Last week saw considerable excitement in the national security circles with the setting up of a Defence Planning Committee (DPC). For a government which wants India to pull its weight in the world, it was surprising that the Modi government sought to mould India’s defence doctrine to its world view so late in the day in its tenure.
NSA Doval’s interventions in the security sphere so far have been worthy of an excellent field level operative. Doval firsthand supervised the Myanmar and Pakistan surgical strikes, monitored the hanged Yakub Memon’s funeral in Mumbai and flew to West Bengal to inspect houses damaged in a bomb blast by a Bangladeshi militant outfit. But even the most cunning and crafty tactical level intervention cannot be a replacement for strategy.
This might be the moment for India’s security czar to nurture and bequeath to the nation the Modi government’s blueprint to meet India’s external and internal security obligations. The DPC has over half a dozen top managers of the country’s defence apparatus — NSA Ajit Doval himself, the three service chiefs, the defence and foreign secretaries, besides Secretary (Expenditure) of the Ministry of Finance. The secretariat of the Chief of Integrated Defence Staff (CIDS), which is already neck-deep in many of the objectives outlined for the DPC, will provide the institutional backup.
The goals are fittingly lofty for a dispensation that, before taking power, had grumbled about India’s tendency to punch below its weight; of practicing defensive realism that entails self-imposition of restraint in a neighbourhood that does not understand such grammar; and, of its 125 crore people and immense landmass not having the commensurate power to shape the security environment. If the Modi government’s vision is to approach anywhere near reality, it needs to cater to three broad aspects — doctrinal revision, organisational reform and equipment acquisitions — as well as hope for a second term to see them home.
Each of the three is a mountain to climb. On the level of doctrines, India never had a strategic doctrine in written form. Forget periodic updating to adjust to alterations in the security environment, India has never produced a strategic doctrine white paper. It does have good experience with military doctrines but needs a change of tack now that successive parliamentary committees and service chiefs themselves have laid bare the defence cupboard.
The DPC needs a burst of creativity in order to be the harbinger of something new instead of becoming a reflection of status quoist voices repeating largely boilerplate formulations. Since military doctrine should precede long-term weapon acquisition planning, would it examine if India needs to persist with World War II amassed formations of military hardware? Or should it blend it with innovative solutions by countries like Iran that, like India, are equally cash-starpped? Can it, like China (BRI) provided the impetus for military reforms in China), weave its economic strategy with defence restructuring so that both lean on and draw from each other? Or to confound the enemy insert, like PLA, the concept of unrestricted warfare that throws in electronic, cyber and other changes brought about by technology?
Its second major mandate of weapons acquisitions can, at best, achieve the limited goal of shaving off some of the time taken for a few of the acquisitions given the sorry state of the corresponding ecosystem. Even this is doubtful for most of the political bosses of DPC members do exactly the same in the Cabinet Commitee on Security. The DPC may, however, achieve the elusive goal of approving the armed force’s 15-year perspective plan for weapons’ acquisition.
Organisational reform should follow doctrinal revision and equipment acquisitions. But Doval’s vision needs more ballast. The taxpayer is hurting from virtually negligible efforts to cut the flab from the Indian armed forces. Organisational restructuring is most crucial in any stab at reform because too much of the taxpayer’s money goes for upkeep, leaving just 40 per cent for weapons acquisitions, whereas the ratio should ideally be reverse. Previous attempts at restructuring have been unedifying. Gen VP Malik’s downsizing by 50,000 was abandoned after the outbreak of the Kargil conflict. The Modi government, with the ballast provided by the Gen Shekatkar committee, has been reducing nonoperational flab to divert the savings for weapons acquisitions.
But the expected reduction of up to 80,000 men is a long distance from the expectations of a military whose three wings, besides the space and cyber wings, must function as a seamless fighting force without the irritation of inter-service compartmentalisation. In comparison, China has reduced its troops by three lakh, the US army will shrink to pre-World War II levels while Moscow too is cutting its military cloth to adjust to the falling oil revenues.
India is also an exception among the four major militaries operating in the region — the US, China, Russia and India — for showing trepidation in separating the powers of the civilian bureaucrats and military officers with the creation of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), a single military commander for all the three services. In India, the most powerful recommendation for CDS had come from the one of India’s leading security thinkers K Subrahmanyam after examining the lessons of the Kargil conflict. He found that the present system of rotating Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CoSC) was “ineffective” in seamless operations among services. In fact, the dissonance in approach was evident from the IAF and the Army giving different codenames to the Kargil conflict: Safed Sagar and Operation Vijay. A decade later, the Naresh Chandra committee found the situation unchanged.
This has implications for the border with Tibet where all of China’s military instruments of response are controlled by one commander with access to Xi Jinping as the head of China’s top politico-military body, the Central Military Commission. In comparison, four Indian Army Commanders and two IAF Commanders facing Tibet will have to ensure internal coordination and travel through layers to reach the political leadership.
India has been acutely hesitant. The UPA government spent a decade claiming that political consensus on restructuring the Indian military was elusive.
Security is like a chain and humans are always the weakest link. The world over, offensive realism, despite its dubious and unproven merit, cannot be implemented by doctrinal exercises alone. If, as the Modi government feels, India has not measured up to its weight and has been reactive, the need is to go beyond symbolic gestures by naming a CDS or, at least, a fixed tenure Chairman of the CoSC.
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