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Do big guns mean better security?

Do big guns mean better security?
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First Published: Thu, Jan 14 2010. 01 15 AM IST

Vision required: The mere allocation of money for equipment (cannons, left Krishmendu Halder / Reuters}, and border fences, right {Munish Sharma / Reuters}) is no guarantee of increased safety.
Vision required: The mere allocation of money for equipment (cannons, left Krishmendu Halder / Reuters}, and border fences, right {Munish Sharma / Reuters}) is no guarantee of increased safety.
Updated: Wed, Jun 02 2010. 11 08 AM IST
Of the many supposed lessons of the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai, few have thus far yielded real changes: The outraged middle classes did not come out to vote, no civic sense or community arose phoenix-like in our cities. But the attacks did create one soft consensus: that India needs to spend more, much more, to assure the country’s security.
Vision required: The mere allocation of money for equipment (cannons, left Krishmendu Halder / Reuters}, and border fences, right {Munish Sharma / Reuters}) is no guarantee of increased safety.
More Black Cat units. More speedboats. More and better guns for the police. More fighter planes and faster fibre-optic networks. Several months after the attacks, the government increased the non-nuclear defence expenditure by more than a quarter. One of the highest one-time increases in our history, it pushes the military budget to approaching $30 billion (Rs1.3 trillion). Today, defence spending consumes around 2.35% of GDP—though small in comparison to, say, the US (4.7%), it is in fact larger than it looks, given the idiosyncratic way the Indian military budget is defined. The major part of that increase is for buying new arms and equipment.
Our most distinguished political figures of the 20th century, whose intellectual energies were applied to thinking about how to minimize the role of force, might have been dismayed by this military expansion. The goal, back then, was to keep India away from military conflicts and wars, which were viewed as a product of the Western will to world domination. But our world is different from the one in which they lived. And as nice as it would be to transfer our entire defence budget to efforts at improving education, as little Costa Rica did after World War II, the fact is that India lives in a particularly turbulent part of the world—a place in which force is a necessary precondition for survival.
Even as I foresee the role of force increasing in our collective lives as a nation, I remain troubled by the general consensus that we can simply spend our way to safety. As it happens, this concern is occasionally shared by our own defence minister, A.K. Antony. “Allocation of money has never been a problem,” he said at a conference last year. “The issue has rather been the timely and judicious utilization of the money allocated.” But the question of whether, in fact, we are making judicious use of our monies is only part of my worry. I wonder as well whether we’ve thought hard enough about the role of force itself: what it can and cannot do, in a world of new and various threats.
In what is effectively a globalization of our military force, Indian arms increasingly are being sourced from a range of international suppliers. The numbers are large: India plans to spend some $100 billion over the next decade on defence purchases, and US and European aircraft manufacturers are anticipating an Indian order worth over $10 billion for jet fighters alone. At a time when the US administration, as well as European governments, are contemplating their own defence cuts, it’s hardly surprising that the world’s military suppliers have fastened their sights on India. But those suppliers are selling a strong bias: that India should think of security in technical terms—as a question of improved weaponry and equipment.
Hemmed in: India’s fear of conflict now stems from newer sources, such as neighbours China (Tiananmen Square, top left – Munish Sharma / Reuters) and Pakistan (top right – Ushman Khan / AFP) but its tendency to concentrate debate on weaponry (Lockheed Martin’s F-16 jet, above right – Hemant Mishra / Mint) has seen it acquiring instruments of force in advance of a strategy for optimizing use of them. The example of Costa Rica (above left - Dinodia), which focused spending on education after World War II, is more difficult to achieve in today’s geopolitical landscape.
When Lockheed Martin rents half a wing of Delhi’s Taj Palace Hotel and sets up shop, when retired military men from abroad troop through the capital city lobbying for the international firms who pay them, what I see is our own version of a “military-industrial complex” emerging—the very thing that US president Eisenhower, a former general himself, warned his own countrymen against when leaving office in 1961. We have known the enormous political weight of this interest group in the US. But in the US, over the years since Eisenhower issued his warning, systematic checks on military power have emerged, in the form of a range of independent watchdogs such as the non-profit National Security Archives and aggressive investigative reporters, who work hard to invigilate military-industrial interests and to scrutinize government purchases.
We Indians lack such critical eyes. While from time to time brave journalists have exposed corruption in government deals for artillery or phantom night-vision goggles, we are short on the independent agencies and institutions that regularly monitor and hold to account private suppliers and government purchasers. And this lack matters not just because of the public money involved, but because our national security is at stake. Are we equipping ourselves for wars we shall never fight, and failing to equip ourselves for the wars in which we are already embroiled? It’s extremely difficult for me, and I suspect for most citizens, to judge.
Personally, I don’t pretend to have a view about whether the F-16 banks and flips more sweetly than the Dassault Rafale, nor do I know whose 155mm howitzer gives a more satisfying thump. What I have are questions that I’d like some help in thinking through.
