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Professional Military Education and Producing Thought Leaders for The Army
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Lt Gen (Dr) Rakesh Sharma, PVSM,UYSM,AVSM,VSM (Retd.)
is an infantry officer commissioned in Gorkha Rifles in 1977, with career span of forty years. He is currently DISTINGUISHED FELLOW with the Centre for Land Warfare Studies.

‘A different habit, with worse effect, was the way that ambitious officers, they came in sight of promotion to the Generals’ list, would decide that they would bottle up their thoughts and ideas, as a safety precaution, until they reached the top and could put these ideas into practice.  Unfortunately, the usual result, after years of self-repression for the sake of their ambition, was that when the bottle was eventually uncorked the contents had evaporated.’  – Liddel Hart 


As a corollary to the above apt quote, as the prospective Generals’ would ‘bottle up’, they would have similar expectations from the lower rung officers to contain or suppress their ideas, in effect causing the entire organisation to remain so.  Is that the rationale why Armies persist ardently with status quo?  For the very junior levels, it is symptomatic to be told ‘…to be seen and not heard!’  In effect, hence, ideas and thoughts, if any, that lead to change, emanate from the hierarchical apex.    Nurturing of relentless curiosity, by gathering newer sources of information, expanding of knowledge base, and envisioning the ‘next big thing’, even in the form of innovative processes and systems, become absent, or effectively shot down. The difference between first and second rate organisations is this, the constant generation of fresh thought, its analysis and implementation, albeit in a non-parochial manner.  We need introspection and examination of impetus to visionary and creative growth in the Army, and the modalities for the inculcation of guidance and exhortation of development ideas.

In an IDSA Issue Brief in 2010, the subject of professional military education (PME) was initiated, arguing for creating a professional advisory board, a multi-disciplinary faculty, and a fair mix of military and civilian professorship that induces richness and rigour in Indian military thinking of the future.[i]  A simplistic analysis of the current environs sheds little light on any significant transition to focussed PME, retaining the classic fervour of military training as against education.   The academic rigour and research that is imperative in producing thought leaders in the Army, is noticeably absent, including at the highest institutions of learning.  The production line hence churns out military leaders proficient in brushing and cleaning the status quo, or inspectors of lower formations and commanders, and micro-managers of some calibre proficient in honing and perfecting routine.  The depth evident in military leaders restricts itself to the organisations, locations and tactics (or maximally at operational level).  Undoubtedly the invention of power point and the availability of plethora of past dissertations and papers in soft copy deter fresh thought.  Incessant involvement in counter terrorism decries birth of fresh military thought.  In pursuance of larger aims of the organisation and deliberations at Governmental levels, academia and policy makers, paucity of trained analysts, thought leaders, fall short in influencing decisions.

Thought Leadership

Thought Leader surely sounds an extremely pompous and haughty term, one that is suitable for think tanks or among academics, and many a military-man would opine it as outside the realm of military practitioners.  Ideating in uniform forces is retained as an exclusive preserve of hierarchical seniors, and limited platforms exist to receive, contemplate, conceptualise and execute, based on freshly minted ideas.  Out of box is a much touted cliché, yet underutilized facet.  Corporate management, which originated from military leadership, has with focus on bottom-lines; expansion, novelty and entrepreneurship propelled itself in rewarding ideation, leaving militaries way behind.

Indeed, thought leaders do not have any special gene, nor are born with great expertise to analyse, ideate and have the capacities to put it across.  Surely even a thought leader or analyst could many a time have persisting reservations on ideas.  However, it would be great to sift through plethora of innovative ideas for a positive change and build in blocks to revitalise the organisation.  In time the organisation may witness evolution, by creating new methodologies, processes or practices.  Ideating is the bread and butter for all living organisations, and accordingly they endeavour to create, locate and nurture ideators, engage with them – in the Army, officers who can question the status quo, and bring about freshness, innovativeness and improvement in all spheres of Army life. To achieve it, the organisation has to be receptive too, and create systems to absorb the ideas that may flow.

