A week after 20 Indian soldiers were killed in clashes with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the Galwan Valley in the Ladakh sector, India banned 59 Chinese apps and began a process of implementing more punitive trade measures. Indeed, the crisis that began in May 2020 in the Ladakh sector was unlike other clashes that have taken place between the Indian Army and the PLA in the past. It was more aggressive, unlike the posturings that both armies have been engaging in every year; it was more widespread, and clearly the result of months of planning. In its aftermath, India’s response has raised questions about the country’s intelligence capabilities.
First, since the PLA’s move was months in the making, how did India’s intelligence agencies miss the signs? At the very least, sub-one-metre resolution satellite imagery is easily accessible to even armchair intelligence watchers. Second, even if India’s intelligence agencies were aware that the PLA was planning some kind of action after India changed the status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, was such information shared with field commanders? Third, what assessments were made by India’s intelligence community and the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) that fed a range of response options for the government?
India’s existing intelligence apparatus comprises an assortment of agencies that have specific mandates. They do, however, tend to overlap in their functions, either by design or as a natural consequence of their activities.
The creation and evolution of intelligence agencies in India is chequered, with instances of good intentions being poorly implemented, or else the original vision and intent getting lost. Much of India’s challenge emanates from the fact that many of its intelligence agencies are created not as part of a deliberate strategic vision, but merely as a response to a crisis. Further, some of them were simply copied from existing models in Western countries, leading to mismatches with India’s political and bureaucratic systems, resulting in below-par capabilities.
In 1968, the foreign intelligence division of the IB was hived off to create the R&AW. This was a result of two crucial lapses by the IB: its failure to make a correct assessment of China’s intentions that would eventually lead to the 1962 war with India, and Pakistan’s Operation Gibraltar that led to the 1965 war. These were primarily cited as the reason for needing a dedicated external intelligence agency along the lines of the American CIA and the British MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service). However, the implementation of the vision left much to be desired. While it sought to have an open recruitment system that would eventually lead to the creation of a dedicated intelligence cadre for India, the plan failed to take off. While policymakes did not intend for the Indian Police Service (IPS) to have overarching powers over the intelligence agencies, both external and internal, such was what happened eventually.
The different branches of the military have their own intelligence wings. The Indian Army (IA), for instance, has a cadre of military intelligence officers comprising former high-ranking, intelligence officers with decades of experience in the field. The question, however, is whether this has led to significant gains for the IA’s intelligence capabilities. The other two services—the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy—also have intelligence wings, but they do not have a cadre; instead, they field personnel on a rotational basis. The result is that these efforts remain largely tactical and focused on day-to-day operational requirements; larger issues of strategic intelligence are left largely to the civilian agencies.
Following the Kargil War of 1999, the government sanctioned the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) of the Integrated Defence Staff under the Ministry of Defence. However, it failed to address the strategic gaps of the military dimensions of intelligence, struggling to remain relevant with India’s intelligence community. Like the creation of the R&AW, that of the NTRO was also a result of a particular crisis (i.e., the Kargil War). The failures in intelligence—whether in collection, analysis or processing—led to a recognition of the need for a dedicated technical intelligence agency modelled after the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) or the US National Security Agency (NSA).
Over the years, the impact of these efforts at fortifying India’s intelligence capabilities has been limited. Even at the apex level, where intelligence collation and analysis need to take place, the results have been far from desirable. Repeated failures following the reports of the Kargil Review Committee and the Group of Ministers point to a deeper and systemic failure. For instance, although there was available intelligence on possible terror attacks on Mumbai in 2008, India’s intelligence agencies and networks failed to identify the threat and prevent the attacks. Therefore, an evaluation of India’s intelligence capabilities can only be done by measuring the reasons for its repeated failures to reform its agencies. While incremental changes have been accepted occasionally—either the Kargil Review Committee or the Group of Ministers’ report, or even the Naresh Chandra Committee—all of them failed to modernise India’s intelligence apparatus.
A history of missed reforms
The Kargil Review Committee (KRC) was set up by the Government of India on 29 July 1999, three days after the end of the Kargil War. The Committee found serious deficiencies at various levels of intelligence collection. It noted, for instance, thus: “There is no institutionalized mechanism for coordination or objective-oriented interaction between agencies and consumers at different levels. Similarly, there is no mechanism for tasking the agencies, monitoring their performance and reviewing their records to evaluate their quality. Nor is there any oversight of the overall functioning of the agencies.” Two decades later, it is apparent that little has changed since the KRC’s observations in 2000. India remained unable to detect, let alone prevent the PLA’s build up in Ladakh in 2020.
Not only is India’s intelligence processes moribund, they have also failed to grapple with the impacts of internet-based technologies that are fundamentally altering how the world currently works. India’s lack of a credible technology and security industry leaves gaping holes in its ability to manoeuvre modern-day security challenges.
The age of technology
Technology has always mattered in building strong nations, in particular, sophisticated militaries and intelligence agencies. In recent years, the relevance of technology has come to the centrestage, amidst the Cold Tech war between the US and China. The imperative is for India to nurture a national intelligence strategy for this technology era. In 2019, what is now known as the Pegasus malware attack managed to breach the WhatsApp communication platform’s end-to-end encryption protocol across several countries. The incident brought out in the open another set of questions regarding India’s intelligence capabilities. By relying on foreign vendors and third-system integrators, India could be compromising and diluting its national security.
India would do well to have its “Make in India” initiative reach the country’s intelligence agencies. This brief is not suggesting for India to unlawfully spy on its own citizens. The challenge is for India to finally muster a vision for the development of its indigenous capability.
