Defence minister Manohar Parrikar said recently that the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) ‘is a must’ and that integration of the ministry of defence with the headquarters of the three Services is necessary. He said he would forward his recommendations to the PM in two to three months. However, that is not all that is wrong with the national security decision-making process — it is fundamentally flawed. A few examples will illustrate shortcomings that may result in yet another military debacle.
In May 1998, India conducted five nuclear tests at Pokhran. It emerged later that these were not merely experimental ‘devices’ to be tested; these were the warheads from India’s nuclear stockpile. It transpired that India’s nuclear arsenal was held by civilian organisations — jointly by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) — and not by the country’s armed forces. Also, the armed forces were not the only ones in for a surprise. George Fernandes, India’s then defence minister, also had no prior knowledge of the impending nuclear tests.
In 1997, India signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and declared at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) that it had a chemical weapons stockpile. India’s three Service chiefs learnt about this declaration from the newspapers. These dangerous weapons were held not by the armed forces, but by the DRDO.
Ten years before that, at the request of Sri Lankan President JR Jayewardene, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi sent an Indian Peace-keeping Force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka. The force had to fight the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — which it was inadequately prepared for in terms of its mandate, tasking, arms and equipment. K Natwar Singh, the former external affairs minister, disclosed during interviews relating to his book One Life is Not Enough that Rajiv Gandhi agreed to dispatch the IPKF during his discussions with Jayewardene at Colombo, without first consulting his own cabinet.
General VP Malik, former COAS, has written in his book India’s Military Conflicts and Diplomacy: An Inside View of Decision Making: ‘The request was accepted by Rajiv Gandhi without consultation with the military chiefs.’ The Indian intervention resulted in the loss of the lives of 1,155 soldiers and failed to meet our political and military objectives. The ineffective handling of the intervention 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 NSC meets rarely, if at all. 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 merits 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 CCS had constituted the Kargil Review Committee. It was headed by the late K Subrahmanyam. The committee looked holistically at the threats and challenges and examined loopholes in national security management. 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 organisation, intelligence reform, 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 report of the Kargil Review Committee and recommend measures for implementation. The GoM, headed by then home minister LK Advani, in turn, set up four task forces on intelligence reforms, internal security, border management and defence management to undertake in-depth analysis. Most recommendations of the GoM were approved by the CCS and gradually implemented, but important ones like the appointment of a CDS have remained in limbo.
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 appoint a CDS as early as possible to provide single-point advice to the CCS on military matters and to synergise operational plans as well as weapons and equipment acquisitions. The next logical 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.
National security decision making is marked by kneejerk 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, defence research and development, defence production and the poor state of civil-military relations.
Any further dithering on these key structural reforms 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 view of dangerous developments taking place in India’s neighbourhood. International experience shows that such reform has to be imposed top down and can never work if the government keeps waiting for it to come about bottom up.