national security inadequacies stem from the absence of a national security vision,In April this year, the Narendra Modi government set up a Defence Planning Committee (DPC) to assist in the creation of “national security strategy, international defence engagement strategy, roadmap to build (a) defence manufacturing ecosystem, strategy to boost defence exports, and priority capability development plans”. Earlier this month, it also decided to revive the Strategic Policy Group (SPG) within the overall National Security Council (NSC) system. Are these committees indicative of a newfound ‘national security consciousness’ in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government today?
That the government has set up/revived these committees only in its final year in office goes to show that it is cognisant of the fact that its national security performance has been found severely wanting. More so, given the sorry state of the country’s national security, it — erroneously, if I may add — hopes that further centralisation of national security and defence decision making in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) under the National Security Adviser (NSA), would salvage its national security reputation.
India’s national security environment has steadily deteriorated since 2014. Both the overall violence in Jammu and Kashmir and ceasefire violations on the Line of Control reached a 14-year high in 2017, a trend that refuses to subside in 2018. There are far more attacks on security forces and security installations in J&K, and militant recruitments and violence against civilians in the State than at any time in the past decade-and-a-half. The pressure from China is on the rise. While the government’s spin managers valiantly claim that the surgical strikes of 2016 gave a befitting response to Pakistan, and the stand-off at Doklam conveyed to China that India is no pushover, the reality is that surgical strikes hardly made any significant gains, and the Chinese forces (by all accounts including a report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs) are back in the Doklam plateau with more force. The report goes on to fault the government for “continuing with its conventionally deferential foreign policy towards China”. New Delhi’s neighbourhood policy continues to be in the doldrums and there is a clear absence of vision on how to balance, engage and work with the many great powers in the regional and the broader international scene. The frenzied foreign policy activities we are witnessing today are essentially diplomatic firefighting and damage control of a government in its last lap.
Absence of defence reforms
India spends close to $50 billion annually on defence and yet there are serious concerns about the level of our defence preparedness. Notwithstanding the feel-good rhetoric about the Indian Army’s readiness to fight a “two-and-a-half front war”, it might be useful to speculate on the potential outcome of such a scenario. Rhetoric can neither make a country secure nor win wars. Even more worryingly, India might be ill-equipped to fight the wars of the modern age. What India requires then is not empty rhetoric but long-term strategic thinking of which there is little in sight.
One reason why there is little bang for the buck from the $50 billion lies in our almost non-functional higher defence organisation. India’s defence policy is on auto-pilot with hardly any political oversight or vision. There is little conversation between the armed forces and the political class, and even lesser conversation among the various arms of the forces. This will soon become unsustainable for a country that aspires to be a modern great power.
Besides setting up or revamping these bureaucratic committees, there is little talk about serious defence reforms in the country. One of the most serious lacunas in our defence management is the absence of jointness in the Indian armed forces. Our doctrines, command structures, force deployments and defence acquisition continue as though each arm is going to fight a future war on its own. Not only do the various arms of the Indian armed forces plan their strategies in silos but even their rhetoric is partisan (consider the Army Chief, Gen. Bipin Rawat’s statement about the Army, not the armed forces as a whole, being prepared for a “two-and-a-half front war”).
In the neighbourhood
China has progressed a great deal in military jointmanship, and Pakistan is doing a lot better than India. In India, talk of appointing a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) has all but died down. Leave alone appointing a CDS, even the key post of military adviser in the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) remains vacant. And the government seems to mistakenly think that by having the NSA chair, the SPG and DPC will take care of the fundamental problems in the country’s higher defence sector.
Recall also that the post of the NSA is not a legally-mandated one. So one might rightly wonder how an unelected and retired official with no parliamentary accountability has come to occupy such a crucial position in the country’s national security decision making, and whether this is healthy in a parliamentary democracy.
The NSC, which replicates the membership of the Cabinet Committee on Security, almost never meets under the new regime, and the National Security Advisory Board, initially set up by the Vajpayee government, to seek ‘outside expertise’ on strategic matters, is today a space for retired officials. As a result, there is little fresh thinking within the government or perspective planning on the country’s national security or defence.
All that the SPG and DPC would achieve is to further bureaucratise the national security decision making and centralise all national security powers under the PMO. While I concede that this might provide a little more coordination in decision making, let’s be clear that these committees are hardly sufficient to get the country’s national security system back on track. To expect the NSA to chair all these committees and then action their recommendations while at the same time running the country’s national security affairs on a day-to-day basis is unrealistic, and would end up producing sub-optimal outcomes. Top-heavy systems hardly work well unless supported by a well-oiled institutional mechanism.
There is some hope that these committees would take a close, hard look at the state of modernisation and domestic defence industry in the country, both of which are in a sorry state. Under the present system, where the ratio of revenue to capital expenditure in defence is roughly 65:35%, any serious attempt at modernisation would be impossible. While the committees would be cognisant of this, there is precious little they could do now, just months before the government faces a crucial election.
At the end of the day, many of India’s national security inadequacies stem from the absence of a national security/defence vision. Ideally, the country should have an overall national security document from which the various agencies and the arms of the armed forces draw their mandate and create their own respective and joint doctrines which would then translate into operational doctrines for tactical engagement. In the absence of this, as is the case in India today, national strategy is broadly a function of ad hocism and personal preferences.
Despite the BJP’s hypernationalist credentials in the field of national security and defence, its appetite towards defence reforms has been lacklustre, its willingness to create a broad national strategy has been non-existent, and, much of its energy geared towards utilising national security issues for domestic political gains. Consequently, the state of India’s national security and defence is worse off today compared to when it took office in May 2014. And in the meantime, we are becoming a country without a coherent national security purpose.