“A key responsibility of the senior leadership in war is to provide the strategic vision that enables tactical applications to win. In peace, it is to maintain the strategic vision of what is required to win in war – the culture and associated norms that must be carried into battle.”

T. Owen Jacobs & Elliott Jaques
In Handbook of Military Psychology

Changing Security Environment and Impact

The task of the Armed Forces today, is far more complex than just defending the territorial integrity of the country. As stated by the report submitted by the Estimates Committee of the Parliament on 20 Aug 92, “To defend the territorial integrity of the country is needless over simplification.” Development of a nation depends on security within the nation and of its institutions. The armed forces are the last resort or the ultimate element of power available to the government to ensure security and protection of its institutions. In his address to the passing out cadets from the Indian Military Academy on 10 Dec 06 President APJ Abdul Kalam stated, “When you young officers are posted to various units, you should remember that national development and national security have to go together.”  Among the major tasks essential to be performed by the armed forces involves protecting the interests of a nation from emerging threats.

The last decade has witnessed the threat environment constantly changing and evolving. The possibility of a typical conventional war recedes especially in the nuclear backdrop as existing within our subcontinent. There is simultaneously a greater danger of increased instability in the nations surrounding us due to their own internal strife. This adversely affects the overall security environment and impacts on economic growth and development in the region. This coupled with the dangers of failed and failing states in near vicinity of India further complicate the threat scenario. The involvement of western powers in Iraq and Afghanistan and the future prospects of peace and stability in the region are a cause for concern. India, as a growing power, both in economy and military might would be in some form involved.

The world would soon expect India to play its rightful role in the international arena. In an article Nicholas Burns states “India today is an emerging world power, interacting with all major international players in joint exercises and thus flexing its military might. The world powers have realized the important role the Indian Armed Forces would play in the future. India is, of course, the region’s largest country and its dominant economic and military power. We are now working closely with India for the very first time to limit conflict and build long-term peace throughout South Asia. We see India as a stabilizing force in an often violent and unstable part of the world.” This role would involve the armed forces ensuring internal and external security of the nation, providing assistance during natural calamities not only within the country but also in the area of its interest and influence, projecting national power well beyond its borders, defending economic interests and investments across the world and leading operations to ensure stability and reduce threats in the near neighbourhood as also in our area of influence. The Prime Minister had recently stated that our area of interest extends from the East Coast of Africa to the Malacca Straits.  

In addition, the nature of future wars is also changing. With the advent of long range accurate delivery systems capable of targeting strategic targets, increased battle field transparency and effective surveillance, the importance of gaining of strategic intelligence and determining enemy intentions gains paramount priority. The link between capability and intentions must be clearly comprehended and monitored. Continuous monitoring of areas of national interest and national security in and around the neighbourhood needs no amplification. Therefore warfare of the future would involve understanding not only complexities of modern warfare but also the increased impact of the political and cultural dimensions on war waging. 

The changing security environment and futuristic nature of warfare will affect the armed forces leadership. We as the armed forces are traditionally more comfortable with the existing system wherein threats are clearly identified, the organization caters to them and capabilities or force structure developed or created to meet them. The environment of the future would possibly show a changed threat scenario, with threats emerging from unexpected quarters and dimensions and of varying forms. 

In our case too, the national security environment is continuously changing. This places on us a need to evolve our strategic end states for the long term and consequently the intellectual transition from the tactical and operational levels to the strategic level gets far more complex. The existing security environment has also affected the relationship between the existing levels of war. No few words can adequately convey the complex nature of the international environment we confront. The senior officer of today must acquire a much more sophisticated understanding of the integration of all of the elements of national power (military, diplomatic, economic, and informational) in the pursuit of national objectives.

Strategic Leadership and Military Strategic Leadership

The term “Strategic Leadership” refers to leadership at the highest echelons of large, complex organizations. In these situations, the leader is more remotely removed from contact with subordinates and more concerned with critical, long term issues (which are often broad and ill defined) – such as establishing or reinforcing the organization culture and values, long term decision making, or prioritizing the allocation of scarce resources.  It can also be termed as a process used to affect the achievement of a desirable and clearly understood vision by influencing organizational culture, allocating resources, generating activities and building consensus within a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous global environment marked by possibilities and opportunities.

