Higher Defence Management with 'Indian Characteristics'

Could the new Defence Planning Committee headed by Ajit Doval be a creative answer to the gridlock that has prevented real reform in the higher defence management system?

Are we now in the process of establishing a higher defence management system with ‘Indian characteristics’? This could well fit the description of the new Defence Planning Committee (DPC) headed by national security adviser Ajit Doval that was created recently.

According to reports, Doval’s new committee comprises the army, navy and air force chiefs, and the defence, expenditure and foreign secretaries. The chief of the Integrated Defence Staff would be its member secretary and the outfit its secretariat.

The DPC will author the country’s national security strategy, plans for building a defence manufacturing system and boosting defence exports, and prioritise capability development plans. These will be submitted to the defence minister who will presumably seek the approval of the Cabinet Committee on Security to authorise action on them.

The committee will have four sub-committees to look at four key areas – policy and strategy, plans and capability development, defence diplomacy and the defence manufacturing system.

The reports say that the committee will also prepare military doctrines and, in line with this, establish the strategic objectives of Indian military power. Future operational directives of the defence minister will emerge from the doctrine and strategy worked out by the committee.

Some have seen this as a revived version of the 1977 Committee on Defence Planning, but its roots lie in the Strategic Policy Group set up under the National Security Council in 1998. Formed to promote inter-ministerial coordination, the group comprised of the cabinet secretary, the three service chiefs, the key secretaries dealing with foreign, finance, defence and home affairs, as well as the heads of the intelligence services. For some reason, this body never really functioned effectively.

By creating a group with the NSA at its head, and a weak defence minister to take care of the legal issues relating to the cabinet, we have an institution that will not only  promote defence procurement, industry and exports, but provide higher strategic direction to the country. Its composition makes eminent sense since it is compact and national strategy requires effective use of all the instruments of national power. But it does beg a number of other questions.

Is it being seen as a substitute for the long-standing requirement for a chief of defence staff for the three services and the need for closer integration between civilians and uniformed personnel in the Ministry of Defence? The fact that the IDS headquarter is the anchor of the DPC would suggest that, indeed, that is what the government is thinking.

If  the DPC is just a band-aid to avoid deep restructuring and reform needed by the military system in the country, it could lead to trouble. Not in the least because of the fact that while they may hone the best national security strategy document, the military instrument they need to execute it may not function in the most optimal manner because it is in dire need of top-down reform.

For nearly 20 years, the system has been kicking two cans down the road. The first is called the “chief of defence staff” and the other “civil-military integration”. Two committees – the Group of Ministers in 2001 and the Naresh Chandra Committee in 2012 – felt that a CDS-like institution was vital to ensure the integrated functioning of the three armed forces. Further, they felt that for a more professional defining of the country’s security challenges and more effective ways of dealing with them, there was need for closer integration between the uniformed personnel and the civilians who ran the Ministry of Defence.

But the proposal has been resisted both by politicians and civilians in the government, primarily IAS bureaucrats. Their opposition has been subtle, since it is not based on any reasoned argument, but the belief that a CDS could diminish their power and pelf.

In his outstanding study on the Indian military and the state, Steven I. Wilkinson has shown that beginning with the 1950s, higher defence management in the country was deliberately structured “to minimise the risk of military intervention in politics”. Disappointingly, even by 2015 when his study was published, there had been no major change, even though such strategies were seen “as an increasing drag on the country’s military efficiency and antiterrorist strategies”. So India’s national security decision-making processes remain archaic, as indeed does its military organisation.

Could Doval’s new committee, then, be a creative answer to the gridlock that has prevented real reform in India’s higher defence management system? For the present we must keep an open mind – if only because there is no other alternative. The politicians and babus will never allow the CDS to come up, so, in lieu of it, we may as well as have Doval as the “CDS with Indian characteristics”, one who will not spook the system the way a military person seems to be able to do. But the proof of the pudding will be in its eating: The NSA will have to show that he can crack heads to push through needed changes in the system.

The country has lived with a higher defence management system with Indian characteristics for a while. Shaped by the experiences of the 1960s, this gave us a system where the military is kept out of the civilian decision-making system, while politicians steer clear of interfering in what are classed as purely operational or tactical affairs. Going by the experience of other countries, this is not the best way to manage the country’s higher defence management. Each country must follow its own path, provided it is able to achieve the ends it seeks.

Just what this “Indian” system is can be seen by the way we handle our nuclear deterrent. In contrast to other nuclear weapons states, India’s nuclear weapons are in the custody of civilians – the Department of Atomic Energy and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). It is only when it comes to delivery that the armed forces are involved through the Strategic Forces Command which are embedded within the military, but under the effective command of the NSA.

As Clausewitz put it, war is nothing but the continuation of politics with other means. The importance of close political supervision, if not leadership, in military affairs has always been important and has become even more salient in the contemporary era. Prime Minister Narendra Modi probably sees it instinctively, as evidenced by his use of the “surgical strikes” to corner Islamabad.

So if Modi wants to run the show through his NSA, it could actually have a positive outcome in certain areas by taming parochial interests in our governmental system. But they should not be under the illusion that the creation of the DPC will be a solution to all the ills that afflict our defence system. Reforming and restructuring our antiquated military and its command system is a problem in itself that would require several years, if not a decade, of work to overcome.

Then, having a national security strategy that is approved at the highest level would be a boon because it will get the whole system on to the same page in dealing with issues, but prioritising the challenges and, more importantly, reshaping the means with which to deal with them, require hard work and concentrated attention in the coming years.

Doval’s is an agile mind who has thought a great deal about some of the issues his new responsibilities will bring, especially defence research and industrial reform. But he is an extremely busy man. As of now, the NSA is not only the principal security adviser to the prime minister, but the effective supervisor of all three intelligence services. He has heavy foreign policy responsibilities, primarily those relating to Pakistan and China. He is also the head of the executive council of the National Nuclear Command Authority and in that sense, the custodian of the country’s nuclear deterrent.

So, the bottom line is: Will he be able to provide effective leadership for this new body, or only token authority ?

Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.