Professional Military Education

Professional Military Education (PME) covers a wide range of activities. In one sense it refers to a plethora of training, continuing education, and other activities designed to provide development to members of the military at various points in their career and to prepare them for the next level of responsibilities.[ii] In a White Paper on Joint Education in 2012, General Martin Dempsey of the US Army had argued that the purpose of PME is “…to develop leaders by conveying a broad body of professional knowledge and developing the habits of mind central to the profession.” In addition to critical thinking, he listed the ability to understand the security environment, respond to uncertainty, anticipate and lead transitions through change, and operate with trust, understanding, and empathy as important skills for future military leaders.[iii]

For officers in the Army, the inculcation of systematic objective analysis and evaluation of any important issue to reach a course of action, commences at a stage of preparation for competitive examination like the Defence Studies Staff College (DSSC), and while undergoing the Course.   The military education prior to it, including the Junior Command Course aims to bring officers by learning to a universal platform to undertake varied lower levels of command and staff.  This training (more training than education) correctly focuses on disciplined thinking, as against open-minded alternative or fresh opinionated format.   The preparatory phase of the DSSC and the course itself does facilitate some search for alternatives, though it cannot be stated as deep expertise in appropriate and promising areas of interest. As has been oft stated this all important course is also largely silo-ed in respective Service syllabi, as against a joint Services curriculum.

In a similar manner the all important Higher Command Course (HC) lacks the academic rigour that students of Masters of Science and Philosophy in Defence Studies have to undergo.  In counterpart institutions, for example in the Pune University, a sampling of the syllabus states subjects as diverse as, Peace and Conflict Studies, Strategic Studies, Geopolitics and Military Geography, International Relations, National Security, Defence Economics, Strategic Studies, Evolution of Strategic Thought, Theories and Causes of War Deterrence, Concepts of Nuclear Deterrence and Current Relevance, Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, among many others.   The basic syllabus in the University system denotes scores of professional books as must read, to provide the student the rigours of academic degree, the much valued depth and create analytic capabilities.   Of course there is significant hard work that the students have to apply in the DSSC and the HC Course, yet the focus remains on conformity, and significantly related to current plans largely at tactical level.  There is but no search for thought leaders or ideators and exhortation towards that end, in many ways also due to the operational committal of the mid profile officers, which allows posting of routine directing staff.

It is, hence, contended that in the HC course, the focus must change to academic rigour, strategy, critical thinking, writing and communication, diversity, and various skill sets in a manner corresponding to a civilian post-graduate degree. The aim of PME is NOT to produce conformists and followers, but to inculcate a systemic push towards analysis.  The course content must seek out freshness of thought, ideators, and also denote so in their assessments.  The syllabus hence needs open-endness as against regimented firmness and discipline. Project based research, as is the capstone of College of Defence Management, with projects provided to by the establishment on need basis, and must form the major ideation platform in HC Course.  That necessitates a faculty of the kind which has been through the academic rigour to debate, hone talent and guide research.  The basis of the HC Course is not to teach or revise existing plans; it is to formulate new ones, as any good research oriented institution would do so.  Consequently, tasked to work in at higher headquarters that deliberate on future thought, HC qualified officers would possess sound knowledge base in the national security establishment to effectively exhibit the depth imperative at a Director and higher levels.  At the National Defence College (NDC), the content must be essentially towards critical thinking and research, and seek out thought leaders who will bring about a material change to status quo.

Time hence is to revamp PME, especially in terms of academic rigour, critical thinking, and creating thought leaders.  Understandably, as imparting academic rigour is a professorial assignment, portions of curriculum would have to be outsourced to academic professionals.  Such transformation would require less regimented syllabii and more autonomy and challenge, bring in depth in thinking, risk taking, innovation and analytic work. In time, PME itself will throw up officers adept at imparting academic rigour, and creating thought leaders, who can be for much longer tenures deputed in institutions of higher learning, and at creative work.  The DSSC, the Army War College and the NDC should inculcate habits of honing intellectual agility and related skills.  The emerging challenges to India’s National Security and to the Army dictate and demand so.   Innovators and thought leaders are the call of the day, and if we want material change in the next fifteen years, the PME has to addressed soonest.


[i] Harinder Singh, Professional Military Education The

First Steps in Indian Context, IDSA Issue Brief, 30 Nov 2010, accessed at

MilitaryEducation%28PME%29-TheFirstStepsintheIndianContext on 07 July 2017

[ii] Pauline Shanks Kaurin, Professional Military Education:

What is it Good For?, accessed at


[iii]  Refer  


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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.

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