On 29 December 2022, former Chief of the Army Staff General Manoj Mukund Naravane publicly lamented the absence of and the need for a National Security Strategy, or NSS. Delivering the 4th General KV Krishna Rao Memorial Lecture, he said “Theaterisation is not an end, it is only a means to an end. That end has to be specified first in the form of a national defence strategy. That defence strategy, in turn, has to flow out of a national security strategy. Unless there is a national security strategy in place, to just keep talking about theaterisation is actually putting the cart before the horse.”
Nearly two years ago on 4 March 2021, then Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, delivering the keynote address at a webinar on Transformation: Imperatives for Indian Armed Forces, had echoed similar views: “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.”
It is a military theory truism that political directions for ensuring national security of a democratic nation must come in the form of a NSS, which wholly or partially may or may not be put in public domain. What do these statements made by the country’s two most important military leaders who were responsible for transformation of our armed forces and whose tenures overlapped by two years, tell us about our national security?
First, neither does India have a NSS, nor are detailed political directions given in any form. Ministry of Defence bureaucrats are notorious for throwing the ball in the court of the armed forces in the form of cryptic and ambiguous one liners for executing political decisions in peace and war. Second, the transformation process of the armed forces, of which tri-Service integration and theatreisation is sine qua non, is not government owned or formally supervised but is left to the armed forces. Third, in absence of a NSS or formal political directions, the armed forces themselves failed to seize the initiative to resolve inter-Service conflict for reforms, which empirically require political intervention.
There seems to be a government-military disconnect. Let alone conveying our intent to our adversaries through a formal National Security Strategy (NSS), no formal directions seem to be given to the armed forces.
Why is a NSS necessary?
NSS is an all-encompassing and overarching framework for a nation to employ various instruments of national power — diplomatic, informational, military and economic — to advance and protect its national interests from external and internal threats. It is a clear vision of how a nation will pursue its national objectives and provides guidance to all organs of the State, particularly its military instrument, signifying a ‘whole of government’ approach. NSS is reviewed on as- required basis to keep pace with the prevailing strategic environment.
In democracies, unclassified parts of the NSS are generally put in public domain to send a clear signal to friend and foe alike in international affairs. And in domestic affairs, to reassure the public and ward off pressures of the political opposition. The execution part is kept classified. Most global powers — United States, China, France, United Kingdom, Pakistan and now even the pacifist Japan — have a formal national security strategy or policy.
NSS paves the way for the National Defence Policy (NDP), which encompasses planning and management to achieve the national defence objectives specified. It lays down the framework, which links the NSS to the development and continuous refinement of the military instrument in terms of planning, management and execution. NDP ensures the optimum utilisation of the defence budget to build up the armed forces’ capabilities. National Military Strategy (NMS) is guided by both NSS and NDP and deals with the actual application of the military instrument.
Why India does not have a NSS?
There should be no doubt that successive governments have been reluctant to formalise a formal NSS and a NDP. Consequently, the military instrument is not optimally developed and applied. “We have given the armed forces a free hand,” is the norm for cryptic directions for application of force. Various government committees – Kargil Review Committee, Group of Ministers Report, Naresh Chandra Committee, Shekatkar Committee – and government-sponsored think tanks are unanimous in their recommend ations for the need of a formal NSS. In April 2018, the present government itself had directed the restructured Defence Planning Committee headed by the NSA, Ajit Doval, to prepare a NSS.
Of course, there is a functional approach which becomes more ad hoc in times of crisis as is evident from the confrontation with China along our northern borders since April 2020. We also have the Defence Minister’s Operational Directive which provides the basis of operational planning, stocking, manning and training for the armed forces and is supposed to be issued every five years. It has not been revised since 2009.
The apprehensions of the government are due to three reasons. First is the worry that a declared NSS will deteriorate India’s relations with its potential adversaries and also queer the pitch for dealing with our allies. Our principal adversaries – China and Pakistan – have made their intent clear. They use direct and indirect means to coerce our international conduct, make no secret of their intent to capture our territory claimed by them, and mass troops on the borders to conduct operations below the threshold of war, including proxy wars. What more is left for relations to further deteriorate? They are not potential but actual adversaries with whom we are engaged in “grey zone warfare” with distinct possibility of escalation to a limited war. Why be ambiguous and not formally tell them as to how we will deal with them through a NSS? Our intent formally stated will act as a deterrent.
India’s friends and foes are well aware that the country will never sacrifice its strategic autonomy in international relations, will not be part of a military alliance and that national interests will drive its conduct. Formally reflecting these in a NSS will only add credibility.
The second apprehension is that a NSS reduces the flexibility of the government’s decision making in pursuit of national interests, particularly with respect to threats to national security. NSS is not a black and white document to be rigidly followed. It only lays down the principles and provides the framework. It is creatively written to build in adequate flexibility. Moreover, it is not sacrosanct and can be reviewed on as-required basis.
Last but not the least is the government’s apprehension that the NSS will enforce accountability onto itself, particularly with respect to defence preparedness, territorial integrity and counter-terrorism. This is a fallacy. A NSS will only provide transparency, clarity and credibility to government policy. It is opaqueness, political jingoism, rhetoric and bombast that sends public expectations skyrocketing. When the balloon goes up, governments either blunder into a war as Nehru did in 1962 or are forced to rely upon obfuscation and cover of bravery/sacrifice of soldiers to explain a fairly pragmatic policy as Modi did after the Chinese intrusions in Eastern Ladakh. Indeed, with respect to defence preparedness, a NSS will enforce accountability on the government. But it will also clarify to the public what we can and can not do with our current resources.
The present government after a phase of aggressive and confrontationist strategy against our adversaries has done well to course correct and adopt the strategy of “strategic restraint” as one should among nuclear armed States with large conventional forces and with whom we share unsettled borders. However, there is an urgent need to review our military strategy to manage the ongoing confrontations on the borders to ensure that our soldiers are not put in harm’s way. India needs to avoid recurring embarrassments.
In international affairs also, we have reverted to our traditional policy of strategic autonomy in pursuit of national interests. India is poised to take its rightful place in the comity of nations as a pole. NSS will only formalise what the government is already doing and provide clarity and credibility. For the transformation of the armed forces, it is an imperative and the sooner we formalise it the better it would be.
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.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)