Specifically, defence preparedness is the direct responsibility of the Prime Minister and the National Security Council (NSC), which need to receive accurate advice from the country’s military so as to take the right political, foreign policy, internal security and economic decisions to prosecute war or other military operations when required, in the best immediate and long-term interest of the country. But as of now, there is no mechanism in place for the government to receive essential single-point advice from the military, since summoning the three defence Services Chiefs and seeking their views orally or in writing, cannot give a holistic idea of defence preparedness.
Recently there was a report about the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence (PSCD) summoning the three defence Service Chiefs “to seek their views on the state of defence preparedness pointed out by Army Chief General VK Singh in his leaked letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh” as they “needed to examine the whole spectrum of defence preparedness.”1 Although the concern was triggered by the leaked contents of General’s letter, it was heartening to at last see the concern in the legislature regarding India’s lack of defence preparedness.
The real question is whether the Union Cabinet has or can have a holistic idea of defence preparedness.
But the fundamental question is whether one meeting with the Service Chiefs individually or together, will provide the PSCD a realistic or holistic view of defence preparedness involving all three defence services operating together, as would be necessary for defence against external aggression. In any case, the PSCD is not immediately responsible for the defence of the country which is the government’s responsibility. It is the Union Cabinet that needs to have a holistic view of defence preparedness. The real question is whether the Union Cabinet has or can have a holistic idea of defence preparedness.
Apart from actual manning, arming, provisioning and training of the three Services for war, holistic defence preparedness involves:
- Assessing threat through intelligence inputs and strategic evaluation
- Diplomatic initiatives, without prejudice to India’s sovereignty or territorial integrity to avoid armed conflict or limit its duration if unavoidable
- Internal security measures so that defence measures can be wholly effective
- Planning for economic and fiscal measures to handle the huge expenditures demanded by war
Specifically, defence preparedness is the direct responsibility of the Prime Minister (PM) and the National Security Council (NSC), which need to receive accurate advice from the country’s military i.e. the Indian Army, the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force, so as to take the right political, foreign policy, internal security and economic decisions to prosecute war or other military operations when required, in the immediate and long-term interest of the country. But as of now, there is no mechanism in place for the government to receive essential single-point advice from the military, since summoning the three Services Chiefs and seeking their views orally or in writing, cannot give a holistic idea of defence preparedness. However, even with the best military advice, defence preparedness cannot be complete without a mature strategic vision.
Pandit Nehru’s strategic outlook of foreign policy neutrality and sturdy political independence in the first two decades after Independence has gradually changed to its current US-predicated strategic dependence, even political subservience. It is regrettable that over the last four decades, India has not produced a single political leader with a strategic vision to enable India to adjust to and be on top of today’s rapidly changing geo-economic-political situations in a globalised world.
Even with the best military advice, defence preparedness cannot be complete without a mature strategic vision.
Notwithstanding the lack of statesmanship at the apex, reputed Indian strategic think-tanks have recommended the creation of a document defining strategic policy encompassing India’s international and regional political, economic (including energy) and military aims and objectives, depending upon its present and future needs. Realistic national security is only possible when strategic policy is explicitly understood by persons in government. But none of the successive union governments over six decades have either propagated such a policy or produced a strategic document, thereby effectively compromising national security by their inaction.
The Defence Spectrum
Defence is a highly specialised area and a military officer rises to the position of a Service Chief of the Army, Navy or Air Force with about 40 years of service. He acquires knowledge of the operational capability of the other two services by inter-services exposure in various courses, through joint exercises as well as in the arena of arduous, active operations. He is responsible for and concerned with the operational capability of his own service and looks to the other two services to receive or provide operational support, depending upon the threat situation or type of operation. But in military conflicts-of-the-future, warfare, hitherto limited to operations concerning land, sea, under-the-sea and air, will include dimensions of space and cyberspace warfare. Thus, for the primary role of effective deployment and operations to protect India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, a Service Chief should be well-versed in the operational and logistic capabilities of his own service and adequately knowledgeable in respect of the other two. It can safely be said that no Service Chief in India, has ever fallen short in this respect.
In a democratic republic like India in which the military is civilian control, defence preparedness requires mutual trust between the military and the political leadership. Trust can only emanate from direct official, institutionalised, periodic contact and discussions between the government and the military. The bureaucracy serves to facilitate communication but cannot substitute for direct contact between the government and the military. However, as noted by Lt. Gen. Vijay Oberoi, “Our political leadership is highly uncomfortable in dealing with the military directly and prefers to let the bureaucracy do so.”2 Thus the bureaucracy is the de facto functional link between the defence services and the political executives of the union government and has a stake in maintaining the distance between them.
Realistic national security is only possible when strategic policy is explicitly understood by persons in government.
