The defence services-owned think tanks


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Feb 16, 2009
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The defence services-owned think tanks

What is their role? What is holding them back from achieving their potential?
MoS for External Affairs, Shashi Tharoor — currently in the media spotlight due to a needless tweeting controversy — is doing something of great significance in his ministry. If this Times of India report is something to go by — and Tharoor has tweeted that it is largely accurate, the policy planning division in the MEA is being overhauled to bring it to the fore of foreign policy thinking in the country.
More interestingly, Tharoor is looking at inputs from think tanks and experts outside his ministry which is a norm in many western democracies.
“The division will put forward policy papers, options, etc, which will need inputs from all the territorial divisions. We also plan to circulate the policy papers to select think tanks like IDSA, and other outside experts. Certainly, for the Indian Ocean policy, we want to work closely with the Indian Navy’s think tank, the National Maritime Foundation,” Tharoor said.[TOI]
Rather interestingly, the minister gave the examples of IDSA [Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses] and NMF [National Maritime Foundation] as the think tanks he was looking at for seeking inputs. Needless to say, it is a hugely welcome step: national security, defence and foreign policy are interrelated and overlapping areas of national policy and a synergy between the three fields is an absolute necessity today.
Besides the IDSA[funded by the defence ministry] and the NMF[owned by the Indian Navy], there are a few other defence and security related think tanks — funded by the government or the defence services — in this country. The oldest among them is the USI [United Services Institution of India] which has been in existence since 1870; in comparison, the IDSA started only in 1965. However, the USI has degenerated into an institution more focused on producing study material for officers appearing for promotion examinations and staff college entrance examinations, besides producing a quarterly journal of questionable quality. By diversifying into training military and police officers proceeding on UN peacekeeping missions under the aegis of CUNPK, it is no longer even close to being a think tank producing original thought or research of strategic value.
The Indian Army has its own think tank called the CLAWS [Centre for Land Warfare Studies] while the Indian Air Force and the Integrated Defence Staff have the CAPS [Centre for Air Power Studies] and CENJOWS [Centre for Joint Warfare Studies] respectively. While these are trying hard to create a niche for themselves in the nebulous world of Indian think tanks, they are hampered by a few inherent drawbacks.
The first and foremost among them is the credibility and integrity of these service-specific think tanks as they have not been able to dismember their umbilical cord with the parent services. The services own them but by being making these think tanks indistinguishable from their parent service, the services do a great disservice to themselves and other government-supported think tanks. When these think tanks act as a front for the services that own them, they do serve a very important purpose: of bringing out the views and quasi-official position of the services on matters of national importance in the public domain, an option generally not available to the Indian defence services. However, there have been question marks about these views not being the institutional views but only those of the brass perched at the top of the service hierarchy. When heads of think tanks change with the changing of service chiefs — and the outgoing and the incoming heads happen to be from the same regiments as the outgoing and the incoming chiefs — it is bound to not inspire much confidence among external observers.
These think tanks also suffer the disadvantage of promoting fossilised thinking, rooted in that service specific culture from which they draw the majority of their research scholars and fellows. There are hardly any young officers [Captains and Majors or equivalents] deputed to these think tanks who can bring fresh and unconventional ideas to the table. Barring a few exceptions, the majority of work produced by the retired or about-to-retire officers in these think tanks is thus a regurgitation of age old thought taught at service schools, staff college and NDC, sprinkled with some modern jargon and terminology borrowed from various western journals that are now so easily available on the internet. This is also a poor reflection on the intellectual upbringing in the Indian defence services where a Jasjit Singh or Sundarji or C Uday Bhaskar is an exception, and not the norm.
These think tanks also seem to be struggling with a clear enunciation of their goals and vision. What is the rationale for their existence? Do they complete a feedback loop to the services on various tactical or organisational matters from the perspective of an ex-insider-looking-in? Or do they influence the strategic landscape of national security by holding forth on esoteric subjects that do not directly concern the services? In trying to expound on all the subjects — foreign policy, national security, defence, strategy, tactics, internal security and organisational matters — these think tanks end up doing nothing substantively.
However, all hope is not lost for these think-tanks as the exemplary work produced by a reinvigorated NMF, under the leadership of C Uday Bhaskar, has demonstrated so well in the last few months. These service-owned think tanks have an important role to play in the intellectual debate in the domain of national security and subsequent policy formulation. But they need to get their act in place first, and fast. These think tanks desperately need an infusion of fresh (and younger) blood in their ranks and full autonomy in functioning as independent institutions. Internally they need to be more focused in their approach by clearly articulating their main and subsidiary roles, and then separating the various roles within the think tank, focus on red gaming for the services, and by being more active and visible in public domain — on the electronic and in the print media. The services and the ministry can help by providing greater access to classified data and information, and the government must also actively encourage their enhanced interaction with policy makers, parliamentarians and political parties.
There has been some talk of too many security related think tanks proliferating in Delhi, with the non-government funded ones such as the Delhi Policy Group, Observer Research Foundation, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Society for Indian Ocean Studies and the Indian Council of World Affairs also trying to assert themselves. However, Air Commodore Jasjit Singh has opined that Delhi needs a minimum of 30 top-class think tanks dealing with national security. What India suffers from then is not a problem of plenty, but a lack of quality in the few think tanks that deal with national security. Let us not only better the existing ones, but let us get some more new ones — of the highest quality — in the think tank business in this country.

Pragmatic Euphony The defence services-owned think tanks


Feb 19, 2009
cattle flock or no cattle flock, and putting all the controversies aside, shashi tharoor has come across as a breeze of fresh air to the mea. a man high on intellect, who missed the top un job thanks to the us by a whisker is not shy of experimenting newer, exciting, and well established norms of the west. in all this he is not just limiting himself to just some think tanks as the toi has put it, check his tweeter account and he is there available to all no matter who comes from what background. what he seems to be looking out for is the quality of content and not the origins of that content.

what shashi tharoor is trying to do is to bring the foreign policy in public domain, which till date has never happened before. the only foreign policy that we have been used to seeing and be debated in the public domain has surrounded around pakistan, to a lesser extent and a newer phenomenon, on china and slightly on our other neighbours, the us and russia as and when some irritants emerge or something big gets achieved with these countries.

this shows he is receptive to newer ideas, open to views from all corners and then come to conclusions on putting forward india's interest in the mid east, africa, and latin america which happen to be his area of work. let us hope people in general in the country and members on DFI get more proactive on discussing our foreign affairs pertaining to mid east, latin america and africa and then we may as well leave our link on his twetter account for him to browse through.

one hopes the MoD gets as proactive, pushes for such debates within our military experts community who are there in the public domain. let us set our priorities clear, if our parliamentarians can not discuss the defence budget, at least same be promoted within the defence experts community, who can act as some sort of a guiding light, and i am sure there are some very very bright people out there.

how much one wishes the likes of shashi tharoor's, kapil sibal's, kamal nath's be found in every ministry. hope others are listening to and are wide awake to what a certain few brilliant chaps in the GoI are doing, and they then find an inspiration to better them.

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