A timely tocsin on defence laxity

Last week, a former national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, delivered the first K. Subrahmanyam Memorial Lecture for the Global India Foundation in New Delhi. Mr Mishra, a plain-spoken individual, did not mince his words about the problems confronting India’s national security. He correctly argued that India had failed to transcend the region and its two long-standing adversaries had sought to hem it in.

He also had harsh words for India’s dilatory defence procurement procedures arguing that their pace would ensure that the sought-after equipment would face obsolescence when actually inducted into the armed forces.
It is easy to dismiss his critique as the sentiments of a former senior official with allegiance to another political party. Such a dismissal, however, would be faulty. It needs to be remembered that despite some initial reservations, at a crucial moment during the negotiation of the US-India civilian nuclear agreement, Mr Mishra broke ranks and supported the UPA’s position on the matter. Consequently, it is obvious that he remains an independent-minded individual whose criticisms, though biting, may have to be taken seriously.
India does confront a multiplicity of threats and has yet to forge a coherent national security doctrine and acquire the requisite capabilities to deal with them. Instead it has chosen to react to specific events both within and on its borders and then rushed to meet the emergent challenges. Such a strategy does not behove a country that has global ambitions and will ill serve it in the years ahead.
In his address, Mr Mishra identified a number of key gaps in India’s defence preparedness and national security strategy. Beyond those that he highlighted, what are the key threats that the country faces and how might it deal with them?
Without question India faces, at least, two internal security challenges. First, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated some time ago, the resurgence of the Naxalites poses the greatest threat to India’s internal order. According to most reliable estimates, they now afflict some 200 districts across the country. Yet, despite much public discussion and hand wringing, no nationwide strategy has been formulated, let alone implemented, to tackle this growing menace.
Second, the country is now also witnessing the growth of home-grown Islamic radicalism manifested in the emergence of the Indian Mujahideen. Obviously, this organisation constitutes a minuscule minority within India’s vast Muslim community. However, some form of deep disaffection with the Indian state that afflicts elements of the community has helped spawn this organisation. Yet, apart from identifying this group as the culprit behind several acts of domestic terror, it is far from clear that the government has undertaken any systematic effort to ascertain why some members of India’s largest minority community have turned to the siren call of radical Islam.
Beyond these two obvious threats to internal security, as Mr Mishra correctly identified, both Pakistan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) remain as intransigent as ever. Yet political commentators and policymakers alike keep looking for stray straws in the wind, which might suggest a lessening of their hostility. Such efforts inevitably involve seizing upon occasional statements that have a conciliatory ring, moments of expedient cooperation and the soothing aura of particular personalities. Sadly, far too few individuals within India’s foreign and security policy circles seem to grasp the simple fact that all of these elements are fundamentally fleeting. Statements of cooperative intent can be withdrawn at will, occasional moments of agreement at multilateral forums reflect exigent needs and personalities, however attractive, cannot transcend long-standing policies which are fundamentally inimical to India’s national security interests.
Such a recognition does not mean the adoption of a stance of equally unyielding hostility. However, it does call for a sober, careful vetting of the actual behaviour of India’s two principal adversaries through the provision of robust intelligence capabilities. It also requires a defence procurement process that ensures that the country can swiftly acquire the requisite capabilities to both deter and, if necessary, defend against threats that loom on the horizon. Obviously, against the PRC, the principal threats to Indian security will remain mostly in the conventional realm — along its northern border and increasingly along the Indian Ocean littoral. Despite this awareness, governments have moved with timidity and hesitation to address these emergent threats. Indian government has, on occasion, even cancelled naval exercises with the US, Australia and Singapore for fear of piquing the PRC. Such pusillanimity ill-serves India’s national security interests.
The threat from Pakistan, as the horrific Lashkar-e-Tayyaba attack on Mumbai demonstrated in 2008, will remain asymmetric for the foreseeable future. Even though this is common knowledge the country has yet to adequately bolster security along its long-exposed coastline; it has paid insufficient attention to the gathering of intelligence and has not fully stood up the post-26/11 National Investigation Agency. Yet, it can be predicted with some certainty that in the wake of another terrorist attack emanating from Pakistan there will be no dearth of finger-pointing and recriminations for having failed to plug India’s internal security gaps.
Finally, even though Mr Mishra did not explicitly deal with the matter in his speech, India’s nuclear weapons programme also appears adrift. Apart from the bromide about a quest for “minimum deterrence” the necessary institutional and organisational infrastructure for embedding the country’s nuclear arsenal is still missing. Furthermore, some weapons programmes associated with India’s nuclear arsenal seem to be proceeding mostly on the basis of a technological-scientific-bureaucratic momentum without sufficient regard for their strategic consequences. Specifically, it appears that the country has undertaken a significant effort to acquire ballistic missile defence (BMD) capabilities without recognising how an adversary might fashion cheap but highly effective counter-measures designed to thwart the benefits that might accrue from the acquisition of BMD.
Mr Mishra, a distinguished foreign service officer, who after his retirement returned to serve his country as the national security adviser, has sounded a timely tocsin about the challenges and dangers that the country must countenance. It would be a pity if his counsel is ignored.

Sumit Ganguly is director of research at the Centre on American and Global Security at Indiana University, Bloomington, US

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