India’s Goldwater-Nichols Act — A mirage

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.


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14 Responses to India’s Goldwater-Nichols Act — A mirage

  1. Ajay February 10, 2009 at 10:35 pm #

    There are quite a few “think tanks” in Delhi, but most of them tend to be stuffed with retired officers and their primary role is consultation and lobbying for non-Indian defense equipment folks. Much like the Pak army, incentives in Indian Defense forces is magnitudes more than civilian jobs would get. There are cartels of ex-servicemen determined to keep it that way.

    Indians are too emotional to face reality. Its a nation that refuses to ask hard questions, and lacks confidence about its ability to build something better than what is already there.

    Armed forces seen as a oasis of purity in an ocean of corrupt government institutions. Any outsider who dares to touch it will be crucified. He will be see as a bigger traitor than even Afzal Guru.

    If Armed forces are ever to be overhauled, we need somebody who has survived the system, and when at his peak, lays bare the internals that need reform. Somebody like T.N. Seshan.

  2. Vijay February 11, 2009 at 6:46 am #

    Echoing Ajay, Delhi is littered with think tanks focusing on national security. But the work done there is just done for its own sake. There’s no explicit link between academia and policymaking.

    India needs to reform its entire national security establishment so that national security strategy becomes institutionalised rather than a knee-jerk reaction to events. The first step in that direction would be to remove the Ministries of External Affairs and Defence from the General Civil Service Examinations and place them in a special category so that we can usher in a new generation of dedicated civilian foreign policy and defence strategists.

  3. Pragmatic February 11, 2009 at 10:31 am #

    @Ajay/ Vijay:

    My point is about *independent* think-tanks. IDSA, USI, CLAWS, CAPS etc. are either funded by the government or the services and thus do not qualify in that category.

  4. Shaunak February 11, 2009 at 11:40 am #

    My two paisa worth …

    1. Think tanks flourish in the US partly because of a culture of publishing your work. That is severely lacking here, except in academia (which publishes arcane, esoteric and second-hand research mostly).

    2. What happens after the BRC makes its recommendations? Implementation is a major issue in our country. If reforms need be implemented, the reforms must enjoy broad-based support within the institutions being reformed.

    Which brings me back to point 1. We need to encourage serving officers from the armed forces and the civil services to publish their thoughts. Of course this is easier said than done.

  5. Inderjit Kashyap February 11, 2009 at 9:04 pm #

    1. The last para, lines 1 & 2, “deeply entrenched institutional interests of military brass, bureaucrats & politicans” should instead read as “deeply enternched institutional interests of politicans, bureaucrats & military brass”.
    2. U & the others may ask what’s the difference, it’s a subtle but a very vital one. The political authority must, appreciate the need, understand what it involves & finally MUST have the resolve to bring about the change. With a mix of political parties that we have & their own interested agendas, all of us should be able to gauge & understand that for this political class to reach a consensus, would be an IMPOSSIBILITY. This is even after the other 2 categories mentioned, bureaucrats & military brass, resolve their differences & put up a proposal for the desired change, at the instance of the Govt in power.
    3. Citing the example of USA, where the political class is not only educated but a large number, specialists too, & suggesting that it be applied to our country, is like ” wishing for the moon”. Am not wanting to undermine the politicans or be disrespectful to them, but, honestly, feel totally hesitant to credit them for understanding the nuances of a subject the BRC or the strategic need for reforms in the Defence set up. What has been witnessed in the UP & AP assemblies in the last 2 days & even in the recent past in the Lok Sabha, leaves one with hardly any option but to deduce anything else.
    4. Thus, the first task has to be, redefine our political system which will enable qualified people to in majority in the Lok Sabha & the State Assemblies, which will in turn help them to understand the setups needed for the country in the current world environment. So U gentlemen have to start a movement for the above before advocating changes as suggested.
    5. Am in no way, placing a “red herring” on the issue but stating a stark reality, which U all cannot dispute. We do have many educated & well meaning politicans in every party but these are a minisicule minority & even they because of their political compulsions are averse to coming to a consensus on issues of vital authority. Even otherwise, their voices count for nothing in the party circles. In such a scenario, its despair only & not hope that surfaces when considering important changes/reforms, including that of the Defence set up, that are needed in our country.Am sure all of U agree that there are many many more similar pressing areas which need urgent attention & reform.
    6. 9 times out of 10, policies & decisions of the Govts in power revolve around appeasing the respective vote banks so as to ensure the continuation in the chair of authority. So, unless the nation’s “reaL’ interests are placed ahead of ‘Parties’” the situation will remain one of despair & demands like in this blog for urgent changes. The scope needs widening & redifining if we want any meaningful change(s) that we desire.

  6. Armchair Analyst February 12, 2009 at 1:53 am #

    I am very interested in this discussion about the role of think tanks in India and other societies as well. I have given it some thought and I have two main points.

    First is regards to funding. As Vijay points out, the majority of Indian think tanks are funded by the government or by retired military officers. In the United States and elsewhere a much higher portion of funding comes from private sources such as philanthropic foundations and corporations. There doesn’t seem to be the same level of recognition on the part of corporates and other civil society actors in India of value of independent policy analysis. Why do they not see value in it?