Take, for instance, our spending over $2billion on a second-hand Russian aircraft carrier. A carrier is a status symbol, quite possibly a necessary one—and it might indeed be justifiable in practical terms. But one also has to set such an investment in the context of actual threats identified by our own officials: threats such as the growth of China as a naval power, manifest in its build-up of a substantial submarine fleet; and seaborne terrorism and piracy. How does an aircraft carrier (which, I imagine, would line up rather nicely in the periscope of a Chinese stealth submarine, and which would be as useful for chasing down a pirate boat as a Ferrari would be for pursuing a bullock cart) address such threats? In the months leading up to 26/11, the government was buying IL-78 airborne tankers and C-130 transport planes. Again, it’s quite possible that these were right and timely investments. But when so few of us ask the government to justify such decisions, we create a climate in which defence decisions are less likely to be right or timely than they might otherwise be.
Historically, our tendency to concentrate debate on weaponry itself has meant that we have sometimes acquired instruments of force in advance of a strategy for optimizing these augmentations of our capacities. The classic case of this is nuclear weapons: Our nuclear “doctrine” began to be publicly articulated long after we had tested our capacity to explode such a weapon. This wasn’t just a matter of enwrapping the doctrine in high secrecy. It was a matter of devising the doctrine post hoc.
In general, as we make our technical upgrades, we need to invest in conceptual upgrades too. We need a more complex view of the role and purpose of force as a tool for securing our national aims.
Conflict is now for us a condition, not an event. The idea that the primary purpose of military force is to deliver decisive, knock-out blows—with the resultant photo-op banners announcing “Victory” and tickertape parades—is an illusion. Given the broad and diverse range of threats we face, we need to think in terms of managing conflict, not ending it once and for all.
In our first four decades or so, we were much exercised by the threat that we might be drawn into conflicts whose causes originated elsewhere —superpower rivalry during the Cold War, for instance—and over which we would have no control. Keeping out of such conflicts was essentially what national sovereignty, autonomy of judgement and action, meant: being able to choose our battles. Now, however, we face different kinds of threats—rooted in our region, linked to neighbours such as Pakistan and China, and even emanating from within India itself.
The most basic fact about our greater Asian neighbourhood is that it is inhabited by a number of rising, aspiring powers; and at the same time it lacks any agreed structures or shared norms that might harmonize such jostling aspirations. It is states in India’s broad region, stretching from Iran to North Korea, that are most likely to acquire nuclear weapons in the near future. And it is non-state actors in India’s immediate environment— “AfPak”—that will pose lethal and fugitive challenges to us.
In fact, the sorts of military conflicts we potentially face stretch from classical battles (gaining and defending the commanding heights: the battle for Tiger Hill) to, unimaginable as it is, nuclear blasts. Those conflicts encompass along the way situations where the battlefield has “dematerialized” and the enemies are formless— rubber dinghies drifting in the night; bomb-laden people who slip into railway carriages or park scooters in crowded markets.
This awkward conjoining of different types of threat, in some ways quite unique in historical terms, is epitomized at our doorstep in the shape of Pakistan: a state whose destructive weaponry encompasses the entire range of human ingenuity. A country awash in conventional as well as nuclear weapons, Pakistan is also host to thousands of men armed in the most basic of ways, prepared to wreak maximum damage and at best weakly under the control of their state.
We also have, beyond our northern border, a neighbour that has grown faster in economic size than any other society ever in history, possesses one of the largest military forces in the world, and is still trying to make sense of what it has achieved and what it wishes to do in the world. Its intentions and ambitions remain obscure —perhaps even to itself.
Finally, within our own country, the expansion of “disturbed areas” and the ready deployment of growing paramilitary forces continues apace: We are a state at war with our own people. This increased use of force domestically equally demands vigilance and debate. When used at home, force must work with and be subordinate to—rather than seek to negate—law. If the domestic deployment of force is not strictly governed by the rule of law, and if there is not visible redress when the rule of law is violated in the name of public security, we may achieve tactical gains—but our more serious strategic ends will be subverted. It’s a basic point: If the end one wants to bring about is to establish the rule of law, it cannot be achieved by means that ignore law.
It is likely that states will need to use force more, not less, in coming years—not in pursuit of conclusive, decisive outcomes (“decapitating” the enemy, as the gentle phrase goes); not as an act of “last resort”; but as a way of managing long-term confrontations and conflicts. It follows that questions about the proper use of military force will loom large. We will need greater public engagement with questions about the purpose and means of force, not because I imagine that public debate should determine the choices our professionals make— successful military decision making requires leadership, not committees. But a more informed public engagement will mean that the experts and professionals, and politicians, will have to justify and account for their decisions—never, I should think, a bad thing.
Sunil Khilnani is the author of The Idea of India and is currently working on a new book, The Great Power Game: India in the New World. Write to him at publiceye@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Jan 14 2010. 01 15 AM IST