Clearly, whoever set up the new Defence Planning Committee had neither read up about such past misadventures nor had they fully considered the implications.

by Abhijit Iyer-Mitra

Have you seen the Emily Blunt-Tom Cruise blockbuster The Edge of Tomorrow ? If not then you probably should as it is perhaps the single most profound insight into India's defence thinking. The story goes something like this (spoiler alert): Aliens have invaded and overrun earth. This is due to their unique ability to turn back time and keep playing the same battle over and over and over again till it is won.

In the process for the aliens, there is no such thing as death or defeat, as one just needs to turn back time as often as possible to avoid the death of every single alien combatant and win the battle despite losing a hundred previous iterations.

New Defence Planning Committee Not a Well-Thought of Decision

Clearly, whoever set up the new Defence Planning Committee had neither read up about such past misadventures, nor had they fully considered the implications. This raises serious questions of institutional transfer of knowledge – especially failures, in this case, the previous defence planning committee set up in 1974.
Indeed, if one does not understand one’s failures, how is one to analyse the current situation any better?
It is common knowledge that successions in the ministry of defence are seldom accompanied by a comprehensive transfer of institutional memory. Unlike the foreign ministry, where one has some rudimentary specialisation and extant (albeit primitive) through career training, the very fact that bureaucrats get shunted around in other ministries means what little training can be done remains futile. It almost certainly means that one joint, additional or full secretary has virtually no possibility of acquiring the accumulated wisdom of his predecessors. In short — neither is expertise created, nor can accumulated wisdom be transferred.

The second issue here is group-think and the misguided belief of this government that snazzy advertising and slick event management such as Defexpo somehow equates to good policy.
The problem is that even in the military, where domain knowledge exists, promotion to the senior levels is dependent on adhering to group-think, or to put it euphemistically, “being a team player” that impulsively prioritises sectional interests.
This problem is probably less well known and not as well understood as the group-think, sectional interest prioritisation that affects the Bureaucracy.

Indeed, one must ask how will having 20 photocopies of the exact same opinion (which is what this committee is), produce different results? 

The now stalled Raksha Mantri’s Advisory Committee on Ministry of Defence Capital Projects (RMCOMP) made some promising start by including Ernst and Young and KPMG in it, but even that was too much for bureaucrats to swallow, who then proceeded to scuttle it, ostensibly for information security reasons, but in reality, to keep the political executive isolated from any alternative inputs and captive to a tightly controlled echo-chamber.

What Needs To Change In Indian Policy Making?

The clearest results of this kind of ossification will show in the doctrines that the sub-committees of this "new" committee are meant to produce. In every country that takes its doctrine seriously, these documents are products not just of painful research, but also subjected to severe academic and think-tank peer review, specifically from those not in government as well as foreign governments. The reasons for this are multi-fold.

First, it is a valuable tool of gathering the intelligence assessments of other countries, and in so, doing covering gaps in our own intelligence data and analysis.

Second, a fresh set of eyes exposes the chinks in one's own military thinking and makes it more solid, especially given that these independent eyes interact with more people outside official channels, and are not subject to information compartmentalisation and protocol.

In effect, doctrines are a great PR exercise, a peer validation exercise, and a vital tool of stress testing and intelligence gathering and tend to be expensive. In India, the expense involved is at best restricted to clicks of the mouse button to cut and paste. Watching out for the quality and calibre of the first policy documents that this committee produces will be the surest sign of its success or failure.

The problem is how will the government know what people really think. There is a consistent theme in Indian policy making where we take superficial compliments to the face as gospel truth.

A few years back, I had helped organise a conference attended by several grandees military, government and industry (both domestic and foreign). My personal belief was there was a severe content deficit, but was pleasantly surprised to see other think-tank and industry peers congratulate me on what was a "superlative and fresh conference". That very evening, three of these people who had congratulated me, were posting on a mutual friends Facebook wall that it was "a content deficit conference, ... speakers were clueless ... waste of time". The subtle act of liking each of those three comments brought deletions and apologetic DMs, stating how they had said what they had as they did not want to jeopardise their chances of getting governmental contracts and begging me not to make their comments public.

Sometime later, enquiries to friends in Singapore on their Defence Ministers impression of the LCA Tejas brought the terse comment, "the minister has to observe protocol and common decencies in a host country". A smart person would figure out what that means, while a moron would think it could be the first step in Singapore buying the Tejas.

It tells you a lot that both companies and foreign governments feel that speaking the truth to the Indian government will severely harm their commercial interests. 

The third issue here is data free policy. Usually clueless foreign correspondents in India (which pretty much describes them all) think that speaking refined English translates to great policy despite the fact that Hindi, English or Bhojpuri, all policy in India is constrained by an acute lack data.

Ask yourself when was the last time you saw a forensically audited Industrial Survey of India and a Human Resource Survey of India ? What exactly is technology acquisition being matched against in the absence of a scientific audit of human and Industrial capacity?

Ultimately, this committee, like its previous iterations, will fall prey to that cast iron law of computer software Garbage In Garbage Out (GIGO), except here, there is no Tom Cruise or Emily Blunt to save the day.

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies