Soldier’s will to fight: Implications for Indian Armed Forces

Indian soldiers pose with the Tricolour after capturing a peak from Pakistani intruders during the Kargil War, 1999.
Indian soldiers pose with the Tricolour after capturing a peak from Pakistani intruders during the Kargil War, 1999.

“Man behind the Machine matters Most, Always and Every time”

Humans: The Final Arbiter in Battle        
Assessing morale and will to fight (adversary and own) is crucial to the science and art of war (Warcraft). Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a political scientist at New York University, reckons human will matters enough for many wars to be won by what starts off, in strict military terms, as the weaker side [i].  With very few exceptions, all wars and almost all battles are decided by matters of human will: breaking the enemy’s will to fight while sustaining one’s own will to fight is the key to success in battle. Will to fight is the disposition and decision to fight, to keep fighting and to win.

Technology, Transparency and Modern Weapon Systems: Dilution of Human Impact
With continuous and increasing emergence of modern, potent, accurate, and long-range weapon systems, technology including autonomous systems, and ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), the essentially human nature of war is getting ignored. Many in the past have felt the same. Military history is, as a consequence, littered with disastrously wrong assumptions about belligerents’ will to fight. France (1950s), America and China (1960-70s), three UNSC members and major powers, for instance, famously underestimated the determination of Vietnam’s National Liberation Front when they intervened in Vietnam for their own strategic reasons and got a bloody nose instead. During the battle of DOGRAI on the Indo Pak border in the 1965 war, 3 JAT (Indian infantry battalion), known for their sustained dogged courage in battle, led by Lt Col Hayde, MVC achieved a superb victory against overwhelming odds. Lack of focus on the will to fight could create a vulnerable situation to many armed forces and nations forcing a critical situation. The best technology in the world is useless without the force of the will to use it and to keep using it even as casualties mount and unexpected calamities arise.

Use of Modern Computing to Quantify Morale and Will
Behavioral scientists are now, bringing the power of modern computing to bear on the question. Defence planners have long used computers to forecast the results of conflicts by crunching data on things like troop numbers, weapons capabilities, ammunition supplies and mechanized forces, air and naval forces quantification. The next step, which will be hugely facilitated with the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) and scientific models, is to extend the idea into the area of morale, by quantifying the psychological variables that determine whether troops will flee, or stand and fight. 

Important Definitions/Aspects pertaining to Will to Fight             Predicting human behavior is not an exact science, however, we can significantly improve our understanding of an individual or a units’ will to fight by assessing and analyzing disposition[ii], which allows for an estimation of overall military effectiveness and forecasting of behavior. Wars rarely end simply because one military destroys another. Government and leaders determine how and when wars end, and they may have to decide many times during a conflict whether their country should continue enduring risk and sacrifice or whether it is time to stop fighting. Tangible factors, such as remaining force levels, logistical resilience, weapon systems, are obviously part of the decision calculus, but it is often less-tangible political and economic variables that ultimately determine what might be called a national will to fight. It is the determination of a national government to conduct sustained military and other operations to achieve their objective, even when the expectation of success decreases or the need for significant political, economic, and military sacrifices increases.

Pivotal Role of Influence Information and Psychological Operations (IIO and PSYOPS) affecting Morale and Will to Fight   Confrontation/conflicts have moved from attrition to manoeuvre, and now to a combination of the above along with the cognitive domains of Information (Influence) Operations (IIO/IO) and Psychological Operations (PSYOPS). Nations would always prefer achieving their strategic aims without warfighting in the traditional sense, and impose their will using cognitive/non-kinetic domains. There are innumerable examples in military history where larger/stronger forces have lost purely because they lost morale and the will to fight. One very recent and extremely vivid and game changing event in history where IO and PSYOPS destroyed an Army’s will to fight, is the Capture of Northern Iraq by ISIS. In the summer of 2014 the IS (ISIL/ISIS or Daesh in Arabic) roared into Northern Iraq in pick-ups and fully armed (even swords), and blew away four fully trained and equipped Iraqi divisions which vanished overnight into thin air.[iii] But, contrary to tradition, they did not keep their operations a secret but wanted the world to know everything about it. The IS succeeded in subverting the minds and weakening/destroying the will to fight of all commanders, troops and the local population psychologically. Closer home, despite an asymmetric superiority in comprehensive national power (CNP), military and multi-domain fighting capabilities of the Chinese PLA along the LAC in East Ladakh, the Indian Armed Forces operational and tactical superiority, combat experience, high altitude expertise, years of managing the LC/LAC, and the Indian jawans fortitude, raw courage and morale puts India Army on an equal (if not better) footing to negotiate.

