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National security after 66 years of independence

This background note on the state of national security since India’s independence was prepared for two TV interviews on August 15 and 16, 2013.]

Overview on national security since 1947

Indian armed forces were guardians of British colonial rule before independence. They have now distinguished themselves as the defenders of independent India by shedding their blood on more than one occasion. This has not been an easy process. It meant moving away from the Commander-in-Chief system of the British to Chiefs of staff for each of the three services. It also meant downgrading the status of Service Chiefs in the government hierarchy; C-in-C was next only to the Viceroy in Colonial India. The Chief of Army Staff (COAS) is now on par with the Chairman of the Union Public Service Commission. But the armed forces have reconciled to this realizing that elected government is supreme in a democracy.

But this is having its impact on the decision making process on national security and management of strategic defence. We see the anachronism of Defence Secretary – a bureaucrat – leading a delegation of three chiefs for holding a strategic dialogue with China. Chiefs of armed forces who had access to the Prime Minister in Pandit Nehru’s times have access only to the Defence Minister. Security chiefs are merely on listening watch in the decision making process after they have had their say with the defence minister.

As a result, inability to take timely and informed decisions on vital matters affecting national security has become the hallmark of our strategic defence management. This has not only affected timely procurement of weapons and equipment but lead to corruption by vested interests of a wide variety including politics, business interests and bureaucracy.

Enormous delays are dogging the development of indigenous capacities for manufacture of warships, submarines, combat aircraft and even small arms and artillery guns because we continue to worship the holy cow called public sector abetted by private business and political interests. Grandiose plans take decades to make snail-like progress to see them through.

For instance the Defence Minister launched the first Indian built aircraft carrier three days back. This is no doubt a laudable achievement. But the proposal to build it was lying with the bureaucracy for over a decade, according to former Naval Chief Admiral Arun Prakash. The decision was taken only after it was decided to buy “Admiral Gorshkov”, the half built Soviet carrier.

We are one of the three Asian powers boasting of nuclear capability which is a testimony to our defence research capability. Unlike Pakistan, in our country there are a lot of grey areas in the chain of command for decision for making on use and safeguarding of nuclear weapons during peace and war. Former service chiefs and K Subrahmanyam committee appointed in the wake of Kargil war have pointed this out. But so far the neither the nation nor its parliament has been taken into confidence by the government on this subject.

Despite all this we have creditable achievements. We have made big strides in developing our missile capability; we have just launched a nuclear submarine made in India and our shipyards are producing warships though at a slow pace. After sleeping for decades we seem to have woken up to the need for timely procurement and manufacture of state of the art weapons and systems.

China’s growing influence in neighbouring countries

China has emerged as global economic power, while India continues to be a regional one. China has gained a lot of advantage due to changes in the dynamics of global security environment and economic liberalisation But as a result of the economic downturn in the U.S. and European Union China’s export-based economy has also suffered, although it continues to clock the highest growth rate among other growth economies. South Asian countries’ under-exploited markets offer an attractive green field option for Chinese products and investments. So China has entered South Asia in a big way. Cheap Chinese goods have flooded markets in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Chinese companies are involved in major infrastructure and power projects in most of the South Asian countries.

China’s multi-faceted entry in South Asia is a matter of concern for India as it is eroding our influence in the neighbouring countries. This will have far reaching effects on our trade and economy, and impact our strategic security relations with our close neighbours like Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. China’s strategic partnership with Pakistan will be further strengthened and we will have to factor it in our threat perceptions.

However, for the time being both India and China appear to be keen on building a peaceful relationship although the Chinese pinpricks along the border continues.

Capability to defend against China

India and China have three contentious issues that hold the potential to explode into an armed confrontation. These are historical issues relating to China’s dispute over India’s traditional border with Tibet, China’s occupation of Indian territory in Ladakh and China’s suspicions about India’s intentions in giving refuge to Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama and nearly two lakh Tibetan refugees who aspire for an independent Tibet. These disputes are unlikely to be resolved in the next decade or more.

Areas of potential conflict with China are in the Aksai Chin region in Ladakh in the proximity of Daulat Beg Oldi near Siachen, and the Tawang region in Arunachal Pradesh, where Chinese feel they have stronger claims. Of course as Chinese do not recognize the Mc Mahon Line as the border in the Northeast, a few passes along the Himalayan border could also face Chinese threat.

The usual question is how can India defend itself against PLA – China’s army of over 2.25 million – the world’s biggest military force. PLA is becoming very powerful as it is rapidly modernizing not only the army, navy, air force and strategic nuclear missile force but also its weapon systems, cyberwarfare and command and control set up. They have better lift capability to move troops and are carrying out training in joint operations which used to be their weakspot. China’s research has progressed well in a number of defence related areas like satellite based reconnaissance and communication. All these make PLA a formidable foe to any nation, let alone India.

