Elections 2019—strong political will has eventually triumphed. India has demonstrated unequivocal preference for decisive military action and effective diplomacy. In giving Prime Minister Modi a second resounding win, India has entrusted him to lead the nation to fulfill Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s idea of India: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high.”
As the sixth largest economy in the world, aspiring to become the third largest by 2030, i.e., a $5-trillion economy by 2025 and $10-trillion by 2032, India must overcome multiple security challenges, both in the military and non-military domains. For a country that is home to one-sixth of the world’s population to grow and its people to prosper, India must be strong and secure.
The global security environment is changing fast. There is triangular polarisation taking shape, with China on the one hand and the US on the other, and Russia emerging as the third pole. This new polarisation is less ideological and more political and economic. National sovereignty and security are supplanting erstwhile international commitments and alliances. With its new NARA—national ambitions and regional aspirations—there are greater international expectations from India. Non-alignment cannot be a cover for indecision.
While China’s Belt and Road Initiative is marvellous in its scale and sophistication, it has serious technological, economic and strategic implications for India and the rest of the world. In the larger Sino-US power rivalry, India is becoming strategically more important to the US for its potential to influence the Indian Ocean region, maintain a landward threat, and hold levers for internal dissension in China. India must have the capability to balance power for pursuing its own interests.
BSF troopers on night patrol in Akhnoor sector .
At a bilateral level, there are issues of potential competition and confrontation with China due to unresolved borders, military aid to Pakistan, stand on terrorists, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), upper riparian control of Brahmaputra waters and trade imbalance. Competition for strategic influence and economics between India and China is most evident in Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the Maldives. And yet, there is scope for cooperation on global issues as well as issues of mutual benefit and concern.
In its dealings with Pakistan, India must enhance its deterrence potential. Pakistan’s brazen use of terrorists as strategic weapons against India, nuclear sabre rattling and progressive enmeshing of China into the Jammu and Kashmir issue—earlier with Shaksgam, and now much more with CPEC running through Gilgit-Baltistan—keeps the tension and hostility simmering. CPEC, in any case, is making Pakistan effectively a vassal state of China. The strong grip of the Pakistani army on the country and increasing radicalisation worsens the dynamics. India must be prepared for much worse with Pakistan, even as we stay open for dialogue.
India’s relations with its other neighbours must be realigned to NARA. To the west, of immense significance in the immediate future, are India’s ties with Afghanistan and Iran. The emerging linkages between China, Pakistan, Russia and Taliban in Afghanistan are of great strategic concern for India. To the east, China’s September 2018 MoU with Myanmar to develop the multi-modal CMEC (China-Myanmar Economic Corridor) has the potential to significantly enhance China’s influence. India must ‘Act East’ much faster to be able to pursue its interest and secure the Northeast. Going farther, ASEAN forms the keystone of India’s Act East policy and Indo-Pacific vision. Prime Minister Modi’s keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue last year placed the ASEAN region as central to the wider Indo-Pacific. This helps India and ASEAN to have multiple options for engagement and opens new possibilities for cooperation. It is imperative for India to step up its Act East policy and tie it into the Indo-Pacific and operationalise it.
Seventy years of experience tells us that internal security is more sapping than external threats. The history of insurgencies in India, whether in the Northeast, Punjab or Jammu and Kashmir, clearly establishes how internal dissensions have been exploited by both China and Pakistan for waging proxy wars. While most of the insurgencies have been resolved or contained, J&K and Nagaland continue to elude political resolution despite the military situation being stabilised many times over. The Maoist extremism across several states is somewhat spatially contained now, but needs a resolution at the earliest. Islamic State (IS) has surfaced both in the north and south—this would require a much higher order of synergy and sophistication among the agencies managing the threat.
In recent times, India has demonstrated greater assertiveness on security issues. In the 2017 face-off with the PLA in Doklam, India showed firmness. Post-Uri 2016 and Pulwama 2019, India has taken decisive military action against terrorists in Pakistan and PoK. More recently it has displayed potential for space warfare. India has come of age and entered the big league. It needs to further strengthen its security policy, structures and war fighting capabilities to be ambitious, bold, responsible and unambiguous about its intent.
To be a power in pursuit of peace, India’s armed forces need to be much more sophisticated, equipped with better technology and indigenous capability. According to SIPRI 2019, India has moved up one step to become the fourth largest defence spender and the second largest importer. The nearly 70 per cent dependence on imports for military capability, has severe detrimental effects. Despite several forward-looking policy changes since 2014, the defence procurement process continues to be mired in controversy. Adding to the woes is a tardy defence public sector. There is little, if any, utilisation of the scientific and economic potential of the country. This situation is strategically and economically unacceptable and must change.
Faced with a two-front threat, or 21/2-front threat as some describe, deft management of war-waging resources, synergising civil-military capability and integrating the three services are must-dos for India. This will require concrete time-bound measures. First, at the highest level, the apex national security structure that has shaped well in the past five years must be firmed in. Second, the chief of defence staff should be appointed at the earliest with operational control and accountability. Third, the inter-ministerial defence planning committee, headed by the NSA, should approve priorities for making up deficiencies of the armed forces and modernisation plans with assured budgetary support. Fourth, the MoD must overhaul the ordnance factories, defence public sector units and DRDO by focusing on a well-defined but limited inventory of core items. All other items should be declared non-core and opened for research, development, production and sustenance by the private sector.
Fifth, current single service regional operational commands must be integrated in accordance with India’s operational needs. Sixth, overhaul the armed forces’ logistics setup, combining capability of civil and military logistics, and integrating the logistics of the three services. Seventh, skill sets of the forces as well as the public sector assets supporting them need to be upgraded to exploit the new generation of military systems driven by AI and robotics. Eighth, defence procurement procedures need to be simplified, in conformance with the type of equipment—it doesn’t make sense to have the same procurement procedure for fighter aircraft and assault rifles. Ninth, the MoD must be truly integrated with staff at all levels, drawn from the armed forces, IAS, IFS, scientists, engineers and accountants. The strong political mandate and ‘pro-incumbency’ that the nation has demonstrated allows opportunity for these much-needed reforms.
(The author is a former deputy chief of army staff and Kashmir Corps Commander, and currently member of National Security Advisory Board. Views expressed are personal.)