Bottomline | The Horse Before the Cart

The government’s approach to national security is high on show, low on substance

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

The Modi government’s model of running defence without a full time minister seems to be doing well. It is both centralised and broad-based, and if you will, with a discernible division of labour. Instead of one, India now has five defined and two extraneous functionaries to ensure that a muscle is available to support its assertive foreign policy.

Topping the list is the Prime Minister himself who meets the three defence services chiefs for a one-on-one each month. As the super defence minister, he exchanges notes with services chiefs on operations, procurements, morale of both servicemen and veterans and so on.

Next, there is the part-time defence minister, Arun Jaitley, who being the full-time finance and corporate affairs minister, is focused on defence procurements through the indigenous ‘Make in India’ mantra, never mind what it can deliver. Take the case of the navy’s long pending second line submarine project called 75India, which, given the pro-active Chinese Navy’s nuclear-powered submarines already snooping in the Palk Strait, is a dangerous operational gap. In one stroke, Jaitley has overturned the Indian Navy’s suggestion of taking the ‘Buy and Make’ route — buy two submarines from the chosen foreign collaborator and build the rest with technology transfer — and has settled for a completely indigenous route. Where and how will these submarines be made, when will they be delivered and at what cost to national security and exchequer are important questions which have got subsumed in the indigenous euphoria.

Then, there is the minister of state for defence, Rao Inderjit Singh, who, though heading India’s defence procurement, is completely at sea overshadowed by the larger than life Jaitley persona. He survives on the fringes and is left to perform ceremonial duties with few aware of his existence within South Block.

Next, the National Security Advisor (NSA), Ajit Doval, an intelligence and police officer by training, is the de facto defence minister responsible for generating ideas on warfare. He has concluded that state-to-state third generation conventional warfare is passé and India faces the menace of fourth generation (terrorism) warfare. Doval’s script on warfare was read out by the Prime Minister himself while recently addressing the combined Commanders’ Conference, the highest conclave that annually brings the generals, air marshals and admirals together to know what the government wants them to do. Modi left India’s top military brass perplexed by saying that while ‘threats are known, the enemy is invisible’, alluding to terrorists or non-state actors unleashed by Pakistan being the biggest threat to national security.

The unsaid affirmation was for the Indian Army to continue with counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations, something they have been doing since 1990 in Jammu and Kashmir, and to the Indian Navy to continue the overall responsibility for coastal defence which they have been doing since the November 2008 Mumbai terrorists attacks. As an aside, if third generation warfare is low on the government radar screen, the Indian Air Force (IAF) should start working on Plan-B to make up for their fast dwindling combat strength rather than wait for the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) contract to be signed.

The fifth ministry functionary is the defence secretary, R.K. Mathur, who constitutionally under the 1961 government rules of business is ‘responsible for the defence of India.’ In the Modi dispensation, he looks after international security, assists Jaitley in procurements, and attends to the day-to-day needs of the defence services, which, though officially being part of the ministry, remain its attached offices.

The two extraneous functionaries who meddle in defence are the Union home minister, Rajnath Singh and his equally visible if not more high profile deputy, Kiren Rijiju, who, hailing from Arunachal Pradesh, has taken upon himself to address Chinese provocations. It appears that both ministers in line with their party’s ethos are required to caution if not actually warn Pakistan and China to mind their own businesses.

The government’s approach to national security is high on show, low on substance

The problem is that neither adversary has taken India’s strident calls to mind their own business seriously. Why? Because Doval’s ideas on warfare (art of war) and Jaitley’s procurement priority (science of war) are off the mark and do not generate deterrence. While the world is surely moving towards fourth generation and hybrid warfare (conventional and irregular warfare), India’s case is different. With two visible military lines against nuclear armed and status-quoist adversaries, effective deterrence for India lies in being prepared for third generation warfare updated to the present needs.

Before we proceed further, it will be appropriate to explain the different types of warfare. The first generation warfare was about line and column tactics following the French Revolution. The second generation warfare preached reliance on massive firepower and culminated with World War I. The Germans during World War II revolutionised the art of war with focus on manoeuvre and firepower. They generated shock and awe with their blitzkrieg tactics which came to be known as third generation warfare. The fourth generation warfare, which focuses on the enemy’s society and his political will to fight, is championed through terrorism or non-state actors who blur the distinction between the military front and civilian rear.

There are two more kinds of warfare which are in vogue. The hybrid warfare is a mix of regular (conventional) and irregular (terrorism) warfare interspersed with information warfare. The Pakistan Army has the unique distinction of having perfected this art of war; the capability to fight the conventional and irregular war together. Notwithstanding the ambiguous nuclear weapons policy, the Pakistan Army relies on its conventional war capability to pursue terrorism against India. Given this, only an effective conventional war capability with India will deter Pakistan from stopping export of terror.

China follows yet another form of warfare, called unrestricted warfare, which is unique. It blends nuclear, conventional, electronic, space, cyber, economic, terrorists’ proxy, diplomatic, propaganda, and deception tools to psychologically enervate the adversary. According to Chinese Colonel Qiao Liang of the Academy of Military Sciences, ‘the first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules.’

Given such formidable adversaries, who are in cahoots with one other, two things should be clear. One, it is in the realm of fantasy for India to believe that it can fight a two-front war with Pakistan and China. This was the call publicly articulated by the army chief in 2009 and quickly endorsed by the air force chief, both of whom saw in this the opportunity for empire building. The Indian Army’s 17 mountain corps (about 90,000 men), which started its raising on January 1 this year, is part of this capability build-up. Instead of questioning the rationale for accretion of forces and numerous unnecessary assets, Modi as the super defence minister has taken upon himself to assure the three chiefs that their services’ needs will be met.

And two, India should have a clearly defined policy which articulates the role of military power against the two identified adversaries. Surely, the enemy is not invisible as the Prime Minister had said. He will fight his kind of warfare in different domains which need to be understood and integrated for a wholesome response. This is what a defence policy should do. During his monthly interactions with the service chiefs and Doval, Modi should monitor this progress.

Regarding defence procurements, no one can disagree with indigenisation as the preferred way especially when India has the experience of previous wars when nations which provided product support by selling its equipment exercised considerable leverage during the conduct of war. But as wishes cannot be horses, the abysmal state of India’s defence industry requires a lot of things to be set right before India embarks on the ‘Make in India’ voyage. Adequate loosening of government control, good management, modernisation of infrastructure, more FDI, enough research and development being a just few of them. And all this needs time. It should to be borne in mind that critical operational requirements should adopt the ‘Buy’ route, before they can possibly be placed in the ‘Make’ category. India, which is the biggest importer of armament in the world, cannot be expected to reverse course suddenly, unless of course, it is willing to compromise on national security.

And last, not least, Indian politicians should forsake the habit of crowing before even the work has begun. For instance, what is the need to publicise road connectivity along the Chinese border when feasibility studies have not even begun. To be sure, the Vajpayee government in 2002 had sanctioned building of 73 strategic roads along the Chinese border; according to media reports only 14 of them have been completed till date.

Against this backdrop, I marvel at experts who rush to praise Modi government’s national security policies. For example, Arvind Virmani, a former chief economic advisor to finance ministry, recently wrote that, “This is a greater effort to enhance military power, including through asymmetrical warfare. Overall a much more confident and effective national security and foreign policy is predicted to emerge over the next five years.” Really? And how?


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