India’s military leaders have valuable foreign experience that they have gained from ground operations, professional military education and defence diplomacy

In October 2020, when India’s then foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Myanmar, he was accompanied rather unusually by then Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane. General Naravane had previously served as India’s defence attaché in Yangon, thus bringing with him a working familiarity with the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, at a particularly sensitive time for relations between the two countries. Similarly, in June 2021, then Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria visited Bangladesh, where he had previously graduated from the Defence Services Command and Staff College in Dhaka. General Naravane and Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria’s experiences are by no means unique. However, as India prepares to appoint a new Chief of Defence Staff, it is useful to recall the extensive international experiences of its military leadership.

An overview of the backgrounds of all 30 individuals who have served as four-star military commanders in the Indian armed forces since 1998 reveals diverse and significant international experiences ranging from military diplomacy to participation in active conflict zones. It conveys some important trends—considerable hands-on experience by the senior leadership in India’s extended neighbourhood; strong professional military links with the United States and United Kingdom over old partner Russia; and a track record of working with India’s civilian leaders and diplomats.

A Rich History of Defence Diplomacy

As the case of General Naravane in Myanmar showed, several of India’s military chiefs had prior experience as defence attachés. The functions of a defence attaché include intelligence liaising and collection, ascertaining partners’ military capabilities and doctrines, enhancing military-to-military ties, advising the embassy staff on defence policy, and promoting and facilitating Indian defence exports in their host countries.

At least one-third of India’s military chiefs in the post-1998 period have served as defence attachés, including in Europe, West Asia, and the Indo-Pacific region. For example, former Air Chief Marshal Norman Anil Kumar Browne inaugurated the defence wing at the Indian embassy in Israel between 1997 and 2000, whereas Army General Joginder Jaswant Singh did it in Algeria between 1987 and 1990. Air Chief Marshal Shashindra Pal Tyagi was a defence attaché in Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s. In the UK, Admiral Robin Dhowan and Air Chief Marshal Srinivasapuram Krishnaswamy served as the naval and deputy air attaches, respectively.

Given the current spotlight on the Russia-Ukraine war and each country’s significance to India’s arms imports, it is interesting to note that two recent Air Chief Marshals, Arup Raha and RKS Bhadauria, served as defence attaches in Kyiv and Moscow, respectively. Meanwhile, In the Indo-Pacific, Admiral Devendra Joshi was the defence attaché to Singapore and the Philippines. In addition, the incumbent Navy Chief, Admiral Radhakrishnan Hari Kumar, was a naval adviser to the Seychelles government in the early 2000s, a position often held by an Indian military officer and reflective of India’s role as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region.

Importance of Professional Military Education

Professional military education (PME) courses—whether mid-career or at a senior level–give cultural and operational exposure to Indian military officers on the practices of other militaries. These might include the importance of jointness and integration, which is essential at a time when India has, at least on paper, reiterated its plans to create “integrated theatre commands” and strengthen jointness to counter China’s military challenges.

Participation in foreign professional military education programs is a common experience for those who rise to the top of the Indian military command—and this is skewed overwhelmingly towards the US and its allies. At least eleven of the 30 Indian military commanders after 1998 completed higher command and staff courses in the US and UK. Five of ten navy admirals since 1998 are graduates of the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Air Chief Marshal Norman Browne is a graduate of the Air Command and Staff College in Montgomery, Alabama. India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, was a graduate of the US Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. General Vijay Kumar Singh, too, is a graduate of the US Army Rangers School and Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Indian chiefs have also served as faculty abroad—incumbent Air Chief Marshal Vivek Chaudhari was an instructor at the Defence Services Command and Staff College in Zambia. Yet, surprisingly, despite close defence ties between India and Russia, no military Chief of Staff after 1998 has completed a PME course in Russia.

The UK is another popular destination for senior Indian army and navy officers. Incumbent Army Chief General Manoj Pande is a graduate of the Joint Services Command and Staff College at Camberley. Admiral Sunil Lanba is a graduate of the Royal College of Defence Studies, London, whereas Admiral Madhvendra Singh graduated from the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham. In addition, Admiral Nirmal Verma is an alumnus of the erstwhile Royal Naval College at Greenwich.

Such diverse PME exchanges provide an excellent foundation for India and the UK to accelerate their defence and security cooperation in the pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

Overseas Operational Experience Counts

A more visible and equally important experience for Indian military officers is operational deployments abroad, mainly for stabilisation and peacekeeping purposes, including in high-risk conflict zones. Their first-hand experiences in activities like protecting civilians, mine clearance, supporting electoral processes and rebuilding infrastructure have had significant implications for addressing low-intensity conflicts closer to home. At least six officers who would go on to be four-star generals, admirals and air chief marshals are veterans of the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF), which was deployed in Sri Lanka during the country’s civil war in the late-1980s. They include Air Chief Marshal Fali Major, Generals Vijay Kumar Singh, Dalbir Singh, MM Naravane, as well as Admirals Sushil Kumar and Madhvendra Singh.

Admiral Sushil Kumar was also involved in Operation Cactus, which countered a military coup in the Maldives in 1988. Previously, in the 1960s, he had served on secondment to the Royal Navy’s HMS Dampier. In addition, five of ten Chiefs of Army Staff and one navy admiral since 2000 have served as force commanders in the United Nations peacekeeping operations, in Congo, Central America, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, and Somalia, among others.

India’s senior military commanders – those who rise to the level of Chief of Staff – are but a small sample of the country’s military leadership. But their exposure to international diplomacy, professional training, and field experience points to larger trends. The diverse foreign experiences of India’s military officers can be leveraged for more seamless coordination with Indian diplomacy, greater familiarity with India’s neighbourhood, and a better understanding of both the best practices of partner countries and diverse operational environments.

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