Management of India's Security and Higher Defence — I

Kapil Kak,Sr. Fellow,IDSA


Nearly a decade following the dramatic end of the Cold War, after a trying initial period of strategic reorientation and economic readjustment, both of which were astutely managed, India stands today at a historic threshold. At the dawn of the 21st century and a new millenium, the country is poised to pursue relentlessly its primary national security goal of rapid and equitable socio-economic development, and simultaneously counter a range of challenges and security threats. She has also to fulfil its obligations and responsibilities as a regional influential graduating to secure true great power capabilities. In this unfolding scenario, fusion of a complex web of factors and issues that influence our global, regional and national strategic environment, and management of integrated application of diplomatic and military components of State power, would prove an increasingly daunting prospect.

Non-linear change being the only constant in the new reality of our times, the intertwined external and internal challenges and threats to our national well-being and its consolidation process would need to be clearly identified in time horizons that are long enough to be reasonably forecast and are yet credible. In doing so, it is important to appreciate that evolution of pro-active environment-shaping strategies and security policies and higher direction of defence would require integrated, holistic and inter-disciplinary inputs on threats to national territory, its institutions and perhaps, even to the political leadership. In global politics, those who fail to seize the moment pay a heavy price eventually. A system with multi-expertise components would, therefore, have to be in place to effectively formulate India's politico-military and geo-economic strategies for autonomous conduct in the unfolding world order. This would also assist India in attaining the niche she richly deserves in the emerging dispensation. As a recent Rand Corporation study has brought out, "for India survival means survival as a great power and security has become synonymous with the safety that enables India to develop, maintain and prosper in its political eminence."1

Management of Security

Strategy, Security and Evaluation of Challenges

Looking at the manner in which India's security strategy and higher direction of defence have been managed during the 50 years of independence, on objective assessment, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that only a restructured decision making system can manage the range of complexities involved. It could be that our complacency during the Cold War permitted us the luxury of doing without long-term planning for security. The defence, internal, external, and economic components of our national capabilities, resource constraints and power would require to be more effectively synergised, consistent with the fast changing era of economic interdependence, intrusive role of transnational players and media and incredible technological change. Achieving objectives of our national strategy and security, and defence policy, may then possibly be fraught with less daunting impediments.

Strategy, termed by the French as the art of the possible, "addresses the entire range of activities of a Government, of which security is one component. It relates closely to the national aim for a selected time horizon. This is generally 25 years—long enough to cover longer lead times and still not too hazy to handle. The US generally employs 30 years."2 Once the aim has been evolved after a wide-ranging debate and consensus, its implications in terms of specific national vital interests in the selected time frame require to be crystallised. A broad decision- making base and bipartisan consensus supporting crucial policies serve to insulate purposive action in this regard from possibilities of sudden U-turns. This consensus is of far greater relevance in developing countries like ours that would possibly witness political uncertainty and disparate informal groupings of leaders for many years before a two party system takes concrete shape.

It needs to be noted that only a full scale evaluation and assessment of threats and challenges to vital interests from within or from neighbours, regional powers and global players as also trans-national forces, whose interests are more often than not divergent, would help evolve a realistic threat matrix. The security correlates of the sources of challenge have to be thus identified, reviewed and re-assessed, more or less on a continuing basis. Only then are pro-active policies evolved to neutralise or minimise the adversarial impulses so that national interests are not jeopardised. Also, the concept of national security has, for some reason, been erroneously associated only with military power and defence preparedness. "Military power or capability is only one facet of national security. Economic strength based on a strong, industrial infrastructure, a pragmatic and dynamic foreign policy, unalterable geopolitical status of a country and other ultra dynamic variables affect our national security directly or indirectly."3 In his overarching concept of security, Buzzan too identifies the spectrum as comprising "political, economic, technological and environmental strands."

The country's security then is "the art and science of employing the nation's intellectual, political, economic and military power to achieve security objectives in peace and war."4 The foremost national goal—the survival and prosperity of India—would entail preservation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity, safeguarding the core values of democracy, secularism, federalism and national integration that spring from the very idea that is India and which would consequently remain unchanged. National security objectives, on the other hand , transmute with time and are closely linked to the changing environment. Our defence and foreign policies would be the military and external components of the national security strategy. The foreign policy should be designed to expand diplomatic spaces and reduce the potential of challenges transforming into threats. Growing internal socio-economic dissonance which causes insecurity, often aggravated by externalities, adds yet another dimension to the comprehensive nature of the processes that identify national security objectives and the means to the same.

