The recent visit of the deputy prime minister to the United States of America received extensive media coverage and comment within this country. However, little was said on his scheduled visit to the Rand Corporation, a prestigious “think tank” on counter-terrorism and security issues near Los Angeles, and his planned meeting with members of council of foreign relations, an influential “think tank” based in Chicago. Not surprising, since the culture in India is far removed from that of the US, where such institutions play a crucial role in providing independent input into national policy formulation. Here, inputs to policy formulation are zealously guarded ministerial turfs, cloaked in secrecy in the general belief that anyone outside of the government machinery has a vested interest.
The Rand Corporation’s stated mission is to help improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis. While Rand’s work today is diverse, from the military standpoint it is interesting that the US air force created it in 1946 as its first client and Rand continues to assist all branches of the US military community to this day. In a land where research institutions are in abundance, Rand also has the distinction of being the first to be billed a “think tank”.
Over the years, many research papers on security-related matters pertaining to India have been published under Rand’s umbrella. The late George Tanham, a one-time vice-president of Rand, was a regular visitor to this country and had written extensively on Indian security issues. In 1992, he published a paper called “Indian strategic thought — an interpretive essay”.
This analysed various factors influencing Indian strategic thinking and how India’s past had shaped its concept of military power and national security. In 1995, he co-authored another report, “The IAF: trends and prospects”, which was sponsored by the US air force as part of its larger effort to examine air forces in a range of important nations to see how they viewed the role of air power in support of their national security. This was prompted to a large degree by the overwhelming success of air operations during the 1991 Kuwait war.
In January this year, C. Christine Fair published a paper titled “Military operations in urban areas — the Indian experience”, in which she postulates that despite India’s considerable experience with conducting military operations on urbanized terrains, there is little evidence that India is adopting a formal MOUT doctrine. She further concludes that within the force structure, Indian institutions have generally been unable to absorb and disseminate the various lessons learnt from these operations and that there are few, if any joint mechanisms, to ensure that India’s entire security apparatus can draw from accumulated operational knowledge.
To those in the US security establishment, tasked with formulating strategy and policies towards India, it is a pre-requisite to understand the Indian security establishment’s ethos, strengths and weaknesses. Institutionally, this is done through the medium of commissioned studies by independent research organizations. Of late there has been a convergence of security perceptions between the US and India. This has led to the commencement of a dialogue towards a strategic partnership.
In furtherance of this, not only will the US establishment be looking at past studies but commissioning new ones as well. One such report has recently been in the news. This highly classified report commissioned by the US department of defence is titled “Indo-US military relations: expectations and perceptions”. It has been prepared by an associate at Booz Allen Hamilton and is reportedly being distributed to select policy-makers. Notwithstanding its security grading, a dotcom has run a series of articles quoting extensively from this report.
It is not the purpose of this piece to look at the contents of this document or indeed the possible reasons why a highly classified document should so easily find its way out of the US department of defence. It is merely to highlight the importance given by various US government departments to research papers on various issues on which the administration would need to be formulating strategies and policies. Such an open intellectual approach to policy formulation has in turn led to many “think tanks” in the US, many supported generously by the individual services or government departments.
These “think tanks” in turn draw on local and international intellectual pools by awarding fellowships to scholars across the globe, thus ensuring that the subjects being researched have the benefit of national, cultural and intellectual diversity. In a wider context, the practice of encouraging such research institutions through financial and research support in turn breeds a whole new generation of scholars and experts on issues related to security, thus broadbasing discussion and debate and providing it with greater intellectual depth.
It also follows that those at the receiving end of such research within the administration, are themselves adequately educated in security and strategic issues, apart from being professional military men or civil service specialists. Only then can efforts of such research be meaningfully analysed and synergized with national security objectives towards effective policy formulation. The American system ensures this by educating its potential national security leaders, both civil and military, in institutions like the US National Defence University. Aptly, its mission is to educate military and civilian leaders through teaching, research, and outreach in national security strategy, national military strategy, and national resource strategy.
For the US, which has global interests, there is little doubt that over the years administrations have been studying India through the media of in-house research, intelligence and diplomatic means and by commissioned research studies. There is also little doubt that those contributing to the current high-level Indo-US engagement are military and civilians, institutionally educated in matters of strategy and security. The question that we need to ask ourselves is, how well are we in the Indian security and foreign policy establishments prepared to ensure that this constructive engagement is not a one-sided affair' That we are equally well-prepared to extract the best bargain from our own national security perspective, as indeed the Americans would want to do from theirs'
Institutionally, the Indian system leaves little scope for optimism. While a few “think tanks” predominantly privately funded do exist, they are woefully few in number and most have very limited resources to conduct research, leave alone afford the luxury of attracting bright local and foreign scholars on fellowships. The armed forces, steeped in their closed and vertical hierarchies, are not traditionally open to outside comment. They certainly do not sponsor any such institutions and they see the one, which is supported by the ministry of defence, more as a talk shop than a complementary tool towards policy formulation. It is safe to assume that within the ministry of defence and the ministry of external affairs, things are no different with all inputs towards policy formulation being those generated in-house.
The corollary is that the Indian security and foreign policy establishments deny themselves the benefit of researched inputs from independent sources and consequently do not nurture and encourage such institutions. In turn research scholars are not attracted to studies on national security and foreign policies, which remain confined to a few with the nation denied wider participation.
The other drawback relates to our inability to offer opportunities to educate our military and civilian leaderships towards handling responsibility in the strategic security domain. We continue with the philosophy that administrators, diplomats and military commanders can guide national security policy purely by virtue of seniority and by happening to be in a specific post. Civil services do not believe in the maxim of periodic in-service training. The uniformed fraternity has excellent professional training, but none at the defence university level to prepare them for policy at the apex security level.
These weaknesses, which have for long been felt, were proposed to be addressed by the setting up of a defence university. This was the recommendation of the group of ministers under the deputy prime minister which reviewed various aspects of security management after Kargil. Unfortunately, over a year after a special committee submitted its report on the Indian national defence university, it remains on paper.
Today, when economic and security issues are taking on a global dimension and when the country is engaged in dialogue towards strategic partnerships with many countries, the first challenge India faces is internal. We need to prepare ourselves institutionally and intellectually so that in this emerging world of strategic competition, partnerships and choices, we are able to formulate policies that promote national strategic interests and enable us to negotiate from a position of strength. It is with this in mind that one was heartened that the deputy prime minister chose to spend time at two “think tanks”, normally ports of call reserved only for academics.
During his current visit to the US, the Indian air force chief is also scheduled to deliver a talk at Rand. One can only hope that these welcome and path-breaking departures are a precursor to some long overdue institutional and attitudinal changes at home.