences and liberal arts characterised by distinctive culture of enquiry, prepare officers to make decisions about uncertainty. Humanities and social sciences question, analyse, debate, evaluate, interpret, synthesize, compare evidence and communicate skills critically important in shaping military officers to become independent thinkers. 

Second, in foreseeable future, operational commitments along the LOC-AGPL and LAC and CT ops will retain their salience, envisaging nearly 50% of Army in full time involvement. Availability of younger lot for PME exclusively will be questionable; hence, change will have to be within the system.

Third, this is age of surprise and uncertainty in warfare and geopolitics, with only some broad outlines predictable. The collective intelligence of humanity is driving innovation in directions which enable new threats from interconnected super-empowered newer domains. What is needed is an agile well trained mind, to envision, to prognosticate and propel change.

Fourth, is our refusal to undertake deep rooted changes for the fear of turbulence, and endeavour to avoid it. In transiting to a newer era of warfare and PME, there will certainly be turbulence. Change has to be managed and turbulence and resistance accepted that is bound to happen. 

What are substantive issues in Adopting new Model of PME?

To adopt a newer PME model, there are four quintessential posers.  First, is there a strong training-education dichotomy as one grows in service, rank and age? There are a number of misconceptions with regards to distinction between military training and military education. Military Training prepares leaders to execute specified tasks for certainty. In the present-day environment, there is paramount need of tactical and operational competence in leading small team to an Army. It must be stated that repository of focussed conventional warfare operational training, are field formations, by conducting war-games/exercises. Conversely military education educates for uncertainty. Education facilitates thinking about problems and dealing with those that do not lend themselves to outright solutions and to adapt to new and unfamiliar situations. It is a matter of intellect, thought, analysis and consensus building. It is argued that though basics must be taught in Army Schools/Colleges, focussed education to comprehend the typology of warfare at operational levels, must gradually be built-up through the service of an officer.  Training and education go hand-in-hand throughout the career, and it is not one versus the other.

Second.  How is the learning curve as one grows in service, rank and age?  Age is often associated with a decline in cognitive abilities that maintain functional independence, such as learning new skills. Getting on with age comes in cognitive rigidity or less flexible thinking.  Senior officers get more reluctant to change as thinking becomes rigid due to individual experiences.   Many senior officers will not accept it, but age causes attention deficit, particularly in multitasking. The most consistent but subtle change is cognitive slowing. When does cognitive learning peak? It is said that ability to recall new information peaks early and gradually becomes more challenging after 40-45 years of age, which implies COLONEL rank as optimal for learning and educating! This is not generic as recall of general knowledge, like say terrain details acquired at earlier age, military language and vocabulary and well-practiced skills are resistant to age-related decline. To opine, hence, officers acquire knowledge till mid-life, following which modicum of rigidity (which differs individually) will increase. A cognitively educated senior officer will continue to acquire knowledge, process information from multiple sources and make timely, accurate decisions in complex, ethically challenging and ever-changing environments.

Third, what are essentials in PME?  PME is parallel necessity to military training.  Stating imperatives, seven verticals of PME are highlighted.

  • The must at initial military career are Area Studies, especially interdisciplinary analysis of Southern Asia and Indian Ocean Region. Disciplines should include strategic geography and history, politics, economics, law, literature and culture.
  • Next major issue is Military theory, a field of study that explains the phenomena of war. This should provide framework for creation and dissemination of knowledge of war and warfare. just war theory, statecraft, diplomacy and organizational theory.
  • Study of Military History is obviously very important.
  • International Relations (Theory and Global Geopolitics), Political Science and Strategy should include conflict and peace-making; comparative foreign policy; human rights; international law; diplomatic tools and processes; migration and refugees; international security and organizations.
  • An important vertical is Critical Thinking Skills, to be acquired – verbal reasoning, argument analysis and ability to base hypotheses and formulate beliefs, remaining open to new and possibly disconfirming information.
  • There is constancy in necessity to education on Military Technologies.
  • Overview of Behavioural Studies and Cultural Anthropology, exploring human behaviour in rapidly changing, and challenging environments. Cultural Anthropology would describe human beings and explain cultural characteristics of populations.

Fourth poser is when should professional education processes be adopted in officers career span?