India's threat perspectives would continue to be impelled by the primary long-term strategic challenge from China and the secondary medium term threat of a lower magnitude from Pakistan. Simultaneously, the decision-making establishment would require taking into account the trend of heightened international support for peace and socio-economic well-being, and transmutation of war as a coercive instrument. These make for reduced probabilities of inter-state conflict employing regular conventional forces. The vectoring now, and in the years ahead, will take the form of covert use of military power and application of its potential in preference to actual use. Yet, at the threshold of conventional engagement, modernised and technology-biased armed forces-in-being would require to be sustained for any contest of arms that may result from a "deterrence breakdown."

Irregular or sub conventional conflict through low-intensity insurgency and terrorism of a trans-national nature, often financed by clandestine narcotics trade and fuelled by trans-border infusion of man-portable illegal arms appear to find increasing acceptance to meet political and strategic objectives. The Mumbai blasts (Mar '93), Charaar-e-Sharif arson (May '95), Purulia arms air- drop (Dec '95), and Andamans gun runner intrusion (Feb '98) are illustrative of the nexus between foreign intelligence, insurgents and international crime combines. India's vulnerability on this account due to porosity of its borders, sea coasts, islands and non-viability of having larger volumes of national air space covered by radar would continue. Terrorist groups that could operate the Alexander Lebed scenarioed 'suitcase nuclear bombs,' chemical nerve gas agents and biological weapons to hold entire urban conglomerations to ransom need to be factored in the threat calculus. Insurgencies have the effect of softening up social cohesiveness, political will, economic strength and, perhaps in cases, even the governability of states targeted as adversaries.

The question often raised about India is its growing internal insecurity. Incipient ethnicity or religion-driven sub-nationalism, entrenchment of terrorism, trans-border demographic infusion like the large-scale Bangladeshi immigration and criminal-politician-bureaucrat-policeman nexus are its multi-faceted components. As some of these manifestations have their origins in socio-economic inequities, only a long-term growth and development strategy can serve to ensure people's well-being, progress and stability. Meanwhile, constant attempts to bridge the divergence between expectation and satisfaction levels and provision of larger political spaces to disgruntled elements too can help to reduce the temperature of dissonance. More importantly, a clear picture and vision on India's future role in the emerging world order, emanating from a bi-partisan consensus, would shape strategic policies in a global environment that is constantly mutating. A note also needs to be made of the increasing role of national media, academicians, and retired civil servants and armed forces officers, in catalysing educated debate on security issues. Mounting a critical watch on preparatory defence activities in peacetime indirectly serves to ensure the country's ability to face a crisis when it arises.

The most vital instrumentality for security and defence planning, encompassing both external and internal aspects, is the systematic and comprehensive intelligence and assessment of threats and challenges, the former in a time frame of 5-7 years, the latter demanding attention over a longer time horizon of 20-25 years. Establishment of institutional mechanisms for inter-related evaluation of political, economic, military and technological challenges and evolving pro-active policies to neutralise the same has been a major systemic weakness. Garnering timely and high-quality intelligence inputs has been our Achilles heel. Right from 1947-48 operations against Pakistan, through all the wars and crises the nation has faced during the last fifty years, this problem has persisted. Plethora of agencies reporting through their respective chains of command without the relational synthesis being holistically factored into policy make a rejuvenation of this process a national imperative.

In today's knowledge-based power structure of the info-tech revolution, nearly 90-95 per cent of information considered vital for security and defence, is obtainable through open sources. Institutionalised networking by multi-disciplinary teams of the nodal Ministries of Defence, Home, External Affairs and Finance as also their closer co-ordination with "think-tank" academic bodies, scientific research institutions, area specialists, defence analysts and economists would make for dramatic improvements. Policy and strategy, however, must not be personality driven as happened in the late 1950s. Then, an otherwise astute and far-sighted leader like Krishna Menon (the Defence Minister) wrecked the defence policy mechanisms evolved under Nehru's leadership. This included the latter's promise of an integrated Ministry of Defence (MoD) to the Parliament in 1955. To a great extent, the personality factor also impacted military intervention in Sri Lanka in 1987.