    This brings me to my second point. the structure of the state itself is very important in determining the level of influence that independent think tanks are likely to have on the policy process. In the U.S. think tanks have access to the policy process in ways I don’t suspect exist in India. If they cannot influence policy-makers and policy-outcomes because of the structure of the policy process they cannot draw independent financial support.

    Finally, one reason why the think tanks may not have as much influence on policy is because of the nature of of the Civil Service and Foreign Service. In the U.S. people move between them with great fluidity. If your party loses power you go work in think tanks until your party regains power. This difference in India probably stems from the greater insulation of the bureaucracy to partisan/electoral politics as well as the incentive structure in terms of pay and prestige.

    How can we begin to develop a genuine and influential think tank sector in India? I have my ideas but I certainly welcome yours. It is something of a life’s goal…

    Also be sure to check this guy out link

    James Mcgann

    • Pragmatic February 12, 2009 at 10:58 am #


      I have my ideas but I certainly welcome yours. It is something of a life’s goal…
      The more the merrier. At a fundamental level, it is about the role of civil society in democracy and governance. Rather than lampooning the politicians and decrying the system, they need to push for an active and vibrant think-tank community. That would be a good start.

  7. Vijay February 12, 2009 at 2:17 am #

    Armchair Analyst,

    Precisely. The Americans have cracked it. They have learnt to take advantage of their intellectual capital. I love the ease with which one can move from academia to government and back. I only need to mention Henry Kissinger.


    Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies, Observer Research Foundation? IPCS is funded by international philanthropic organisations and ORF gets its cash from Reliance.

    • Pragmatic February 12, 2009 at 10:51 am #


      I’m aware of the existence of IPCS and ORF. Let us keep this discussion for another day. I’ve my reservations (and reasons) about them.

  8. Armchair Analyst February 12, 2009 at 9:43 pm #


    I think I am misunderstanding you, you say, “rather than lampooning politicians and decrying the system, they need to push for an active and vibrant think tank community.”

    Who is the “they” you are refering to here? The think tanks themselves? Funders?

    As for your reservations and reasons for not wanting to discuss the issue too much I certainly respect them. I also do not mean to step on any toes or degrade the excellent work that is being produced in the Indian think tank sector. Although I have some limited experience in the sector, I cannot claim to be an expert…again, I speak only out of a desire to strengthen and enhance the capacity and visibility of these groups. In particular I am interested in fostering international collaboration in this field.

    I don’t even think that changing the structure of the state is necessary. By adopting a more “corporate” culture, think tanks can become more saavy and professionalized and use the latest communication and media to go “over the head” of governments and appeal directly to citizens.

    In many regards, I see the Indian National Interest playing this role already. So keep up the good work!

    • Pragmatic February 12, 2009 at 9:58 pm #


      Who is the “they” you are refering to here?

      Civil society (media, intelligentsia & corporates included).

      Thanks for the compliment about INI. I’ll pass it on to fellow bloggers at INI, especially Nitin.

  9. Prabhakar Bedi February 15, 2009 at 1:16 pm #

    The complete geometry of Think tank based approach is based on harnessing the best brains in business on the issue, debating short and long term effects of policies and actions and influencing decision making so that the country reaps the best for its future with the tax payers money. There is absolutely no doubt that this culture, if sponsored by the government alone, will create short sighted solutions to aspects of national security, based on the political masters and the machinations by the bureaucrats.

    The US concept is a private public enterprise with major contribution from the Industry. The aim is simple: create multiple options and choices for the congress to deliberate on the future strategic direction of policies, doctrines and force structuring and equipping so that it is able to meet all threat spectrum in a pragmatic manner. This provides a 360 degree perspective to the policy makers to make the right choices. Industry also engages lobbyists to root for their philosophies as it suits their business in the long run.

    Thus the philosophy of think tanks is not to create options only from an intellectual level but from an overall industrial growth platform, hence the requisite funding from private players.

    In India, the Industry has yet not gained the correct insight to the growth patterns required for long term investments in researches which are mutually complimentary to the growth and strength of the nation and the industry simultaneously. The government and the powers that be can be blamed to the extent that they barely listen to the recommendations of the government sponsored organisations which are only to keep the interest of the intelligentsia alive.

    General SS Mehta, made a little dent in this direction as DG, CII, but that too seems to be going the RUR way..with lots of governmental(read political) interests. This needs unleashing the power of the industry by providing them with requisite funding and assurances based on their competencies and JVs for research from the tax payers money. If we can spend thousands of crores on DRDO, energising our defence industry to finally pave the way for level playing fields should not be a tough call to make.

    So, finally it adds up. Indian National Interest over archaic, staid and unstructured approaches.

    Finally, I totally agree with the specialisation mandated for secretaries of the future. That would ease the problem to a large extent. In the meanwhile, we are doing a great job…that is if any one reads us.


    PS : Convert this a wee bit towards vote bank and you will find major support coming in.

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