Defence planning- Old wine in new bottle?

Admiral Arun Prakash, former Chief of Naval Staff analyses the Government of India’s decision to have a new Defence Planning Committee under the chairmanship of National Security Advisor.

Modi Governmnet has appointed NSA Ajit Doval to spearhead the Defence Planning Committee, to create a new roadmap for national security. (PTI)

In what has been declared, by the media, as a ‘major step’ towards reforming the process of higher defence planning, the government has created a new mechanism; designated the Defence Planning Committee (DPC) under the chairmanship of the National Security Advisor (NSA). This permanent committee has been tasked to undertake a strategic defence review, prepare a draft national security strategy, and formulate an international defence engagement strategy. Taken at face value, this step deserves a cautious welcome by the Services as well as the strategic community, even if only as a long overdue token of the government’s concern for national security.

The past 14 years, that include a decade of stasis during the UPA regime, and four years of NDA (that saw four Raksha Mantris), have also witnessed a steady deterioration in India’s security environment. While China’s spectacular economic and military rise is helping it reshape the fundamentals of global power, our immediate concerns relate to the rapid modernization and integration of different arms of the Chinese military into a cohesive ‘joint’ entity. Heightened military activity on our land borders, incursions into the Indian Ocean and the brandishing of tactical nuclear weapons by Pakistani generals, speak of an unfolding Sino-Pak strategy.

The ‘first charge’ on a nation’s exchequer is universally acknowledged to be national security. But in India, defence expenditure, having been relegated to the ‘non-Plan’ category, budgetary allocations are whimsical, and pay no heed to factors like threat assessment, force-planning, self-reliance or alignment of ‘ends, ways and means’. This is largely because of the defence-planning process has remained an arbitrary, sporadic and neglected activity in India. Recent revelations about India’s stalled military modernization and shortfalls in war-reserves provide worrisome proof of this.

Post-independence history bears out the short shrift given to this vital process in the Indian system. A ‘defence planning cell’ was created as late as in 1962, in the aftermath of the India-China War, to be replaced by a Committee for Defence Planning, in 1977, under the Cabinet Secretary. It was only in the Rajiv Gandhi-Arun Singh era that a properly constituted, inter-Service Defence Planning Staff (DPS) was set up. Headed by a 3-star Director-General, the DPS was charged with the preparation of force-level and hardware perspective plans, in consultation with the Service HQ. However, lacking support from the military, as well as MoD, the DPS failed to gain any credibility and was wound up in 2001.

The near-disaster of May 1999 saw the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) bluntly highlighting the fact that India’s system of defence planning and management, had remained utterly stagnant “despite the 1962 debacle, the 1965 stalemate and the 1971 victory, the growing nuclear threat, end of the cold-war, continued proxy war in Kashmir…” Reacting swiftly to the KRC’s criticism, the NDA government of the day constituted, under Deputy PM, LK Advani, a Group of Ministers (GoM) whose report declared, its intent of “bringing about improvements in the organization, structures & process through integration of civil and military components of MoD and by ensuring ‘jointness’ among the armed forces” (emphasis added). The defence planning process, according to this Report, had remained deeply flawed due to the absence of a national security doctrine and inter-Service prioritization.

The two-fold panacea offered by the GoM was: the integration of the Service HQs with MoD and creation of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). One of the vital tasks of the CDS would be to bring “effectiveness to the planning/budgeting process”, through intra-Service and inter-Service prioritization and the preparation of a Joint Services Plan. The government’s surrender to bureaucratic pressure and abandonment of the GoM’s substantive recommendations is history, and does not bear repetition.

It merits recall that, in the past two decades, actions of UPA as well as NDA governments in the arena of national security reform have been disappointing. Both have convened groups, committees and task-forces to examine issues relating to higher defence management, defence-research and defence-production. Submitted for bureaucratic scrutiny, rather than political decision-making, the findings and recommendations of these bodies, have generally disappeared in dusty MoD cupboards.

Notwithstanding past omissions, there is need to curb skepticism in the case of the newly constituted DPC. Possibly, there is just enough time for it to tackle its weighty task and generate some deliverables before the next general election is upon us. However, the constitution of this committee, at this juncture, and its composition, does leave an unanswered question in the air.

The exclusion of issues like civil-military integration, ‘jointness’ and, CDS, from the Committee’s charter, means that they are obviously not on the NDA agenda – which is a pity – but does it also imply that the NSA has, now, replaced the Defence Secretary as de-facto Chief of Defence Staff?

(The article is authored by Admiral Arun Prakash, former Chief of Naval Staff. Views expressed are the author’s own)

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