HTLS 2020: Challenges and opportunities of new era in national security
National security as related to the flag, state sovereignty and territorial integrity has a theological sanctity accorded to it in India and both the political leadership and an earnest citizenry swear by their commitment to this sacred calling. However, the sustained policy attention and material support to this domain is inversely proportional to the sanctity index.
In the run-up to the HT Leadership Summit this year, premised on the apt theme of defining a new era, the realm of national security merits attention. An objective assessment of the challenges to India’s national security in the current period would point to the inclusive nature of the concept of national security and how this has affected both the state and the citizen – from China to the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).
While the military stand-off with China across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is more complex and strategic in terms of its subtext, the pandemic and the fact that India has lost about 130,000 citizens to this virus is indicative of how rapidly security challenges can evolve in the 21st Century and the need to prepare for them in an affordable and effective manner.
The contours of the “new era”, where India will have to prepare for its national security road map, is defined by an assertive China, an ambivalent United States (US) and the pandemic with its attendant consequences and constraints.
The fact that Galwan happened and India lost soldiers along the LAC evokes a sense of déjà vu — Delhi was caught unawares and the adversary had surprised India again. Objectively assessed, this points to organisational inadequacy in the overall defence management of the nation as evidenced from 1962 onwards and one reiterates a plea made in the past – that India must rigorously review past lapses and apply the necessary policy corrections.
The most defining feature of the new era for the Indian security planner is the grim reality that the national prosperity index has shrunk, due to the pandemic (it is estimated that GDP may drop by almost 10%), and hence the outlay for the defence sector for 2021-22 will be accordingly depressed. This tightening of the fiscal belt due to Covid-19 will be over and above the steady reduction in the capital component of the defence budget that has taken a beating progressively in real terms over the last decade and more. The adverse impact of this on the military inventory and the modernisation programmes has been significant.
Within the prevailing fiscal constraints and given that the top political leadership of the country will remain invested in the domestic electoral cycle, the three big issues that warrant unwavering institutional focus to effectively navigate the new era are higher defence management organisational review and redress; improvement in material and human resource capabilities of the armed forces; and astute technology investment.
Disaggregated, this translates into recognising lapses noted in detail in the Kargil review and asking those difficult questions as to why Galwan happened. Can the onus be placed on only security forces or should it go further up the pecking order all the way to the highest political level?
Currently, India is in the midst of a major organisational transmutation with the appointment of a chief of defence staff (CDS) and certain macro policies are being unveiled to enhance jointness and an integrated management of single service assets. It is too early to arrive at any definitive conclusion about outcomes but to note that it does not appear all that smooth - which is to be expected.
The most critical area is the nurturing of human resources and a recent proposal relates to reducing the pension outlay for military personnel by pruning the existing model and linking this to length of tenure to ostensibly reduce the pension bill. Alas, this initiative could have very serious long-term implications for the morale and motivation of the Indian fauj – its most cherished USP. If the young Indian soldier scaled the Himalayan peaks against all odds in the Kargil War and asserted ‘yeh dil mange more’ (give me more of this!), due credit must be given to the service conditions of the Indian soldiers by which they have been empathetically nurtured.
Regrettably in recent decades, there has been a progressive lowering of the profile of the armed forces in the institutional framework of India and a number of policy measures to improve the welfare of the government employee have been denied to the soldier. These relate to pay, pensions and medical benefits and the double whammy for the Indian military is that not only the civilian counterpart but the police and paramilitary have moved up the ladder.
India’s ability to effectively deal with the many challenges to national security in the new era will be predicated, metaphorically on the quality of the gun and the man behind the gun. Both are in distress and it would be imprudent for the policymaker to ignore this reality.
Technology has always been at the heart of enhancing and refining capability and a holistic techno-strategic review specific to India’s national security needs the highest priority. China’s footprint in various hi-tech sectors such as 5G and AI is illustrative. Given the Covid-19 triggered resource constraints, India needs to innovatively harness its talent, both within the country and in the diaspora to create a road map for appropriate niche technology induction.
The new era will emerge with many challenges and opportunities that will impact national security in a continuous manner. An informed and nimble higher defence institutional grid that will focus on man, material and technology in a more creative manner is imperative.
(C Uday Bhaskar is the director of Society for Policy Studies. Views expressed are personal)