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National Security Decision Making: Overhaul Needed

Brig Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd.) is Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. Click here for details profile [+}
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  • August 26, 2014

    In May 1998, India conducted five nuclear tests at Pokhran and declared itself a state armed with nuclear weapons. It later emerged that these weapons of mass destruction were not merely experimental “devices” to be tested, these were warheads from the nuclear stockpile. It transpired that India’s nuclear arsenal was held by civilian organisations – jointly by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the DRDO – and not by the country’s armed forces. Also, the armed forces were not the only ones in for a rude surprise; so was Mr. George Fernandes, India’s Defence Minister, who had no prior knowledge of the impending nuclear tests.

    In 1997, India had signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and declared at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) that it was holding a chemical weapons stockpile. The three Chiefs of India’s armed forces learnt about this declaration from the newspapers. These dangerous weapons were held not by the armed forces, but by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

    Ten years earlier, at the request of President JR Jayewardene, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had sent an Indian Peace-keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka. The force had to fight the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) almost from the first day itself – an eventuality for which the IPKF was inadequately prepared in terms of its mandate, tasking and equipment. The LTTE was an organisation that had been surreptitiously armed and equipped by the R&AW to fight the Sri Lankan army. K Natwar Singh, former External Affairs Minister, said recently during an interview before the release of his book "One Life is Not Enough: An Autobiography" that Rajiv Gandhi had agreed to despatch the IPKF during his discussions with President JR Jayewardene at Colombo, without first consulting his cabinet.

    Commenting on the same episode, General V. P. Malik, former COAS, has written in his book “India’s Military Conflicts and Diplomacy: An Inside View of Decision Making”, that “The request was accepted by Rajiv Gandhi without consultation with the military chiefs.” He has described the India-Sri Lanka peace accord as a “political, diplomatic, intelligence and military miscalculation.” The Indian intervention resulted in the loss of the lives of 1,155 soldiers and failed to meet the laid down political and military objectives. According to General Malik it was a “foreign policy and national security failure… that led to the ouster of the Rajiv Gandhi government and his unfortunate assassination…” The overall handling of the intervention at the politico-diplomatic level was so ineffective that it still rankles in the minds of political and military leaders.

    The structures for higher defence management and the process of national security decision making in India need to be examined afresh, particularly the process of long-term defence planning, which is in the domain of the National Security Council (NSC). The efficacy of the established process of decision making during crises, managed by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), including the impact of diplomacy on security strategy and the planning and conduct of military operations, also merit a review. The lack of adequate military inputs into decision making continues to remain the most significant lacuna.

    After the 1999 conflict with Pakistan, the Kargil Review Committee headed by the late K Subrahmanyam was constituted by the CCS to undertake a review. The committee looked holistically at the threats and challenges and examined the loopholes in the management of national security. The committee was of the view that the “political, bureaucratic, military and intelligence establishments appear to have developed a vested interest in the status quo.'' It made far reaching recommendations on the development of India’s nuclear deterrence, higher defence organisations, intelligence reforms, border management, the defence budget, the use of air power, counter-insurgency operations, integrated manpower policy, defence research and development, and media relations.

    The CCS appointed a Group of Ministers (GoM) to study the Kargil Review Committee report and recommend measures for implementation. The GoM was headed by Home Minister L K Advani and, in turn, set up four task forces on intelligence reforms, internal security, border management and defence management to undertake in-depth analysis of various facets of the management of national security. Most of the recommendations of the GoM were approved by the CCS and gradually implemented, but important ones like the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) remained.

    The UPA government appointed the Naresh Chandra committee to take forward the process of defence reforms, but could not implement any of the recommendations of the committee. The NDA government must immediately appoint a 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 effectively with emerging challenges.

    It emerges clearly that the national security decision making process still suffers from many flaws and, in the absence of long-term defence planning, it is marked by knee jerk reactions to emerging situations. A sub-committee of the CCS must devote time and effort to make substantive recommendations to improve the structures for higher defence management and the process for national security decision making, defence research and development, self-reliance in defence production and the improvement of civil-military relations.

    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.

    The author is a Delhi-based strategic analyst.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India