How well has the government fared in the area of security over the last four years? Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain provides a comprehensive review.
A security sector review of any government’s performance is always complex because of the range of issues involved. While security has a wider meaning and includes overall national resilience, the intent here is to review issues pertaining to the defence of India, both internal and external. Yet, to do that, diplomacy cannot be delinked from external security. In addition, much emphasis has to be placed on personnel management of the armed forces; the men behind the machines cannot be ignored in a review of the state of preparedness in the realm of military security. The scope of this review therefore includes a few relevant diplomatic aspects related to national security and then concentrates on some priority aspects under the ambit of the Defence Ministry and Home Affairs Ministry, efforts towards restructuring and procurement to enhance capability, and our record in the robust field of border and internal security, not necessarily in that order.
At the outset, security is always a work in progress and there are no equations or formulas to determine the mathematical value of decline or increase in security capability. It is in this spirit that this review is being attempted, and will include critique and appreciation where it is due.
The Diplomatic Realm
The National Democratic Alliance government has had a positive record of diplomatic achievements in the mid- and far-abroad regions and a relatively mixed record in areas closer home. The Prime Minister has shepherded the External Affairs Ministry with his personal commitment and made a difference in diplomacy. Among the flagship successes has been the strategic relationship between India and the United States (US). The government also handled the Trump transition through the 2017-18 period without tentativeness. India’s strategic importance as a counterweight to China and a reliable partner of the US in the Indo-Pacific has seen a rise in its importance. Being a high-profile customer of US defence hardware makes India look even more attractive.
Where the government has succeeded exceedingly is the manner in which its has straddled the Middle East through the first three months of 2018. Given the binaries involved in the Shia-Sunni proxy conflicts and Russia’s standoff with the West in the Middle East, the government has achieved much through high-profile, virtually back-to-back visits to India by both the Israeli Prime Minister and the Iranian President. The Indian Prime Minister has also had productive visits to Jordan, Palestine, United Arab Emirates, and Oman. The return visit of King Abdullah of Jordan was sensitively handled with a focus on the Amman Message, which emanated from the Royal Court of Jordan in 2004 and is perhaps the best symbol of pluralism and tolerance to recapture the moderate street of Islam. The government’s successful handling of the Middle East has ensured contribution towards three important areas – energy security, diaspora confidence, and promotion of a moderate ideology.
In the same vein, the progress of the Quad of Nations towards the security of the Indo-Pacific may yet be marginal, but is picking up even as a reset in relations with China and Russia is evident; recent visits of the Prime Minister to these countries have been productive in balancing India’s foreign policy. The country’s emergence as a full-fledged member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is, of course, a legacy case, but its management has been successful despite some earlier glitches in relationships with both Russia and China.
Where the success has been far less is surprisingly in the neighbouring region. This primarily includes Nepal and Maldives, where regimes could not be cultivated and China’s all-pervading hand is evident in its attempt to garner influence. Sri Lanka remains on the cusp, with its internal politics in a fickle state but with early promise of a tilt towards India. Bangladesh has remained a success story from the past, but the expectation to take this to transformational levels may not have been achieved because the strength of the relationship remains limited to the current dispensation of the Bangladesh Awami League without clarity for the future.
On Afghanistan, it has been a success story with the absence of any major attacks on Indian facilities except the recent kidnapping of some workers. The opening of the alternate route through Chahbahar, facilitating the supply of the first consignment of wheat to Kabul, has sent a strategic message to Pakistan. Continuance of Indian soft power support to the Afghan government and training support to the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police are Indian core capabilities that still make a difference.
Border and Internal Security
Two focus issues are Doklam and the Line of Control (LOC). Walk-in operations by the People’s Liberation Army have been a problem for long. Whether Doklam was a deliberate ploy to bait India and take the level of intimidation beyond just walk-ins can never be determined. Yet the overall handling of the 72-day standoff through firm and steadfast military posturing, good media management, and deft diplomacy has proved the emergency-handling capability of the government. The follow-up has been welcome with attempts at a reset in relations.
