Challenges for Military Leadership in the 21st Century


Hybrid Nature of Combat. The nature of combat has changed steadily over the years, but the most dramatic change occurred in the nineties at the end of the cold war. A new dimension, the 4th Generation and now the 5th Generation, aptly being termed as 'Hybrid Warfare' has been added. This has been to the fore in recent conflicts in the Middle-East and Afghanistan. Whilst the Indian Army has seen both conventional combat, as well as engaged in long periods of counter-insurgency, we are yet to experience the full dimensions of hybrid warfare. The question that arises is "what type of military leaders do we need to combat 'Hybrid Warfare', and more importantly are we training and grooming our leaders, especially at the higher levels appropriately. This in itself is a separate subject of study, but some qualities that have become most essential are- wider education base, innovation and adaptability, boldness and risk taking abilities. More important are ability and willingness to look over the horizon, thus being prepared for newer threats & challenges before they hit us. The Army Training Command would be well advised to review its approach to training with a great focus on 'why' rather than 'how' an appropriate mix of training and education.

Harmonising Technology & human Resources. We have largely been overwhelmed by the power point. With slick presentations prepared by smart staff officers, everyone seems to be on top of the situation, whereas in reality there is considerable hollowness. Yes, technology needs to be harnessed to our operational advantage, but optimum value will only be achieved when this is harmonised with human resources, certainly not at the cost of it. Robust military leadership can be optimised through technology, not substituted by it. Recent bias towards science & technology at the cost of art & humanities need a relook. The art of warfare, especially at the operational level cannot as yet, be substituted by the science of it. A recent initiative to turn NDA, totally science oriented and technical, has thankfully been shelved.

Decision making in a complex environment. A complex matrix of factors is making 'decision making' very challenging in the 21st Century. The information overload is clouding minds and it requires true leadership qualities to distinguish wheat from the chaff. Good communications are tempting commanders to reach down levels, thus local conditions are having a disproportionate influence on higher level decision making. Consequences of decision making are making more and more military leaders, especially at the senior level - "Risk Averse". If a leader is to pursue an ethos of "Risk Avoidance", he will seldom be able to exploit opportunities that come his way, and this ethos is infectious, leading to an army of conformists, with a tendency to look over their shoulders. We have seen glimpses of this in recent encounters on the line of control (LC), where local commanders hesitated to react, awaiting instructions from higher HQs.

Mediocrity to the Fore. Meritocracy in the armed forces is still sufficiently valued, but mediocrity is creeping up. Among many factors, reservation introduced at the colonel to brigadier level is now beginning to push up mediocrity in larger portions than is desirable in senior ranks. A concerted effort to introduce it at 'Two Star' rank was thwarted with great difficulty by some of us on the high table. Had it succeeded, the results would have been disastrous for the well-being, efficiency and morale of the Indian Army. Medicrity/mediocre performance cannot be allowed to prosper in the armed forces, where lives are at stake, where decisions by military commanders can mean the difference between life and death.

Culture of Careerism. This is a hard truth of the last few decades, and in a limited form, it may be considered benign. However, shortened command tenures are exacerbating performance anxieties, leading to micro-management and 'No slip up' syndrome, thus lowering the vital ingredient of trust between leaders at various levels and even between the leader and the led. Every event, however minor, has these days, become a do or die event, with little leeway for subordinates to have any  luxury of erring and correcting or engage in prudent risk taking.

Transparency. Power of the Social Media. This is a hard truth of the 21st Century that has to be recognised by all leaders, especially those in high places. Aspects even of a trivial nature become viral over social media and tend to be blown out of proportion. Te electronic media also tends to favour negative portrayal. Therefore, recognising this reality, military leaders need to be not only ethical and correct, but also transparent. At the same time, the organisation needs to look within and also educate and discuss the issue, so that its own don't start spreading this malaise. In-house mechanisms should be vibrant to offer redressal of grievances, even against the hierarchy.

Trend towards Egalitarianism. The 21st Century trend is towards a classes society in the socio-economic and political domains. There is increasing discomfort towards authority, especially perks that go with such authority. Recent debates in the country on many issues are reflective of this trend. Our men and young leaders come from the same stock; therefore, what are silent whispers today are bound to grow.

Officer's Shortage Impacting Operational Effectiveness and Efficiency. For too long, we have tried to live with a shortage of officers. Whilst managing in peace time, such shortages have a serious impact in operational situations. And I dare say, the next rung of JCOs and NCOs haven't been able to fill this void. World over, the trend in modern warfare is towards officer intensive roles; we are milking existing units/Formations to meet the requirement of new organisations, seriously impacting our functional efficiency. Whilst some steps have been taken, they are not bold enough.

Distractions and Peace Time Clutter. Bulk of our Army lives in peace stations and should be focussed on training for their role/task assigned. Since we live in social groups with families, a little bit of peace time distraction is unavoidable. It becomes a problem when it starts replacing the main job. Added to this is the undue emphasis on 'Event Management' as a core activity. Visits by senior officers, sports/social events including AWWA/family activities, which should be taken in our normal stride, assume larger than life proportions and are often seen as a chance for career progression, specially by mediocre leaders. The burden invariably falls on the junior leadership and the troops, distracting them and, perhaps, adding to cynicism and demotivation.

Ethics and Morals- The Difficulty of being Good. We are living in the midst of the 21st Century society, where standards of ethics and morals have reached a low point. Whilst the society may learn to cope and live with this, we in the armed forces cannot afford any such dilution. On the other hand, maintaining the high levels of ethics has itself become very challenging. When we talk of integrity, we need to cover not only personal but also professional integrity. The Chetwode Motto has guided us for long, but is it adequate, or do we need a more detailed code to guide the armed forces on this vital issue.


Journal of the Armoured Corps
(The Cavalier - Volume:XXXXIX / 2015) 




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