Bottomline | Ring in the New

India needs a fresh approach towards national security

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

As 2009 comes to a close, India’s national security appears extremely vulnerable; high on symbolism as evinced in the numerous television talk-shows to mark the first anniversary of 26/11, and low on substance. Across the spectrum, from the need for strategic deterrence, to capabilities for securing the borders, to protecting the homeland itself, the political leadership has come a cropper. Showing up on numerous television channels, the Union home minister, P. Chidambaram, declared that war (with Pakistan) was not an option; sending the clear signal to 26/11 crafters to carry on regardless. This when, he and the National Security Advisor, M.K. Narayanan had already conceded that they constantly worried about another terrorist attack on mainland Indian soil.

We learnt this year that India’s thermo-nuclear capability lacks assurance, and given the fact that we have decided not to have tactical nuclear weapons, our range of nuclear warhead capabilities are frighteningly low. Regarding the vector, the Agni-II missile fired at night lost its way, the Agni-III is far from operational, and the Agni-IV is still being developed. Given the capabilities of our two adversaries, the use of aircraft as the nuclear delivery vehicle would be stupid. The sea-based deterrence is still years away. The recently launched nuclear-powered S-2 vessel (submarine) is a humble beginning on a long road ahead. While it is still being figured out whether Prithvi is to be used with conventional or nuclear warheads, or needs to be abandoned altogether, the touted anti-missile-missile and hypersonic capabilities are primitive and hyped. As the proof of pudding is in its eating, we need to ask why despite years of effort, there are no overseas buyers of BrahMos missile. This is not all. It is an open secret that the infrastructure required for use of nuclear weapons either does not exist or lacks guarantee that it would work. In short, to clear this mess, India needs a National Security Advisor who can take the bull by its horn; someone who understands sea-based deterrence and has been a Chairman, chiefs of staff to comprehend first-hand how the nuclear command and control functions.




Now take the disputed borders. The 746km long Line of Control with Pakistan is secure; the army and air force have an impregnable operational defensive posture. However, offensive capabilities against Pakistan are questionable. Thus, while we can ensure that Pakistan does not grab our territory, there is uncertainty about the success of offensive operations. This cannot be said for China, which according to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is behaving in a certain aggressive manner (which he cannot figure out). Given that China even refused the recently offered US’ G-2 partnership, Beijing is simply determined to not concede space in Asia to anyone.

The 4,056km Line of Actual Control with China is a military line not agreed on maps or ground. Let alone the untested defensive military capabilities, India’s political leadership at the strategic level has succumbed to the PLA. The PLA is not only transgressing and nibbling at Indian territory, it has succeeded in intimidating New Delhi to not build infrastructure anywhere close to the LAC, whether in Arunachal Pradesh or in Ladakh. This has demoralised our soldiers on the border; they are left wondering if to thwart PLA ingress in their territory, or to step back and report such an eventuality to higher headquarters. Instead of taking a firm position on Chinese shenanigans, New Delhi does it best to push matters under the carpet if media gets wind of PLA mischief. India’s timid behaviour has emboldened China which continuously keeps raising the bar politically, diplomatically and militarily to test New Delhi’s tolerance threshold. For this reason, while the US is bracing itself for the China-centric Asia, it has difficulty it defining a strategic role for India in the 21st century rising and turbulent Asia.

The security of India’s mainland is equally tenuous. Our Achilles Heel is intelligence gathering, assessing, sharing and dissemination; this when the NSA is from the fraternity. The other problem is that law and order is a state subject; the buck gets passed between the Central and state leadership, the ultimate sufferers are the Paramilitary and the police forces. If things continue this way, it would not be long before the armed forces get sucked into the quagmire. What then is the way out? India needs a NSA who understands these issues and can stand up and tell the Prime Minister that economic growth alone with little regard for national security will not translate into a raised global status. Like China that in 1979 embarked on its four modernisation programme including military, India needs to devote itself to its military muscle. Instead, we pay lip service, keep the military leadership frightened and under constant pressure with piecemeal reforms and ad hoc acquisitions. We have had NSAs from the foreign services and intelligence. The time has come to have the next NSA from the defence services. If done, even the need for the Chief of Defence Staff, which the political leadership is unsure about, would get eliminated.