Indian Army: Lack of Scientific Models to Evaluate Morale and Will to Fight
In our Armed Forces, lot of emphasis is paid to attributes of a leader and the role of morale as important battle winning factors. Theoretical and practical aspects are covered for officers and troops at the initial training, courses and on the job. However, we have not really added its contribution (being intangible) when evaluating/or when carrying out a net-assessment (see definition in Notes[iv] of an adversary’s military strength and potential. In our Armed Forces we do a mix of scientific model(s), and affix values to tangibles based on historical precedence/subject experts/ground experience/collective wisdom of group (Delphi system of management[v]). Indian armed forces needs to create models (specific to different situation/terrain/enemy) to assess value of own/adversary’s intangibles like morale and will to fight, which has become vital in today’s warfare.

Rand Corporation Report 2108[vi] on Will to Fight: An Overview  
In 2019, RAND published two reports for the US Army describing the will to fight[vii]. They found that there is no generally accepted definition, explanation, or model of will to fight. This means that armed forces and subsidiary forces have no central point of reference for understanding what is, according to joint doctrine, the most important factor in warfare. They created a three-step model to which they finally integrated will to fight in simulation, and needs to be incorporated in planning for actual combat situations.

  • Step 1. Adopt Universal Definitions which are useful and necessary starting point for mutual understanding.
  • Step2. Creating a working model- A nine-step explanatory–exploratory–portable Model has been created.
  • Step 3. Integrating Will to Fight in Simulation and Net Assessment of Forces- Computer simulation, tabletop exercises, and wargames can help bring clarity to complex issues and concepts, such as will to fight. If will to fight is one of the most important factors in war, and if it is absent or poorly represented in military gaming and simulation, and during net assessments, then it is a dangerous gap.

Findings on Morale and Fighting Spirit[viii]. Training, espirit-de-corps, morale, motivation, capabilities and culture are important facets contributing to the will to fight. After diligent research some interesting observations/conclusions are bulleted as follows:

  • Those who declared themselves willing to sacrifice the most were the ones who also seemed least interested in material comfort and economic prospects. This was confirmed by actual embedding with troops and post-mapping for reality check.
  • A typical fighting force, it is generally thought, will collapse sometime before a third of it has been destroyed. However, exceptions are there, for example some Kurdish and IS units in Iraq, fought on in a coordinated fashion after sustaining far more grievous losses. (Battles on famous last stands available online are strongly recommended for reading. Names of famous Indian armed forces battles post-independence are given in the end notes[ix]).
  • Soldiers’ identity must get fully “fused” with those of his brothers in arms. Their top priority has shifted from family to another cause, a transcendental ideal that has become so “sacralised” that it would not be traded away for anything (seen in fundamentalist groups). It is a truism of the Indian infantry soldier that he dies/ready to die for his ‘paltan/units izzat/respect’, more than for the motherland.
  • Fanaticism has long been recognized as a plus in a soldier, be it the Zealots of ancient Israel, the Roman Catholic conquistadors of the Americas, or the Nazis’ 12th SS “Hitler Youth” Panzer Division.
  • War is a human endeavor, and we must treat it as such.

Famous/Historic Battles showcasing will to fight upsetting military superiority

  • Failed assessment of the Arab will to fight leading up to the 1973 Yom Kippur War resulted in strategic surprise, nearly leading to the defeat of Israel.
  • The CIA’s analysis of the Vietnamese will to fight.
  • The Afghan Mujahideen of yesteryears and Afghan Taliban of today have displayed such staying power, making up for their lesser capabilities with motivation, improvisation and living conflict as a way of life. Likewise, casualties tend to “weaken or strengthen an adversary’s national will to fight”. In the case of the Al-Qaeda/Taliban, casualties tend to incite their revenge instincts, enhancing their will to fight.
  • In the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War of 1965, Pakistan had expected a quick retreat of the Indian Army from J&K leading to the re-opening of negotiations, when it launched its pre-emptive “Operation Grand Slam” in Kashmir. India expanded the war by attacking across the international border in Punjab.
  • Occupation of Kailash Range heights on the LAC in East Ladakh by highly motivated Indian special forces under adverse conditions totally surprised the PLA and changed the operational paradigm in India’s favour.

