How US Army Officers View the Training System of the Indian Armed Forces at DSSC, Wellington

A book based on the opinions formed by 29 officers of the US army who spent a year in India training with the officer cadre paints a not so rosy picture of the DSSC course over the last 38 years.

The Indian armed forces are, without a doubt, the most respected institution in India. We citizens see it as efficient, as well as effective. However, being from the same nation, we are likely to be biased.

Would it not be better to also see how others see us?

Views of officers and politicians of other countries that are expressed publicly are unlikely to provide a correct picture as no one ever speaks ill of other armies in public. In any case, most others get only a very restricted exposure to our officer cadre.

But how about opinions formed by 29 bright officers of the US army, over a period of 38 long years (1979 to 2017) made after living and learning with them for a full year as peers?

These summarised opinions are available in the book The Wellington Experience: A Study of Attitudes and Values Within the Indian Army by Colonel David O. Smith, US Army, retired. Col David is now a Distinguished Fellow with the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan policy research centre in Washington, DC. He is also an independent consultant to Sandia National Laboratories on issues related to South Asia.

The book was reviewed in The Wire by Deepak Sethi when it was published in 2020. In this piece, however, I wish to highlight some issues which need greater discussion and debate.

Not a rosy picture

Wellington, Tamil Nadu, is where the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) of India, is located. It imparts a year-long long course on PME (Professional Military Education) to selected officers of the three services. This is the only course of Indian armed forces where entry is through a transparent examination, not recommendations which makes it a level playing field for anyone who dares to compete on professional grounds.

In short, DSSC students are the brightest Major level officers of the Indian armed forces, of their time. This course is also attended by selected officers of friendly foreign countries. Thus, at least one officer of the US armed forces attends this every year and stays in touch with Indian officers for a whole year on a 24/7 basis. On returning to the US, these officers submit a report on their opinion of Indian officers over that period.

Also read: Are the Indian Army’s Internal Matters Being Decided Elsewhere?

Colonel Smith of the US army conducted a structured interview with 26 of these student officers and referred to reports of three more. In addition, he also took views of several serving and retired US government and military officials with long experience in India, former US military attaches assigned to the US Embassy in New Delhi, and subject matter experts on the Indian Army. That makes this report a valuable resource to assess the officer cadre and the training system of the Indian armed forces.

The report, available as a book, does not present a rosy picture.

Rhetorically, it questions whether a capable Indian military establishment exists, and wonders what can be expected from it in terms of warfighting capability, influence on regional stability, and impact on Indian government decision-making. After some discussion, it bluntly says that in the event of a future war with Pakistan or China, the Indian Army may not perform as well as it expects. It further notes that

“despite a deep-seated conviction that its internal security doctrine is effective, the Indian Army has yet to completely quell any of India’s four long-running insurgencies. The Indian Army ignores its own counterinsurgency doctrine in Jammu and Kashmir, and the extrajudicial killing of militants is an unacknowledged feature of that doctrine.”

The report also notes a patronising attitude by the senior officers toward the officer students. It was concluded that eventually, this was a manifestation of the Indian Army’s institutional culture in which there was reluctance on the part of commanders to trust subordinates.

“It was not unusual, a US student officer noted, for an Indian battalion commander to take over a platoon-level operation if he thought the platoon leader was making a mistake.”

The Indian Army, he emphasised, had a zero-defect mentality that corroded efficiency and inhibited the training of junior leaders.

Also read: Debate: Retired Servicemen Must Not Be Expected To Deny Realities

On the folly of not allowing Indian officers to be seen as mature enough, one US student noted an incident that shook him. As it seems, one guest speaker that year was a hard-line right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) politician who made virulently anti-Muslim and anti-Christian remarks during his presentation. The US student officer, who normally ignored such remarks, was so incensed that he asked a pointed question that prompted a caustic reply from the speaker.

Afterward, several instructor officers of DSSC came up to him to apologise, including a Christian instructor who had also been offended by the speaker’s remarks. One Indian instructor opined that the students at the DSSC were too young and professionally immature to be exposed to such narrow-minded people. The US student officer could not fathom this attitude. If mid-career army officers were too immature to be exposed to political attitudes that were freely available on television and radio, he thought, when would the senior officers ever consider them to be ready?


Regarding integrity and cheating by the officer corps of India, as observed at the prestigious DSSC course, the observations by the US officers that saw things first-hand are quite devastating.

With the exception of just one US officer in 38 years, all US officers highlighted the ubiquity of cheating, which was most frequently defined as the use of “previous course knowledge”, or PCK (the collected solutions to earlier DSSC courses), but could also take other forms. This behaviour was so prevalent that it must be considered a part of the DSSC’s institutional culture. Most respondents echoed the description of the 1984 student, who described cheating at the DSSC as “massive and extraordinary. “I was shocked and appalled,” he recalled, “What about being an officer and a gentleman? To them, it [cheating] was perfectly alright.”

Photo: DSSC website

The 2011 US student officer noted in his report that, “even when a DS (Directing Staff – the instructor) was in the syndicate room, the answers to examination questions were freely passed by cell phone text messages, and that as soon as the DS left the room, the students invariably circulated the remaining answers verbally.” It must also be mentioned that the sole US officer who had not mentioned the PCK and cheating syndrome of the DSSC in his report, did note that. “Everyone strived to get the DSSC solution”, that “innovation was not always rewarded,” and that” the college solution was not always thought by the students to be the “right solution,” or even the best solution.”

One US student officer observed that “the quality of the education imparted at the DSSC was “not top-notch,” that there was “not much rigor” in the course, and that the techniques employed were “old and regimented”. Most operational procedures taught at the college reminded him of old World War II techniques that had been brought forward into the modern age.

Another US officer observed that” many course reference materials were a mixture of “local” (Indian), United Kingdom, and United States army field manuals, with the only difference being that they had locally printed DSSC covers. Thus, the doctrinal material being taught did not always fit the equipment actually fielded in the Indian Army. All in all, he considered that the course seemed to be designed to prepare graduates “to fight the WW II way with a 1945-era British Army force.” . Though, he had further remarked, “the Brits had moved on”.

As for an overall assessment of the DSSC course, the report says, “The DSSC provides an adequate mid-career officer education, but the college’s approach to pedagogy sharply restricts useful learning and inhibits the development of critical thinking.’

The author of this article confesses that some of the sins and shortcomings of the Indian officers reported in this excellent book by Col David may well have been his own, as he attended the course in 1985.

Col Alok Asthana is a veteran. He can be contacted at [email protected].