When India’s military czar laid out top national security challenges
India’s senior-most military commander has identified building capability to defend against cyber threats, jointness among the three services to extract the full potential of India’s combat power, integration of civil and military technological efforts and building a symbiotic relationship between internal and external security as some of the key focus areas to take on emerging security challenges that could threaten national interests.
In a recent talk on preparing the armed forces for current and future challenges, chief of defence staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat stressed that India cannot fight its next war premised on the experiences and structures of wars it fought in the past, and it was critical to balance today’s requirements with what the country needs to do differently to face future challenges.
From proxy war to non-contact, conventional and collusive wars under a nuclear overhang, the country faces multiple threats across the full spectrum of conflict, the CDS said in a detailed talk at the event organised by Vivekananda International Foundation on April 7. He said the changed global environment demanded a change in India’s outlook and policies.
While the CDS and Indian military chiefs have often intervened in the public sphere, what stood out in Rawat’s remarks was the candour with which he spoke.
“Traditional strategies, which used to account for India’s national security paradigm such as inter-state and intra-state conflict, no longer adequately capture the complex security linkages existing across seemingly disparate issues,” Rawat said.
Appointed as India’s first CDS on January 1, 2020, Rawat wears three hats — he is the permanent chairman of chiefs of staff committee (COSC), heads the department of military affairs (DMA), and is the single-point military adviser to the defence minister.
Preparing for cyber threats
The CDS said China was way ahead of India in technology, and it was capable of launching cyber attacks and disrupting a large number of Indian systems. Rawat said the biggest gap between the two countries was in the cyber domain and India was looking at collaborating with western nations to overcome deficiencies in the critical area.
He said cyber agencies in the military were working to ensure that “the downtime and the effect of a cyber attack” did not last long. “We should be able to overcome cyber attacks and continue with our systems either through an alternative or preventive means through firewalls,” he said.
Experts said the cyber threat that India faces from China is not exaggerated and demands urgent attention.
Chinese cyber capabilities are well known and the recent intrusions in the power sector by Chinese hackers are a pointer to how India’s critical infrastructure is under threat, said former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd).
A few weeks ago, Recorded Future, a US-based security consultancy, reported that Chinese groups had intruded into the networks of at least a dozen Indian state-run organisations since mid-2020 in an attempt to insert malware that could cause widespread disruptions. To be sure, India denied any data breach in the attempts made by Chinese hackers to target the country’s power grid.
“Our normal response has been to downplay this (cyber) threat and I am glad the CDS has given a realistic picture. This should trigger the crafting of a comprehensive strategy to deal with this danger,” Hooda said. He added that technology support from western nations is welcome to overcome deficiencies in the short term, but ultimately there is no option but to develop indigenous IT systems for use in the critical infrastructure. “Reliance on foreign hardware and software is a serious vulnerability. Indigenisation must be given the highest priority,” Hooda pointed out.
The CDS described the cyber threat as alongside biological risks and economic disruptions as major challenges.
“Recent events show that many of the biggest threats we face today respect no borders and must be met with collective action, e.g. the Covid-19 pandemic, biological risks, escalating climate crisis, cyber and digital threats, international economic disruptions, protracted humanitarian crises, violent extremism and terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” Rawat said.
Cyber has, perhaps, come to acquire a pivotal position in any nation’s security architecture, said Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd), additional director general, Centre for Air Power Studies.
“While preparing to acquire offensive capability, it is critical that one’s own systems are protected. While we may be lagging behind China, our nation does not lack cerebral capital to catch up. All efforts must be made to tap the nation’s inherent cyber know-how to protect our vital infrastructure from cyber intrusions,” Bahadur said.
Jointness and challenges
Jointness, integration and modernisation in line with the changing security environment as well as utmost optimisation of resources is critical, the CDS said. The government expects Rawat to bring about jointness among the three services in a three-year time frame (by January 2023). One of the means to achieve jointness is the setting up of integrated theatre commands for the best use of military resources to fight future battles.
“The current CDS system in India is evolutionary and will progressively adopt more means of integration and joint functioning for an integrated system to emerge finally,” Rawat said.
Nobody expects the road to theaterisation to be smooth and the ongoing efforts to bring about jointness among the three services are expected to face resistance. Rawat said India as a nation believed in status quo and there was always a hesitation to change.
“There is a feeling amongst the three services that army being a very large service — compared to navy and Indian Air Force — will possibly usurp the two entities and everything will become army-centric. I think this is a misnomer because the army, navy and IAF have their own specialties. They will retain their autonomy and integration will only ensure that we have systems that at least operate together,” Rawat said.
