While technical training institutions, as for instance the College of Military Engineering, and pre-commission training institutions, such as the National Defence Academy, have civilian faculty members, the directing staff (DS) at professional military education (PME) institutions is largely uniformed, such as at the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC). At the former set of institutions, civilian staff members and officers of the Army Education Corps teach subjects aligned with the mainstream military professional remit, such as military history, geopolitics etc.
However, there are subjects of professional interest at PME institutions that can be taken on by qualified civilian staff and service veterans, for example, strategy, defence policies etc. There are also requirements associated with the award of academic degrees to graduates of PME institutions, the course requirements for which mandate turning in of dissertations, such as for award of a Masters degree at DSSC. Arguably overseeing of such requirements can be better done by civilian faculty members.
Therefore, there is a case for a proportionate civilianizing of the faculty of PME institutions, as the DSSC, War Colleges and National Defence College (NDC), limited to subjects that civilian experts imported from the academia, strategic community and media can address equally competently.
Thus far, exposure to civilian experts at PME institutions has been through a regimen of discrete expert lectures on topics relevant to the military, for instance, nuclear deterrence etc. Subjects as strategy are covered by uniformed faculty members, some of whom are earlier graduates of the institution or of equivalent foreign institutions. Such institutions have been well-led, with the commandant appointment being tenanted by renowned names such as Manekshaw, Sundarji, Menon etc. Gauging from the quality and reputation of India’s military leadership, this arrangement has stood the military well so far. The steady stream of students from foreign countries testifies that the standing of these institutions is well deserved. So it is prudent to leave well enough alone and ‘not fix something that ain’t broke’.
Even so, enhancing the scope, content and depth of understanding of higher-order subjects that provide a context to the profession of arms is warranted. India is standing on the cusp of greater military responsibilities accruing from its upward power trajectory. It is also staring down adversaries in a two-front situation and taking on key security provider duties on behalf of the international community out of its traditional areas of footprint. It is making the requisite structural changes, for instance going in for theaterisation, associating extensively with militaries of strategic partners, acquiring over-the-horizon capabilities, being on the vanguard of the national bid for self-reliance etc. Alongside, cultural changes are on fast-forward, as a technology orientation and jointness.
Creating a military leadership that can take up the challenges requires innovation. Some measures undertaken so far include increasing the number of officers undergoing training at PME institutions. The numbers of foreign officer students have also expanded in keeping with India’s outreach to neighbours, extended neighbourhoods and friendly developing countries. The expansion of PME institutions implies a larger DS body, which per force has to come from and at the cost of frontline formations.
Relying on civilian faculty may ease the officer management situation somewhat. Being high profile career officers, instructors are usually off to fill some or other command and staff billet sooner than later. Civilian experts can lend continuity in institutions that otherwise see a rapid turnover in the DS body. They can also take on time-intensive tasks as dissertation supervision, freeing up the DS body to undertake self-development activity standing them in good stead in future leadership positions. Students on course will perhaps access civilians more for academic input since the perceptual hierarchical barrier will be less obtrusive. The benefit of such interaction is not one-sided. The civilian staff will also grow as intellectuals, contributing to national strategic culture keeping pace with India’s advance on the world stage.
A mega-step along this direction, the National Defence University (NDU), is pending. In the interim, smaller steps can be taken. Expert civilians can be hired initially as consultants and perhaps with time, as the innovation settles in, as visiting and adjunct faculty. Those already holding down full-time jobs can be brought onboard on sabbatical, eased by the ministry of education facilitating. A period of quicker turn-over of civilians will get the word out on the military’s inner spaces in academia. Over time, say by mid-decade, civilian faculty can be hired either through the Union Public Service Commission route or through competitive advertisements on faculty positions as normal in academia. When the NDU is up and running, an arrangement for inter-posting can be arrived at, including defence studies faculties in universities and civilian and military-affiliated think tanks.
In a time of post-covid constrained defence budgets, over the short term, compensation need not necessarily be more than that for consultants hired by ministries these days in the national capital. The novelty of associating with the military can serve as an incentive since the insight from an intimate look can prove useful for cross-fertilisation. Chairs of eminence, as with some think tanks and faculties, can be instituted to attract those with international renown. A temporary scholar-in-residence program for the duration of a course or term can be started.
Fear of security breach or adverse observations from scholars may serve as dampner arguments. The security argument is liable to be overblown since all training institutions work with information in the open domain. Elements in the curriculum of war colleges are confidential, dealing with actual, but protocols attending these can continue in place. As for criticism, the military is no stranger to this and informed criticism is in any case welcome. The military has the mental and public relations social capital to counter it and the moral resources to course-correct where necessary.
Civilian faculty inclusion in PME institutions is an idea whose time has come. The national discourse on defence and security is sufficiently advanced, with several universities running security, international relations and peace studies Masters level programs. Veteran officers are increasingly delving into complex subject areas of their earlier professional interest, such as military history. There is thus a plentitude of talent out there, allowing for competition and a quality intake. It can, as a bonus, also help lend gender balance to the faculty.
Subject areas where the civilians, including retirees from civil services as defence accounts, can do justice include defence economics, defence industrial sector and policies, military sociology, strategic thinking, Indian strategic discourse, area studies, budget and procurement procedures, organizational management and change, etc.
Professionalism involves a degree of convergence in practices with peer militaries. If and since advanced militaries have long had civilians and military veterans taking classes in PME institutions, can the Indian military afford to lag behind anymore? With the Department of Military Affairs in charge of PME, piloting the idea, allocating the monies, implementing and expanding the scope with time can be easier done. Increasing receptivity to an idea that is certainly not new or original in the government’s privileging of change, encapsulated in the prime minister’s annual address to the military brass, needs exploiting in quick time.