The new Defence Planning Committee needs to overcome structural flaws to be successful.
The recent establishment of the Defence Planning Committee (DPC) provides proof that the development of India’s military power is in dire need of political direction. For the most part, the Armed Forces, bereft of adequate political guidance, have been formulating their own schemes and plans based on their service-specific interpretations to shape themselves. The result has been a skewed development of the different sub-systems of military power, whose critical components have lacked integration, prioritisation, synergy and optimal utilisation of scarce resources. Coupled with a weak defence industrial base, the contemporary narrative cannot but project the notion that India is militarily ill-equipped to meet the threats posed by the growing global and regional geopolitical tensions.
The DPC headed by the National Security Advisor (NSA) is composed of the three Service Chiefs, the Foreign, Defence and Finance (Expenditure) Secretaries and the Chief of HQ Integrated Staff. The DPC is expected to serve the purpose of providing a sense of direction and, thus, giving a fillip to strengthening national defence capabilities. Structurally, the DPC brings the Prime Minister’s Office into the Ministry Of Defence (MOD). This is unprecedented but signifies that such a structural linkage is warranted, and the Prime Minister has judged that the MOD is incapable of delivering outcomes that reflect in usable military power. It certainly places the Raksha Mantri in the shade.
Notably, its nomenclature as a planning committee is at odds with its tasks, which largely involve strategy evolution. This is so because planning is downstream of strategy, which again has to be derived from policy. This conflation of policy, strategy and planning is likely to cause confusion in the functioning of the DPC. Certainly, the NSA should not be involved in the planning function, which is the lowest rung in the national security value chain of policy, strategy and planning.
The basic role of the NSA as stated in the Cabinet Note that established the National Security Council (NSC) is ‘to function as a channel to service the National Security Council’. In practice, however, the NSA is the advisor to the Prime Minister on all matters of national security, acts as an interlocutor with foreign countries and is his chief troubleshooter. The NSA heading the DPC could be viewed as a troubleshooting assignment on behalf of the PM. But troubleshooting is a temporary phase while the DPC is a permanent body, and the tasks assigned to the DPC require a long-term approach. Apart from solving major problems, it can also be viewed as another avatar of the Strategic Policy Group (SPG), which was established along with the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) and the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB).
The SPG was required to assist the National Security Council (NSC) by acting as the principal mechanism for inter-ministerial coordination and integration of relevant inputs in the formulation of national security policies. It was to be chaired by the Cabinet Secretary but could be convened by the NSA also. It consists of the three Service Chiefs and a dozen Secretaries/Heads of relevant ministries/departments and the member secretary is the The Deputy NSA . Both NSAB and SPG were to be serviced by the NSCS. Conceptually, the SPG was a group within the system while the NSAB was outside the system and consisted of people who were either retired specialists or those outside the Government, so their thinking would be uninfluenced by the processes of reasoning prevalent within the Government.
However, the SPG has been comatose for long and therefore the DPC could be viewed as its partial resurrection. with a particularly focus on defence matters. The DPC also has the onerous function of evolving the National Security Strategy. Conspicuously, it is being serviced by a component of the Armed Forces Headquarters, i.e. the Headquarters of the Integrated Defence Staff. The DPC should however have been serviced by the NSCS, which is the institution created for such purposes. But the fact it is not is reflective of the PMO’s seeming lack of faith in the existing system. Moreover, national security issues require holistic consideration, and any piecemeal efforts to fix the parts without consideration of the ‘nature of the whole’ cannot deliver the expected outcomes. The glaring absence of the Cabinet and Home Secretary suggests that certain vital inputs indicates may be missing, neglected or sidelined.
The tasks assigned to the DPC are to prepare draft reports on national security strategy, international defence engagement strategy, roadmap to build defence manufacturing ecosystem, strategy to boost defence exports, and prioritsation of capability development plans. It is obvious that a National Security Strategy is required to provide guidance to evolve blueprints for most if not all the other tasks. Each of these tasks is expected to be carried out by sub-groups whose composition is yet to be finalised.