India is set to begin a formal roll-out of its long-awaited theaterisation plan to best utilise its military’s resources amid growing security threats, with the Air Defence Command and the Maritime Theatre Command set to be launched by May. India will also have three other integrated commands to secure its western, northern and eastern fronts — these are likely to be rolled out by December 2022.
In addition, a logistics command is in the works to avoid duplication of efforts and resources. The CDS’s mandate includes bringing about jointness in operations, logistics, transport, training, support services and repairs and maintenance of the three services.
Theaterisation is imperative to meet and mitigate future security challenges which as the CDS defined are multi domain and multidimensional, said Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia (retd), a former director general of military operations. The operational control of all the theatre commands will eventually come under the CDS, with the service chiefs being responsible for raising, training and sustaining their forces.
“The CDS has defined an effective way forward, including transition management, wherein till theaterisation is achieved the responsibility of operational readiness will be with the service chiefs and that of defence preparedness with the CDS and COSC. But once theaterisation is achieved, there needs to be a role reversal with the CDS being responsible for operational preparedness and service chiefs for defence preparedness,” Bhatia said.
He said apprehensions about theaterisation among the services were natural as there will always be a resistance to change. “The challenge will be to manage the mindsets and the transition. This can best be achieved by a transparent road map taking all stake holders on board,” Bhatia said.
Greater emphasis would now be on advancing jointness and integration across the board so as to develop trust among the rank and file and shape the congruent perception to operate efficiently and effectively, the CDS said.
Integrating civil and military efforts
The CDS highlighted the need to integrate civil and military technological efforts for achieving self-reliance and strengthening the country’s security.
He said cooperation between government and commercial facilities in research and development (R&D), manufacturing, maintenance operations, combined production of similar components and sub components on same production lines would optimise commercial and defence industrial base to maximise resource utilisation and reduce manufacturing and life cycle costs for military equipment. Rawat said synergising military and civil efforts was crucial in the backdrop of shrinking budgets.
“The contracting envelope of the defence budget makes it imperative to create dual use infrastructure through civil military fusion. We must examine the feasibility of integrating civil-military airports to strengthen aviation safety, airspace management and combat support capabilities. Satellites for remote sensing and reconnaissance, communications, positioning and navigation must also meet requirements of the armed forces with desired in-built encryptions,” the CDS said.
He said railway wagons and civil truck trailers must be manufactured for dual use — capable of transporting heavy military equipment including armoured fighting vehicles. The CDS added that construction of communication towers and electricity infrastructure along with rail, roads, bridges and tunnels in border states must be of specifications that facilitate utilisation by the military as well.
“Civil-military integration in infrastructure development holds the key to Whole-of-Nation approach towards national security,” Rawat said.
Experts said synergising military and civil efforts was vital for national security.
India is already lagging behind in civil-military fusion which other countries, especially China, have already embarked on.
“The strengths of civil R&D institutions, manufacturing infrastructure and knowledge bank need to be dovetailed with defence capability needs so as to leapfrog with respect to time and technology standards. To achieve this, a top-down approach would be required through formulation of national level directives and policies,” Manmohan Bahadur said.
Internal and external security
Rawat said in today’s complex world, security has a much broader construct that cover geopolitical interests, internal stability and economic and social security.
“It envisages a symbiotic relationship between internal and external security, reinforcing the premise that a country’s external security posture is organically linked to its internal strength,” the CDS said.
He said while external challenges could be met by effective diplomacy and adequate defence capability, internal stability required strong political institutions, economic growth, social harmony, efficient law and order machinery, expeditious judicial relief and good governance.
“National security stands redefined, deepening from state to individual security and broadening from military threats to issues like economy, environment etc. The coronavirus pandemic has brought to fore the importance of public health in the national security equation,” the CDS said.
“In an environment of ambiguity, uncertainty and frequent opacity, the political leadership needs to be provided with comprehensive, complete and evaluated options on matters of national security in the form of a ‘single point advice’, requiring multiple inputs from political, military, diplomatic and intelligence agencies,” Rawat added.
The CDS has made a comprehensive pointer at imperatives to deal with threats in the internal and external dimensions, said former army vice chief Lieutenant General AS Lamba (retd).
“Recent adaptations of threats such as terrorism, increasing cyber-attacks backed by adversary-led networks, support to insurgency movements, immigration flows etc can be best addressed by the contours of direction by the CDS,” Lamba pointed out.