Stung by the inability to draw any positive strokes to get the complex defence sector into a fast and efficient track, the government is setting up the Defence Planning Committee (DPC). No decision-making power appears to be advocated for the body, which is going to be a permanent institution more on the lines of a high-level official think tank. It is to study challenges, evolve recommendations for procedures and, more importantly, for doctrine and strategy. The committee to be headed by the National Security Adviser (NSA) is likely to have among its members the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), the remaining two Service Chiefs, and the Secretaries for Defence, Foreign Affairs and Finance (Expenditure). The Chief of Integrated Defence Staff to the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (CISC) will also be inducted into it. A report also indicates the possible inclusion of the Principal Secretary to the PM. The domains selected to be addressed are evident from the four sub-committees that are proposed to be set up. These are policy and strategy, plans and capability development, defence diplomacy and defence manufacturing.
These four domains form the crux of the core areas of concern in the field of defence. On the face of it, any such development which creates the basic means and structure to examine these challenges in an integrated way is welcome.
One of the triggers for the DPC has been the deposition before the Parliamentary Committee on Defence by representatives of the three Services, bringing out how the current Budget allocation is out of sync with the needs of the Services. Two issues in particular are found galling by the Services. First, the inability over the last many years to get even a modicum of approval for the 15-year long-term integrated perspective plan (LTIPP) which spelt out their future planning needs. Second, the near impossibility of having a National Security Strategy (NSS) document approved by the government to provide, among other things, relevant guidance in the allocation of resources and to facilitate optimal support to the Services. What was really missing was a layer between the high-powered Cabinet Committee on Security at the top and the Ministry of Defence at the lower level; a body which could examine the MoD’s evaluations.
Defining priorities and deciding between the competing proposals of the Services, with adequate inputs from supporting ministries, is likely to aid the acquisition process. It could be argued that earlier the setting up of the National Security Council and the creation of the appointment of the NSA was supposed to overcome the silo-based approach to national security issues. However, the NSA’s role has expanded and the necessity for an exclusive look at military strategy and security is increasing due to complexities. This body will, therefore, hopefully, bridge that necessity. Defence diplomacy has been given its due by the proposed creation of an exclusive subcommittee. The Services have been hankering for their contribution to the domain of diplomacy being aware of the scope they have to offer through training exchanges, liaison activities, resource sharing and military goodwill as a support to other forms of diplomacy.
For years, India has done without the benefit of a National Security Strategy as a guideline for stakeholders who are responsible for the security of the country. Senior bureaucrats involved with security may have been apologetic about it, but insisted that enough understanding existed. What was missed out was the need for continuity of understanding, the necessity for relevant ministries to be on the same page and a review system which would always keep the NSS up to date. Will an NSS document finally emerge? It is not even certain whether this committee will be tasked with the drafting of an NSS, although reports indicate that the entire gamut of national military strategy, strategic defence review, external risk assessment and national defence and security priorities will fall within its ambit. The size of its secretariat and the intellectual support elements needed to sustain such processes will have to be thought through deeply. Will these personnel be from the Services or another bureaucratic cadre is a question up for debate. Will there be some link to academia and the proliferating think tanks to absorb expertise and advice is a moot point.
If acquisition, defence manufacturing and capability enhancement is to be a major responsibility in terms of advice to the Defence Minister, how are the two major organisations — the DRDO and Ordnance Factories Board — going to be represented here? Or is their role not envisaged at all? Another observation relates to the fact that 80 per cent of the defence spending is consumed by the revenue budget, with the bulk of the expenditure on personnel. Policies related to personnel have not been the strongest area with the MoD; a Cabinet-approved decision on the ‘peel factor’ (lateral absorption) is pending execution for 15 years. Should a committee be devoted towards looking at issues such as right sizing, which is going to increasingly be taking up more time in the future?
One can visualise that the case for theatre commands, joint operations and cyber war would be examined more closely. Perhaps this is the opportunity to look at the two much-neglected domains in India — information and psychological warfare. There is lack of clarity on the responsibility for the conduct of these.
Are we to assume that defence planning and capability development does not include internal security within its ambit, especially in an era of hybrid war? The Central Armed Police Forces are an adjunct of the Army in war or during internal conflict situations. The major challenge of coordination still remains between the MHA and the MoD; acquisitions being one domain. Perhaps a system of invitation to MHA officials on relevant matters needs to be considered and will probably emerge as analyses are done and execution effected. There will, in all probability, be a need for a few more committees (such as infrastructure development) and an invitation system for experts to be taken on board.
Lastly, this does not dilute the continuing case for more uniformed presence in the MoD, where advice will be far more effective when examined and acted upon by those experienced in the ways of robust security. Does this effectively seal the case for an ultimate Chief of the Defence Staff? The portents are not very bright.