India and US have taken one giant step in defence technology transfer and upgrade that makes their Global Comprehensive Strategic Partnership approach an alliance but allows India to preserve its strategic autonomy. In 1971 India joined USSR in an alliance that curiously mentioned India’s strategic autonomy. India is on the cusp of a transformative revolution in national defence and security incorporating change in an adhoc fashion. As a founder member of the Defence Planning Staff which is the forerunner of the current Integrated Defence Staff, I have watched India undertake defence reforms in fits and starts and piecemeal. But a different beginning was made in the mid-1980s with a firm foundation for initiating and incorporating change systematically and logically against a strategic canvas.
The DPS integrated tri-service team carried out an elaborate evaluation of the Strategic and Technological Environment comparable to the contemporary Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). From that evaluation emanated the 15-year Defence Plan which was referred to by then Defence Minister KC Pant in Parliament. It was the first time ever that an Integrated Defence Plan was devised. Another milestone was the significant change that occurred in national security policy following the Kargil Review Committee Report in 2000. Sadly its recommendations were implemented in bits and parts.
Although many defence reviews and several task forces have made piecemeal recommendations, no holistic review or any White Paper has been sought nor presented in Parliament. To date, parliament has not called on the government to do an SDSR which is mandatory in all democracies. When a new government takes up office in Whitehall UK, it is required to present SDSR or whenever the strategic environment changes, like in Ukraine, the government presents an Integrated Review or an Integrated Review Refresh, as done recently in the UK. It is the long view of the future and what it might reveal internationally and domestically. The point is, change is introduced following a strategic assessment/holistic review. India is guilty of transgressing this concept and principle.
Fast forward to 2019. A Defence Policy Committee was created under NSA Ajit Doval which was expected to write the National Security Strategy (NSS) (equivalent to SDSR). He was elevated from MoS to Cabinet rank but NSS remained a mirage. From NSS hatched the National Defence Strategy. Till then, the Defence Ministers’ Operational Directive was the Magna Carta. It was written by the Army’s Military Operations Directorate and refined by the MoD. The last one was signed by Defence Minister AK Antony in 2009. Another was attempted in 2015. It contained orders for a two-front war to be fought for 30 days on an intense scale and 60 days normally. In 2013, Army Chief Gen VK Singh created a storm by writing to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that war stocks were sufficient for just 10 days of intense war. In 2020 the Operational Directive was fine-tuned with war stocks upgraded to 20 days intense and accepted by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. It is mysterious how the nature and duration of the war – two-front, Cold start, nuclear or conventional – were decided without an strategic review.
The CDS was announced at the end of 2019 along with establishing the Department of Military Affairs, planning for integrated theatre commands and associated inter-service procedural changes, atmanirbharta in defence and the Agniveer recruitment scheme in 2022. These were groundbreaking changes. Further, the criteria for selecting CDS were changed after the first incumbent Gen Bipin Rawat died in an accident. His replacement was curiously a retired three-star General; the first time in the history of CDS appointments anywhere that someone who had not been a service chief was appointed to the job. Before being elevated to four-star rank and CDS, Gen Anil Chouhan worked with Mr Doval as security advisor to National Security Council Secretariat. The selection from a contrived system was baffling. The revolutionary reforms implemented since 2019 were unaccompanied by any inkling of a strategic assessment. No NSS nor NDS was forthcoming or expected.
When President Joe Biden came into office, an NSS document was prepared by NSA Jake Sullivan. Defence Minister Lloyd Austen then produced the NDS. What the SDSR does is: informs the people and the armed forces who their adversaries are and how the government evaluates threats, challenges and opportunities from their behaviour. The three priorities in defence scenarios are Taiwan, the South China Sea and LAC. The centrality of NDS is in the concept of integrated deterrence that India must work to operationalize as on its own it cannot deter China for a long time to come. This could lead to jointness in the defence ecosystem as done in the joint production of GE414 jet engines. Cooperating and collaborating with the US in defence is perhaps the only way for the capability to catch up with China.
India is fighting shy of naming China as a threat and challenge. Even so, it is not too late to write a White Paper on China and then an Integrated Defence and Security Review. But all one gets is the end-of-the-year report card from different ministries. This is insufficient and archaic for aspiring world power.