No independent think-tanks, no defence reform.
One of the landmark reform of the armed forces anywhere in the world was in the United States in the 1980s — The Goldwater-Nichols Act. The back story. In the mid-1980s, a series of operational military failures in the field -– the botched attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran, the Beirut embassy bombing and the interoperability problems during the invasion of Grenada -– convinced US Congress that the Department of Defense[DOD] was broken and that something had to be done. Despite intense resistance from DoD, over four years of Congressional hearings, investigation, and analysis finally culminated in the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986.
The Indian context is obviously very different. Unlike the US, India’s defence failures are hidden and largely unknown to the broader public. Even in 1962, the debacle was swiftly blamed on to the wily Chinese or incompetent politicians [depending on your political affiliations]. Lata Mangeshkar added to the myth by lamenting the shameful military defeat with a much-celebrated patriotic song. Since then, the nation has had Blue Star, Sri Lanka, Kargil, Parakram which were not the most glorious statements of India’s strategic and military capability. Even then, with a Kargil Review Committee and a Group of Ministers report on national security, status quo has prevailed in the defence setup. Moreover, it is nearly a decade since the KRC/ GoM submitted their report and an era of rapid, continuous change demands a fresh, holistic review now. Time for a Blue Ribbon Commission. And for the political parties to state that in their election manifestos.
The opposing side, led by cheerleaders in the Indian political-military leadership, contends that India fields one of the world’s finest armed forces, which are capable of executing successful military operations. No institution capable of performing its core function that well can be said to be broken — needing to be fixed. Even if their contention is agreed to that the Indian armed forces are very good at conducting military operations, then also they do so very inefficiently. The current defence budget is over a 100,000 crore rupees every year and is likely to come under future fiscal pressures. These two reasons — efficiency and budgeting — necessitate that the Indian armed forces are prepared to undertake military operations in the future equally well. This again demands holistic reform — a Blue Ribbon Commission seems to be the obvious answer.
Reforming the setup would include overcoming deeply entrenched institutional interests of the military brass, bureaucrats and the politicians. It is not going to be easy. Even in the US, the process that led to the passage of Goldwater-Nichols act was laborious and contentious. It is here that external studies, undertaken by expert groups from independent think-tanks, are central to this often controversial process. They can create the momentum and consensus for undertaking necessary reforms and support the Blue Ribbon Commission. Perhaps, this is one area where India is sorely lacking. As India is not going to have its own league of independent think-tanks in a few months or even a couple of years, it is almost certain that there will be no talk about reforming the defence setup in this country in the near future.
The conclusion — Do not demand military reform. Demand more independent think-tanks focused on defence and national security, if you desire military reform.