The scale of achievement on the LOC has not reached the same level as Doklam, although the surgical strikes and the robust handling ever since, have helped send strong messages to Pakistan. Success here cannot be judged by the absence of violence as the complexities are much more than on the Sino-Indian border. The success in handling of the LOC has been in the ability to contain ceasefire violations to only a part of the LOC and international border sector. However, the suffering of the population in the Jammu sector remains a negative. The construction of anti-shelling bunkers needs to be taken up on an urgent basis. In fact, we need to go beyond this by investing in temporary relocation of the population with full welfare, if we have to respond more strongly with the international border sector handed over to the Army.
Horizontal escalation could well be on the cards. Perhaps the entire issue of “No War, No Peace” (NWNP) management has now reached a level where attrition or exhaustion techniques may be the only options available to us. The government had invested in engagement with Pakistan early in its tenure, but the equilibrium got upset by events sponsored by Pakistan. The government may have refused talks with Pakistan as it continues to sponsor terror, but India has never been averse to reversing the situation if there is a serious display of intent by the other side to seek peace. Backroom channels are still partially open, and things are being quietly done, just as it should be.
Jammu and Kashmir’s internal situation obviously has legacy connections, but ever since the killing of Burhan Wani on 8 July 2016, the government has followed a robust policy to re-establish military domination over the hinterland. Operation All Out was an unqualified success, but casualties have also been high, not the least because of intervention by mobs.
The Prime Minister projected the idea of a return to engagement with the population through his iconic message on Independence Day 2017 – “Na goli se, na gaali se… Kashmir ki samasya suljhegi gale lagane se (The Kashmir problem will be resolved not by bullets or abuses, but by embracing its people)”. The Non-Initiation of Combat Operations (NICO) for Ramzan and the linking of his message with the same could well be a game-changer if peace prevails and NICO is extended to Amarnath Yatra and beyond. The negative here is the inability to get strong counter-narratives in place and prevent local recruitment, which has become the current driver of the separatist movement. This will in all probability change if NICO persists.
The quieting of the North East’s security situation has also seen a surge in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s political hold over much of the region. This should assist in enhanced engagement with disparate renegade groups with visible vigour even as every attempt is made to bring connectivity to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) through the North East.
The government can claim much success in the refocus of strategic defence policy with the maritime domain being given a higher priority. While this may not be fully evident in terms of equipment and outlay, it is the attention now accorded to the Indo-Pacific region which is making a difference. The government appears to be in sync with the perception of the strategic community that China’s vulnerability lies in the maritime domain and it wishes to keep India’s focus wedded to the continental domain to prevent increase in Indian maritime capability.
China’s Malacca dilemma is well-known but only now is it being spoken of more openly. The Navy has added traction to our foreign policy initiatives, whether it is in enhancing cooperation with the big powers or in providing a physical dimension to the Act East Policy. The Malabar series and the recent Exercise Milan has helped project the international footprint of the Navy. While acquisitions and asset procurement may still be tardy and pegged under the weight of legacy procedures, the new aircraft carrier under construction is making good progress and appears to be headed for a 2020 induction to give the Navy its second carrier and add much muscle to it.
Notwithstanding the Chief of the Air Staff’s references to India’s readiness for a two-front war, the Indian Air Force is stretched, capability-wise. There are permutations and combinations in optimising the current 31-squadron capability, but further erosion over the next 10 years due to phase-outs will only just be made up by inductions (on order) if they remain on target, yet reducing the holding to 29-30 squadrons by 2027. The intended 42-squadron capability with current budgetary allocations does not appear to be an achievable target unless immediate decisions are taken along with promise of greater budgetary support. The air domain needs more focus from the government notwithstanding some good achievements in the conduct of the recent Exercise Gagan Shakti. The exercise did display more than optimum utilisation of assets through extended stamina, and succeeded in deploying more than 1,100 aircraft – half of them fighter jets – logging over 6,000 flight hours in three days.
Continental Domain (Conventional)
Capability-wise, the Indian Army does not appear as confident of itself as it should be. If an army has to keep saying that it will fight with what it has, it displays bravado without conviction. Many of the issues concerning land capability are from the past, but the ghost of decision-making in procurement, procedure, and unrealistic requirements spelt out to vendors, has rendered such delays that it is being highlighted even internationally.
