The following is a section of the keynote speech delivered by the author on October 25, 2023, at the launch of India’s National Security Challenges, a volume edited by N.N. Vohra, at the India International Centre in New Delhi.
There have been at least three attempts so far that I know of to produce a national security strategy for India. In each case the hesitation came not from the professionals, in or out of uniform, but from the political levels.
I sense, but cannot prove, that they do not wish their hands to be tied, since strategy is essentially an ends and means problem and a NSS would need to be resourced. The major advantage, to my mind, of an NSS/NSP [national security policy] would be the accountability that it would introduce into the management of defence.
CDS and higher defence management
There is a fundamental issue revealed in the book on the conception of the Chief of Defence Staff’s role and the degree to which it is operational or advisory. Both points of view are represented here, and it is for the reader to make up his mind. The record of other countries at very different levels of development and in very different situations can not be compared with India, and this book avoids falling into that trap. But we still need to find our own way on the issue. Today the CDS’ charter includes what the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff does in the US, (as the principal military advisor to the President, the Secretary Defence and the NSC), and is also the Secretary in charge of the Department of Military Affairs, a secretarial function, and is supposed to drive our military reform. His operational role is still unclear.
There is also a larger issue of the role of the multiple institutions that we have created to deal with national defence. What of the National Security Council, its secretariat and the NSA, and their relationship to the new CDS, Department of Military Affairs
and existing institutions like the Chiefs of Staff Committee? We have now had two and a half decades experience of the first NSC in a parliamentary democracy. It is time for us to clarify the the precise operational and advisory roles that the mix of institutions now play, and how they relate to each other. I say this because a clear chain of command is essential if we are to respond to the security situation facing us. Besides, uncertainty in this respect affects deterrence of our adversaries.
While a full-fledged NSP may be difficult, it is time for a white paper from the government, setting out its thinking on these issues and the path forward.
Not surprisingly, this was a subject that was universally supported, but each one seems to have a different idea of what it should mean. Some use it as only meaning integration of the uniformed services, others also include jointness between civilians and uniformed personnel. Both are essential, and lacking in our present arrangements. Mr Vohra makes the very valid point that there has to be a national defence doctrine which enables the services to undertake joint planning and fully integrated 5-10 year defence plans. Without these, gaps in preparedness will only grow.
The first CDS was very committed to introducing jointness in the working of the services and in the creation of integrated theatre commands. We hear less about this today.
This was probably the most contentious of the topics discussed. It is also something that is essential if we are to prevail over adversaries with better inner lines of communication and/or technological and logistical advantages over us. There is a fascinating discussion in the record of the discussions among panelists on higher defence management reforms (page 75) which makes clear the different points of view between the services.
In no country that I am aware of has jointness and theaterisation come about by consensus among all the stakeholders, particularly among those in uniform. Whether it was the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act in the US, or reform in the UK military, or the 2015 PLA reforms which drew on US models, reform was widely recognised as needed but its shape was finally decided on and enforced by a decisive political leadership. The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 was a response to the US experience of the Vietnam War and changed the way US services interact. The services themselves “organise, train and equip” forces for use by combatant commanders (CCDRs), and the service chiefs no longer exercise any operational control over their forces. It built on the 1958 Defence Reorganisation Act which took the services out of the loop and empowered the combatant commands.
In each case there was resistance and considerable pushback, but the results in terms of effectiveness have far outweighed the unforeseen and negative consequences.
Role of civilians, reform of MOD
The book also makes clear the differences between civilian and service attitudes to the role of MOD and the new DMA, and to how to integrate the different skills that uniformed personnel and civilians bring to decision-making on defence policy. There is a common plea in this volume for accountability and professionalism in the running, manning and operation of the MOD and other national security institutions. Incidentally, Goldwater-Nichols in the US resulted in the Navy building and fortifying a “wall” between the Department of Navy’s military-run requirements process and the civilian-run acquisition process – a divide inimical to the efficient and effective support of military forces and antithetical to the spirit of the legislation. We have to ensure that we do not make the same mistake.
General Rawat in his contribution argues that in an era of total war we need the involvement of the entire society in our national defence. This is unexceptionable as a sentiment. But it does raise the larger question of whether the answer is to militarise society or civilianise (some would say civilise) the military. Europe has probably gone too far in one direction, Israel in the other. Civilianising the military opens them to politicisation and reduces their military efficacy. Militarising society produces and society on tenterhooks, prone to violence and does not necessarily produce security, as we see in the Levant. Neither is satisfactory. The quest for absolute security by one actor creates insecurity for most others. The issue is one of striking the right balance. Of respecting the laws of war while ensuring deterrence and the capability to prevail.
