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Tactical Acumen to Strategic Brilliance: How Indian Air Force Has Upped Its Professional Military Education

Tactical Acumen to Strategic Brilliance: How Indian Air Force Has Upped Its Professional Military Education

Teenagers often believe that joining the National Defence Academy (NDA) offers an escape from academic studies. This perception arises from the misconception that physical strength is more valued than intellectual capabilities in the military. Even those who enter the armed forces directly after graduation often believe that their educational phase has ended. However, these dreams and notions are shattered when individuals join institutions like the NDA, Indian Military Academy (IMA), Air Force Academy (AFA), or Indian Naval Academy (INA).

Upon entering these academies, individuals quickly realize that their journey is far from being an escape from studies. The NDA and follow-on academies emphasize a holistic development approach combining rigorous physical training and intellectual growth. Trainees are exposed to various academic disciplines, leadership training, and specialized military knowledge.

In reality, military personnel require a potent blend of both physical and intellectual capabilities. The modern military landscape demands individuals who possess physical fitness, combat skills, critical thinking, problem-solving abilities, and adaptability. The armed forces rely on well-rounded individuals who can make sound judgments, analyze complex situations, and effectively lead teams.

The academies above provide a comprehensive education encompassing subjects such as military science, strategy, technology, leadership principles, and national security studies. Trainees are encouraged to develop their intellectual capabilities alongside their physical prowess. The aim is to cultivate officers who can handle the multifaceted challenges of a military career, ranging from tactical decision-making to diplomatic engagements.

India's Air Force at pivotal crossroad: Challenges and choices looking to  2032 | ORF

Therefore, while the notion of ‘escape from studies’ may be appealing to some teenagers, the reality is that a military career demands continuous learning and growth. The academies serve as institutions of higher education that equip aspiring officers with the necessary knowledge and skills to excel in their military roles.

Ultimately, the journey through the NDA and subsequent academies is a transformative experience that moulds individuals into well-rounded leaders capable of navigating the complexities of the military profession. It is a path that requires dedication, intellectual curiosity, and a commitment to lifelong learning.

Academics played a significant role in the academies, and students quickly realized they needed to pay attention to this aspect. The development of their intellect was deemed just as crucial as the strengthening of their physical capabilities. Every officer would attest to the fact that their engagement with books, manuals, and training notes extended well into their careers. Pursuing knowledge continued to be an integral part of their professional growth.

Despite the emphasis on training, little thought or importance was initially given to Professional Military Education (PME). The focus remained predominantly on practical training rather than a comprehensive education encompassing strategic and theoretical aspects. This lack of emphasis on PME became evident when observing the conversations and writings of senior military leaders. While they frequently discussed and emphasized the importance of training, PME received far less attention. This trend continued until the Kargil conflict.

It was during the Kargil Review Committee’s evaluation of the conflict that the significance of PME was underscored. The committee recognized the need for a more comprehensive approach to military education and recommended the establishment of an Indian National Defence University (INDU).

This recommendation marked a turning point in the recognition and promotion of PME within the Indian military.
The late Air Commodore Jasjit Singh was a staunch advocate for PME and recognized its vital role in developing strategic thinkers and leaders within the armed forces. Unfortunately, his efforts to prioritize PME did not gain much traction until the Kargil conflict brought the need for it to the forefront.

Indian Air Force | Indian Defence Industries

The Kargil Review Committee’s endorsement of PME and the subsequent recommendation for the establishment of INDU brought about a renewed focus on comprehensive military education. The envisioned university aimed to provide a platform for advanced study, research, and collaboration among military professionals, academics, and policy experts. It was seen as a crucial step in developing a cadre of military leaders who possessed not only operational proficiency but also a deep understanding of strategic and policy dimensions.

The establishment of INDU signalled a shift in mindset and a recognition of the importance of holistic education for military officers. It acknowledged that military professionals need to be well-versed in a wide range of disciplines, including military strategy, geopolitics, international relations, technology, and leadership.

PME became an essential component in nurturing officers who could effectively navigate the complexities of modern warfare and contribute to the development of national security policies.While training and PME are critical components in military education, they have distinct differences.

Training primarily focuses on acquiring specific skills and knowledge that are immediately applicable to the role of a warrior. It aims to develop psycho-motor skills, technical expertise, and muscle memory necessary for performing tasks precisely and efficiently.

The primary objective of the training is to prepare individuals for specific operational scenarios and ensure their readiness to face known challenges. It is centred around achieving certainty in executing predefined tasks.

On the other hand, PME takes a more comprehensive approach to military education. It goes beyond the immediate skills required for the job at hand and delves into the theoretical, conceptual, and strategic aspects of warfare.

