Think Over .... , Think-Tanks!
“The only thing harder than getting new things into the military mind is to get the old ones out”, – Liddel Hart
Focus of Thinking
The number of ‘think-tanks’ dedicated to the ‘thinking’ over ‘defence and strategy’ have risen in India. With nearly 2.5 lakh crores being spent on a defence establishment consisting of over 13 lakh high caliber military and civilian personnel and lakhs of crores of assets dedicated to national defence, that is an encouraging, long overdue, development. It could permit the nation to reap the benefits of its investments on preserving its sovereignty and security.
…it is rare to find dissertations or even essays produced by the think-tanks which propound path-breaking military ideas in tackling the plethora of serious problems that beset the Indian military system.
The problem however, is in the focus of these “defence and strategy” think-tanks. Almost all of these think-tanks have more or less recused themselves from concerns of ‘classical military theology’ which, given their signboard, should actually have been the one in their focus, if not their core objective. Thus while Indian think-tanks produce good work in the fields of academic dissection of geo-political issues as well as diplomatic sign-reading and analyses of these, there is little of substance to show in terms of innovation of India’s indigenous brand of military system. It is so that in the recent years, it is rare to find dissertations or even essays produced by the think-tanks which propound path-breaking military ideas in tackling the plethora of serious problems that beset the Indian military system.
Culture of Original Thinking
Compared to the far-reaching initiatives undertaken by strategic think-tanks in US, Russia, UK, and China – and many others – in propagation, debate, development and articulation of their indigenous brand of military theology and its application, Indian think-tanks seem to veer away from that charter. Indeed, apart from reproduction of certain expert committee confabulations which are mostly addressed to the general aspects of national security – politics, intelligence, budget, procurement etc. – there are hardly any original works emanating from the Indian think-tanks on topics of classical military theology as tailored to India’s situation.
The result is that while all other in-service administrative, economic and diplomatic institutions of the Indian state have the benefit of independent thinkers’ counsel, the defence hierarchy – military and civil, but more tellingly the former – remains self-advised and analysed by their appointment-specific understandings and preferences, besides those inputs that they might garner from the files, time permitting. No doubt, there exist inbuilt faculties within the military institution to devote to conceptual and experimental exercises on matters of military organisation, force-structure, weapon and equipment profile, battle procedures etc., but given the close-structured environment these have to conform to, there is little of note, besides mundane drills and tactical tweaks here and there, emanating from these. Even at times when these find the inclination to indulge in study and dissection of futuristic military practices and innovations in combat, the inferences are prevailed upon by the routine expediencies and superficialities of partisan perceptions. Thus when it comes to emanation of stimulating principles and concepts, the output from the plethora of military’s in-house ‘faculty of studies’, ‘perspective planning’ etc. remain anything beyond modest, mundane and stagnant. The incumbents however may not be faulted on this debility; after all, they are mostly first as well as last timers in their job, and the ambience may not be conducive to the exercise of military intellect.
Indian think-tanks are made up mostly of thinking diplomats, civil servants and academics, but very few military professionals.
The results of this anomaly on the nation’s military institution are rather disconcerting: it is turning inert to innovative strategising, resistive to nascent concepts of war-fighting and partisan to the cause of right-structuring. That is so therefore that the principles of joint, multi-generation, multi-spectral and indirect warfare, and development of correspondingly lean and robust combat forces, further enabled by higher flexibility and force-multiplication that is accorded by highly competent combat support and logistic measures, continues to elude the Indian military institution. That is all the more reason to highlight the importance of fostering dedication among the “defence and strategy” think-tanks in India towards innovative military theology.
Reasons of Distraction
The reasons for this debility are not difficult to find. One, Indian think-tanks are made up mostly of thinking diplomats, civil servants and academics, but very few military professionals. Possibly, in the military institution, while innovative thinking at the tactical level is encouraged, that is not so at the operational or strategic levels – in the interest of extreme and un-retrievable operational stakes, of course. That may be a reason behind not many of the senior military veterans being enthused in joining the class of ‘thinkers’.
Two, the practice of formal engagement of experienced retired military professionals in the nation’s defence consultative mechanisms is absent in India. Apparently, this avoidance is by design, to prevent what is viewed as ‘interference’ and the discomfiture it might bring to the incumbent lot in the Ministry as well as the Service Headquarters, supposed ‘confidentiality’ of information being contrived as an excuse.
Three, in the Indian system of defence management and decision making, strategy review committees and study groups, in such rare occasions when these are convened, have only marginal membership of military thinkers. Therefore, military concerns expressed and opinions offered are subsumed into the perceptions of those who do not possess the right military insight. Even more adrift is the system in which the very need to convene such strategy reviews and studies are to be decided by ‘managers’ who may at the best have but nodding acquaintance with military problems – to the exclusion of military advise. Indeed, that has been the case with the three most publicised but rather modestly effective defence organisation committees convened in the recent past; on the other hand, the all-important study on military transformation, when convened at the army’s own initiative, went neither represented nor recognised by those managers of national defence! Compare this to similar confabulations undertaken by other advanced nations in which military participation is substantial, if not overwhelming.
