Media reports have indicated that the Government of India has undertaken a much-needed move towards ramping up the languorous process of defence acquisition. A defence planning committee, which will include service chiefs and heads of important ministries " chaired by National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval " is set to be created.
Several sub-committees will take up specific issues including defence manufacturing, policy, strategy, defence diplomacy, as well as one intriguingly named "planning and capability development".
Just months earlier, an internal report of the defence ministry, commissioned by Minister of State Subhash Bhamre, pointed out serious procedural lapses in defence procurement including lack of synergy among stakeholders, poor understanding leading to delays averaging 52 months. In the past several decades, various committees have issued reports suggesting reforms. One of the largest such exercises followed the Kargil conflict, when the shock of a near war situation set in motion a process of soul-searching.
The group of ministers on defence preparedness was one such committee, and its recommendations led to the creation of the procurement organisation comprising five main bodies: The Defence Acquisition Council, Defence Procurement Board, Defence Production Board, the Defence Research, and Development Board. Despite this, and another report by the Naresh Chandra Committee, the defence policy, planning and acquisition process continued to languish.
Skeptics will undeniably ask how the creation of yet another committee will sort out the noodle soup that is procurement and planning. The answer to that is simple. First, the chair of the committee, Doval, is a person of formidable capability, who as NSA is one of the few with an overarching knowledge of the direction of the country's national security needs.
The fact that he is a highly trusted aide to the prime minister helps considerably. Heads of ministries or their representatives are less likely to oppose and delay decision making when there oversight at such levels.
Second, the inclusion of all the relevant ministries in the committee will permit 'across the table decision making' up to to a point. However, the necessary aligning and browbeating has to be cleared well in advance. That is why the "planning and capability development" is the most important sub-committee. Its job profile is to do precisely that in terms of ensuring that heads of ministries are on the same page with regard to national security. Those who have sat through meetings on issues pertaining to national security can testify that most ministries are almost entirely in the dark on what actions are required of them to ensure the nation's security objectives. That is not their failure: It is a failure of strategic communication. In simple words, ministries cannot work out a schedule unless there is direction from the top.
This leads directly to the third issue: The formulation of a National Security Strategy (NSS). Over the past two decades, several attempts have been made to chalk this out. An earlier BJP government undertook such an exercise at a time when Brajesh Mishra was NSA. Yet other such exercises followed under the Congress government. None of these amounted to anything; for a few simple reasons. In all cases, there was usually strong disagreement in discussions on what constituted national security.
Some preferred to keep to a tight definition, including only the core ministries: Defence, finance, home and foreign affairs. Others argued that the concept of national security had expanded, and should include issues such as water and environmental security. The NSS wound up being a 100 page document, and couched " in some cases " in extremely vague language. Line ministries need clear direction, not flowery English or polished phraseology.
Fourth, it appears that the HQ Integrated Defence Staff is to be the secretariat of the whole committee. The HQ IDS was originally envisioned to be the node for inter-services perspective planning, ensuring intra and inter-services prioritisation. The ugly truth, however, is that the HQ IDS has never been allowed to fulfill its mandate since it remains subordinate (and highly sensitive) to the Chiefs of Staff Committee and the service chiefs themselves. Hopefully, making the institution the secretariat of this very important committee will provide the forces the motivation to flesh out the inter-services character that is fundamental to the IDS.
Lastly, while the setting up of the committee is a welcome development, this cannot be a substitute for a virtual top down restructuring of the institutions and ministries involved in defence and security planning. Earlier announcements regarding the setting up of theatre commands will hopefully see fruition, given that this as well as the linked issue of an appointment of a chief of defence staff have been under discussion for decades.
In addition, the services need to do what would seem an entirely obvious exercise. That is, sit together to decide what kind of a war is likely to be fought in the next two decades, without referencing past glories of air battles and the like. War fighting has changed fundamentally, particularly after the acquisition of a robust nuclear capability. The committee is reportedly planning to outline a military doctrine as well. To prevent this exercise from becoming another inter-services battle for priority, it would be useful if the whole was curated by non-service people with strong expertise in the area.
An entirely independent panel could be asked to weigh in on this subject, which, after all, lies at the core of this country's sovereignty and territorial integrity. War has a nasty habit of springing surprises. It's as well to spread the net of analysis.