The National Security Strategy will perforce have to be evolved by a sub-group under the NSCS. The sub-group assembled to evolve the National Security Strategy will certainly have its task cut out. In essence, it will have to first find the answer to India’s geopolitical predicament that demands a political compass to navigate the turbulence in the global, regional and domestic orders. This will require detailed interactions with politicians and strategists. The best course towards forming the sub-group is to expand the present NSAB which currently only has a Convenor and four members. Expanding and populating it with the necessary multi-disciplinary expertise should serve the purpose. Ideally, the Member-Secretary for this sub-group should be the Deputy NSA.
After setting up of the sub-group it would require at least six months (if not more) to prepare the draft document. Then it should be discussed at the NSC, the political mechanism that is expected to act as the apex think tank and followed by approval of the CCS. The delivery schedule for NSS can only be planned in the early part of 2019 and that would mean closing in on the parliamentary elections. It is necessary to note, that, so far, three separate NSABs have designed the National Security Strategy documents which have failed to find political acceptance.
Among the other tasks, the sub-group that is entrusted with preparing a road map to build the defence manufacturing ecosystem could straightaway get to work, for there is no dearth of studies on the subject. It could have representation for diverse domains of the manufacturing ecosystem without becoming unwieldy. The DPC has not been mandated to be involved in ongoing acquisitions and therefore the expectation that it will speed up current processes is questionable. It could however conduct a comprehensive review of the system even though the MOD has in the recent past adopted new policies for procurement and production. Overall, it seems that the drastic steps required for defence manufacturing will be contingent on political will to reform the public sector and provide a level playing field to public and private sectors. The case is that, ‘we know what to do, but cannot get it done’. Defence exports will depend on manufacturing and therefore there should be no need to form a separate sub-group for defence exports as it is part of the defence manufacturing ecosystem.
Ideally, defence diplomacy should await guidance from the National Security Strategy, but since it is already under way, this sub-group can examine existing and planned interactions and issues like Quad inter alia. Examination of issues will be handicapped to some extent, by the absence of the national security strategy. So, it should be anchored in the NSCS with representatives from the MOD, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the corporate sector. A report already compiled by the Institute of Defence Studies & Analysis (IDSA) could provide some guidance to this group.
The task of military capability development surely will have to flow directly from the national security strategy. Even if the immediate focus is on defence capability alone, how does this sub-group decide on the meta-questions that demand political guidance? What is the balance to be maintained between continental and maritime military power? What sort of wars should the Indian military be preparing for and what should be their priorities? These questions have remained unanswered for long and the ensuing lack of clarity can be attributed to the non-availability of a National Security Strategy and the divergences in tri-service views. This sub-group has to craft a military strategy and be headed by a serving officer who stands above the level of selfish single service interests. Finding a suitable head will be difficult though not impossible. Also, the much overdue creation of CDS, could ameliorate to some degree the inevitable differences of Inter-Services relations.
The NSA’s presence as the head of the DPC will provide heft to its functioning provided the NSA can devote adequate time to this additional responsibility. That will not be easy. The DPC has a Herculean mandate, and it can be criticised on many grounds especially that it sidelines the NSCS and can result in the militarization of national strategy. For sure, its progress and outcomes will be a space to watch out for.
The DPC is compact but the omission of the Cabinet and Home Secretaries is revealing, as pointed out earlier. Overall, the DPC which is weighted towards defence capability will have to reach out and seek a decidedly more inclusive perspective, for security is a much larger concept than defence, which is only a constituent of it, though a critical one. The DPC shelf-life may be endangered by the flaws in its structural linkages. It could also undermine other extant defence organisations. In the short term, it could be ‘timed out’ and overtaken, either by geopolitical events or the turbulence of national elections. One hopes that this does not turn out to be an exercise in political optics and that the establishment of this committee has been undertaken to strengthen the defence capabilities of the nation and through that its larger security framework.