According to the 2019 Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on Innovation and National Security: “..the intelligence community will fall behind potential adversaries if they do not rapidly access and deploy technologies developed in the private sector.” Consider these statistics: India was the largest buyer of arms from Israel in 2017, with purchases worth US$715 million; nearly 9 percent of India’s defence imports was Israeli between the years 2009-18. Not to mention that majority of the technology in this sector is imported into India; the country imports disproportionate volumes of intelligence tech and gear from countries such as Israel. The foreign original equipment manufacturer (OEM) lobby in India is notorious and will not cede space so easily. On intelligence technologies, India’s domestic capability is sorely missing.
India needs a national security innovation strategy based on three pillars of reform: people, paisa (money), and processes. Such a framework will need a tripartite partnership between government, private sector (including young companies and non-traditional suppliers), and the academia. Best practices from other countries have shown how much of innovation emerges from regional ecosystems made up of networks of technology firms, capital markets, and research institutions.
The first step is to identify specific technology pathways and create a concrete five-year plan to swiftly build local capacity. This entails a targeted approach that encourages accountability, as opposed to a diffused one. All efforts must converge within the stipulated period and towards a common goal: building Indian capability in a set of technologies that will serve the intelligence community.
The second step is to unleash a host of policy levers that will converge in the same singular goal. Some of these policies will be designed for short-term reforms, and others for longer-term structural changes. If India is keen to develop a technology base to further its intelligence capabilities, it needs to nurture a culture of technology and innovation. This goal has the following elements:
- Government as investor. It is time for India’s intelligence agencies to act as venture capitalists and take ownership in the companies they will nurture and support. For example, In-Q-Tel is the CIA’s venture arm, and has been investing in young companies since 1999. The US NSA has also experimented with the same. More recently, the famed Israeli spy agency, Mossad, has launched an incubator, inviting applications from all over the world (in select technology areas).
- Rapid experimentation. It is important to better leverage existing funding platforms such as the recently launched “Innovations for Defence Excellence” (IDEX) (to fund innovative ideas and startups) of the Ministry of Defence.
- Create a Future Technologies Unit. This is a multi-agency federal body representing the future technology needs of the main intelligence agencies at the national level. One percent of the budget from each agency should be channeled to this office for fast technology development and integration.
- Establish a Digital Academy. This could train serving intelligence officers in the chosen technology domains.
- Technology Fellows Programmes. A lateral entry program of a few years can be offered to domain experts who work closely with intelligence agencies. This is one way to attract young technical talent. The CIA and FBI ran the Cybersecurity Talent initiative which included two-year placements. Similarly, in the UK, the GCHQ has started a cyber programme for high school students.
- An R&D charter for the intelligence community. One cannot expect the current operations and procurement teams to also focus on R&D. A separate parallel team has to be created, capable of risk-taking and experimentation, that will work closely with the operations team.
- INT R&D lab / Science Park. Create an R&D lab focused on SIGINT within a leading engineering university.
- Create international alliances. These collaborations will focus on development exercises akin, for example, to the Indian armed forces’ collaboration with the US under the DTTI charter.
- Create a dedicated unit on Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) to collect and analyse the vast volumes of data that are now publicly available in the open domain. Commercial sensors and the internet have made this possible and it can often prove to be a treasure trove for intelligence operations.
- Shift the status quo by creating a healthy competition between the private sector and the DPSUs / DRDO. A challenger from the outside could create better results than what is being seen from the current near-monopoly of public-sector units.
- For India to build an industrial base, it needs a clear method of security clearances similar to those of the US and UK, and even of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for private citizens. Otherwise, the industry side will fail to find solutions to problems that they do not completely understand.
- Greater participation of the private sector in technology assessment. The US, for example, routinely seeks the assistance of the private sector in assessing technology. The large defence contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, helps the government evaluate new technology and obtain pricing for their development. This proves important even for framing of Request for Information (RFI) / Request for Proposal (RFP).
- A separate budget for R&D exclusively for the Indian private sector. With the large procurement orders create a “small business set aside” (instead of offsets). This will compel large foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to bring along Indian Small & Medium Enterprises (SME) / startups, without which they cannot bid on tenders.
India’s national security challenges make it imperative for the country to develop a technology-centric intelligence cadre, and nurture this cadre’s capabilities. Substantial reforms are needed to improve the collection, processing and dissemination of intelligence on a real-time basis. A prerequisite is to pass specific legislation that would give India’s intelligence community a statutory basis and a charter, and provide it with institutional levels of accountability.
The Sputnik satellite launch by the Soviets on 4 October 1957 catalysed the US to invest heavily in R&D for its intelligence and security community. As a result, for three-quarters of a century the world has witnessed unparalleled American hegemony in the field of science and technology. India is facing massive challenges in filling the gaps in its intelligence systems; will the intrusions in Ladakh serve as India’s Sputnik?
Vinayak Dalmia @vinayakdalmia is an entrepreneur and political thinker. He has worked with the Indian Prime Minister’s Office and McKinsey & Co. Vrinda Kapoor is a deep-tech entrepreneur & biologist by training. Saikat Datta @saikatd is a Visiting Fellow with ORF’s National Security Programme. He has been a journalist for over 19 years as an editor and an investigative reporter with several news organisations.
The article is an extract from a report titled ‘India’s Enduring Challenge of Intelligence Reforms’. The report first appeared on the Observer Research Foundation website. Read the full report here.