The Army’s handling of the LOC and Doklam have been praised, but these are not related to full-spectrum capability, which must palpably improve in the field of basic personal weapons, artillery, night fighting for armoured vehicles, network centricity, cyber war, and air defence. The decision to go in for the S-400 state-of-the-art Russian air defence system, which would cost as much as Rs 40,000 crore (still under negotiation), does display the right intent. It is hoped that more will be done in these areas.
From a budgetary angle, leaving aside everything else, even transport as part of mobilisation requires funds. To meet the requirements of a response to Doklam, the Army expended almost its entire transport budget. It had a difficult time for the rest of the year thereafter, as no additional grants appeared to have been made. If lessons from this are not learnt, it will be a sad commentary on the Defence Ministry’s ability to be flexible when required.
The strength of achievement by a government in the defence sector is also qualified by the extent of understanding beyond just the operational and strategic domains. It is in the field of civil-military relations, organisation, and personnel management that its hands are not tied by resource availability; trust and attitude make the difference. This is where, in India’s history of managing its military, governments have tended to be tardy.
Organisation for Higher Defence Management
In this area, the major issues are the creation of ‘joint structures’, integration of the Defence Ministry with part-presence of uniformed support, the institution of a Chief of the Defence Staff, and the drafting of a National Security Strategy. Progress in these fields is not noticeable just yet, although a halfway measure has been achieved with the creation of the Defence Planning Committee as a layer between the Cabinet Committee for Security and the Defence Ministry. Decisions on higher defence management must inspire confidence in the armed forces, which is apparently lacking. Informed opinion on this rests primarily in the veteran community of the armed forces, which the government was in engagement with initially but lost the way midway. Manohar Parrikar deserves a round of applause for his willingness to engage. Unfortunately, with little done on improvement of the state of civil-military relations, higher defence management is a subject which remains in flux.
State of Civil-Military Relations
Civil-military relations in India are dogged by the perception of the military that the civilian bureaucracy has little understanding of defence matters. Institutionally, if measures are taken to build a strategic culture among the civilian managers of national security and give the uniformed community a greater say in decision-making as stakeholders and not relegate them purely to implement what is decided, much of the problem can be reduced. Towards that end, the hold of the civilian bureaucracy over the government remains complete and unchanged. Since the Kargil Review Committee and the Group of Ministers recommendations were formulated under the previous NDA government, it was expected that there will be an effort to take implementation beyond what the previous government had done. That does not appear to have been the current approach. To its credit, the government did set up the Shekatkar Committee which, besides reinventing the wheel in many spheres, did make fruitful recommendations. The government has accepted the 65 recommendations relating to the Army and many of those relating to the Tri-Service domains, but implementation has to be through transformational decisions, which are pending.
The redeployment of 57,000 Army personnel to improve combat edge has begun and is apparently being done earnestly; in addition, redeployment of 31,000 defence civilians is being looked at. Among some of the much-needed reforms that are under execution, include the closure of military farms and army postal establishments in peace locations, something that has been hanging fire for long. The Committee’s recommendations are slated for implementation by December 2019, but movement towards issues such as ensuring sufficient budgetary support for modernisation and not surrendering unspent capital budget at the end of the financial year, do not require such an elongated time frame for implementation. Perhaps next year we will see much more energy towards implementation in this area. An issue on which the government must display serious intent is the National Defence University, which is languishing for 17 years since the proposal was made.
This is an issue which can take up much space, but is being restricted here. Personnel management includes recruitment, terms and conditions of service; pay, allowances, and pensions; resettlement, and veteran affairs. Early in its tenure, the government did well by setting up a committee of experts to look into grievances related to service matters and pensions of the armed forces personnel so as to initiate measures to minimise litigation and disputes in courts. It was a most appropriate step with the right people manning the committee. Some very sensible recommendations have been under implementation. Issues related to One Rank, One Pension (OROP) and the Seventh Pay Commission continue to dog the government and will probably do so even through the legal route. With OROP, the government may have provided satisfaction only partly, but it is accepted that the decision was taken not too long after coming to power. That it did not satisfy all is a different issue. The Seventh Pay Commission had serious problems with status and removal of some allowances, both of which have been unfair. With pending anomalies from the Sixth Pay Commission, it is unlikely that much more will come in terms of resolution of anomalies of both the commissions.