An effective synthesis of national policies, directed towards coherently derived strategic objectives would be best effected by institutionalised planning and advisory mechanisms. An apex National Security Council (NSC) preferably redesignated as Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), supported by a national security organisation and their associated staff, could form the core of the holistic approach to decision making and the advisory process. (It is understood that a CCS, informally created in mid-1997, has met twice or thrice on an ad-hoc basis.) There are numerous issues in defence-foreign policy co-relation, which warrant an integrated approach. These include resistance to attempted coercive diplomacy by major powers, review of decisions on nuclear policy, military assistance to friendly countries, employment of coercive pressures if the scenario so demands and effectively managing strands of diplomacy relating to major powers, UN, trade regimes and regional co-operative networks like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Cooperation (IORARC), ASEAN Regional forum (ARF), Bangladesh India Sri Lanka Thailand Economic Community (BISTEC) etc.

In regional terms, India's external policy, emanating from its national security doctrine, should necessarily encompass Southern Asia, in preference to the strategically confining South Asia. "Our strategic frontiers doubtless extend far beyond the geo-political boundaries to perhaps the whole Indian Ocean Region of which South Asia is only a sub-system."5 Strategic frontiers of national power do not always coincide with geographically delineated boundaries. Our maritime interests are anchored to the need to provide security to our 500 islands, 7600 km coastline, off-shore hydro-carbon assets, 3 million sq. km. exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and sea routes that provide the means for 90 per cent of our trade, including critical energy inputs for development. India's enviable geo-political disposition within the strategic waterway needs to be leveraged holistically into the action calculus. Whilst it is not intended to exaggerate the concept of inviolability of even an inch of national territory, it needs to be underscored that India has repeatedly lost territory to its neighbours, perhaps so in perpetuity. No major nation has suffered such an indignity in the last fifty years. This reality has perhaps understandably shaped the psyche of India's thinking community.

The core values of democracy, secularism, federalism and national integration provide the strategic and political underpinnings to our security and defence policy goals. These objectives would, in turn get shaped by our vital national interest to strive for and sustain durable peace and security within the country and region to pursue rapid socio-economic development. Thus a strategic doctrine anchored to prevention of war, regular as well as irregular, and removal of threat of conflict through pursuit of a 'co-operative' rather than a competitive paradigm of inter-state security should best serve our national interests and objectives. This concept of strategic restraint is sometimes perceived to militate against the equally cogent argument for a nuclear deterrent and military forces-in-being to dissuade our challengers or adversaries. Decision- making in the intermeshing of mutually contradictory components, and determining the most favourable intersect, thus becomes a complex and multi-dimensional trans-ministerial task. An apex Cabinet body serviced by a multi-expertise staff Secretariat would best handle this.

Decision Making for National Security

It should be obvious that every country evolves its own system of decision making on security suited to its strategic environment, the threats and challenges it faces, its national vision and resources, and the genius and ethos of its people. All the major powers have a policymaking body at the apex level, either for national security or higher direction of defence or both. Its constitution and character are invariably reflective of the nature of government and its security perceptions. The United States established a full-fledged National Security Council in 1947 "to advise the President regarding integration of domestic, foreign and military policies so as to enable the military services and other departments and agencies of the government to co-operate more effectively in matters involving national security." This objective is perhaps as valid today for India as it was for the Americans fifty years ago, even though our unique parliamentary democracy may demand a different paradigm of decision making. Over the years, as American power and perceived responsibilities have grown , the original NSC staff of three officers, (on deputation from the State and Defence Departments) has grown into a mini-bureaucratic leviathan having a widely expanded role.

In the UK, the Defence and Overseas Policy Committee and, in France, the Committee of National Defence carry out much the same function. However, unlike USA, in the UK and France there is neither a National Security Advisor nor a multi-disciplinary Secretariat. Interestingly, no civil servant is a member of any of these Committees or Councils. China's national security and defence policy structures are not openly explained or articulated. However, a multi-disciplinary body possibly serves as a Secretariat or Staff to the Politburo, receives inputs from Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Economics and Trade, Public Security, Intelligence etc. and co-ordinates option-formulation for final decision by the Standing Committee of Politburo headed by the President. Russia has a full-fledged National Security Council that prepares alternative choices for final decisions by the President though the system, of late, appears to be going through some major restructuring.

In India, from independence until 1962, the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC), with Service Chiefs in attendance, dealt exclusively with national security and perhaps had an understandable bias towards military aspects. Following the 1962 debacle, the new avatars of the DCC, the Emergency Committee of the Cabinet, and since 1967 (when the Emergency was lifted) the Cabinet Committee for Political Affairs (CCPA) assumed the mantle of shaping Indias's geo-strategic, politico-military and internal security policies. Given the surcharged and fiercely competitive nature of Indian politics and the realities on time and effort that can be spared by the political leadership for extended deliberations on policy matters relating to national security, the extant decision-making system requires a thorough overhaul.

