Saturday, April 13, 2013

Lack of strategic thinkingA problem that persistsby Inder Malhotra
IT was in the mid-1990s that George Tanham, an eminent Ame ican scholar then working for RAND Corporation published a seminal paper, India’s Strategic Culture. His conclusion, moderately expressed, was that nothing of the kind “existed yet”. Patriotic Indians were enraged and tried to rubbish Tanhm’s findings as best they could.
The epic battle of Mahabharta, they pointed out, was fought on the basis of the highest military doctrines, and they asked, somewhat sneeringly, whether the US specialist had heard of Chanakya and his masterly work on statecraft that instructed the king what to do in times of both war and peace. Only after K. Subrahmanyam, the Bhishma Pithamaha of modern Indian thinkers on security and strategy, asked what else had been written or said by us during the two and a half millennia since Chanakya, were the critics silenced.
Since then, however, things in India have changed radically.  The number of strategy-linked think tanks has increased exponentially, compared with a handful then. More importantly, the government that had traditionally treated defence and strategy a “hush-hush affair” never to be shared with the people or even Parliament, has also gone public, if only to a limited extent. However, while lively discussions on security pour out of the think tanks and the voluble media practically every day, there is little resonance to it from those that make and run policy.
In the circumstances, it is both sad and strange that very recently, The Economist has repeated almost exactly what Tanham had said two decades ago.  Let the pith and substance of the two elaborate articles in the journal (March 30 - April 5, 2013) speak for themselves: “Whereas China’s rise (economically and militarily) is a given, India is widely seen a nearly-power that cannot get its act together … India’s huge potential … is far from being realised. 

One big reason is that the country lacks the culture to pursue an active security policy”. The weekly’s punch line is: “That India can become a great power is not in doubt. The real question is whether it wants to.”

Now it would be wise not to be stampeded into believing that every word of what The Economist says must be true, for even the most respected publications in the West have sometimes been biased against India. But a dispassionate examination of the relevant articles by security experts and those of us whose job it is to chronicle and comment on the goings-on in the security establishment, including former chiefs of the three services, shows that much of the criticism of this country’s security policies is based not on prejudice but on reality.

Let me just cite a few stark truths that the London-based journal doesn’t even mention. 

  • Fourteen years after the formation of the National Security Council, this august body has met but rarely. During the last three years or so, it hasn’t met even once! 
  • Worse, to this day the second largest country in Asia does not have a national security doctrine. Mercifully, a strategic doctrine, boldly opting for a “credible minimum deterrent” and no first use, was made public after the 1998 nuclear tests. 
  • Shockingly, there isn’t even a joint doctrine of the three armed forces. The Army, the Navy and the Air Force each plough a lonely furrow in this day and age when every battle is a joint land-air-sea undertaking.

Like other western analysts The Economist has devoted considerable space to India’s huge defence purchases from abroad – said to be the world’s largest over the last five years and still rising – but refrains for hammering home the real underlying message: 

A country that imports 70 per cent of the military hardware it needs cannot be a superpower. 

At the same time, the path to domestic production of sophisticated defence equipment is littered with many roadblocks, largely because of the almost complete dependence on the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) despite the government’s grudging willingness of late to give the private sector a share in defence production. 

The fate of the main battle tank, Arjuna, promised to be operational two decades ago and still undelivered, underscores the point. The Army has to do with dated T-72 and T-90 tanks, imported from Russia. Why the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) flown by a former Air Chief several years ago hasn’t yet entered service in the IAF remains a mystery.

There is a clear and present danger that the mother of all defence deals, costing about $ 20 billion, for the import of 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) might be at stake. An unduly long time was taken in deciding to buy from France the Rafale aircraft manufactured by Dassault. Now the whole deal is in danger of coming unstuck.

For, an essential part of the deal is that Dassault would sell us 18 aircraft from the shelf and the remaining 108 would be produced within this country by an Indian entity and Dassault jointly. The GOI now insists that the joint production must take place at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).

  Unfortunately, Dassault considers HAL to be a stodgy organisation and, therefore, suggests that it would deliver the kits to the HAL and accept no further responsibility. The French preference is for a consortium of public and private engineering companies to represent India. The Ministry of Defence says that this is totally unacceptable.

In available space, one of the fundamental flaws of the highest structure managing defence and national security can be mentioned only briefly. It is the appalling state of the relationship between the civilian and military components of the Indian security system at the top. The trust deficit between the two sides is colossal. The armed forces deeply resent being “bossed over” by generalist civilians of the IAS. One will have to return to the subject later.

The Naresh Chandra task force on national security took cognisance of this problem and suggested measures to take care of it at least partially. But the report of the task force has been before the government for one year without any decisions being reached. In such matters our government believes in doing nothing and doing it all the time.

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