 Strategic leadership then can be said to involve the ability to anticipate, envision, maintain flexibility, and empower others to create strategic change. The strategic leader is involved in multi functional tasks and works through others. Not all leaders who have led with aplomb at the operational level make successful strategic leaders. Histories of all armed forces are replete with a number of leaders who have been very successful at the tactical and operational level, however have failed at the strategic level. Strategic leadership in the military is at variance from that in the corporate and thus needs some deliberation. 

Strategic leadership at the national security level, as compared to their civilian counterparts, function in an atmosphere of ‘zero error’. Since their responsibilities revolve around the security of the nation and protection of vital national interests, hence the resources at their command are immense, yet compared to the enormity of the task will always be short of the desired level. In addition, these strategic leaders are compelled to take decisions in an environment of tremendous uncertainty and risk.

With India flexing its military muscle and being involved in a greater level of international cooperation with other armed forces around the globe, it is likely that we would be called upon to play a greater role in international conflicts and calamities, especially in areas of our interest and influence. As a nation we are presently amongst the largest contributors to UN peace keeping forces. The requirement to operate effectively in a multinational environment demands an international perspective — understanding the political, economic, and social factors in other countries. It becomes an essential part of the strategic frame of reference to make clear the meaning of actions taken, words spoken, and, perhaps more important, words and expectations unspoken. 

    The essence of the military role at the strategic level is to advice civilian authorities on the measured application of violence in the pursuit of national goals and objectives. As a result, senior officers and their staff would operate in a more complex task environment than in the past. The objective of strategic leadership is to ensure the long-term effectiveness of the armed forces, through internal integration and management of organizational systems, and by positioning the forces favourably in relation to its environment. Leadership at this level would support both, national-strategic interests and acquiring and allocating military-strategic capabilities to meet the needs of ensuring security of these interests. They would also be responsible for the professional health of the armed forces.

Strategic Environment and Functioning

    The environment for strategic leaders in the military is not only complex but has an interplay of a large number of factors which span a very wide spectrum. No few words can adequately convey the complex nature of the international environment we confront. The senior leader of today must acquire a much more sophisticated understanding of the integration of all the elements of national power in pursuit of national objectives.     Military Strategic leaders function in an environment which is complex, ambiguous and has competing priorities. Their world involves dealing with competing resources and priorities. To enable strategic leaders to be effective, they must understand and be aware of the external environment, both within and outside the nation over which they have little or no control. The strategic decision making process normally deals with four barriers: rate of environmental change (volatility), unpredictability of change (uncertainty), the intricacy of key decision factors (complexity), and vagueness about the current situation and potential outcomes (ambiguity). 

    Military strategic leaders have specific responsibilities. The first is managing the relationship between the nation’s total armed forces and the national policy apparatus. This plays a major role in obtaining necessary resources for developing the armed forces as also maintaining the forces in being.  Alvin Toffler in his book, ‘War and Anti War states, “In a logical world it is impossible to know how big a military budget a country needs until a country has a strategy and can assess its requirements. As former Secretary of State Dick Cheney once told us in the real world budgets drives strategy, strategy does not drive budgets.” The second is representing the organization in its relationships with the larger society.  In this the armed forces are a part of the nation and integrating the armed forces with the main stream would pay handsome dividends. The third is creating the future operating capability of the military. This process of capability planning is a major exercise and has to be done in coordination with a number of government agencies and think tanks. It must be in tune with government aims, desires and national aspirations. At the same time it must be in the nature of joint capabilities, and planned for a long duration. Capabilities take time to develop and cost a fortune. Developing wrong or undesired capabilities imply large sunk costs, which no nation can afford. In an article in the Washington Post on 10 May 2007, Raymond E Johns states, “The dilemma is the age-old one for military planners: how to support our forces engaged in today’s fight while investing in the skills, technologies and equipment to confront future strategic challenges.” The fourth is managing joint and combined lateral relationships amongst the different services and with representatives of other countries in both peace and war. This aspect is a serious drawback and in the present context much needs to be done.

