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Facing India’s Security Future

India has just announced the launch of a National Task Force in its latest major reappraisal of its military needs. But will the government follow up?

By Nitin Gokhale for
Facing India’s Security Future
Credit: US Navy

Exactly a decade after India’s first inter-ministerial review of the higher management of its national security took place, New Delhi has once again decided to order a reappraisal of its security architecture.

The announcement by the government that it would form a National Task Force to assess the current state of the country’s national security management system is perfectly timed. India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood is in a state of flux—the United States has made public a definite timetable for its drawdown from Afghanistan, while the Arab world, important for India in a number of ways, is in turmoil. All this is happening as New Delhi grapples with an increasingly assertive China.

Headed by seasoned bureaucrat-diplomat Naresh Chandra, the Task Force has several former soldiers and statesmen as members. But the team has no easy task ahead of it, and the demands on it are far different from those faced by earlier teams in the six decades since India attained independence from Britain.

Specifically, these earlier reviews were based on a reactive posture, born out of specific setbacks and events. The 2001 review, for example, was ordered two years after India was caught unawares by intruding Pakistani forces in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1999. That localized skirmish had the potential to escalate into a full-fledged war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

The Kargil face-off prompted the formation of a Group of Ministers, which suggested several new systems and processes to refine India’s national security. While many of those recommendations have been implemented over the past 10 years, some crucial decisions still remain on the back burner.

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One of these is a key recommendation to appoint a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) as a single-point military adviser to the government, a suggestion that has remained unimplemented largely because of inter-services differences and reluctance on the part of political parties to take this tough decision.

When I spoke with the outgoing chief of the Indian Air Force, Air Chief Marshal PV Naik, recently, he told me that ‘there is no need for a CDS in India for the next five to ten years,’ as it would end up sparking off another round of intense debate in strategic circles.

But a more pressing problem for India’s security has been the lack of an effective intelligence coordination group, a problem that has cost India dearly. A body was set up in mid-2001 to coordinate and task intelligence and annual evaluation exercises. However, the group became inactive in less than four years. Sadly, the reality is that the Mumbai terror attacks could perhaps have been avoided had this organisation still been functional.

Another reform, aimed at allocating ‘one force to one border,’ is also far from having been completely implemented. The idea had been to give responsibility for each of India’s numerous borders to one dedicated force so as to encourage greater accountability. Accordingly, the federal Border Security Force was supposed to guard India’s borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh, while the 175-year-old Assam Rifles were allocated the difficult India-Burma border to monitor.

Yet 10 years have passed since the decision was taken, and there has been a curious rethink on the issue. The Border Security Force, despite its lack of experience in guarding such mountainous terrain as that found along the Burma border, may in fact be deployed there. Such decisions demonstrate the lack of consensus and cohesion among the defence and home ministries. Indeed, a similar lack of clarity exists on which force—the Army or the Federal Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP)—should be responsible for guarding the vast and disputed Sino-Indian border.

 Other recommendations that haven’t been implemented to date include the issuing of multi-purpose national ID cards, establishment of a National Maritime Commission, upgrading of infrastructure in the border areas, and establishment of a specialised marine police.

The National Task Force’s review and the recommendations are expected to be forward looking and all-encompassing. As noted by a strategic analyst and former spy in India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, B. Raman: ‘Such a futuristic review has to project over different timeframes the threats to national security that could be expected in the future in the short-, medium- and long-term, examine whether we have the required capabilities to be able to meet those threats, identify existing deficiencies in capabilities, recommend action to remove them, and suggest a time frame for removing them.’

Much has changed since the last big review in 2001. India’s economy, along with that of China, largely withstood the threat of global economic slowdown, and India now has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Such growth has allowed India’s military to boost spending on capital acquisition, and today, the Indian military is on the verge of rearming itself with modern weapons and platforms.

India’s influence has also grown in the region and across the world. Thus, any futuristic exercise to review national security needs has to go beyond the classical or conventional perceptions of security management. According to members of the new task force, its objective is not only to equip Indian security managers to anticipate and meet future threats, but also to project India’s comprehensive national power across the globe.

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The man heading the task force certainly has impeccable credentials. Naresh Chandra has been India’s home secretary and defence secretary, in addition to being a former cabinet secretary—the top bureaucratic appointment in the country—and is thus familiar with the workings of the armed forces and the intelligence community. After retirement from civil service, he served as the Indian ambassador to the United States and has extensive diplomatic experience.

Some of the other members, including retired Air Chief Marshal SrinivasapuramKrishnaswamy and retired Naval Chief Adm. Arun Prakash, are regarded as highly respected strategic thinkers. Their combined experience is likely to prove invaluable in carrying out this potentially revolutionary exercise.

However, many defence and security analysts have also pointed out the need to diligently follow up on the recommendations and to convince the serving officers of the necessity of changes, reforms, new thinking, and new concepts and ideas to achieve the desired end results. Unless that happens, any review will just end up being another exercise in futility.

Nitin Gokhale is Defence & Strategic Affairs Editor with Indian broadcaster, NDTV 24×7