Battle of Imphal-Kohima
Very interestingly and proudly for the Indian Armed Forces and its troops, the battle of Imphal-Kohima during the Second World War (WWII) was voted in Britain as Britain’s most hard fought and significant battle in its entire history.[x] The Indian troops fought in horrendous jungle conditions of Nagaland, marked by vicious hand to hand fighting, when Japanese troops in large numbers crossed Burmese border. The Indian soldiers turned the tide against the Japanese army resulting eventually in their capitulation. “The victory was of a profound significance because it demonstrated categorically to the Japanese that they were not invincible. This was to be very important in preparing the entire Japanese nation to accept defeat,” Lyman said. “This was the last real battle of British Empire and the first battle of the new India.” The Indian troops “weren’t fighting for the British or the Raj but for a newly emerging and independent India and against the totalitarianism of Japan.”

Inspiring Quotes from Junior Indian Military Leaders. A few quotes of our junior leaders during battle, showcasing the Indian Armed Forces indomitable will to fight, and which will inspire generations to come.

  • . . . The eyes of the world are on us. The hopes and aspirations of our countrymen are based upon our efforts. We must not falter, we must not fail them . . .

To every man upon this earth Death Cometh soon or late
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods
                                                                                    Brig Mohd Usman (P) MVC; Battle Order for Recapture of Jhangar

  • If death strikes before I prove my blood, I swear I’ll kill Death.Capt Manoj Pandey (P) PVC
  • No Sir, I will not abandon my tank. My gun is still working and I will get these bastards.                                                                                    2nd Lt. Arun Khetrapal (P) PVC
  • Either I will come back after hoisting the tricolor, or I will come back wrapped in it, but I will be back for sure – “YEH DIL MAANGE MORE”
  • Capt Vikram Batra (P) PVC

Indian Armed Forces should —

  • Develop and adopt a universal will-to-fight definition and model.
  • Modify and use the model for net-assessment of own and allied military forces and adversarial (China and Pakistan) forces. Obviously extended to specific missions/theatre of operations.
  • Integrate will to fight into doctrine and application manuals; holistic estimates of combat effectiveness in wargames and simulations of combat; and incorporate during net-assessments of adversaries and profiling of their leaders (specially China and Pakistan).

Improving understanding of ‘morale and will to fight’ might not be a panacea, after all war is not won by silver bullets, but it is a vital factor that is routinely overlooked or misunderstood. Nations and militaries across the world are paying increasing attention to behavioral science to know an adversarial nation’s and military’s will to fight and their leader’s mind. India and its professional armed forces must institutionalize/incorporate this pivotal aspect in their strategic and operational planning expeditiously.

[i] ‘What motivates the dogs of war?’, The Economist; Science and Technology, 05 Sep 2020 edition

[ii] ‘Disposition’- Soldiers and the units they form develop the disposition to fight or not fight, and to act or not to act, when fearing death. Disposition is essentially likelihood.

[iii] The event is widely covered and also paraphrased from ‘Like War: The weaponization of Social Media’ by PW Singer and Emerson T.Brooking, An Eamon Dolan Book, Houghton Mifflin Harcout, 2018.

[iv]Net assessment’ is a complex and unconventional framework for the strategic analysis of military balances. It measures the hard power of nations in relation to each other, rather than each on its own terms. This kind of analysis, projected over the long-term, helps support more effective defence policies in conditions of military-strategic competition. Such a capability is urgently required today in view of the highly competitive nature of global geopolitics.

[v] ‘Delphi system of Management’ available widely online; one link –

[vi] As a first step to understand will to fight, the RAND team undertook a literature review of more than 200 published works, reviewed U.S. and allied military doctrine, conducted 68 subject-matter expert (SME) interviews, and analyzed historical battles/campaigns/case-studies, war- gaming, and simulation.

[vii] Will to Fight: Returning to the Human Fundamentals of War, Rand Corporation, 2019; Link-

[viii] Paraphrased and adapted from numerous Think Tanks and online articles/papers, including ‘ARTIS International’ which is a global scientific research organization which focuses on behavioral dynamics affecting conflict. Its work is field orientated, and the fellows come from a wide variety of disciplines; also USAF Academy’s Warfighter Effectiveness Research Centre (werc), in Colorado

[ix] Famous Indian battles post-independence showcasing leadership and the troops indomitable courage, morale and ‘will to fight’ are listed: Battles of Rezang La, 18 November 1962; Assal Uttar, 8-10 September 1965; Tololing, 20 May – 13 June 1999; Nathu La and Cho La, 1967; Laugewala; Meghna Heli Bridge; Chawinda; Dograi (all four 1971); Special mention to Battle of Saragarhi, 12 September 1897.

[x] ‘Victory over Japanese at Kohima named Britain’s greatest battle’, in Reuters


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