They must also have the ability to influence the environment- both external and internal. The most obvious and critical area of external influence at the national-strategic level is in civil-military relations. In today’s environment when all actions of the armed forces are in clear public scrutiny their role in managing this environment becomes even more critical. Relations between the armed forces and all levels of government need to be managed to be able to obtain a whole of government approach in dealing with a crises. In the internal environment senior leaders must not only epitomize professional qualities, but also assume, by virtue of their status, broad responsibilities to foster and maintain a culture based on military professionalism. 

In addition leaders at the strategic level must have qualities which enable them to influence the environment. In the military, the quality which is essential for strategic leaders to have to be able to influence the environment is communication. What seems to be critically important in achieving internal alignment is relentless communication and explanation of the strategic intent as broadly and deeply in the organization as possible.

    The domain of strategic leaders is the future. Strategic leaders make decisions that in most cases will not come to fruition during their watch. This is more so in the armed forces due to limited tenures. Thus all decisions by strategic leaders involve future planning and are long term. Therefore they need to have conceptual abilities needed for strategic leaders. Some of the qualities essential for strategic leaders are a profound scanning ability of the environment, the ability and disposition to solve complex problems, anticipatory approach and a willingness to develop future options. These capabilities need to be developed over a period of time. Part of it would be inherent due to experience and exposure, the balance would have to be taught and developed. 

    This raises the issue of preparing strategic leaders for the future. At what stage do we begin to train and prepare leaders for undertaking strategic responsibilities?

Developing Strategic Leaders

    The armed forces leader development process is founded in three dynamic pillars- of institutional training (basic military training in its schools and colleges of instruction), operational assignments and self-development. Senior and strategic leader development is a natural extension of this process. Logically the development pattern followed provides experience in system coordination, followed by system integration and ultimately systems design.

    First and foremost, the professional Army officer must of course be firmly grounded in the fundamentals of tactics, technology, and leadership. These are clearly the basics. Officers will need to have a better understanding of basic strategic concepts earlier in their careers, with a continuing emphasis on that as a component of an officer’s education throughout his or her career.

    In India, the major courses that an officer attends as part of his career progression are the Staff Course, the Higher Defence or Management Course and the National Defence Course. Each course has an aim. However no course has a high strategic content except the National Defence Course. This has been a major drawback. This has resulted in our officers not being exposed to learning strategy till very late in service. 

    In today’s context, to grow strategic leaders for the growing involvement and demands for the armed forces, we cannot wait until the officers’ reach very senior ranks to educate them in strategy and security studies. This should be a part of the professional military education program from the early stages of an officer’s, building continuously at each level through continuing education. The senior experience can then become a homing program as opposed to an introduction to strategy. There is therefore a need to commence teaching of strategy, its formulation and understanding from the Staff Course onwards developing its content as the level of course progresses. 

    It would benefit not only the officers as they progress in service but also enable officers understand the requirements at the strategic level when they are posted in staff at Service and HQ IDS levels. They would be able to perform better and provide correct advice at that level. 

    The ideal methodology recommended to be adopted would be to introduce the subject in the Staff Course level with the basic fundamentals and the strategic process covered. The next stage would be to expose officers attending the higher level of courses to strategic planning, decision making, strategy implementation and impact of lack of strategic thought and planning. This stage could also involve a strategic planning exercise. The National Defence Course could be the stage to hone the skills of the officers in strategic concepts and understanding. 


    To implement the above recommendations would require a major mental change at all levels in our armed forces, as we are more intent on operational rather than strategic issues. However, the changing environment dictates that we change this mindset and commence imparting greater emphasis on strategic planning and thinking within the armed forces. As an officer progresses in his service his knowledge, understanding and impact of strategic thinking must grow. This would in time bring better awareness in the armed forces.

Brig Harsha Kakar, an alumna of NDA was commissioned into the Regiment of Artillery in 1979. The officer is a graduate of LGSC, DSSC and LDMC. He has also attended the National Security Studies Course at the Canadian Forces College, Toronto. He has been an instructor at the School of Artillery, GSO 1 (Ops) of an Infantry Division, DAMS in MS Branch and a Directing Staff at the College of Defence Management. He is presently commanding an Artillery Brigade.

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