The government will need to step up its focus on veteran affairs as the strength of veterans is growing (due to the increase in life expectancy and other factors). The Ex Servicemen’s Contributory Health Scheme appears to be failing and the military hospitals cannot cater to the veteran load. This is an area which will need to be worked on as much as simplification of the banking system for pensions, especially for the far-flung rural areas from where many soldiers hail. The pension disbursal system in urban areas has improved, but in rural environments, the complex orders and amendments do not allow war widows and older veterans to get their dues. Defence banking advisers at the state and division levels may add some effect to this system.
The yet-to-be-confirmed decision about the increase in the Short Service Commission with commensurate reduction in the Regular Commission is not being received well in the service community. The prime reason is that the rationale for a large support cadre of officers being dumped midway at age 35-40 years is something that is acceptable in the Western system, but not in India, where assured secondary careers are unavailable. There may be little attraction for this, leaving the issues of officer cadre management in drift. Unless the Cabinet’s approved “Peel Factor” for horizontal placement in government services is not implemented, none of this may succeed.
Procurement and Equipment Management
For most people, this is the high-decibel area in defence policy which marks the achievements and failures of governments. This is an incorrect perception. When a system has deep-rooted malaise, which has been allowed to drift over time due to caution and inability to find a middle path in control and freedom of action, it becomes extremely difficult to effect positive change. The government has made an honest effort and much has been written about it. Right from the setting up of the Dhirendra Singh Committee, a mega effort has been made. Success has been elusive and challenges multiplying, but not for a want of effort. The malaise is based on the lack of trust within departments and the huge financial commitments which require mind-boggling management. The efforts to bring in private industry, initially received with much enthusiasm, now appear to be slacking due to the inability of private players to find space in the competition. This needs re-energisation.
According to the excellent review by the online portal “Hindustan360.in”, a year ago, “the Dhirendra Singh Committee was tasked to evolve a policy framework to facilitate ‘Make in India’ in defence manufacturing and align the policy evolved with DPP-2013; and to suggest the requisite amendments in DPP-2013. DPP-2016 was thus formulated with the experience gained by the government in the defence procurement process and the recommendations of the Dhirendra Singh Committee. It came into effect from April 2016... Most of the deals signed recently such as the 145, M777, 155mm Howitzers, Kamov ka-226 helicopters, Apache (Attack Helicopters) AH ID, and EADS CASA C-295 Transport Aircraft, are under the category ‘Buy and Make’ which means initial procurement of limited quantity in fully formed state, followed by indigenous production through Transfer of Technology (ToT). However none of these deals have fructified on the ground so far and the time frame for realization of equipment would vary from 05 to 10 years once the initial deliveries start”.
So, hollowness in defence capability may be a phenomenon which may continue for some more time. However, the Defence Ministry has been free of scandal and much more receptive towards ideas from the services. Its fight for funding and higher budgetary support is seen to be supportive of the cause of the services and in this area we may probably see more achievements in the near-future.
As a last word, ammunition is an area of concern since it has been flogged a fair deal in the media. The legacy was a need for financial commitment of Rs 98,000 crore in 2014 to ensure that the recommended levels of war wastage rates at 30 days intense and 30 days normal expenditure (total 40 days intense rate) were stocked. After the Uri attack, the armed forces had arrived at some emergency deals worth over Rs 20,000 crore – primarily with Russia, Israel, and France – to ensure that their warships and fighters, tanks and artillery could undertake at least 10 days of “intense fighting” without worrying about ammunition and other reserves. Two major things have been achieved to the credit of the government. Contracts have been inked for a variety of important ammunition, but more importantly, a system has been institutionalised whereby the vice chiefs of the three services are empowered to continue with the emergency revenue procurement, as and when required, to maintain optimal stockpiles without taking clearances from the Defence Acquisitions Council.
As stated right at the beginning, the defence sector is complex and to expect that a government can have a report card, in this field, indicating only positives through four years is unrealistic. The government, on its part, should welcome unbiased opinion on its performance with a critique which encompasses both praise and identification of challenges.