Reforming defence planning in India
The silo-driven, ad hoc approach has meant that issues like threat perception and force structure are not managed via a centralized and authoritative overview
Finally, a significant change seems to be in the offing in India’s defence planning architecture with the Narendra Modi government deciding to establish an overarching defence planning committee (DPC) under the national security adviser. The aim is to leverage this cross-governmental body—comprising the chairman of the chiefs of staff committee, three service chiefs, the defence, expenditure and foreign secretaries—to enhance India’s ability to do some long-term strategizing.
The DPC is being tasked with drafting reports on “national security strategy, international defence engagement strategy, road map to build a defence manufacturing ecosystem, strategy to boost defence exports, and priority capability development plans”. Four subcommittees are to be created under the DPC to focus on policy and strategy, plans and capability development, defence diplomacy, and the defence manufacturing ecosystem.
This decision comes at a time when Indian defence planning stands at a crossroads. The silo-driven approach to defence planning has resulted in the lack of an integrated view. The three services as well as the civilian and defence agencies are often seen to be working at cross purposes. Such an ad hoc approach has meant that more often than not, issues like threat perception and force structure are not managed via a centralized and authoritative overview. Instead, individual services tend to be driving the agenda at their own levels.
This lack of synchronization was underscored recently. On the one hand, the Indian Army chief was talking of a two-front war. On the other, the vice-chief of army staff was testifying before the parliamentary standing committee on defence that the budget allocated to the defence forces was hardly enough to complete the committed payments for the emergency procurements already made, let alone for pursuing an ambitious defence modernization plan.
The headlines on Indian defence policy often tend to be completely divorced from the ground reality. India’s $250-billion military modernization programme is often talked about. But even as New Delhi remains keen on acquiring significant weapons platforms, there have been persistent doubts about its ability to harness these resources in service of a long-term strategy. Indeed, the absence of an Indian “grand strategy” that sets out political objectives for Indian power projection—and then ensures military, economic, intelligence and educational development—coordinated toward these objectives, has been a perennial topic of discussion within Indian strategic circles.
India’s defence reform campaign has existed nearly as long as the current system itself. This drive focuses on extending resource integration and coordination throughout defence policymaking. Moreover, it recommends a state infrastructure able to adequately implement political judgements and to combine state resources to meet these judgements. This is currently missing in India.
Recognizing this link between the grand strategy discourse and India’s defence predicament can help develop a better articulation of political judgement to resources. The evolution of India’s defence structures and processes bears witness to the persistence of personal networks and the preferences of the prime minister of the day being the determinant of policy action. Consequently, there is an accordant policymaking dysfunction that arises when the prime minister is either weak or has more pressing matters on her agenda.
Since the very beginning, the defence reform drive has implicitly targeted the need for a sufficiently integrative and coordinative state structure—required for an operationally effective defence policy. But not much success has been achieved. Reforming this system remains a core requirement for India to adequately manage its scarce resources and align these with political objectives.
Effective defence planning and force structuring is a function of an institutional framework that allows for a clear delineation of political goals, efficient mobilization of resources and effective use of these resources for developing instrumentalities of state power. With the formation of the DPC, New Delhi seems to have finally acknowledged that a new institutional framework is needed. Hopefully, this will provide an overarching vision for Indian’s defence planning.
At a time when advances in technology are revolutionizing warfare, India is still debating the need to move towards leaner force structures. India needs to cut the flab on an urgent basis as over half of the annual defence budget going to meet salary and pension requirements is clearly not sustainable. The priorities of India’s “Make In India” initiative and cumbersome defence procurement process will also have to be brought in sync with each other.
India’s status as the world’s largest arms importer hardly does justice to its ambitions to emerge as a defence manufacturing hub. The debate on integration, both among the services headquarters, and between the services and the ministry of defence, also continues unabated and should be concluded.
The central challenge in defence planning remains the issue of uncertainty. Effective defence planning tends to put a premium on assuring future strategic and operational adaptiveness. In the Indian context, a transformative shift in mindset, structures and processes is needed. Rapidly evolving security environment as well as a near permanent pressure on scarce resources underscores the need for strategic defence planning.
The Modi government has made the first move. Ideally, it should have come in the government’s first year so that it would have had time to streamline the planning process by now. Nonetheless, it has now moved and should take the process of defence reforms to their logical conclusion.
Harsh V. Pant is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and professor of international relations at King’s College London.
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