Food For Thought

Creating Adaptive NCOs

It was a hot July day in 2013. I was at the army’s counterterrorism centre in Pabbi to shoot a programme, detailing elements of pre-induction training. Because the camera can induce anxiety, my instructions to the crew were to shoot as ‘invisibly’ and silently as possible. The additional benefit of the approach was to capture natural performance, rather than inducing or choreographing it.

I approached a 12.7x118 heavy machine-gun position. There was a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO), a Naib Subedar, and two Non Commissioned Officer (NCOs) at the gun position. I asked the major accompanying me to stay back. I walked under the camouflage net and greeted Naib Sahib and the NCOs, engaging them in conversation for a few minutes to take the edge off. I wanted them to be at ease and not rattle off about the weapon in what is generally referred to as sikhlai huay tareeqay ke mutabiq (as instructed procedure) and work the weapon as they would in battle, professionally.

Two of my cameramen were at a distance, positioned to capture their movements from two different angles. Loading and preparing the 12.7 HMG is a little more tricky than a magazine-fed weapon but not very complicated. The bolt should be forward when you lift the cover. Insert the double-loop end of the ammo belt into the feed-way until you see the first round engaged by the belt-holding pawl and hear a click. Close the cover, hold the cocking lever, charge the gun to the rear and the action half-cocks the gun. Charge the gun again and it is ready to discharge the deadly, anti-material round. The firer can select the lever in the grip group for single round or rapid/cyclic fire.

In reality, on that day, one JCO and two NCOs, failed to perform this sequence. They fumbled with the belt, the cover group, engaging the ammo belt in the feed-way et cetera. They were sweating, their hands shaking and they were glancing sideways to the officer I had parked about 50 meters away from the gun position. I thanked them and said that they could practice the procedure in their own time and moved away from there. I also told one of my cameramen to capture it silently after I had gone. He did that later and they had worked the gun professionally without any stumbles and fumbles. My presence and the officer, though parked at a distance, had shaken their confidence.


I then went to a sand model. An infantry platoon was to attack enemy positions and was discussing the plan. The exercise was being conducted by a young captain. He had the narrative and he was both the instructor and the commander. I sat with the NCOs and soldiers and heard the plan. There were no questions from the platoon. There were tasks and the officer would order personnel to repeat and ensure understanding of their respective tasks, which they did. Everyone knew what they were supposed to do; none knew the plan’s rationale or the intent behind it, except the officer. I found the exercise lacking in instilling ‘thinking’ into the NCOs and soldiers. They were there merely to act as a team, coordinating tasks.

At other training areas at the CTC too, I noticed that instructional techniques and procedures focused on task completion according to certain templates and standards rather than developing an understanding of why certain procedures were/are adopted and practiced and how to evaluate competencies in the performance of those tasks.

This is not entirely bad. There are fundamentals and principles, for instance, of fieldcraft and they must be mastered. Ditto for other ops like conducting raids, avoiding or laying ambushes, fire-and-move techniques et cetera. Drills and SOPs are important. They are and have been developed from experiences in the field, from the ground up. Everyone in the military knows that. But war is constantly changing and asymmetric warfare requires something more than drilled responses. It requires innovation at the high end and improvisation at the low end and both require thinking soldiers, not just at the level of officers but, crucially, at the level of NCOs and, in our case, also JCOs.

The United States army has been working on the concept of the adaptive soldier for the past decade and in 2015 came up with what it calls ASLTE (Adaptive Soldier Leader Training and Education). The concept doesn’t just focus on completing a task to a standard but stresses developing initiative and the ability to think on one’s feet.

This is what the army lacks so far and for three broad reasons: its hierarchical structure is too rigid; its intake of soldiers (further up the ladder NCOs and JCOs) comes mostly from rural areas and small towns; and its training procedures focus too intently and heavily on drills, SOPs and automated responses to situations. Consider.

A disciplined force has to be hierarchical. But to allow hierarchy to become a theology discourages independent thinking. If everything is to be cleared by the seniors or if junior officers or JCOs/NCOs have little space to present their viewpoint, they will either never develop adaptability or the idea will get blunted because the force doesn’t reward it.

The soldiers’ intake, educational backgrounds, training thrust and acculturation, for the most part, are hugely different in qualitative terms from those of Officer Cadets and officers. The two streams follow two entirely different trajectories and the twain never meet. While officers have messes, JCOs, at a much lower standard, have JCOs messes, NCOs and soldiers have lungars, though some battalions now have messes for them too. Neither category has ceremonial tunics.

The Pakistan Military Academy doesn’t always get cadets from upscale backgrounds. In fact, over the past two decades, its intake comes largely from middle and low-middle-income groups. But its training procedures create a median that brings together a cadet educated, let’s say at Aitchison College and another at a government college in Shakargarh, together.

There are no academies for enlisted troops. They go to their respective Centres for training. And because the army, as noted above, still puts a lot of stress on the hierarchical differential, especially between officers and the rest (JCOs, NCOs, soldiers), and because decision-making is the domain of the officers and taking orders that of the rest, the NCO, for the most part, fails to develop initiative. He works as a human automaton. He will be very good at completing his task according to a standard, fight bravely, uphold the regiment’s traditions but to expect more from him would be asking for something the army never trained him for.

This is not to say that the army doesn’t train him to take out a recon or a fighting patrol or conduct a raid or lay an ambush or how to take defences or mount an attack. It does. But the training confines his thought processes and physical actions to that task. The bigger picture, even within the tactics of small ops, remains outside his purview. That has to change.

But it will only change when the army begins to pull down some of its hierarchical walls among different rank structures and reevaluates its training procedures, focusing more on getting its personnel to think rather than merely taking orders and completing tasks. In fact, as and when the army moves from its labour-intensive to technology-intensive model, requiring technology-oriented soldiers, it will be forced to become more egalitarian. [NB: some things have already changed. ORs are now referred to as soldiers; the field uniform has become uniform; soldiers can wear shades, though the army needs to develop standard-issue shades.]

The how-to of the required changes is an interesting topic, but it is for some other time.

The writer was a Ford Scholar at the Programme in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1997) and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. (2002-03). He is currently Editor, National Security Affairs, at a private TV channel and contributes to several publications

Twitter: @ejazhaider


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