Was Home Minister Amit Shah right when he said recently that India’s defence policy was a ‘shadow’ of its foreign policy before Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power? But it is not just Shah, even former Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, had quipped about the importance of a “national security strategy” and the need to formalise it.
It is true that successive governments have been reluctant to formalise and declare a formal national security strategy and a specific defence policy. Even though undeclared covert operations across the LAC and in Myanmar have been done under previous governments. Overtly, in pursuit of national interest, India also sent a Peace Keeping Force to Sri Lanka in 1987 and launched an operation to thwart a coup attempt in the Maldives in 1988. But this reluctance to frame a doctrine and a defence policy can be explained as an attempt to avoid accountability.
Major global powers like the United States, China, France, United Kingdom and now even Pakistan have a formal national security strategy or policy. It’s time that India gets one but one that is in the public domain.
Shah had also said that “Earlier, terrorists would be sent to attack us, and there were similar attempts to do so with the Uri and Pulwama attacks. But with the surgical strikes and airstrikes, we showed what the defence policy meant.” It is heartening that the Home Minister has been informing the public about India’s “new defence policy”. But something seems to be amiss, the military does not seem to be aware of the same.
CDS Rawat, while speaking at seminar in College of Defence Management, had said: “Some important steps that we need to take, include–defining the national security strategy, higher defence strategic guidance, structural reforms in higher defence and operational organisations.” National Defence Policy flows out of National Security Strategy and forms the basis of all defence planning, capability development and allocation of funds. As per General Rawat’s statement, India does not have a national security strategy.
What the Home Minister has highlighted are the political directions for ‘use of force’ in the form of declared counter-terrorist operational actions across the Line of Actual Control or International Boundaries, like using Special Forces in Myanmar on 9 June 2015, and at multiple points across the LAC on the night of 28 and 29 September 2016, and airstrikes at Balakot on the night of 25 and 26 February 2019. The jury is still out on whether these operations forced compellence on the terrorists/ Pakistan or remain standalone retributive operations without continuity.
India’s National Security Strategy and Defence Policy
A national Security Strategy (NSS) or national security policy is an overarching key framework for a country to employ various instruments of national power — diplomatic, informational, military and economic — to advance or protect its national interests from external and internal threats. NSS should be a clear vision of the path a nation should take in pursuit of its national objectives. It is a mother document that provides guidance to all organs of the State, particularly its military instrument. It is a formal document prepared by the government and, in democracies, also scrutinised by parliament.
National defence policy (NDP) flows out of the NSS and encompasses planning and management to achieve the national defence objectives specified in it. In practice, it is a series of guidelines, principles and frameworks that link the theory – NSS – to action, that is, planning, management and implementation. Above all, the defence policy deals with optimum utilisation of the defence budget to build up the armed forces’ capabilities.
India does not have a formal NSS or a NDP. Functionally, there are a fair number of policy documents or letters issued by foreign, defence, home and finance ministries concerning national security. In the absence of NSS, the process lacks synergy and accountability. The impact is most pronounced in military matters, where there is a lack of clarity on the threats and type of wars the nation may have to fight and the capabilities that we need to develop.
Political directions, if at all given, are informal and cryptic. It is largely left to the armed forces to fill in the blanks through a bottom-up approach. However, the compulsion to maintain and manage large armed forces due to external and internal threats led to the evolution of a functional system.
There are numerous policy documents covering every facet of defence planning. Defence planning is guided by the Raksha Mantri’s Operational Directive, ironically based on a draft prepared by the armed forces. Based on this directive, the armed forces prepare 15-year long term integrated perspective plans with a specific focus on 5-Year integrated defence plans. These are linked to defence acquisition plans prepared by the Ministry of Defence. India has a large but ‘out of sync with times’ defence industrial base. The Modi government has formalised policies on ‘Aatmanirbharta’ or indigenisation of defence production and modernisation of the defence industrial base. The policy also incorporates the private sector.
The Defence Planning Committee, which reports to the Defence Minister and is headed by the National Security Advisor (NSA), was created in 2018 and is mandated to prepare drafts for a strategic defence review, national security strategy, and prioritised capability development plans for the armed forces. In a nutshell, it is responsible for formalising the NSS and NDP. However, nothing is in the public domain to show any tangible progress.
The way forward
The lack of a cohesive NSS results in the absence of clear political direction regarding politico-military objectives, which are the basis of all defence planning. Also, there is inadequate coordination of defence plans and economic and industrial development, which impacts the creation of a viable state-of-the-art defence industrial base.
Even in the absence of an NSS, a comprehensive NDP could have bridged the gap. Instead, the existing functional defence planning system is struggling and muddling along to manage and incrementally modernise the existing elephantine armed forces. What our armed forces need is transformation – a revolution in military affairs – to prepare for the high technology driven wars of the 21st Century. And this cannot happen without a visionary NSS and NDP.
There seems to be absolute political clarity on the need to transform national security and the armed forces. Our Prime Minister has articulated his views in the highest defence forum, the Combined Commanders Conference, on numerous occasions. Thus, it is ironic that our’ transformation’ is still rudderless without a formal NSS and NDP. If the strongest government since Independence, which is ideologically committed to national security, does not formalise the NSS and NDP, then who will?
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.