The Modi government is demonstrating an unusual, though welcome, urgency in pursuing a revamp of the national security apparatus. Under the chairmanship of the National Security Adviser, the Strategic Policy Group (SPG) has been revived to assist the National Security Council in moving forward with a long-term strategic defence review. The SPG, whose members include the NITI Aayog vice chairman, the cabinet secretary, the three military chiefs, the Reserve Bank of India governor, the foreign secretary, home secretary, finance secretary and the defence secretary, will now be the central instrumentality for inter-ministerial coordination and integration of inputs in forming national security policies. It was set up by the AB Vajpayee government in 1999 but was earlier headed by the Cabinet Secretary. Now the power shifts to the NSA, making an already powerful office even more potent. The NSA is now joined by three deputies at the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) with responsibilities spanning across three distinct domains. RN Ravi, a former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, was recently appointed the third deputy national security adviser, joining former RAW chief Rajinder Khanna and former ambassador to Russia Pankaj Saran at the NSCS.
These changes come months after the Narendra Modi government decided to establish an overarching defence planning committee (DPC) —comprising the chairman of the chiefs of staff committee, three service chiefs, the defence, expenditure and foreign secretaries — under the national security adviser to enhance India’s ability to do some long-term strategising. The Prime Minister recently also gave the go-ahead for the formation of the three tri-services agencies—for cyber, space, and special operations across the three armed forces. This revamp comes at a time when Indian national security planning stands at a crossroads. The silo-driven approach to national security has resulted in the lack of an integrated view. The three services, as well as the civilian and defence agencies, are often seen to be working at cross-purposes. Such an ad hoc approach has meant that more often than not, issues like threat perception and force structure are not managed via a centralised and authoritative overview. Instead, individual services tend to be driving the agenda at their own levels. The headlines on Indian defence policy often tend to be completely divorced from the ground reality. India’s $250-billion military modernisation programme is often talked about. But even as New Delhi remains keen on acquiring significant weapons platforms, there have been persistent doubts about its ability to harness these resources in service of a long-term strategy. Indeed, the absence of an Indian “grand strategy” that sets out political objectives for Indian power projection—and then ensures military, economic, intelligence and educational development—coordinated toward these objectives, has been a perennial topic of discussion within Indian strategic circles. India’s defence reform campaign has existed nearly as long as the current system itself. This drive focuses on extending resource integration and coordination throughout defence policymaking. Effective defence planning and force structuring is a function of an institutional framework that allows for a clear delineation of political goals, efficient mobilisation of resources and effective use of these resources for developing instrumentalities of state power. At a time when advances in technology are revolutionizing warfare, India is still debating the need to move towards leaner force structures. India needs to cut the flab on an urgent basis as over half of the annual defence budget going to meet salary and pension requirements is clearly not sustainable. The priorities of India’s ‘Make In India’ initiative and cumbersome defence procurement process will also have to be brought in sync with each other. India’s status as the world’s largest arms importer hardly does justice to its ambitions to emerge as a defence manufacturing hub. The debate on integration, both among the services headquarters, and between the services and the ministry of defence, also continues unabated and should be concluded. The central challenge in defence planning remains the issue of uncertainty. Effective defence planning tends to put a premium on assuring future strategic and operational adaptiveness. In the Indian context, a transformative shift in mindset, structures and processes is needed. Rapidly evolving security environment, as well as a near permanent pressure on scarce resources, underscores the need for strategic defence planning. Though rather late in its term, the Modi government has begun a process of streamlining national security planning. It is not perfect but the fact that changes are being made underlines the fact that policymakers recognise the gravity of the challenge they face. It can only be hoped that the drumbeat of impending elections would not take away the focus from the critical area. After all, governments may come and go but the imperatives of national security will remain.