India’s new think tank for military strategy planning misses the mark

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India is setting up a Defense Planning Committee (DPC), described as the new “Strategic Think Tank,” to formulate national military and security strategy and oversee foreign acquisitions and sales. Amusingly, the ‘Top Comment’ in the above news link reads, “Hats off to Modi for buying new Tanks to powerful our army defense systems” – the commentator interpreting “think tank” a type of new military tank.

Headed by the national security adviser (NSA), the DPC also includes the principal secretary to the prime minister, three service chiefs, the defense secretary, the foreign secretary, and the chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CISC) heading the headquarters of the Integrated Defense Staff (IDS).

The tasks of the DPC include: formulating national military and security strategy; “refining” defense procurement recommendations with a long-term view; integrating defense planning and strategy, and defining priorities; developing cross-ministry integrated capabilities; enabling “capability development planning”; and evaluating foreign-policy imperatives, strategy for international engagement – “Make in India” exports and foreign assistance programs. Its tasks also include such subjects as defense diplomacy and filling voids left by the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC).

This move after four years of rule by the incumbent government is possibly to project focus on defense because of the upcoming elections, or because “Make in India” is floundering. Some hail this move as the government “getting serious”; others are calling it the “boldest reform” since the Kargil Conflict. However, the DPC actually turns the recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) and Group of Ministers (GoM) on their head.

When the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi took charge in 2014, India was without a National Security Strategy (NSS) or a Strategic Defense Review (SDR), and had an ill-equipped military that wasn’t integrated. Nothing was done to improve the situation, and misery was compounded with successive negative defense budgets in actual terms.

Defining the NSS, righting India’s strategic asymmetry vis-a-vis adversaries in the sub-conventional domain, molding perceptions in India’s favor and addressing radicalization in Jammu and Kashmir state should have been the priority tasks of the national security adviser from Day 1. But little has happened beyond some diplomatic isolation of Pakistan. Radicalization in Jammu and Kashmir has gone up, and India let the situation drift in Maldives and Nepal.

National military and security strategy cannot be defined in isolation; it must flow from the NSS, which the government has failed to define over the past four years. Similarly, defense procurements cannot be planned without a military strategy and strategic debt restructuring. In the absence of an NSS and strategic debt restructuring, the functioning of the DPC will be the same as those of the Defense Acquisition Council (DAC) of the Ministry of Defense (MoD).

The DPC is heavily biased toward “Make in India,” acquisitions, manufacturing and exports, with the very job of the MoD with the Department of Defense Production integral to it. Creating another layer – the DPC – above the DAC will only delay decisions. The only military professionals in the bureaucracy-heavy DPC are service chiefs and the CISC, which is nothing better than the existing disjointed higher defense setup. Incidentally, the DPC doesn’t include the home secretary, indicating little understanding of hybrid warfare.

The headquarters of the IDS (which has Ministry of External Affairs representation), established as part of the MoD, was kept separate for lording over by MoD bureaucrats. The DPC follows the same trick by making HQ IDS the Secretariat, keeping military professionals away.

The KRC and GoM recommended the early establishment of Chief of  Defense Staff (CDS). The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance II government diluted this to establishing a “Permanent Chairman COSC,” and now the Modi government is upgrading the status of the national security adviser to that of a “mini Xi Jinping,” the ultimate aim being as and when the Theater Commands come up. Theater commanders will report directly to the NSA in absence of Chief of Defence Staff, which will be most ridiculous. Why not abolish the post of defense minister altogether and make the national security adviser “India’s Xi Jinping”?

Not only is the DPC a recipe for future clashes between the defense minister and the national security adviser, the capabilities and conduct of the NSA can’t be ignored.

For example, the former NSA Shivshankar Menon, when he was the the Foreign Secretary, inserted support to Balochistan in the joint statement issued at Sharm-el-Sheikh, despite the mission in Pakistan opposing it, much to our continued future embarrassment. As NSA he was also working behind the scenes for India to withdraw from Saltoro Range near the Siachen Glacier, which would have put India at an immense strategic disadvantage. The Modi government’s acknowledgment of the committees isn’t the answer for such issues. The NSA and the Defense Minister (given military professionals) can very much handle them (as was recommended by KRC and GoM). Castles can’t be built in air without funds, and Make in India, shopping and exports can’t be central to defense.

In 2015, the then Defense Minister, Manohar Parrikar, gave a ‘misleading’ statement that Chief of Defence Staff will be a reality soon. He paid homage at Amar Jawan Jyoti with his shirt hanging outside his pants and in slippers and at the ceremonial functions like launching naval ship, but was immaculately dressed abroad.

National Security Adviser Ajit Doval says he doesn’t require a deputy from the military because he can summon service chiefs whenever he wants. Indeed as a de facto Chief of Defence Staff, he demands presentations directly from service vice-chiefs on equipment procurements.

Meanwhile Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman says the MoD will not withdraw appeals against ex-servicemen disability pensions in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s action is like fining the MoD 100,000 rupees (US$1,500) for blocking compensation to disabled soldiers, which though a disgrace, doesn’t matter – after all, how many can afford legal battles?

The display of such arrogance is perhaps in the belief that no national-level political leader compares in stature to Modi. But it is more likely that it is to cover the government’s abject surrender to the bureaucracy and the deep state. And the DPC is probably part of the same machinations. You don’t need this circus if the KRC-GoM recommendations are fully implemented – which is a far better option.

Modi recently said at Westminster that criticism is healthy for democracy. But this criticism may not reach him and the defense minister.

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