Even the thinkers of proven military background seem to have, alongside their high-thinking colleagues from academic, diplomatic and economic domains, found satisfaction in contributing their thinking chore to the matters of geo-politics.
In sum, the burden of classical military thinking has been turned captive to the in-service hierarchy and what they might find interesting to contribute, if at all they do, during their short tenures.
A Distractive Excuse
Prompted by certain thinkers like Hans Morgenthau, Martin Creveld, Colin Gray, Kelvi Holsti, Ralph Peters and many of their equally distinguished peers, the reigning community of strategic analysts in India seemed to have discovered what was known even during the Harappan period 5000 years back. Thus came forth a grand revelation that ‘national security had to be sustained by, besides military security, a robust regime of political, social and economic security’. Apparently, that earth shaking discovery came as a grand relief to them, most of whom had little insight into classical military theology. They could now delve into a more familiar business of recording, interpretation and analysis of diplomatic, economic and social issues under the rubric of ‘national defence and strategy’, and avoid wading into the unfamiliar realm of classical dissection of ‘defence and strategy’ even if that should have been a key concern. Indeed, it was a case of tying the horse behind the cart!
No doubt, linkages of political and economic issues of the state with challenges of national defence should actually further the cause of higher strategic thinking. But as the calendar of seminars, workshops and conferences in Indian institutions dedicated to defence and strategic thinking show, there is little of sustained deliberation and debate when it comes to stimulated development of principles of modern and innovative military strategy, battle control procedures, force-structure, equipment profiling, logistics, training, leadership and personnel management. In other words, the hyperbole of associated issues of politics, diplomacy and economics are allowed to marginalise the core purpose of such think-tanks who answer to the call of ‘defence’, ‘conflict’, ‘strategy’ and similar descriptions!
The arrangement seems to satisfy all – the academics, various domain experts and military professionals – wherein disinterest of the excruciatingly complex military matters is subsumed in a diffused discourse. Thus there is little pressure to delve into the intricate philosophies, concepts and strategies associated with articulation of military power or delving into the rational courses for appropriate military modernisation, and there is no fear of falling into a ‘prognosis trap’ that might go askew. Even the thinkers of proven military background seem to have, alongside their high-thinking colleagues from academic, diplomatic and economic domains, found satisfaction in contributing their thinking chore to the matters of geo-politics. That they have held their position should not be a consolation against the fact that the burden of propounding India’s own brand of indigenous military theology and strategising remains consigned just to the green-horn understandings of a transitory ‘in-service’ military hierarchy.
Going by the practice of keeping veteran military thinkers at a distance by erecting a contrived veil of ‘secrecy’, the serving military brass and their bureaucratic counterparts seem to be quite happy to be ‘protected’…
While the strategic community has sheathed military knowledge and experience to leave the thinking to only the serving military hierarchy, the latter have apparently assigned to themselves all the virtues of military wisdom. Going by the practice of keeping veteran military thinkers at a distance by erecting a contrived veil of ‘secrecy’, the serving military brass and their bureaucratic counterparts seem to be quite happy to be ‘protected’ against opinions, suggestions and oversight which might question their freedom to do, on file, what they might consider as ‘the best’ among immediate expediencies. On the other hand, in Indian think-tanks dedicated to ‘defence and strategy’, the centre stage of strategic discourse is filled up with observance, analyses and speculations over international and domestic political, diplomatic, economic and societal churnings, besides of course, bits of defence budgeting and procurements, while conception, experimentation and assimilation of military strategic innovations which could guarantee the requisite level of military security to the nation at affordable costs, remain stymied.
Notably, the situation is not unlike what prevails with the non-military defence establishments – defence research, production, estates and welfare – who stand more or less ‘freed’ from their obligations and accountability to the military institution that they are dedicated to, and are untroubled in setting their own self-conceived agenda. That indeed is a trend which leaves serious voids in cost-efficient management of India’s national defence.
It is ironical that in a nation like India – which on one end remains forever on the cross-hairs of the most vicious enemies, external as well as internal, and on the other is burdened with severe economic poverty – the cause for an fiscally sustainable military institution that is empowered by its own brand of military theology and innovative practices remains abegging for serious attention.
May be some thinkers would consider this anomaly. It will however, not be easy to get past the status quoists, of whom Jomini had to say: “the timid would have regarded .. a different approach .. as ‘rash’, even to ‘madness’; .. others would have seen a thousand difficulties of execution; .. and all would have concurred”.