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Why India needs a revamp of its security policy

By Colonel (retd) Anil Athale
November 04, 2014 15:13 IST
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It is time the new government, unencumbered by the burden of the past, initiates a wide ranging review and open debate on security issues to rectify our short-term and long-term shortcomings. It has taken some wise steps but has to go beyond this to identify the structural weakness and create systems, says Colonel (retd) Anil Athale.

Security for a nation or an individual is a primordial need. To achieve any objective like economic prosperity or a rightful place in the comity of nations and maintaining independence of decision-making, national security is a precondition. The volatile regional and world environment makes it an even greater priority.

The new national security advisor has recently spelt out that while India is peace-loving, it will however maintain an ‘adequate’ deterrence against likely threats. The departure from the hackneyed concept of ‘minimum deterrence’ is a welcome development. The new government seems determined to make up the depleted inventory of the armed forces and has also moved ahead to boost local production of defence wherewithal.

However, India faces several organisational and innate ideological challenges before we can fashion appropriate security apparatus/policies. Unless these are addressed, our approach to issues of national security will remain ad hoc and unlikely to achieve the desired results. This in turn has the potential to upset all our economic calculations of ushering in prosperity for our 1.25 billion fellow citizens.

In July 1993, a fellow military historian, the late George K Tanham of Rand Corp, a US Air Force think tank, shared his draft with this author. The essay was subsequently published as a Rand study titled “Indian Strategic Thought: An Interpretive Essay’. Tanham observes that despite a long surviving civilisation and culture, the Indian elite has dim awareness of national security strategy and even less interest in working out a coherent policy framework.

He, however, felt that this was now changing (in 1993). Without putting a premium on this external source, Indians honestly need to accept that very little has changed and we seem to carry on as if the world has stood still and frozen in 1947 and India in ‘third world-ism’.

The first and foremost fact is that India is an ancient ‘nation’ (there is a consciousness among the people of the sub-continent of being Indians) with a shared history, roots, language, culture, worldview created by geography of semi-isolation from the rest of the Asian landmass. But in the 18th and 19th century, when nation-states were getting consolidated, India was a British colony and missed the bus.

So effectively, this ancient nation has only become a ‘state’ since 1947. The security structures, deeper understanding of geo-politics and security doctrine are still being evolved. Many of the ideas and institutions have been borrowed from the British, but are found to be inadequate since during that period under the British, Indians were not involved and much of the decisions were made in London.

The Indian elite, with a heavy dose of pacifism, has only a dim understanding of ‘that dark thing called power’ (Philosopher K C Bhattacahrya in Swaraj in Ideas). As if this was not enough, the British, before they transferred power to the ‘natives’, broke up the geo-political unity of the sub-continent by creating an imperial outpost in the shape of Pakistan -- aided and abetted by our own myopic leadership.

For several years after India’s Pokhran I test of 1974, India’s nuclear strategy remained a political strategy with a global aim of opposing the ‘nuclear apartheid’ of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. This changed when under the Ronald Reagan administration (the US and its then ally China) brought about/facilitated Pakistani nuclear capability to ‘balance’ the then Soviet ally, India.

The US and China have thus done permanent damage to the sub-continent by creating a regional nuclear flashpoint. Unlike India, Pakistan is not a ‘natural’ state (less than 60 years old) and is also not a status quo power. It is at the same time a revisionist state that wants a part of India (J&K) and wants to forever redress the adverse balance of power in the sub-continent.

Many in India, including this author, misread the purpose of the 1998 nuclear tests by Pakistan. Indians extrapolated our own thinking on Pakistan and felt that now that it has nuclear weapons, it would feel ‘secure’ and begin to behave like a ‘normal’ state and settle for mutual deterrence followed by detente like the ‘Cold War’ interaction between USA and the erstwhile USSR.

In Pakistani interpretation, the nuclear weapons gave it an ‘umbrella’ under which it can carry on its earlier activities of detaching Kashmir from India and also proxy terrorism to stall India’s economic rise -- Kargil 1999 and the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008 were prime examples of this. India’s various responses from negotiations, some retaliation, economic carrots, diplomacy and Confidence Building Measures have had little or no effect.

The reason for this is that while in the 1980s, India’s nuclear strategy acquired a clear security linkage, yet the political and military elite continued with the earlier thinking and promoted concepts like ‘nuclear ambiguity’ and ‘recessed deterrence’, to name a few. In the context of nuclear weapons, the first is positively dangerous as ‘ambiguity’ can lead to miscalculation and detracts from the concept of ‘deterrence’ that is central to the nuclear zero sum game with armed peace as a saddle point. The less said about ‘recessed or hidden deterrence’ the better.