The practice of Cabinet Secretary, an overburdened individual, co-ordinating compartmentalised draft policies prepared by Ministries of Defence, Home, External Affairs and Finance in the best manner he can and putting up the same for the Cabinet's approval, though seemingly time-tested, needs a major overhaul. This dispensation precludes holistic and integrated consideration of issues flowing from a comprehensive review of overlapping and fast-changing, regional and national developments as viewed particularly from long-term perspectives. Our national edifice continues to be fragile, as India is in many ways still a nation-in-being. Security challenges have the potential to block the path of the nation's take-off into modern nationhood. Over forty years ago, Eugene Staley had warned of this transition point as the most critical one for a large developing country with great power potential. "Economic progress would generate very intensifying social and political conflict over limited spoils that would never be enough to go around."6

Internally, ethno-sectarianism and religious loyalties that lay frozen over the centuries of colonialism and the post-independence period have surfaced palpably, creating a dissonance between national loyalties and sectarian commitments. This should get redressed through the moderating influence of a pluralistic culture, regionally-balanced equitable socio-economic development, economic inter-dependencies and enhanced quality of governance. But the immensely complex nature of managing these and other external and military issues enjoin upon the government to shed the culture of compartmentalised and reactive approach to decision-making, promote integrated and collegiate thinking and have a structure that is anticipative and geared toward evolving policies that serve long-term security interests. Major world powers too, appear to have apprehensions on the capacity of our security decision-making being responsive enough for nuclear conflict scenarios. An integrated approach would not only increase efficiency and accountability but also make for greater sensitisation of the national security establishment.

The Parliament mandated NSC, set up in 1990, has remained a non-starter. This systemic inadequacy can be ascribed to the proclivity of the political and bureaucratic leadership to resist change, parochial loyalties of our senior civil service fraternity as reflected in their turf protection syndrome and, more importantly, their unfamiliarity with the structure and functioning of an integrated decision-making system. Perhaps the head of the Secretariat of NSC, who may or may not be a civil servant, having direct access to the Prime Minister, is seen as constituting a 'threat' to the senior civilian body! These impulses appear to have coalesced to stonewall progress. The issue really "revolves around the aim, purpose, shape and operation of the security structure and its interface with and within the government to sustain the formulation and implementation of a coherent national security strategy with functional harmony between all the elements involved."7

Fears on NSC being perceived as a super government or parallel centre of authority appear unfounded. The inviolable principle of collective leadership of an elected body of political executives, in our Westminster style democracy, has quite justifiably made our Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues (Heads of the nodal Ministries of Defence, Home, External Affairs and Finance) the apex body. Provision exists for co-opting other Ministers and Chief Minister of a State whenever required. This composition is akin to the DCC which functioned for some years in the post-independence period. The envisaged CCS, being at par with CCPA, would decide on development and management of the means required for translating goals of national security into policy. Whilst the concepts and processes of decision-making are more important than nomenclature, the key issues that have remained undebated and unresolved relate to the organisation that would service the CCS. Such a staff body could be designated as the Secretariat National Security (SNS) and placed directly under CCS. It could be averred that the absence of dedicated support-structures for decision-making might have primarily derailed the apex system created.

SNS would itself need to be fully integrated; with roughly equal representation to civil service, armed forces and intelligence specialists, the overall number being restricted to 20-30. Selection of high quality staff and delineation of their functions and responsibilities would need to be carefully examined. Aims and objectives require to be clearly enunciated dispassionately and objectively, clearly identifying the improvements sought over the current dispensation. The mandate should be to ensure compatibility between strategic dimensions of policy and the flow of decisions. It would examine relational linkages in draft policies and recommendations forwarded by nodal Ministries on the basis of assessments and evaluations by Strategic Planning Group (Committee of Secretaries and three Service Chiefs), inter-Ministerial groups, Research and Analysis Wing, Planning Commission etc. Synthesising contradictions, seeking synergies in trans-ministerial initiatives and preparing option papers for final decisions by the CCS would be its core function. Perhaps the envisaged part time secretaryship of NSC by Chairman Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), in a double hatting capacity, did not take into account the imperative to separate intelligence collection and the processes of its evaluation/assessment and overall preparation of co-ordinated policy. By their very nature these are distinct functions and advisedly not combined.8