PME seeks to develop a deeper understanding of military strategy, leadership, decision-making, and the broader geopolitical and socio-cultural factors that influence conflicts. It aims to cultivate critical thinking, analytical skills, and the ability to adapt to evolving situations. Unlike training, PME prepares individuals for uncertainty and the complexities of modern warfare, where the outcomes and challenges may be unpredictable.
While training focuses on the here and now, PME emphasizes long-term professional development.

It equips military professionals with the knowledge and intellectual tools necessary for strategic planning, policy formulation, and operational command. PME fosters a broader perspective, enabling officers to understand the interconnectedness of military operations within the larger national security context. It encourages officers to think beyond immediate tasks and consider the strategic implications of their actions.

Both training and PME are crucial for military professionals. Training provides the foundation of practical skills and operational proficiency, while PME enriches their understanding and equips them with the knowledge and mindset required for leadership and decision-making in complex environments.

These two components work in synergy to develop well-rounded military leaders who can effectively navigate diverse challenges and contribute to the overall success of military operations.PME goes beyond the immediate skills and tasks required for military operations and focuses on the intellectual, conceptual, and ethical foundations of leadership. It aims to develop critical thinking skills and the ability to think strategically, enabling officers to understand the underlying reasons and principles behind military decisions and actions. PME seeks to cultivate a broader understanding of the complexities of warfare, including its political, social, and ethical dimensions.

Unlike training, which focuses on specific skills and achieving certainty in task execution, PME takes a more indirect and long-term approach. It encourages officers to explore the “why” of issues, analyze historical and contemporary conflicts, and develop a deeper understanding of strategic decision-making. PME helps officers develop the ability to anticipate and adapt to uncertain and rapidly changing situations, preparing them to navigate complex and dynamic operational environments.

Unfortunately, in many military organizations, including in India, there has been a historical bias towards emphasizing training over education. The focus has often been on acquiring technical skills and operational proficiency, with less emphasis on the development of a strategic mindset and critical thinking abilities. As a result, the cultivation of intellectual capacity, the honing of analytical skills, and the tolerance for ambiguity have been somewhat neglected.

Recognizing the importance of PME, efforts are being made to enhance its role and significance in military education. The establishment of institutions like the Indian National Defence University (INDU) and the inclusion of PME in the curriculum of various military academies and staff colleges are steps in the right direction. These initiatives aim to bridge the gap between training and education, ensuring that military officers receive a well-rounded and comprehensive education that prepares them for leadership challenges in a complex and uncertain world.

By prioritizing PME alongside training, military organizations can develop leaders who possess not only the technical skills but also the intellectual acumen and strategic thinking necessary to address the complexities of modern warfare.

Through a balanced integration of training and PME, military professionals can acquire a holistic understanding of their profession, make informed decisions, and contribute effectively to the defence and security of their nations.Indian Air Force (IAF) took the initiative to recognize the significance of PME and established the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS) in 2001. CAPS serves as a think tank that focuses on strategic and policy-oriented research in the field of air power and security studies.

The location of CAPS within the precincts of Western Air Command may create an impression that it is an “in-house” think tank of the IAF. However, it is important to note that CAPS operates autonomously and independently. Its relationship with the IAF is symbiotic and mutually enriching, allowing for collaboration and exchange of knowledge and insights. This partnership ensures that the research conducted at CAPS is relevant to the needs and challenges faced by the IAF while also benefiting from the broader perspectives and expertise of external researchers and scholars.

By establishing CAPS, the IAF has demonstrated its commitment to fostering intellectual development and promoting strategic thinking among its personnel. The think tank serves as a platform for research, analysis, and dialogue on air power, defence policies, and related areas. It helps generate new ideas, perspectives, and recommendations that can inform the IAF’s strategic decision-making processes and contribute to developing the broader defence and security discourse in India.

The existence of CAPS highlights the IAF’s recognition of the importance of PME in preparing its officers for leadership roles and enhancing their understanding of air power and national security. By engaging in rigorous research, participating in policy debates, and promoting academic collaborations, the IAF is actively contributing to the cultivation of a strategic mindset and the advancement of knowledge in the field of air power.

The efforts of CAPS, along with other initiatives aimed at promoting PME, are crucial for the professional growth and development of military leaders. They contribute to the broader goal of strengthening India’s defence capabilities, fostering strategic thinking, and ensuring that the armed forces are well-prepared to meet the evolving challenges of the modern security landscape.

CAPS has been actively engaged in organizing seminars and conferences on various topics related to national security, geopolitics, aerospace power, nuclear issues, and diplomacy. These initiatives provide a platform for IAF personnel to engage in discussions, exchange ideas, and gain insights into strategic matters. By bringing together experts, scholars, and practitioners, these events contribute to the development of a strategic mindset among the participants.

