Military & Aerospace

My Wellington Days
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 23 Dec , 2020

Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd) was the course senior of the 34th Defence Services Staff College Course (DSSC) of 1979 that I also attended. Arun Prakash has written a very thoughtful column (Indian Express 16 Dec 2020) titled ‘Indian armed forces must prepare personnel to shoulder responsibilities at all levels of new unified commands’. The good Admiral was responding to the recently published monograph ‘The Wellington Experience; A Study of Attitudes and Values within the Indian Army’ compiled by retired US Army Colonel David Smith. Colonel Smith has extrapolated the feedback and personal opinions of US military officers who attended India’s Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) course in Wellington, between 1979 and 2017.

In the 1980s and right up to late 1990s, the US ran a ‘crusade’ against erstwhile Soviet Union and regarded India to be in the enemy camp.

According to Arun Prakash, Col. Smith has made certain observations about DSSC based on the feedback from American officers. The salient points of that feedback are,

•  The staff college essentially teaches rehashed British doctrines of WW II

•  Since the army also treats this course as stepping stone for future promotion, there is an unseemly race for grades that encourages cheating, plagiarism and use of PCK or Previous Course Knowledge.

•  The course is heavily Army oriented and there is very little joint services effort

•  By and large the Indian officers displayed anti American attitudes.

In terms of generalisations and sweeping comments and conclusions, one is reminded of another American book, Catherine Mayo’s ‘Mother India’ (published 1927). Mahatma Gandhi described it as a ‘drain inspector’s report’ but also said that all Indians must read it and introspect. I intend to share my own experiences of DSSC in that light.

Let us take the last point first, anti-American attitude! The survey covers a long canvass from 1979 to 2017 and the truth is that for most of these years, the US was in firm alliance with Pakistan and in a quasi-alliance with China (since 1972 Shanghai declaration between President Nixon and Mao Tse Tung). In the 1980s and right up to late 1990s, the US ran a ‘crusade’ against erstwhile Soviet Union and regarded India to be in the enemy camp. NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) war-games of the period regularly added Indian armed forces to the ‘Red’ (enemy) forces. Late Jean Kirkpatrick, a former US Ambassador to UN had once publicly stated that India was too large and unwieldy and needs to be broken up in several manageable parts. In the restive Kashmir where India faced a proxy war, processionist’s often shouted slogans hailing American President (Bill Clinton) in appreciation of American support to their cause.

Given this history of consistent American support/side-lining of threats to India, is it any surprise that the bulk of the Indian officers that the Americans encountered in Wellington displayed anti American attitude?

During most of the last 30 odd years, India has been facing threat of terrorism and proxy war carried out by Pakistan. The West in general and the US in particular, never acknowledged this fact right till 2008 Mumbai attack. The July 7, 2005 London train bombing was regarded as a major terrorist incident but the Mumbai train blasts of July 2006 that killed 189 people was seldom mentioned in the anti-terrorism discourse. It was killing of American civilians in Mumbai in 2008 and subsequent raid in May 2011 to kill Osama Bin Laden who was holed up near Pak military academy in Abbottabad that the US began to accept the Pakistani perfidy in war on terrorism.

Given this history of consistent American support/side-lining of threats to India, is it any surprise that the bulk of the Indian officers that the Americans encountered in Wellington displayed anti American attitude?

Another major point made by the American officer is that the teaching at DSSC Wellington is stuck in WWII doctrines and what he derisively calls the ‘Wellington solutions’ that would not work in the field of battle.

This indeed is a valid point. On a personal note, towards the middle of the course (in 1979) I felt the same. During one of the canal crossing war game, an instructor tried to ram a ‘Wellington Solution’ down our throats and when I tried to question it, I was told to shut up! I was so disturbed that I wrote an application addressed to the Commandant to say that I wish to withdraw myself from the course as otherwise at the end of it, I will be a tactical zero and useless to the army. To the credit of my instructor (Lt Col later Lt General Deepak Ajwani) held back my application for a few days asking me to rethink-after all it could be a career wrecking move! But when I insisted that he forward it, he did so. The news of this did spread and some of my friends also advised me to withdraw it. It was indeed an unprecedented incident in history of Staff College. On receiving my application, the then Chief Instructor (CI-Army) Brigadier SF Rodrigues (later General and army chief) called me for an interview! It was almost after a week and the harsh reality of domestic problems that this would entail in moving and relocating with wife and two small children had sunk in, I had considerably piped down.

The CI also made a valid point that notwithstanding what the instructor said, staff college only teaches the ‘mechanics’ of war and not tactics or strategy. He likened the armed forces to a machine and made a point that Staff College teaches only the mechanics and not solutions to actual problems. Rodrigues, himself a graduate of US Command and General Staff College then added that we at the DSSC Wellington were far more open to criticism and new ideas than the Americans.

