Geo-politics, strategic and technological developments keep adding uncertainties and new dimensions to national security. A year ago, who could have imagined that the United States would become so unpredictable. Or that China would emerge as the new economic hegemon. Or that lone wolf attacks would become the new normal of security threats.
The nature of conflicts and the objectives of war are also changing. We have new combat theatres, such as cyber and space. While nuclear and high-level conventional wars cannot be entirely ruled out, recent trends show greater likelihood of sub-conventional, hybrid and limited wars. The number of such conflicts has increased substantially in the last few years.
India has a difficult neighbourhood and a full spectrum of security challenges. We have over 4,900 km (4056+740+110) long unresolved borders with two major neighbours. Both are nuclear armed. Over the years, they have established a strong strategic nexus/alliance against India.
On May 14, China’s leader Xi Jinping, in the presence of 29 foreign leaders in Beijing, unveiled the One Belt One Road (OBOR) project. Audaciously ambitious, OBOR envisages the economic as well as military supremacy of China. It will reshape the world order, and place China firmly at its summit.
In the last few years, China has extended its claim to the whole of Arunachal Pradesh. Already occupying Aksai Chin and Shaksgam part of Gilgit-Baltistan, it has shown no desire to resolve the boundary dispute, or even to delineate the line of actual control. Its geo-strategic pincer around India has come closer and stronger. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), if and when it succeeds, will be a regional game-changer. It would affect our relationship not only with Pakistan, but also with Central Asia, and even Afghanistan, which has remained neutral on this specific issue so far.
As for Pakistan, the legacy of Partition continues to fuel its unremitting animosity towards India. Kashmir and terrorism are only an expression. An increasingly dysfunctional state like Pakistan, run by generals and increasingly wracked by religious extremism, will not make peace with India. No amount of dialogue is going to change this reality in the foreseeable future.
In dealing with Pakistan, we now have to consider China, the US, and even Russia. China has been equipping Pakistan with strategic and conventional military capabilities. With CPEC, it is only a matter of time before we see more Chinese boots in Pakistan to protect their assets and personnel. The US will continue to provide support to Pakistan, so long as it remains entangled in Afghanistan. The developing Russia-Pakistan military bonhomie indicates that India can no longer take Russia for granted.
It is not Pakistan alone. There will be challenges from neighbouring countries where China offers a counterweight. Virtually all our neighbours support China’s OBOR project, and its entry into SAARC. We can expect a greater presence of Chinese Navy in the Indian Ocean.
In terms of insurgent and terrorist violence and casualties, let there be no doubt that Pakistan’s long-term intent on promoting terrorism in India remains unchanged. With greater alienation of the Kashmiri awam, one can expect more sophisticated support to Kashmiri terrorists from Pakistan.
On the internal security front, much more worrisome today are the new, emerging vulnerabilities. Growing unemployment, the increasing ethnic, caste, communal divides, the worsening Centre-state relations, and the constant nit-picking and politicisation of every socio-economic issue have ignited more fires lately and caused serious and more frequent law and order situations.
Partisan politics over national security issues — with media exploiting it for TRPs with the multiplier effect of social media — is getting the armed forces into political cross-fire. There is no hesitation about insulting apolitical institutions and their leadership. This is not only harming the long-cherished values of the armed forces but also increasing the distance between our civil society and security forces. These situations persist primarily due to polarising and violent identity politics, contempt for law and order and constitutional norms. They make the country ripe for new or resurgent violent movements. Unless checked, such fissiparous challenges will threaten India’s national security seriously.
In recent years, cyber and space domains have added yet another complexity. The entire command and control mechanism of the government is dependent on space satellites and IT facilities. Therefore, any military cyber war infrastructure will have to work in close coordination with the National Information Board.
For me, the three most important non-traditional security challenges facing India are: One, the lack of strategic and security awareness of our ruling elite; two, partisan politics over national security issues which includes drawing the armed forces into political cross-fire; and three, India’s defence management.
Twenty years ago, George Tanham stirred a hornet’s nest among India’s ruling elite when he wrote that India lacks a strategic culture. Till date, none of us has been able to prove him wrong. In fact, our ruling elite — the politicians, bureaucrats, industrialists, even our military — continue to perpetuate that conclusion.
Our governments do not show any strategic interest, vision, or security policies. Our political leaders take little interest in long-term strategic and security issues other than rhetorical and emotional sound-bites. The focus of most of our political leaders is on the next election, the next budget, and vote-banks. At the strategic level, one requires a long memory and longer foresight and vision. When memory and experience are missing, floundering knee-jerk reactions and ad-hoc decision-making will follow.
Yet another challenge is our defence management. The requirement to re-organise the Ministry of Defence, its business rules and appointment of a CDS has been talked of ever since the Kargil war. This has been recommended by the Kargil Review Committee in 1999, the Group of Ministers in 2002, and the Naresh Chandra Committee in 2012.
It is essential to develop, prioritise and optimally employ inter-services capabilities and promote jointness in the armed forces. But vested interests and government unwillingness have successfully dodged this important national security challenge.
No country can stake claim to the status of a major power unless it can design and produce a major proportion of the hardware required by its armed forces. We now have an elaborate Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP-2016), with the newly approved strategic partnership model which will enable private players to make big tickets defence systems. However, our defence industrial base, I believe, will take 15-20 years to make up the armed forces’ deficiencies with a reasonable level of modernisation. Looking at the deteriorating regional security environment, this delay would be unacceptable.
For the foreseeable future, I do not expect all-out conventional wars against China and/or Pakistan. But the chances of asymmetric, hybrid and limited border wars with both nations have definitely increased. Conflicts and wars, when they do occur, can no longer be taken to the logical conclusion of military victories, or change of national boundaries. Armed conflicts would be conducted with the objective of achieving political successes rather than “military victories”. And thanks to information technology, security and battle space continues to enlarge. Therefore, we require frequent updating of weapons, equipment, revision of security concepts and doctrines, greater level of jointmanship and synergy, and much faster decision-making.
In conclusion, India’s security challenges are less traditional war threats, more diffused and ambiguous. What is worrisome currently is not just the external threats, but India’s weakening from inside: Weakening institutions, poor governance, sharpening political, social and ethnic divides, internal security, and our lack of strategic vision and thinking. You need more aware and saner political leadership to handle both the external and internal factors, with soft as well as hard power, and with as much consensus as possible.
Countering national security challenges and decision-making can no longer be dealt with in silos. These challenges require multi-disciplinary vertical and lateral consultations, and much faster decision-making.