Never before has the need for a centralised, holistic and well synchronised approach been more paramount.
Every time a new government is voted into power there is hope that much needed defence and national security reforms will be effected. The return to power of the BJP-led NDA has especially contributed to this perception, considering that some restructuring, even though mostly incremental, have been taken during its first tenure (2014-2019) and national security featured prominently in the BJP’s electoral campaign.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the armed forces have been witness to a long history of incremental reforms and restructuring in post-Independent India. While many of these changes have been well intentioned and preceded with considerable discussion and debate, as is the norm in our country, many of these measures were either a half-way house and therefore simply not enough, had limited impact, have lost their relevance or fell on the wayside because they were not taken seriously or implemented in the way it was meant to be by those who matter(ed).
In keeping with the country’s “committee culture”, successive governments have for several decades now been appointing committees to review the functioning of the MoD and the national security apparatus. All reports have, with some modifications, essentially professed a need for major reforms. Yet governments across all political dispensations have been loath to alter the status quo on several major issues.
Arguably, the same approach of sporadically making symbolic and cosmetic changes, none of which has led to any significant improvement in decision making, continues. What we have achieved is a steady accumulation of well researched reports, layers of committees, endless procedures and a never-ending “Needs Doing” list.
This is no longer acceptable in today’s rapidly paced world, wherein the nature of warfare is constantly evolving and in an age of breathtaking ongoing revolutions in technology apart from tectonic economic and geo-political developments in the immediate and distant neighbourhood. Rather the concept of neighbourhood itself has undergone a change in a far more intertwined and interdependent multi-polar globalised world, in which practically every individual finds himself empowered by revolutionary information and communication technologies.
For long now, India’s security cannot be viewed from the simplistic prism of the internal and external. The meaning of security itself has expanded way beyond just the three Services. Pakistan’s ongoing 30-year-long proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir and before that its diabolical policies in Punjab have since long introduced a deep connect between India’s external and internal security concerns.
Never before has the need for a centralised, holistic and well synchronised and coordinated approach been more paramount. Yet our national security establishment behemoth remains near frozen in time. For decades now the discourse or concerns in the MoD and the armed forces remains on the same parochial or predictable lines—political indecision on the need for a Chief of Defence Staff or CDS as a principal military advisor to the government, the need for better coordination between the three Services, which continue to mostly operate in silos, the long-standing “us versus them” rancour between the armed forces and the civilian bureaucrats in the MoD, the relative ignorance and lack of interest in defence matters exercised by the political executive, the cumbersome defence procurement procedures, the inadequacies of and delays by the Defence Research and Development Organisation in developing high-tech weapon systems, India’s over reliance on imports for defence equipment, the inadequacies and deficiencies of the internal security establishment to handle the scourge of terrorism and the several humiliating internal security incidents that have affected India’s image as a regional power, are some in a near endless list of things that need to be set right.
The government must hurry—not into taking hurried decisions, but hurry to take decisions considering that there has already been a seemingly infinite debate and discussion on these and more subjects. The government doesn’t need more committees, it needs to take action.
By according Cabinet status to the present National Security Advisor (NSA), the government has already created a de facto Minister for National Security. Time will reveal whether the precedent of according Cabinet status will continue with future governments. Earlier in April last year the government constituted a Defence Planning Committee (DPC) headed by the NSA and comprising the three Service Chiefs, the Chief of Integrated Defence Staff, the Secretaries of Defence and of Expenditure and the Foreign Secretary.
Hailed with alacrity by many commentators at the time, the purpose of the DPC is aimed at facilitating “a comprehensive and integrated planning for defence matters”. The DPC’s two-fold charter is to “analyse and evaluate” all relevant inputs relating to defence planning, which includes the “national defence and security priorities, foreign policy imperatives, operational directives and associated requirements, relevant strategic and security-related doctrines, defence acquisition and infrastructure development plans, including the 15-year Long-Term Integrated Perspective Plan, defence technology and development of the Indian defence industry and global technological advancement”.
The second charter is to prepare at least five different sets of drafts including: “national security strategy, strategic defence review and doctrines; international defence engagement strategy; roadmap to build defence manufacturing eco-system; strategy to boost defence exports; and prioritised capability development plans for the armed forces over different time-frames in consonance with the overall priorities, strategies and likely resource flows.”
This much hailed Defence Planning Committee was in fact first established in the form of a Committee for Defence Planning (a slight realignment of words) headed by the Cabinet Secretary, the first among all bureaucrats, in several series of incremental measures carried out between 1964 and 1974, soon after India’s military defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War.
It is important that the exercises being carried out by the DPC and any future such exercises begin to translate into action and not become another set of reports consigned to the shelf for commentators to recall in their subsequent writings down the year, as is the case with so many other such reports.
There cannot be endless discussion and debate; it only leads to dilutions, compromises or inaction. Instead the government must think progressive, creative and innovative. It must be bold and proactive in its thinking on national security and be thinking different boxes rather than just out-of-the-box.
Just as there is a need for joint planning and coordination between the services and also between the Services and the MoD, there is considerable need for coordination and synergy between the MoD, Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of External Affairs.
Perhaps, as once recommended by former J&K Governor N.N. Vohra, who has been Defence and Home Secretary, it is time for the country to have a Ministry of National Security with a dedicated National Security Administrative Service on the lines of other all-India services which could be both directly and laterally drawn from various services such as the armed forces, the police and Central armed forces, the banking and telecom sectors, the DRDO etc., for managing the nation’s security management machinery.
In his R.N. Kao Memorial Lecture on “National Security Management: Some Concerns” delivered in January last year, Vohra had observed that the “establishment of such a specially trained cadre would put an end to the continuing ad hoc practice of deployments being made in the security administration arena of persons of diverse professional backgrounds who have had no past experience of working in this arena. He also recommended that the Union government take urgent steps, in close consultation with the states, to evolve and promulgate the National Security Policy and, thereafter, draw up and implement a time bound action plan to fill all existing gaps and establish a countrywide institutional framework for safeguarding the country on every front’.”
The government also needs to take a hard look at the training, equipment, professionalism, capability and leadership of the Central Armed Police Forces such as the Border Security Force (comprising a strength of 256,701 and 186 battalions), the Central Reserve Police Force (strength 319,501 and 242 battalions), Indo-Tibetan Border Police (strength 89,433 and 62 battalions) and a Central Industrial Security Force (strength 150,810).
Besides, the government must review the 158-year-old vintage Police Act of 1861 legislated by the British colonialists after the revolt of 1857 and reform the functioning of the state police forces which lack effective accountability mechanisms; are often economical in their professionalism, integrity and competence; lack the confidence and trust of the public; and often engage in brutish and feudal behaviour apart from the fact that it’s leadership severely politicised.
India does not enjoy the same degree of peace as does Western Europe or a faraway Australia. Nor is it likely in the near future. We live in a variable war zone or, at best, a “no war no peace” conflict environment. And this is not about to change. But our national security management system must.
Dinesh Kumar is a writer on defence affairs.