What's Stopping Our Armed Forces From Leveraging Imaginative Thinking?

While funds are crucial for capacity enhancement, our armed forces could draw upon their capacity for 'out of box' thinking to solve some challenges.

The defence budget’s share in gross domestic product (GDP) terms this year has been lowest since the Indo-China War in 1962. Over the last several years, numerous reports, including the Comptroller and Auditor General’s, have pointed out alarming deficiencies in the stockpile of ordnance and resources allocated for the Indian armed force’s modernisation.

While in any democracy the onus of maintaining the ‘fitness for purpose’ of the armed forces rests squarely on the political leadership and the bureaucracy (as indeed is reflected in the Indian government’s rules of business) – the armed forces can perhaps leverage a resource that they don’t need from their civilian bosses. And that is –imaginative thinking. Here are some examples.

It is clear to any strategist that the Indian army’s junior leadership (short of an all-out war) is far more likely to face situations like those encountered by Major Leetul Gogoi last year in Kashmir, wherein they will face belligerent crowds. But our junior leaders are never taught negotiation skills during their training.

Similarly, armies across the world are weaponising drones for reconnaissance and delivering lethal payloads. Sooner or later, drones will find their way into the weapons inventory down to battalion levels. It is not just about piloting the drones though. The army needs skills in airspace management and air traffic control. Why can’t the army proactively prepare hundreds of officers each year for that eventuality, in the military academies? Similarly, why aren’t offensive and defensive psychological operations being taught to cadets leveraging social media platforms? Whose ‘permission’ does the army need to revamp its obsolete syllabus which still wastes time teaching cadets to write demi-official letters at the cost of these modern war skills?

For over two decades now, every threat assessment accentuates emergence of the fifth dimension – cyberspace – as a significant theatre of war. The Corps of Signals is responsible for operations in cyberwar. The main gate of their alma mater at the Military College of Telecommunication Engineering in Mhow, Madhya Pradesh, prominently proclaims itself as the home of ‘cyber warriors’. And yet, even in this day and age, these ‘cyber warriors’ are required to pass the Battle Proficiency Efficiency Tests, a set of physical fitness tests, designed for primarily infantry operations.

The army loses hundreds of soldiers every year due to accidents during training and operations. Almost all of these trained soldiers are boarded out from the army. What stops the army from conducting training capsules for eligible wounded soldiers to retrain them for cyber operations? The skilled amongst them can be transferred to specially created cyber units and the ‘not so skilled’ can be assigned to divisional headquarters to simply patch systems. What does it take to realise that it is far easier to teach hacking to soldiers than to teach soldiering to hackers? Why can’t the army augment their cyber capability by leveraging this otherwise wasted talent?

Speaking of hackers accessing enemy information, there is much talk of a ‘two-and-half-front’ war these days. How many Mandarin readers can the armed forces muster against our eastern foe? While Pakistan has mandated teaching Mandarin to its citizens, most Indian armed forces’ officers will be hard pressed to even name a dozen Chinese cities. So much for Chinese military strategist Sun Zu’s teachings about ‘knowing’ one’s enemy!

Why shouldn’t Chinese language skills be made mandatory for passing even junior level exams? Why isn’t the language being taught in Sainik Schools at stages when linguistic skills are easily imbibed? Why is our contemporary tactical training not aligned with our future strategic threats?

The Indian Military Academy in Dehradun is approximately 30 kilometres from the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie, the alma mater of the Indian Administrative Services (as well the Indian Police Service for their foundation course). It is, therefore, an irony that the first time officers from the armed forces, the IAS and IPS had any meaningful synergy was after approximately 30 years of service, when a handful of them train together in the National Defence College in Delhi for a year. What stops the respective deans of the aforementioned academies from fostering camaraderie between these services right from their cadet days so they can forge friendships through their respective careers? Why can’t these academies hold exchanges, debates, tournaments and even joint training? Who do they need resources from to make this happen?

The India-China border at Nathula. Credit: PTI

Why shouldn’t Chinese language skills be made mandatory for passing even junior level armed forces exams? Indo-China border at Nathula. Credit: PTI/Files

During the Second World War, the US Air Force faced a complicated challenge. They had to decide the precise locations on aircraft that needed to be armoured to safeguard planes, especially during dogfights. Each gram of armour made the aircraft more cumbersome especially against their agile adversary – the Japanese Zeros – whose airframe was almost entirely made of wood and fabric. But leaving any part unprotected made US planes more vulnerable. This resulted in loss of their most precious resource – the pilots. The air force looked to solve the problem by studying the returning battle-scarred aircraft and armouring areas that were shot up the most. These were the wings, fuselage and the tail.

Ironically, it was a civilian mathematician Abraham Wald, an Austrian Jewish refugee hounded out by the Nazis, who pointed out that they were basing the armouring on faulty data. The planes that had been shot in the engine and cockpit areas never returned! The allied air force was saved by an ‘enemy alien’ from committing a blunder and saving hundreds of fighters.

What stops our armed forces from turning over their monumental challenges (some of which are enumerated above) to the civilian world, leveraging the ingenuity and energies of patriotic Indians who would be more than happy to pitch in at near zero cost?

There is no denying that our armed forces need substantial capability enhancement and more resources. Every army in the world is short of it. But, constantly citing limitations is not going to solve that problem. While it is fashionable to bay for ‘out of the box’ solutions, finding solutions inside the box of limitations would be imaginative thinking.

The author is former soldier and tweets @captraman. Views are personal.