There’s room for both Sun Tzu and Kautilya in Indian military doctrine

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“Rommel, you magnificent b*****d, I read your book,” exclaimed George Patton on seeing German tanks retreating in North Africa in 1943. This depiction in the block-buster movie Patton points to the fact that it is the knowledge that is important, not its source. Successful leaders are not shy of imbibing it from anywhere, even an adversary.

The Indian armed forces have evolved from the British military and certain legacies and traditions emanate from there. War fighting doctrines and strategies have drawn heavily from the colonial era but, as technology has advanced, the Indian military has imbibed expertise from the forces of other countries with whom they have regularly interacted. Our training academies, too, have reformed, with professional military education (PME) getting a look-over every few years. This may not be happening, though, with the regularity and rigour necessary vis-à-vis the rapid advances in technology, especially those related to cyberspace.

The bedrock of PME is military doctrine. In simple words, a doctrine is the best way of doing a task. It is the source from which objectives, strategy, training and tactics flow; the results are fed back as inputs for it to be modified if required. Doctrine will ossify, with unfavourable results on the battlefield, if not put through a review process. In light of this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address at the Commanders’ Conference on March 6 gains significance. The PM, as per the official press release, “stressed the importance of enhancing indigenisation in the national security system, not just in sourcing equipment and weapons but also in the doctrines, procedures and customs practised in the armed forces.” This, quite rightly, would have triggered a spate of activities in diverse areas, including in PME. The danger is that while encouraging indigenous strategic thought, inputs from “foreign” writings could get short shrift due the “more-loyal-than-the-king” syndrome. This is a slippery path.

Knowledge is not the preserve of a person, a group, or a nation. It is also not bound by a period, a civilisational expanse, or religious or social ideology. If the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu or the German thinker Clausewitz said something timeless, then it needs to be imbibed as much as what Kautilya wrote in the Arthshastra and Thiruvalluvar in his Kurals. It is true that indigenous teachings have not got their due in the Indian military thought. But it would be illogical if doctrines are re-written, to the exclusion of learnings from foreign strategists. One is sure that was not what the PM meant when he referred to indigenisation. There needs to be a conscious effort to ensure that the fundamental thought process is not affected by triumphalism with regard to history.

The caution is all the more necessary since the higher defence organisation is in a state of churn with the creation of the new Department of Military Affairs, the post of CDS, and forthcoming upheavals in the fundamentals of how India would be fighting its wars — the creation of theatre commands. If doctrines get written concurrently, premised primarily on “indigenous” thought, then with this cocktail of all-around changes we could be sailing into choppy waters.

The 2014 UK Joint Doctrine 0-01 starts with a Sun Tzu quote: “Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory is won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and then looks for victory”. This is timeless and not country-specific. Similarly, the US Army ADP1-01 Doctrine Primer commences with a quote of J F C Fuller, the British military historian. Red flags must go up if a “feeling” starts swirling that Indian strategic thought, born out of a centuries-old civilisation, is superior to the teachings of other wise men. Let’s learn from the Chinese who have assimilated the best practices from other countries in all fields, including in the realm of military strategy, to reach the developmental stage they are in. Let’s continue to learn from American, UK and other war colleges where the works of Clausewitz, Sun Tzu and others are discussed, debated and assimilated in their doctrinal thought. For sure, Kautilya et al must also be brought into the mainstream. However, let us not forget that of the four wars we have fought since Independence, we were victorious in three – surely, there are some good fundamentals on which Indian military and strategic thought have evolved.

The writer is a retired Air Vice Marshal

 

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