This situation came about due to the reluctance/disinterest of the armed forces’ top leadership in seriously considering ‘deterrence’ as a central concept as they continued with their ‘business as usual’ approach, preparing and arming to fight the last war. General K Sundarji was possibly the only exception who had the intellectual capacity to understand the changed military context but he did not have a lasting influence and on his retirement the armed forces returned to status quo ante.

In 1998, when India conducted a series of tests, including that of a thermonuclear weapon, it declared a unilateral ‘no first use’ policy. This was a political requirement to calm the fears of the world community and also assure Pakistan of a degree of security as long as it stayed non-nuclear. But given its policy of striving for a strategic balance with India, Pakistan also went ahead and conducted its own tests. Since 1998 both the countries have openly declared their possession of nuclear weapons.

Pakistan did not give a ‘no first use' pledge and in fact announced that given the conventional arms superiority of India it would use nuclear weapons against even a conventional threat to its territory. China on the other hand continued with its ‘no first nuclear use’ policy vis a vis India, but instead built up its conventional strength on the Sino-Indian border.

Given the close strategic co-ordination between China and Pakistan vis a vis India, it seems that the combine is playing a good cop bad cop game with India. With China acting as a good cop and is non-threatening, Pakistan acts aggressive. In short, China is getting Pakistan to do its dirty work. Indian reaction to this strategy by trying to ‘reason’ with the bad cop has failed as seen by the Pakistani misadventure in Kargil in May 1999. That this happened despite PM A B Vajpayee’s effort at peace through his Lahore visit is instructive.

The Pakistani argument that its option of first use of nuclear weapons is dictated by its weakness in conventional strength is patently false. While it is true that India does have an edge in conventional military forces, it is far from attaining any kind of ‘superiority’ over Pakistan.

Many Indians point out to the proactive Israeli strategy against terror attacks but fail to appreciate that India does not enjoy that kind of superiority over Pakistan. It is axiomatic that in the modern era, defence is inherently superior to offence and this goes in favour of Pakistan. Finally, the canal and river system in Punjab make it a nightmare for any major offensive.

Given these factors, India’s long held doctrine of offensive defence against Pakistan stands neutralised. Even against China, India’s defensive defence strategy is being threatened by the Chinese logistical build up in Tibet giving it strategic mobility as well. The terrain already gave it the advantage of tactical mobility, being on the right side of the Himalayan barrier.

In addition to the above stated problems, India tends to treat the conventional, sub-conventional and nuclear threats in isolation. What this divergence between the conventional and nuclear has done is that there is a lack of synergy in defence planning between the various facets of defence forces and linkages of various threats.

Once our security is linked to the nuclear weapons, the linkage though escalation ladder with conventional and sub-conventional conflicts is inevitable. It is lack of this linkage and clear thinking on our part that has hamstrung our security policies. In addition, this also brings in the possibility that we may stumble on the slippery slope of nuclear war by escalation.

India’s bumbling defence policies and ineffective strategies that seem to have been trumped more often than not are in stark contrast to the very effective economic policies that are the envy of the world. The difference is that most economic policies are adopted after a vigorous open debate. There are also several think tanks that deal with economic issues and these are regularly consulted by the government.

On the security front, however, one has hardly seen any informed debate and both the military and civil bureaucracy have shunned any dialogue. Secrecy about plans and some equipment is necessary but most of the broad strategies are based on information available in open sources. Open debates and clear articulation of policies are a necessity in the nuclear age as these enhance deterrence and reduce the chance war by miscalculation. One routinely hears the defence ministry stating that they have a strategy that is ‘not in the public interest to disclose’.

It is time the new government, unencumbered by the burden of the past, initiates a wide ranging review and open debate on security issues to rectify our short-term and long-term shortcomings. It has taken some wise steps by according priority to ‘make in India’ for weapon systems, but has to go beyond this to identify the structural weakness and create systems. But the first and foremost priority is to have a competent and pro-active full time defence minister.

The suicide blast at the Wagah border on the Pakistan side on November 2 that killed over 50 people is a timely reminder of the dangers lurking in our neighbourhood. There is no sign that the jihadi factories have stopped working in that country. Imagine the havoc that would have been caused if the suicide bomber had reached the venue of the flag-lowering parade venue?

Long ago this author had made a plea that the utterly insane show at Wagah should be stopped at least on the Indian side. By matching goose step for goose step with a delusional state like Pakistan, we only lower ourselves to their level. On the other hand, this dangerous mix of jihadi terror, religious fundamentalism, unstable polity and nuclear weapons, needs a global response.

However, as the country most likely to be affected, India has to take the initiative to isolate and contain this menace. A thorough revamp of our security policies cannot wait for a moment.

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Colonel (retd) Anil Athale
 
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