The art of war

We need to think creatively about the proposed defence university

Written by Harsh V. Pant | Published: August 19, 2016 12:06 am
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With the draft bill for the proposed Indian National Defence University (INDU) now in public domain, this is perhaps the right time for Indian defence intellectuals to start thinking creatively about the proposed institution. It was in 2013 that then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, had laid the foundation for the nation’s first defence university at Binola in Gurgaon with the hope that when completed, INDU “will become [a] world class institution of higher defence studies in which we will be able to take justifiable pride”. Given the dismal state of other institutions of higher learning in India, this might be a tall order but at least a first step has been taken towards establishing INDU, a project that has been part of the national discourse for decades now. Though various committees had recommended the setting up of a national defence university, the government had been dragging its feet on the project. Things are finally moving now.

The nature of the challenges facing defence in the 21st century emphasises the vital requirement of education in a military officer’s career. While a key strength of the military organisation is its cohesiveness, it is also true that the challenges posed by the use of military force in the world today require officers who can think and act independently of formulaic guidelines. These challenges flow from changes in the strategic environment driven by social, economic and political factors which in turn affect the character of warfare and security as a whole. As a consequence, there is a need to focus on enhancing the level of professional military education (PME) in India.

The aims of modern PME should be to develop the military officers’ understanding of defence in the modern world; demand critical engagement with current research on defence and its relationship with the fields of international relations, security studies, military history, war studies and operational experience; encourage a systematic and reflective understanding of contemporary conflicts; promote initiative, creativity and independence of thought in identifying, researching, judging and solving fundamental intellectual problems and develop relevant, transferable skills, especially communication, use of information technology and organisation and management of the learning process. Indian PME lacks every single one of these dimensions.

A key point to note about the development and application of knowledge in the military context is it is generally considered an “art” rather than a “science” because warfare is essentially a human and social activity. Some debate on the issue notwithstanding, the overwhelming consensus is that the analytical tools and assumptions for theory-building in the military setting should be derived from the social rather than the natural sciences. As a military professional, the quality of abstract and theoretical analysis will increasingly underpin the utility and value of the armed forces to its clients (government and society). And here PME in India continues to lag behind. This needs to be rectified if India wants to produce officers who are capable of operating in a complex security environment.

If we want peace, we need to be prepared for war. And in order to be best prepared for it, we first need to understand it well. In the emerging strategic environment, understanding the knowledge terrain will be as important as knowing the geography or topology of the battlefield was in the past.
The Indian military must evolve a culture of independent strategic thinking that allows its soldiers to comprehend national security in all its various dimensions. If led and structured professionally, INDU can help in achieving this goal. The government needs to move beyond the usual military-bureaucratic apparatus and reach out to the best in the wider academic community if INDU is to become an institution which can sharpen the intellectual underpinnings of Indian statecraft. Excessive political interference, bureaucratic inertia and inter-services rivalry could reduce it to a substandard institution. That would be a real tragedy because, as Thucydides once suggested, “the nation that makes great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools”.

The writer is professor of International Studies, Department of Defence Studies, King’s College, London

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