My response to this was that he was not right in comparing the Indian officers with those in US armed forces as for most of us armed forces career was a first choice spurning other professional courses like the IITs or civil services whereas in the US case largely it was the ‘left over’ that joined the services and there was no comparisons between top rankers and F graders! At the end of the interview with we struck a bargain; I would continue with the course and at the end give a feedback that will be given full attention by the college.

There is certainly a lot of student officers who are prepared to go to any length to win in the rat race for good grades.

The reason to tell this story is that Col. Smith and the American officers who gave the feedback have confused the two issues, training for staff work and training for command. In the case of army this second aspect is taken care of during the senior and higher command courses at College of Combat, Mhow.

The other point in the feedback is the ‘links and pinks’ brigade as some careerist officers were called. There is certainly a lot of student officers who are prepared to go to any length to win in the rat race for good grades. But I have it from the horse’s mouth (some of instructors) that it is easy to spot these and due allowance is made for this factor while awarding grades. A cursory glance at the future trajectory of these ‘high flyers’ at DSSC shows that not too many make it to the top ultimately.

As mentioned earlier there are several filters like the Senior Command and Higher Command Course and the real performance in field. India has been engaged in an unending proxy war for several decades and the officers who make good do so not just on the strength their performance in courses, but their success on the actual battlefield.

The feedback of the American officers also suffers from one flaw. One saw many of the self-serving types hobnobbing with the foreign officers for reasons other than sharing professional knowledge. To assess the strength of our armed forces and its institutions I would prefer to pay heed to observations of scholars like late Prof Steve Cohen (his book the Indian Army) rather than some half-baked conclusions by some US army colonel.

The officers with unorthodox ideas not only survive but thrive in our forces.

The point missed by the Americans is that the Indian Armed forces have a very high tolerance to ‘mavericks’ and many like late Lt. Gen. Eric Vas (who wrote a letter on chapatti as a Lt. Col. to high light logistic problems on China border before 1962 conflict) and many others including this author. The officers with unorthodox ideas not only survive but thrive in our forces.

It is this spirit of innovation that has ensured that despite being armed with technologically inferior weapons and equipment, the Indian armed forces have succeeded. Armed forces that won a major victory in just 13 days campaign in 1971 could not have done so if the institutions that train its officers were so bad. At later date the Indian Army has shown exemplary restraint in the counterinsurgency operations in Kashmir. India has never used area weapons like artillery or air power in counter-insurgency and has kept co-lateral damage to minimum, unlike US or Pakistan, who regularly use guns, tanks and air power in dealing with insurgents. It needs a very high degree of professionalism, skill and leadership to do this. It is the armed forces institutes like DSSC that share some of the credit.

At Kargil in 1999 the same armed forces re-captured difficult mountain peaks in face of stiff resistance. The American Armed forces on the other hand have yet to taste a victory after WWII and Korean War.

The only way forward in services integration is to do an honest study of our own military history and create institutional mechanism so that inter service co-ordination is not left to individual commander’s personal chemistry.

On one issue I am in full agreement with the American observation that of lack of joint services co-ordination. This is indeed our weakest point. But for this lack of integrated air-land battlefield concept we could have achieved startling results in 1965 Indo-Pak war, suffered much less casualties in Kargil skirmish.

The only way forward in services integration is to do an honest study of our own military history and create institutional mechanism so that inter service co-ordination is not left to individual commander’s personal chemistry.

To revert back to my interaction with the Army CI in 1979, at the end of the course I gave a 13 page hand written feed back to the DSSC. To the credit of the college, for the following course in the next year, all the tactical exercises were re-written. I know this for sure because the instructors who had to work during vacation all cursed me for it. An instructor who had plagiarised Camberley Staff College précis in writing the jungle warfare notes was shunted out and his career sealed. I myself went on to be part of prestigious operation branch at Command and Army HQ. level and ended up heading the War History Division of ministry of defence till I took voluntary premature retirement to become a full time military historian.

The whole exercise also smacks of partisanship as the same author has written about Pakistani Staff College at Quetta. He draws a false equivalence between Wellington and Quetta and makes a false assertion that both Indian and Pakistani staff colleges (and by extension the armed forces) are at the same level of inefficiency and suffer from same drawbacks. Performance of Indian and Pakistani armed forces in the last three decades shows this to be a lie. One does not know if there is a subtle agenda behind all this to please a long standing ally like the Pakistani army. As some Pakistani scholars have commented that – “the Pakistani army is the best Army in the world it has lost every war it has fought”!!

But as Saint Tukaram (17th century) a great philosopher had advised, we must always keep a critic nearby! We must take the American observations with a pinch of salt but pay heed to genuine observations.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Anil Athale

former Joint Director War History Division, Min of Defence. Currently co-ordinator of Pune based think tank 'Inpad' that is affiliated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.  Also military historian and Kashmir watcher for last 28 years. He has authored a book ‘Let the Jhelum Smile Again’ and ‘Nuclear Menace the Satyagraha Approach’ published in 1996.

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