India Must Chart Out a National Security Strategy for a Changing Geopolitical World

Although the national security establishment often talks about having a "plan" to deal with changing global and regional issues, there still remains a number of unanswered questions, which do not bode well for India's security.

Officers of the previous generation who served in Delhi will remember the arduous efforts that were made to convince the government to institute a National Security Council and appoint a National Security Adviser (NSA). The struggle went on in the files for well over a decade, and the main argument was that there was no high-level multi-disciplinary thinking.

The fight was conducted only by the services’ headquarters. Some progress was made by forming a defence planning staff, which was hamstrung by uncooperative civil bureaucracies. Eventually, the Cabinet Committee on Security was virtually transformed into the National Security Council, and under the first Vajpayee government, Brijesh Mishra was double-hatted with the post of NSA and Secretary to the Prime Minister.

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This was unsatisfactory as there still was no multi-disciplinary staff. This came later during the first term of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)  government when M.K. Narayan became the NSA with a multi-disciplinary staff. Unfortunately, various departments were still uncooperative and sent the not so brilliant officers to the staff. Yet, some progress was made, and this writer spent a couple of years after retirement heading a special task force working on the future scenarios and geopolitical gaming.

Sadly, the national security staff have over two decades produced only one public document – Non Alignment 2.0 – that too indirectly. There is no sign of any white paper, global future scenarios or an open and periodic national security strategy. As a result, the perceptive analyst in India is left with a number of important unanswered questions on national security.

Unanswered questions

For instance, there is much loose talk in services headquarters on the imperative to prepare for a two-front war. This is a big question mark and would be a disastrous outcome for the country; and yet is there any directive on the subject? Concurrently is there an unspoken cap on defence expenditure of 2% of the GDP? Many other questions arise.

Indian army representational image. Photo: Reuters/Mukesh Gupta.

Is non-alignment dead or not? If it is not, how does the cabinet propose that the armed forces face a two-front war with a 2% cap of the defence budget? Clearly, the directive to the armed forces, their financial limits and the country’s foreign policy are interlinked. That was the reason the National Security Council was required in the first place – to have high-level multidisciplinary thinking.

At present the clear impression is that the defence, finance and external affairs are all pursuing independent policies with no coordination. If we don’t have enough money, and we clearly don’t, why do we feel privileged to conduct an independent foreign policy? Why are we so adamant against alliances?

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Eventually, it appears that the load will have to be borne solely by the Indian army – but even here there are major questions. The Indian army already outnumbers the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by 2,85,000 men, on active duty and yet, when encounters occur, we are invariably outnumbered. The army says that they have the Pakistan front to defend, which absorbs half a million men. So, we have ended up alone, against two enemies and no friends? What kind of high-level policymaking is that?

Admittedly, Himalayan geography is against us, but the geography of the Pacific and the Indian Ocean is hugely against China. They have a massive two-front oceanic problem with the gigantic United States navy at their doorstep, and the Indian Ocean is 2500 miles away.

The PLA navy has something like 82 major combatant vessels, and India, Japan and Australia alone own 86 major war vessels. This is discounting the entire US navy. If the PLA navy were to retain 50-60 warships in the Pacific against the US navy and venture into the Indian Ocean 2,500 miles away, they would be outclassed by the Indian Navy’s p-8 aircraft and the combined fleets of East and West. So why are we struggling all alone and leaving the Indian army to bear an entire load of bad policy?

Lack of coordinated thinking

Forget the advantages of multidisciplinary thought, we don’t even exhibit the existence of dynamic tri-service coordination. The Chinese, for instance, are constantly exhibiting their fear of the Malacca dilemma, with 75% of Chinese oil transiting through.

Defence minister Rajnath Singh at Stakna near Leh on July 17. Photo: Twitter/@rajnathsingh

Beijing fears America, but strangely enough, dismisses the real Indian threat. Why don’t we spend Rs 2,000 crore and transform the Car-Nicobar airfield into a formidable airbase, to dominate the exit to the straits? With the Maritime Information Sharing Technical Arrangement (MISTA) and the US-India info-dominance of the Indian Ocean, why don’t we relieve Himalayan tensions by a threat to China’s oil supply?

Without India, the US cannot contest the emerging Chinese hegemony. Above all, why doesn’t the Indian strategic community have evidence of the government’s multi-disciplinary thinking on Global Futures, the Nuclear Posture and national security strategy, instead of governmental furtive secrecy and unthinking arrogance?

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The world is undergoing a huge geopolitical transformation. The European Union is a military non-entity. Russia and Japan are in demographic decline. There is a serious anti-Iran coalition building up in the Middle East.

China has arrived in Cambodia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Djibouti and Piraeus and built a land corridor to Europe. Presumably, we are growing into a regional power.

How do we propose to deal with the changing world, whose governance will be contested by Beijing, by merely defending Aksai Chin? The government surely has plans – but why not publish unclassified versions as democracies around the world do? There are no shortage of talented individuals in government, but institutional thinking will eclipse individual efforts any day.

Admiral Raja Menon was a career officer and a submarine specialist in the Indian Navy. He commanded seven ships and submarines before retiring in 1994 as assistant chief of naval staff (operations).