Former Indian Army chief General MM Naravane on December 29 joined a platoon of defence veterans and experts who called for the Indian government to formulate a national security strategy to provide clarity on the country’s external security threats and how the Centre aims to address them.
Experts say that a doctrine of this sort is essential for a country to provide clearer guidance to its military, step up military reforms and prevent ad hoc decisions by government departments dealing with national security.
In March 2021, the late General Bipin Rawat, who was then the chief of defence staff, had said that defining the national security strategy is a key step in preparing how to deal with external security challenges.
Former army chief General NC Vij has written that India’s defence forces need to be provided better directives. “The only political direction to the Armed Forces in existence is [the] Raksha Mantri’s Operational Directive of 2009,” Vij wrote. “It is now dated and hence needs to be revised.”
A former senior army officer and defence analyst, who did not want to be identified, concurred with this view, saying that technology has changed drastically since the 2009 directives and the guidance provided to the military leadership must keep up.
“The national security strategy is the starting point to deal with all security-related matters across diplomacy, strategy and foreign policy,” he said. “It not only allows you to see future threats, but also to send a message to other nations and deter aggression.”
According to him, a national security strategy would also define how to deal with violations committed by China by issuing directives.
Though India has internal guidelines on defence initiatives, there has never been a public document on the matter. However, the United States, the United Kingdom, China and Pakistan have made their doctrines public.
There are several reasons India may not have formulated such a document so far, experts say. For one, making such a strategy public could potentially antagonise other nations – especially those identified as foes.
In addition, the Centre may fear the accountability this could bring since a national security strategy would identify the red lines, which, if breached, would necessitate action by the government. Besides, framing a security doctrine may also be difficult considering the differing views held by various government departments.
There have reportedly been at least four unsuccessful attempts by the Indian government to formulate the security doctrine over the years.
Rajesh Rajagopalan, professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, wrote in The Print that there could be concerns that formulating a national security strategy would cause trouble with potential adversaries by revealing India’s position, and with partners by hurting strategic flexibility.
“It will signal to both friends and foes where India stands,” Rajagopalan wrote.
A defence analyst who spoke to Scroll.in gave an example of this. If India were to state that it aimed to reduce its dependence on military imports from Russia, he noted, this would hurt New Delhi’s relationship with long-time ally Moscow. More importantly, aspects about India’s strategies in tackling emerging challenges in the Indo-Pacific region would have to remain private so as to not antagonise China, this person added.
Rajagopalan told Scroll.in that a “significant challenge for India will be the evolving situation in the Indo-Pacific” – referring to the heightened geopolitical tensions across the Indo-Pacific region, often ascribed to China’s rise.
However, the former senior army officer and defence analyst told Scroll.in that India has avoided formulating a national security strategy because the government fears accountability. The government wants to avoid having to respond in a specific manner by not publishing a national security strategy, he said.
Lt General DS Hooda (retd) had written in 2020, amid the India-China military stand-off along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, that a military response would become unavoidable if the limits of a scenario defined in the national security strategy are violated by an aggressor. “If the strategy is defined, the government would be forced to act accordingly when a security contingency arises, which it may not be able to,” he had written.
Another reason India has not formulated such a doctrine is because of differing views within the government, Rajagopalan suggests. “The national security strategy is a difficult document to prepare as it brings together different ministries and government departments,” he said. “Various departments such as the defence ministry, intelligence bureau and the home ministry, among others, have differing views. Therefore, the process is time consuming.”
That is precisely why such a doctrine would also be valuable. “More than external signalling, it [the national security strategy] will help coordinate between different government departments to the extent that is possible,” Rajagopalan said. “It will help all of them be on the same page. The bureaucracy is currently siloed. According to Rajagopalan, the national security strategy will force departments to look at the larger national security objectives.
Hooda, too, had written that the national security strategy would offer common guidelines for various departments. “A NSS also outlines a consistent path and prevents ad hocism in policymaking,” he wrote. “It commits the political leadership to a specific approach and forces the building of capabilities to meet the desired objectives.”
According to the former senior army officer and defence analyst, another reason India needs a national security strategy is to help step up the pace of military modernisation and introduce theatre commands. “Defence reforms are not taking off because India does not have a national security strategy and therefore, no guidance,” he said. “Without the NSS, these military reforms are rudderless.” He said a national security strategy will issue directions in this regard.
The theatre commands concept envisages units from all three military services – the army, navy and the air force – operating together in an integrated manner in different geographical areas, or “theatres”, under a single commander, to tackle security challenges. It is aimed at optimising capabilities and the use of resources.
Yet, experts believe a national security strategy is unlikely to be formulated over the next decade.
When asked, Rajagopalan said although it is difficult to predict, it remains a possibility. “It is difficult to forecast if it [the formulation of the national security strategy] will happen in the coming years,” he said. “But, as we did come up with a Nuclear Doctrine, it is possible for us to come up with some sort of a national security strategy.” The Nuclear Doctrine outlines India’s position on its “nuclear assets”.
Sushant Singh, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, said that India is unlikely to have a declared or a full-fledged national security strategy like the United States over the next decade. “Only a smaller version is possible, if at all,” he said. “But it is unlikely to happen.”
According to the former senior army officer and defence analyst, several draft national security strategies have been presented to the government, but they have never been approved. “This is because the strong man image will go for a six if the political leadership is unable to direct an effective military response, as defined in the national security strategy, in the event of violations along the border.”