  • Is it possible to undertake the inculcation of PME at pre-commission training (PCT), even in basic form? It is opined that hectic-ness of the pace of physical training would preclude worthwhile retention by the officers. If any, it should be taken as a bonus. As it is except for NDA and Cadet Training Wings, time in PCT is just enough to train the cadet and make him an officer.  However there is need to include intake of candidates from social sciences stream too.
  • First major span of an officer’s career is initial 7-8 years, when, employed tactically, he/she undertakes basic foundational tactical courses and prepares for DSSC. Nearly one fourth of officers eligible in each batch get nominated on DSSC/ TSOC.  It is opined that even before qualifying on DSSC that is in the first 7 years of service, officer should have covered Area Studies, and the disciplines like Strategic Geography.  Military History on the other hand requires self study and through promotional and DSSC entrance exams.
  • DSSC is an institution that requires major curriculum revisit. First trimester should be common Core that includes India, in its geo-political, geo-economic and geo-strategic dimensions. Additionally, Military Theory and International Relations require formalised education at DSSC.
  • The period between DSSC and Command of major unit, should rationalise on Warfare and military technology.
  • The stage of HC Course should be the culmination of formalised education of International Relations (Theory and Global Geopolitics), political science and strategy and of Critical thinking. A Colonel after these formalised education process should delve into who, what, where, when, how, why, and seek to find the answers. HC must not be a course for training at operationally level only, to earn points for furtherance of career, but to plough back wisdom into the service!
  • In NDC, officers should continually question doctrines and strategy, contemplate on the future, and eventually seek to contemplate changes. For example, a group of NDC officers be tasked to critically rationalise on counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation. Or work out the future of ends, ways and means equation. The balance 15 odd years of senior officer’s career hereinafter ought to be pay-back-time to the organisation, to make a difference.

What can be the Pathways to Implementation?

The proposals may seem utopian and unexecute-able, and many will jettison it, claiming if it ain’t broken why change?  That will be counterproductive. There are two pathways recommended for implementing change.

First, where and when to educate? There is largely no time in formative years to spare officers for formalised education. Every officer has to come up with plan that works for himself. Reliance on brick and mortar classrooms is a past, COVID19 notwithstanding. PME in digital age is mobile learning or connectivism to new education technologies.  A new age officer spends 5 to 6 hours on his smart phone a day, but not comparable time reading books. This is in era of kindle or tablet or light weight laptop or even smart phone, devices that are available, portable, scalable, tailorable, relevant and affordable.  Asynchronous distance learning systemic with own-time-work needs be created, with push-model of learning material emailed/ available online as per year of service. CLAWS can develop itself as a Distance PME Centre for Excellence. For example, Years-Two and Three of service can be for area studies of Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives and Bhutan. Quizzes and MCQs, short and long answers should be taken in graduated manner over two years. That would give an officer by the end of third year service, upto six Credits for Area Studies completed.  In that form an officer requires to earn minimum number of credits (say 20) as eligiblity to appear in DSSC entrance exam, and similarly later for consideration for HC or NDC courses. This way, entire batch goes through a set learning process, in own-time, taking load off DSSC and HC Courses, to fulfil their newer roles towards operational art, strategy and critical thinking.

Second, is the pathway to creating the pedagogy. Army cannot continue with interminable wait for National Defence University. Permanent in-house faculty in the institutions like AWC/ DSSC is imperative. Education on military theory, international relations and critical studies, can be outsourced to Universities to be conducted in Army Colleges.  13000 officers non-empanelled at Lt Col and Col rank are under or mis-utilized. A corps of professors and lecturers needs to be created, who gain knowledge and expertise, are permanently located in Army Colleges and educate coming generations.

In sum, assuredly, PME cannot help narrow protected career profile, where senior is always right, brooks no advice and certainly no critique. Cumulated with careerism, the organisation tends to produce micro-managers and safe-players than strategists. The idea of new systemic of PME is to broaden perspectives of officers and not to make great scholars out of military leaders. Education can imbue officers with critical thinking skills and strengthen abilities to contribute to solutions of complex issues.  Military education ought to become a largely intellectual exercise that requires more liberal education than does training. Training simultaneously continues, for that is the bread and butter. The fast changing character of war demands urgency for the implementation of a new PME model.


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Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma is an infantry officer commissioned in Gorkha Rifles in 1977, with career span of forty years. He has had extensive operational experience in Jammu and Kashmir, North East and on the Western Borders. The officer had trained the Botswana Army for three years in Africa, and attended the National War College at Abuja, Nigeria. Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma had attended the NDC at New Delhi and was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. He has done PhD in Defence Studies. General Rakesh Sharma commanded the Fire and Fury Corps in Ladakh responsible for Kargil, Siachin Glacier and Eastern Ladakh – facing both Pakistan and China.The General was the Adjutant General of the Indian Army responsible for the Human Resource Management and superannuated in 2017. He has been awarded with Param Vashisht Seva Medal, Uttam Yudh Seva Medal, Ati Vashisht Seva Medal and Vashisht Seva Medal. He is a regular participant in seminars, lectures in various institutions, and regularly writes for newspapers and military journals. Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma was Chief Defence Banking Advisor with the Punjab National bank. He is currently DISTINGUISHED FELLOW with the Centre for Land Warfare Studies.