Notwithstanding the few selected bureaucrats who undergo courses at the Defence Services Staff College, the College of Defence Management and the National Defence College for better understanding and coordination with defence services officers, they cannot be held to blame for not knowing the details of the functioning of any of the three services, much less about the issues involved in their integrated functioning in war. At the same time, most politicians are ignorant of the functioning of the defence services and their capabilities, mainly because of their ‘distance’ from the military for whatever reasons.
Reforms in Higher Defence Management
The National Security Council (NSC) headed by the PM was formed in November 1998 by the BJP-led NDA government and is the apex agency for national security. It was formed to address the need to systematise higher defence management, particularly following India’s dramatic entry into the nuclear club with Pokharan II six months earlier. The functions of NSC were earlier being carried out by the Principal Secretary to the PM and, since the formation of the NSC, a senior bureaucrat is the National Security Advisor (NSA). Thus earlier and also currently, the advisor to the Prime Minister on national security is a bureaucrat. The decision-making members of the NSC include the NSA, the Ministers of Defence, External Affairs, Home and Finance as also the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission.
The three Service Chiefs, along with bureaucrats of Secretary rank, are part of the Strategic Policy Group (SPG), which advises the NSC in decision-making and policy formulation. Thus, when the NSC is meant for higher defence management, excluding a military officer in the decision-making body and having the three Service Chiefs merely in the SPG, but on the other hand having a bureaucrat as NSA, is clearly a bureaucratic machination. There can be no objection to having a bureaucrat in the decision-making body; rather since a bureaucrat is expert in secretarial work and functioning, it is essential to have a bureaucrat as Member-Secretary of the NSC. But excluding a military officer from a key decision-making body on defence matters is bound to prove to be detrimental to national security. The absence of a national security strategic document even after 65 years of Independence and 13 years of NSC’s existence can perhaps be attributed to the absence of a military officer in national security policy formulation.
Question of Competence
The question arises that if a military officer is to be inducted as a member of the NSC, will it be the Chief of the Indian Army, Indian Navy or Indian Air Force, or the senior-most among them? Why not the Chairman of the existing Chiefs Of Staff Committee (COSC)? But this is unsatisfactory to say the least, because the incumbent always has the responsibilities, interests and functionality of his own service at the forefront. Thus, the COSC Chairman cannot do justice to rendering single-point advice and assist in decision-making in matters that concern the other two services. The COSC mainly focuses on inter-service coordination issues and cannot have the NSC’s real-time perspective of geo-politics, economics (including energy), foreign affairs, home affairs, finance or development planning that influence national policy.
Most politicians are ignorant of the functioning of the defence services and their capabilities, mainly because of their ‘distance’ from the military.
The COSC is a Committee without powers residing in its military ivory tower, though its isolation is not of its own making. Also in question is whether the other two Service Chiefs will abide by the advice that the COSC Chairman may render, which can lead to decisions impinging on the operational functioning or provisioning of their respective services. Importantly, such advice (even if it is sincere) would be partisan because a Service Chief’s primary area of experience is in his own service and his primary responsibility is its effective operational functioning. Hence, a Service Chief as a member of the NSC is not likely to be an asset to the NSC and worse still, could be a spoiler of inter-service synergy. What then would be the solution for inducting a senior military officer into the NSC at the decision-making level?
Reverting to the need to examine, “the whole spectrum of defence preparedness”, the previous question morphs to, “Who is competent to brief or advise on the whole spectrum of defence preparedness?” Clearly, this has to be a military officer and not a bureaucrat. Also as argued above, any of the three Service Chiefs may not be able to do justice to the job. Hence the necessity of a military officer who represents all three services without being burdened with the direct responsibility of running any of them. He must also be senior to all three Service Chiefs, serving as National Security Advisor to the PM just as the PM’s Scientific Advisor does on matters of science and technology. He would necessarily be a member in the NSC and, if he is to be superior to the three Service Chiefs, with five-star rank (though he may be of four-star rank if he is the senior-most).
This brings the discussion directly to the decades-old demand of the military for appointing a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), as a measure of urgent necessity. This has also been supported post-Kargil 1999 by the Kargil Review Committee, headed by strategic affairs analyst K Subrahmanyam, and the 2001 Group of Ministers (GoM) led by Parliamentarian L K Advani. The GoM report on ‘Reforming the National Security System’ underlined the need to have a CDS because it felt the functioning of the existing COSC comprising the three service heads, “revealed serious weakness in its ability to provide single-point military advice to the government.” Further, in 2009, the PSCD, in its report tabled in the Lok Sabha said that India urgently needs a CDS as well as concrete long-term strategic planning. Lame excuses by the government or the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in these critical matters will simply not do any longer.3 Notwithstanding these clear recommendations and dire necessity of a CDS for single-point military advice to the government at the level of the NSC in the interest of national security, there are at least two reasons why the post of CDS has as yet not been created.