Defence Planning Committee right step for national security, but expectations should be rooted in reality

Addressing national security and related issues is a very potent tool, exploited by the political leadership to calibrate the mood of the people within the nation. Therefore, every time an action is taken with respect to this issue, it evokes strong reactions, both positive and negative. The recent formulation of the Defence Planning Committee (DPC) under the aegis of the national security advisor has also led to a lively debate.

The Defence Planning Committee also includes the foreign secretary, three service chiefs, and the secretary (expenditure) from the Ministry of Finance, and has been given the mandate to invite specialists as desired. It is irrefutable that it is timely, and a much-needed step in the right direction. Its mandate to formulate the draft national security strategy, defence engagements, and modulations for facilitating capacity development along with self-reliance (Make In India) in the defence space with a focus on infrastructure, technological advancements, and future exports, is also laudatory.

 Defence Planning Committee right step for national security, but expectations should be rooted in reality

File image of Ajit Doval. AFP

The formation of the DPC assumes significance also because India is at the threshold of a more active and prominent role in regional and international space, with its geographical location pivotal to the evolving international security and economic paradigm. It is, therefore, the need of the hour to carve out a comprehensive roadmap with fixed timelines and ascribe accountability for meeting the stated goals addressing our national security imperatives.

It is fortunate that a lot has been written and spoken on the contours of our national security strategy in the recent past, including by senior officials of this government. This would provide valuable inputs for the DPC to contextualise its strategy in harmony with the overall aspirations and vision of the country. However, there is always a gap between idealism and realism, and so, it is in this case too. There are challenges that will have to be addressed for it to meet the stated objectives.

Undoubtedly, meaningful results will require extensive debates and deliberations by the committee. This, in my view, is a major challenge as each of the members have very busy schedules with a diverse spectrum of activities and responsibilities. It applies all the more to the NSA who seems to be the single point spearhead for almost everything. Therefore, a critical subject like defence planning and national security strategy, with its numerous nuances, may not get the time and attention it deserves.

It is not just the present environment and challenges that need to be appreciated, but the non-linearity of future security challenges as well that have to be forecasted and assessed. Thereafter, the committee's own goals need to be articulated for the short term, the mid-term period of 10/15 years and for the long-term perspective of two to three decades. Also, decisions taken today have a gestation period and would require synergised and sustained focus by different elements of national power, over a protracted period of time.

Therefore, the NSA, having been vested with this additional responsibility, may cause unavoidable delays and hinder timely decision making. What might then entail is a repackaging of the available details in a generic policy statement. This seems to have been the case in the sphere of cybersecurity. Since the enunciation of cyber guidelines in 2013 and appointment of the National Cyber Security Coordinator in 2015, progress has been too little and too slow, as all major decision making is required to be funneled and approved by the NSA.

Another aspect is that the mandate of the committee is extremely exhaustive. Although the issues are related, each of them is a study in itself. In view of the perceived limitation of time that the members could give to the committee, there is a need for great care and thought in exercising the mandate of forming sub-committees for examination of specific issues. The tailoring and staffing of these committees will have to be done innovatively. The sub-committees need to have individuals with a vision who come from different professional spheres, and with the capacity to look at things afresh. The erstwhile armchair intellectuals will have to be kept clear of these sub-committees.

There are some pointers which are of concern, especially for the Indian armed forces. The present committee is indicative that the NSA is likely to continue as the 'de facto' 'Chief of Defence Staff (CDS)'. And the appointment of the same from the armed forces, with ‘strategic forces’ under command, is not likely to happen soon. A higher defence management requires that there be inputs-cum-recommendations on national security issues from more than one source for the decision maker. The committees have repeatedly recommended suitable changes but to no avail. The formation of the DPC may have a negative impact on the existing ‘one on one’ interaction between the prime minister and the service chiefs.

In the sphere of capacity development too, the indications till now are that the lobbies of the OFB/DPSUs and DRDO, coupled with political expediency, is likely to only permit cosmetic changes in providing a level playing field to the private industry in defence manufacturing.

The reviewed document on developing a strategic partnership with the private industry, changes in the mandate of the Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV) project, delay in the decision making for the replacement of the Avro aircraft and the recent request for proposal for what is being touted as the MMRC-2 project are indicative of the return to a new ‘status quo’. It places a question mark on the seriousness of the government on capability development and self-reliance in the defence space.

The silver lining is the major strides made by the MSMEs in defence associated space. There is progress in the setting up of the desired defence eco-system and was apparent in the recent ‘DefExpo’ at Chennai, held earlier this month. The major transition for self-reliance will happen if we can unleash the private forces to negotiate the manufacturing or procurement of major platforms outside the government to government space. Therefore, policy changes with fixed timelines to propel the transformation by this committee can be a game changer.

The DPC will have to look at long-term measures in engagement or dealing with India's belligerent neighbouring states, calibrating responses within South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) for an enabling environment for inclusive growth and prosperity. The defence engagement should look at building 'collaborative security structures' for the future and there is a need to institute measures to meet the technological disruptions already underway with different intensities.

It would be fair to conclude by stating that we should not be in a hurry to arrive at conclusions. Maybe this step by the prime minister will give the desired impetus for achieving our desired national aspirations and formulating a comprehensive security roadmap.

The author is former General Officer Commanding in Chief, Indian Army

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Updated Date: Apr 26, 2018 11:35:38 IST