It needs to be clarified that policy-facilitating research inputs and analyses of think-tanks, technocrats, economists, defence analysts and area specialists in various fields outside the government should be obtained by Ministries that prepare policies and not SNS staff who co- ordinate these. The latter should encourage and require ministries and departments to interact with such bodies outside the government and not deal with them directly.9 More importantly, SNS would also closely monitor and follow through the CCS decisions to eventual implementation. It is doubtful if the envisaged biannual meetings of the 30-member National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) which, incidentally has never met since its inception, could have served any useful purpose when high-quality professional inputs from agencies and institutions outside the government were available to nodal ministries virtually on tap. The NSAB should, therefore, be wound-down formally without further loss of time.

Consistent with the dynamics of change in the international strategic environment, SNS would require to co-ordinate the updation of policies, based on revisions sought from nodal ministries. The policies involved could relate to strategic and defence alliances in Southern Asia, military dimensions of external threats, co-existential multi-level conflict that exists below the threshold of conventional war, changing profiles of covert war and terrorism of international, narco-criminal and state sponsored varieties. In the nuclear sphere, the method and timing of exercising a weaponised option would devolve on the availability of fissile material, existence of credible and operational Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) and the manner in which the international environment is pre-shaped by us for a minimal political fallout. Energy security and build up of high technology capabilities over targeted time horizons could be other areas for examination. The list would ever widen consistent with the dynamics of change.

The SNS, established through a Parliamentary Act, would form an integral body of the State establishment, as the governments and its departments alone implement the strategy for national security. For this purpose, intellectuals and analysts tapped from outside the confines of the government would need to compulsorily join the government on a tenure basis. The Head of Secretariat to be designated Secretary, Security (SS) must be a specially selected retired civil servant/diplomat/armed forces officer with vision and immense expertise on security issues. Accorded Secretary level status for a onetime tenure of approximately 3 years, he would not only bring to bear on the assignment extensive professional skills but also not disturb the sensitive issue of seniority equations between top civil servants. For efficient and smooth functioning as well as expeditious decision making, he would need to keep the Cabinet Secretary posted with developments in his area of responsibility and be administratively part of the Cabinet Secretariat. Alongwith the Cabinet Secretary and the Secretary to the Prime Minister, he would constitute the non-political advisory triumvirate, each having direct access to the PM. A top-down strictly enforced statutorily mandated decision on this paradigmatic change alone would make it a success. Robert McNamara's initiatives on defence policy changes in the US in the mid-1960s and Michael Haseltine's defence organisational initiatives in the UK in mid-1980s are cases in point.

Towards this objective, the following actions are proposed:

(a) A Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) and its Secretariat for National Security, headed by a Secretary, Security should be established statutorily at the earliest.

(b) The National Security Advisory Board should be wound down.

(c) The erstwhile Defence Ministers Committee needs to be reactivated to function under CCS, with the former's secretarial functions to be performed by the Director General Defence Planning Staff (DGDPS).

(d) DGDPS should be transferred from Chief of Staff Committee (COSC) to the Department of Defence.

(e) Services Headquarters should be merged with the MoD as Departments of Army, Navy, and Air Force.

(f) Defence budgeting system needs to progressively switch over to output/performance budgeting and programme budgeting.

(g) Staff structures for joint planning, joint operations, joint training and joint communications etc. need to be created under COSC.


1. Ashley Tellis, Documented Briefing, Stability in South Asia, (Arroyo Centre: Rand Corporation, 1997).

2. Gen. K. Sundarji, "Media and National Security" Trishul, July 1991, p. 30.

3. Maj. Gen. Afsir Karim, "National Security Changing World Order—A Perspective," USI Journal, April-June 1991, p. 157.

4. Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, "National Security Management: The Case for Reforms in India," Strategic Analysis, Feb. 1990, p. 1115.

5. See note 3.

6. Eugene Staley, "The Future of the Underdeveloped Countries" (Harper and Brothers, 1954) as quoted in India and America, Report of Carnegie Endowment Study Group by Sellig Harrison and Geoffrey Kemp (1993).

7. See note 4.

8. This line of approach to formation of a Secretariat for a national security apex body has been recommended by Prof. K. Subrahmanyam in a lead article, "National Security" in the Times of India, May 4, 1996, and during discussions with the writer on Feb. 4, 1998.

9. See above.