The seminars and conferences conducted by CAPS in collaboration with all commands of the IAF serve as valuable platforms for learning and knowledge-sharing. They provide opportunities for officers to expand their understanding of contemporary security challenges and explore innovative approaches to addressing them. The discussions and interactions during these events help shape a strategic bent of mind among the participants, enabling them to think critically and analyze complex issues from multiple perspectives.

In addition to organizing seminars and conferences, CAPS plays a vital role in facilitating research and publishing scholarly works. The fellowships offered by CAPS provide opportunities for IAF officers, both serving and retired, to engage in in-depth research and contribute to the academic and policy discourse. The publications that result from these fellowships are invaluable resources that offer intuitive and analytical insights into various aspects of national security and air power.

The knowledge and expertise gained through these research fellowships and publications not only benefit the IAF personnel but also contribute to the wider academic and defence communities. They serve as a treasure trove of knowledge and contribute to developing robust literature on strategic and security studies. The research outputs of CAPS fellows help bridge the gap between theory and practice, providing practical insights and policy recommendations that can inform decision-making processes.

Overall, the initiatives undertaken by CAPS in organizing seminars, facilitating research fellowships, and publishing scholarly works play a significant role in promoting PME within the IAF. By nurturing a culture of continuous learning and intellectual engagement, CAPS contributes to the professional development of IAF personnel and enhances their ability to navigate complex strategic challenges in the evolving security landscape.Over the past 15 years, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has made commendable efforts to prioritize and enhance Professional Military Education (PME).

The establishment of the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS) in 2001 was a significant milestone, providing a platform for strategic thinking and intellectual engagement within the IAF. Although autonomous and independent, CAPS has maintained a symbiotic relationship with the IAF, conducting seminars and conferences on various themes in collaboration with all IAF commands.

Recognizing the need to develop a strategic mindset among its officers, the IAF introduced mandatory PME courses for junior officers in 2007. The Basic Air Staff Course (BASCO) and Intermediate Air Staff Course (ISCO) exposed officers to subjects such as regional studies, geopolitics, international relations, air campaigns, military history, jointness, and leadership. These courses incorporated a blend of distance learning, peer learning, self-learning, and guidance from experienced officers serving as Directing Staff (DS) in the Faculty of Leadership & Air Power at the Air Force Administrative College.

Indian Air Force Day flypast at Chandigarh on October 8 : The Tribune India

The success of these PME courses has been acknowledged both within and outside India. Officers from countries like Mauritius, Bangladesh, Benin, Nepal, Afghanistan, and others have participated, and the feedback has been exceptionally positive. Unfortunately, BASCO was discontinued in 2021, but ISCO continues to be an enriching course and a stepping stone towards the Air Staff Course.

At the middle and senior levels, the IAF has structured PME programs such as the Air Staff Course, Defence Services Technical Staff Course (DSTSC), Higher Air Command Course (HACC), and participation in courses conducted by Army War College, Naval War College, and College of Defence Management. Additionally, select officers attend programs like the Nuclear Strategy Capsule, National Defence & Strategic Studies Course, and Advance Professional Programme in Public Administration to broaden their knowledge base.

In 2022, the IAF introduced the Warfare and Aerospace Strategy Programme (WASP), a 15-week strategic education program aimed at nurturing critical thinkers and generating policy-driving ideas at the strategic level. WASP is a testament to the IAF’s commitment to take PME to an even higher level and fostering intellectual dynamism.

Despite these positive developments, the IAF still faces challenges in fully embracing PME. The importance of PME needs to be more widely understood, and there can be confusion between training and education. Tactical requirements sometimes overshadow the long-term perspective of PME. The IAF needs to ensure that officers with a strategic bent of mind and intellectual curiosity are not disadvantaged in their career progression. The leadership at all levels must take ownership and foster a culture of intellectual dynamism.

Professional Education and Military Learning in the 21st Century

Nevertheless, the IAF’s efforts in prioritizing PME have significantly increased the knowledge bandwidth of its officers in strategic matters. Introducing the Chief of Air Staff reading list and promoting reading books among officers reflect a positive step toward intellectual growth. Educational courses like ISCO, HACC, and WASP have sparked a hunger for knowledge and transformed officers into scholar-air warriors.

The IAF’s commitment to upgrading its PME aligns with its vision of being an agile and adaptable air force that provides decisive aerospace power in service of national interests. By developing a critical mass of strategic leaders, the IAF ensures it is well-equipped to fulfil its responsibilities and contribute effectively to the nation’s security.

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