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UPA must move quickly on national security

May 26, 2009 14:08 IST

The performance of the United Progressive Alliance government in its first five years in power presented a mixed bag of a few spectacular achievements and many dismal failures on the national security front.

The successfully concluded Indo-US nuclear deal was a shining example of the government's single-minded resoluteness in furthering national interests in the face of stiff political opposition. The inability to speedily conclude major defence contracts to enhance national security preparedness in the face of growing threats and challenges, exemplifies the UPA's reluctance to grapple with systemic flaws in the procurement procedures and processes. It is a national shame that the budgetary allocations earmarked on the capital account for the modernisation of the armed forces continue to be surrendered year after year with complete lack of accountability.

With explosive flashpoints around India and an unstable internal security environment, the new government has its work cut out. Right on the top of its defence and security agenda should be the formulation of a comprehensive National Security Strategy, including internal security. The NSS should be formulated after carrying out an inter-departmental, inter-agency, multi-disciplinary strategic defence review. Such a review must take into account current and future threats, challenges and vulnerabilities in the context of the emerging regional security environment in India's area of strategic interest.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has declared several times that left wing extremism or Maoist terrorism is India's number one internal security threat. Yet, the central and state governments have not been able to launch a coordinated campaign to come to grips with the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Naxalite dominated areas that encompass 35 per cent of India's population.

The weaponry, equipment, training standards and levels of junior leadership of the state and central police forces must be upgraded by an order of magnitude to enable them to face the growing challenges with professional competence and rising confidence. The Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008 added a new dimension to the threat of urban terrorism. While many decisions have been taken to enhance intelligence and post-strike investigative capabilities and it has been decided to gradually establish hubs for NSG commandos in various metros to increase responsiveness to terror attacks, the UPA government must work towards bringing about substantive improvement in counter-terrorism capabilities.

Though the probability of conventional conflict has receded, defence preparedness must not be compromised as long as outstanding territorial and boundary disputes with China and Pakistan are not satisfactorily resolved. The armed forces are now in the third year of the 11th Defence Plan (2007-12); yet, it has not yet been approved by the government. The government has not approved the long-term integrated perspective plan (LTIPP 2007-22) either. Defence procurement is being undertaken through ad hoc annual procurement plans, rather than being based on duly prioritised long term plans that are designed to systematically enhance India's combat potential.

These are serious lacunae as effective defence planning cannot be undertaken in a policy void. The government must commit itself to supporting long-term defence plans or else defence modernisation will continue to lag and the growing military capabilities gap with China's People's Liberation Army will assume ominous proportions.

This can be done only by reviving the dormant National Security Council as defence planning is in the domain of the NSC and not the Cabinet Committee on Security, which deals with current and near term threats and challenges and reacts to emergent situations.

Major defence procurement decisions that have been pending for long must be expedited. The army is still without towed and self-propelled 155mm howitzers for the plains and the mountains and needs to urgently acquire modern weapons and equipment for counter-insurgency operations. The navy has been waiting for long for the Vikramaditya (Admiral Gorshkov) aircraft carrier, which is being refurbished in a Russian shipyard at exorbitant cost. The plan of the air force to acquire 226 multi-mission, medium-range combat aircraft in order to maintain its edge over the regional air forces is stuck in the procurement quagmire.

India's nuclear forces require the Agni-III missile and nuclear powered submarines with suitable ballistic missiles to acquire genuine deterrent capability. The armed forces do not have a truly integrated C4I2SR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Information, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) system for network-centric warfare, which will allow them to synergise their individual single-service capabilities into a cohesive whole.

All of these high-priority acquisitions will require extensive budgetary support. In case the defence budget continues to languish at less than two per cent of India's GDP -- compared with China's 3.5 per cent and Pakistan's 4.5 per cent plus US military aid -- it will not be possible for the armed forces to undertake any meaningful modernisation. The funds available on the capital account are grossly inadequate to suffice even for the replacement of obsolete weapons systems and equipment that are still in service well beyond their useful life cycles. The central police and para-military forces also need to be modernised as they are facing qualitatively greater threats while being equipped with obsolescent weapons.

The government must also immediately appoint a Chief of Defence Staff or a permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee to provide single-point advice to the CCS on military matters. Any further dithering on this key structural reform in higher defence management on the grounds of the lack of political consensus and the inability of the armed forces to agree on the issue will be extremely detrimental to India's interests in the light of the dangerous developments in India's neighbourhood.

The logical next step would be to constitute tri-service integrated theatre commands to synergise the capabilities of individual services. International experience shows that such reform has to be imposed form the top down and can never work if the government keeps waiting for it to come about from the bottom up.

The softer issues that do not impinge immediately on planning and preparation for meeting national security challenges must never be ignored as these can have adverse implications in the long term. The numerous anomalies created by the implementation of the Sixth Pay Commission report must be speedily resolved so that the morale of the armed forces is not undermined and they are able to attract and retain the right talent. In fact, the ham-handed handling of this issue has led to a dangerous 'them versus us' civil-military divide. This does not augur well for the country and the prime minister must take it as a personal challenge to bridge this gap quickly.

The ex-servicemen too have had a raw deal and have been holding fasts for justice on their most legitimate demand of 'one rank-one pension'. Many of them have taken the extreme step of returning their medals to the President. One rank-one pension is an idea whose time has come and it must be implemented without further delay and without appointing any more committees of bureaucrats to look into the issue.

While a department of ex-servicemen's welfare has been created in the ministry of defence in keeping with the UPA's Common Minimum Programme, there isn't a single ex-serviceman in it! Such measures do not generate confidence in the civilian leadership among serving soldiers and retired veterans. Finally, unbelievably, India is still without a National War Memorial!

Gurmeet Kanwal is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.    

Gurmeet Kanwal