The performance of the outgoing UPA-II government in managing India’s multiple external and internal security threats and challenges was often sub-optimal and given to knee jerk reactions. For example, the management of border violations on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China and cease-fire violations on the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan was marked by the lack of inter-ministerial and inter-departmental coordination. Long-term defence planning did not get the attention it needs. The defence budget fell to its lowest level since the 1962 debacle. Military modernisation stagnated as major procurement projects were delayed due to bureaucratic red tape and the black listing of a dozen defence MNCs.
There are several steps that the new government must take urgently to improve national security decision making and streamline the functioning of higher defence organisations so as to better manage national security, including planning for the neutralisation of emerging threats and challenges.
The first and foremost item on the new government’s defence and national security reforms agenda should be the formulation of a comprehensive National Security Strategy (NSS), including that for internal security. The NSS should be formulated after carrying out an inter-departmental, inter-agency, multi-disciplinary strategic defence review. Such a review must take the public into confidence and not be conducted behind closed doors. Like in most other democracies, the NSS should be signed by Prime Minister, who is the head of government, placed on the table of Parliament and released as a public document. Only then will various stakeholders take ownership of the strategy and work unitedly to achieve its aims and objectives.
The armed forces are now in the second year of the 12th Defence Plan (2012-17) and it has not yet been formally approved with full financial backing by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). The government has also not formally approved the long-term integrated perspective plan (LTIPP 2007-22) formulated by HQ Integrated Defence Staff. Without these essential approvals, defence procurement is being undertaken through ad hoc annual procurement plans, rather than being based on duly prioritised long-term plans that are designed to systematically enhance India’s combat potential. These are serious lacunae as effective defence planning cannot be undertaken in a policy void.
The government must commit itself to supporting long-term defence plans or else defence modernisation will continue to lag and the growing military capabilities gap with China’s People’s Liberation Army will assume ominous proportions. This can be done only by reviving the dormant National Security Council (NSC) as defence planning is in the domain of the NSC and not the CCS, which deals with current and near-term threats and challenges and reacts to emergent situations. The NSC must meet regularly and devote its time and energy to deliberate upon major issues in a holistic manner. It must be remembered that while intentions can change overnight, force structures take decades to create and stabilise. As a Naval Chief had famously told a Defence Secretary at the Raksha Mantri’s Weekly Meeting, it takes 10 to 15 years to build a ship.
The inability to speedily conclude major defence contracts to enhance national security preparedness in the face of growing threats and challenges, exemplifies the government’s challenges in grappling with systemic flaws in the procurement procedures and processes. Despite having formulated the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) and the Defence Production Policy (DPrP), the government has been unable to reduce bureaucratic red tape and defence modernisation continues to stagnate. It is difficult to understand why the budgetary allocations earmarked on the capital account for the modernisation of the armed forces should continue to be surrendered year after year with complete lack of accountability. The year FY 2010-11 had brought some encouraging news as the Ministry of Defence (MoD) managed to fully utilise all the funds that were allocated on the capital account. This should become the norm rather than the exception.
While internal security challenges are gradually gaining prominence, preparations for conventional conflict must not be neglected. Major defence procurement decisions must be made quickly. The Army is still without towed and self-propelled 155 mm howitzers for the plains and the mountains and urgently needs new utility helicopters, anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) as also to weapons and equipment for counter-insurgency operations. The navy waited for long for INS Vikramaditya (Admiral Gorshkov) aircraft carrier, which has been refurbished in a Russian shipyard at exorbitant cost and with operationally unacceptable time overruns. Construction of the indigenous air defence ship has also been delayed.
The plans of the air force to acquire 126 multi-mission, medium-range combat aircraft in order to maintain its edge over the regional air forces is stuck in the procurement quagmire, even as the indigenous LCA project continues to lag inordinately behind schedule. All three Services need a large number of light and medium lift helicopters. India’s nuclear forces require the Agni-III missile and nuclear-powered submarines with suitable ballistic missiles to acquire genuine deterrent capability. The armed forces do not have a truly integrated C4I2SR system for network-centric warfare, which will allow them to synergise their combat capabilities and defend against cyber-attacks. The approach followed is still a platform-centric one despite the demonstrated advantages of switching to a network-centric approach.
All of these high-priority acquisitions will require extensive budgetary support. With the defence budget languishing at less than 2.0 per cent of India’s GDP – the interim budget for 2014-15 is pegged at 1.74 per cent of the projected GDP – it will not be possible for the armed forces to undertake any meaningful modernisation. (China spends 3.5 per cent of its GDP on defence and Pakistan 4.5 per cent.) The funds available on the capital account at present are inadequate to suffice even for the replacement of obsolete weapons systems and obsolescent equipment that are still in service well beyond their useful life cycles. The Central armed police and para-military forces (CAPFs) also need to be modernised and better trained as they are facing increasingly greater threats while continuing to be equipped with obsolescent weapons.
Though the UPA-II government had appointed the Naresh Chandra Committee to take forward the process of long overdue defence reforms, it was unable to implement any of the recommendations of the committee. The incoming government must immediately appoint a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) or a permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee to provide single-point advice to the CCS on military matters and to synergise operational plans as well as capital acquisitions. The logical next step would be to constitute tri-Service integrated theatre commands to synergise the capabilities of individual Services.It is also necessary to sanction the raising of the Aerospace, Cyber and Special Forces commands to deal with emerging challenges.
Any further dithering on these key structural reforms in higher defence management on the grounds of the lack of political consensus and the inability of the armed forces to agree on the issue will be extremely detrimental to India’s national security interests in the light of the dangerous developments taking place in India’s neighbourhood. International experience shows that such reform has to be imposed from the top down and can never work if the government keeps waiting for it to come about from the bottom up.