The 2019 Lok Sabha election has put national security, an omnipresent theme during the campaign, in the minds of the Indian public. And although the debate over it lacked substance and was mainly driven by rhetoric throughout the campaign, the new government will have no option but to address the long overdue issue of national security reforms. The approach has to be holistic and long-term in order to meet the challenges of the 21st century conflict. Incremental reforms will not do. Parliament, the media and the public must hold the government accountable for preparedness and performance with respect to national security.
Here are the major points for the new BJP government to consider as part of the national security reforms agenda:
Higher defence structures and decision making
In the past, there has been too much ambiguity and ad-hocism in our higher defence planning and decision making. The creation of the National Security Council (NSC) by the first NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998 to advise the prime minister about all aspects of national security was a major step towards reform. In composition, it remained dominated by retired officers from the Ministry of External Affairs and the Indian Police Service. The most important component of national security — the military — only played a marginal role through the three Chiefs being members of the Strategic Policy Group (SPG), token representation of retired military officers in National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), and subsequently one ‘military advisor’.
The second NDA government, which returned to the Centre after a gap of 10 years with BJP’s Narendra Modi at the helm, took two major decisions for the NSC’s reform — the creation of the Defence Planning Committee (DPC) in April 2018 and revamping of the SPG in October 2018, both to be now headed by the National Security Advisor (NSA). Earlier, the DPC was headed by the defence minister while the SPG by the cabinet secretary.
The distinctions between the roles of the defence minister, cabinet secretary, the three Chiefs, and the NSA have blurred, creating further ambiguity in the national security chain of command. From only an advisory role, the NSA is now the chief national security executive responsible for all national security advice, planning and execution, and the de facto Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).
It would be prudent for the new government to review the higher defence structures and decision-making to bring about a comprehensive statutory National Security Act to cover all aspects of national security planning and execution to avoid ambiguity and ensure accountability.
Strategic review and national security strategy
The new government through the NSC/SPG/DPC must carry out a long-term strategic review to establish what the present and future security challenges — both internal and external — are to evolve a comprehensive national security strategy. This must be formal and put under parliamentary scrutiny.
The national security strategy is the starting point for all security planning because it formally spells out the vision to tackle the threats faced by the nation and leads it to acquiring the much-needed capabilities. No Indian government has so far spelt out a clear national security strategy, while the capabilities are more tailored to fight the last war and not the future wars. Parliament and the public must ensure the government is forced into formalising a national security strategy and putting the non-classified parts in public domain.
Financial allocation and capability development
Based on the strategic review and the national security strategy, the new government must decide the force levels and the technology necessary for external and internal security. This must be matched with the availability of finances on a long-term basis. The current force levels were based on decisive conventional wars as envisaged in the 1980s and the 1990s. In a nuclear backdrop, future conflicts will be driven by forces using high-end military technology to be applied in a short time.
The strength of the armed forces must be optimised through restructuring, reorganisation and infusion of modern technology. This is only possible if three per cent of GDP is earmarked for defence. As a percentage of the GDP, the defence budgets of last five years have been the lowest in 57 years with the exception of 2007. The current policy for capability development with inadequate budget is a political hoax.
The present system of tri-service cooperation is ill-suited for modern warfare. Inter-service rivalry is a lame excuse for political inaction. There is an urgent need to integrate the three services under a Chief of Defence Staff, who should be the advisor to the government on all matters related to external security. Tri-service theatre commands must be created and directly controlled by the CDS.
The CDS must have direct access to the political leadership and must receive his orders through the statutory chain of command.
It is empirical wisdom that internal strife is always resolved politically. Our governments have been notorious for never defining the military end state for the insurgency prone areas. In absence of a clear political strategy, the prolonged deployment of the military itself continues to fuel the violence.
The government must formally lay down its strategy for internal security, and clearly define the military and political end state it is seeking in Jammu and Kashmir, northeast and the Red Corridor. It must focus on conflict resolution and not conflict management.
Once the military end state is achieved, the armed forces must be progressively withdrawn from strife prone areas, and the responsibility handed over to the CRPF and the state police. This is the primary task of the CRPF and the state police and they must be organised, equipped and trained to do the same.
Let me stick my neck out and say that the military component of our comprehensive national power is currently the weakest link. We are way behind China and no longer have a decisive edge over Pakistan. Having ridden to victory on national security, the new BJP government has no option but to focus on holistic national security reforms and capability development.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.