One thing that I would have liked more of in the book is a detailed discussion of internal security and its relation to national defence. Ajay Sahni has an excellent chapter on how internal security impacts national defence, describing the effects of growing inequality, the erosion of the integrity and autonomy of state institutions, and other recent phenomena. The spread of lawlessness and fraught centre-state relations mean that internal security increasingly impinges on our national defence.
Mr Vohra makes some pointed suggestions, based on his vast experience, for MHA to be relieved of its non-security related tasks, redesigned the Ministry of Internal Security Affairs, and manned by trained personnel deployed on long tenures. As Mr Vohra notes, there has been a progressive increase in threats to internal security (page 4), which might have merited a separate chapter in itself, for the Union government has a duty under the constitution to protect every state against internal disturbance and external aggression. But perhaps that might be a subsequent exercise to produce another such volume. To my mind the distinction between internal and external security is being blurred in cyberspace, across porous borders, and by increasing economic dependencies. It is that linkage that siloed thinking prevents us from seeing, and that creates vulnerabilities.
I cannot stress too strongly the need for us to take heed of what this book says and to act rapidly on these issues of external security management.
I say so for three reasons:
1. Though India today faces no existential threat from abroad, the external situation has worsened considerably in the last decade and a half. The task of Indian security professionals is to create an enabling environment for India’s transformation into a modern, prosperous, and secure country where every Indian has the opportunity to achieve their potential. That requires us to continue to deter our adversaries in order to avoid war as far as possible and, where that proves not possible, to increase the intervals between wars. While we have achieved that for several decades, the task of deterring our adversaries has now got harder with a slowing world economy, rising great power rivalry, and developments in technology.
Let me elaborate. Technology has changed and expanded the battlefield and nullified some of our advantages on the LAC; great power rivalry enables Pakistan to again begin charging strategic rent internationally, something she was unable to do for a few years; and, when our economy is more than ever before integrated with a slowing world economy, there will be less available for the self-strengthening, military modernisation, and defence reform that we all agree is required.
2. Secondly, deterrence has broken down along the LAC with China, our major security preoccupation. What happened in 2020 in the western sector, and subsequent developments including local disengagement in some areas, is evident to all in satellite pictures available to the public. These do not suggest that deterrence has been restored. Instead, we are in a political impasse and a military standoff, however described, with over 100,000 troops along the LAC in the western sector and infrastructure construction continuing apace. The LAC is live.
There is nothing to suggest that we are making progress towards either stabilising the border with China, or preventing China from using the threat of action on the border. The commitment of scarce resources to the standoff itself represents an opportunity cost for our national defence. It also poses serious reputational damage to us.
3. Thirdly, half-done reform creates new vulnerabilities without solving old ones. You cannot cross a chasm in two leaps. We are today in a situation where many of the reforms begun by the former CDS, General Bipin Rawat, who has a well-argued contribution in this volume, are incomplete. Operational roles need to be clear at every level, from the CDS and NSA downward. Issues that we regard as internal to us, such as the Agniveer recruitment pattern, have external ramifications in our dealings with Nepal that need to be sorted out. Other issues have been pending or hanging fire from before the CDS was appointed. The fate of the mountain strike corps, approved by the CCS in 2013, is one such example, as is the limbo in which the National Defence University awaits, and the integration of combat air in the Army. There is a long list of what needs to be done.
The common thread in all these reasons for change is the need to enhance deterrence of our potential adversaries. If their assertive behaviour is anything to go by, that deterrence has been degraded and its credibility needs to be restored. That is why reform of our defence management and armed forces so essential.
What has happened between Israel and Hamas since October 7 is an object lesson on how dangerous complacency and hubris can be and how devastating their consequences. We also see in the Levant how hard it is to restore deterrence once it is degraded, and how military options can only go so far without a clear political goal and component in the state’s response to terrorist or other attacks and threats. There are clearly lessons for us to be learnt from what is happening in the Levant.
In other words, our overall goal of transforming India remains, and will need to be defended in new ways in the years to come. This book offers us pathways forward to do so. Indeed, though I have spoken of differences of opinion expressed in the book, I was impressed by the extent to which authors from different services and varied experiences still agree on what needs to be done.
There is an apocryphal World War I story about the difference between German and Austrian attitudes to war. When the German commander reported that the situation on the eastern front was ‘serous but not hopeless’ the Austrian reported that it was ‘hopeless but not serious.’ Our situation is serious but not hopeless, despite the precarious international environment, particularly in our neighbourhood, and the pressing need for reform and modernisation of our defence. This book suggests that we can manage the situation if we reform.
Shivshankar Menon was India’s National Security Adviser from 2010 to May 2014.