More than all this, it is backed by China’s huge international diplomatic, economic and political clout. But PLA’s responsibilities are equally big; it has defend 9.6 million sq km of territory of the second biggest country in the world and guard its 22,117 km long land borders with 14 countries. It also has internal security responsibilities. Considering this, Indian security forces would not face the entire forces of PLA. However, unlike our tardy approach to building strategic infrastructure along the border, Chinese have constructed roads and airfields close to our borders; this gives them greater ability to move troops faster and in huge numbers.

Our army is roughly half the size of PLA. They are well trained and their weapons despite the deficiencies are capable of defending our territory from aggressors. Our air force is fairly modern; though smaller in size it is professionally very competent. Our air lift capability is moderate. But our infrastructure to move troops is abysmal as it is insufficient to meet even the normal day to day requirements of the people. This remains our strategic weakness.

Considering this, our communication centres would become choke points in times of war for the enemy to bottle up and incapacitate our troops. This would reduce our military capability to a defensive war, even if tactical requirements dictate an offensive to reduce pressure on one front. And China’s superior capability in hacking and cyber warfare could cripple our command and communication system. We have only taken the first steps to address this growing threat.

PLA operating in tandem with Pakistan army would be the biggest challenge as it would augment the threat while dividing our strength. This is an altogether different scenario.

China’s weakest link is its navy which is rapidly acquiring new platforms and capabilities. Its superiority in submarines is neutralized by the limited experience of the navy in carrying out fleet operations well outside its shores. Conscious of this PLA navy (PLAN) is increasingly refining its skils and is now regularly operating a large number of warships in anti piracy duties off Somalia and Gulf coasts.

This does not mean a war with China is imminent. But local confrontations should not be discounted. Conventional wars of long duration are no more cost effective and the networked world’s political and economic environments are unlikely to sustain it. Chinese perhaps realize this and are focusing on winning local wars in hi-tech environment.

On India’s loss of influence with its neighbours

It would be incorrect to say India has lost its influence with the neighbouring countries. It still remains the biggest and strongest economic power in South Asia. It has a lot of international clout and its economic power is growing. As one of the three nuclear powers of Asia it will have a say in any strategic dispensation worked out by other big powers like China and the U.S.

At the same time, it is true that India has lost some of its overwhelming influence in countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives and Bangladesh. Each of these countries have their own internal political problems affecting their external perceptions particularly relating to India, which as a huge neighbor unnerves them at times. The entry of Chinese in this region has broadened their options on handling India’s dominance.

India has been responding to this challenge as and when the situation arises. This reactive response has been producing band-aid solutions for issues that require a strategic vision. This is where the Chinese excel.

Indian leadership has continued to be indecisive and often its actions contradict each other. This has created an image of the nation lacking self confidence in dealing with other countries. This has been compounded by the inability of our leadership to create transparent process and communicate with the public. People are better informed and their expectations from the elected government are higher than ever before; unfortunately the government does not seem to have realized the need for real time public communication. It is taking baby steps which are neither adequate nor attractive.

Thoughts on improving national security 1. Building a responsive national decision making and implementing system to respond in real time to needs of national security is the number one priority. This can be only done by national leadership which seems to be lost while dealing with critical national security issues.

2. Security chiefs should be part of the national security planning and decision making systems with service officers manning the defence ministry alongside bureaucrats. This would pave way for greater accountability. 3. Unless national security forms part of the political agenda of parties it will not happen. Now it is limited to comments against China and Pakistan. Political class seems to have more confidence in bureaucracy in dealing with matters of defence, than the services. This results in chaos due to lack of understanding and prioritizing while handling defence issues. They need to shed this colonial baggage as armed forces have repeatedly proved their loyalty to the country and the colour. 4. Though defence R and D has some great achievements to its credit there is need for greater accountability and timely completion of projects. Research developments are not adequate as they have to be translated into operational models and produced within a reasonable time frame. This is costing us dearly. 5. India is one of the largest importers of weapons. This dependency on external sources for even basic weapons is is a potential threat to national security. This is laughable in a country which has demonstrated achievements in manufacture of aircraft, ships, tanks and other hi-tech systems. This was mainly due to political pressure to entrust it exclusively to public sector. Even imports are entrusted to them. This has resulted in colossal cost, delays, corruption and obsolescence. The Tatra vehicle scam is a very good example of this. The criteria should be timely delivery and appropriate technology and performance and not private or public sector. 6. Government has shown insensitivity and casualness in handling pay packages and pension settlement of armed forces personnel. This has added to the lack of credibility armed forces personnel existing due to poor governance. Their families at home have a lot of problems and civil administration is not as sensitive to it as they used to be in British days. There is a need to handle defence personnel-related matters without tardiness and delay. Even court judgements in favour of war wounded are routinely contested at present. Armed forces on their part need to shed their elitism and cantonment mindset and inter-act more with ordinary people. (The writer, Col. R Hariharan, is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia. He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E- Blog:

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