The formation of Defence Planning Committee (DPC) under the chairmanship of National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval, reported by the media last week has naturally evoked a mix response among commentators and strategic experts. Some have predictably slammed the move, calling it an attempt to stymie appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) for the three services; others think the new body is just a stop gap arrangement to bring in better coordination among various arms of the government to revitalise the defence sector. Both opposing viewpoints miss the wood for the trees.
The DPC is much more than a body to just improve defence procurements or revitalise defence diplomacy. Its formation is part of a larger exercise ordered by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to review the existing structures that give inputs on vital national security issues and provide advice to the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), the highest decision-making body that finally approves crucial steps to protect India’s national interests.
To begin with therefore the PMO had asked, the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) about a year ago to review the functioning of the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) and entrusted it with writing a National Security Strategy. The NSAB recommended revamp of the NSCS some months ago, suggesting creation of new verticals to ensure focused attention to specific subjects. Four of those verticals–Policy and strategy, Planning and capability development, Defence diplomacy and Defence manufacturing—have been included in the DPC. The other verticals will continue to remain under the NCSC but with more specialisation built into their functioning. So for instance, two separate sections on space and cyber security will take on board on-field practitioners for real-time utilisation of their skills.
A draft National Security Strategy document—authored by a member of the NSAB–on the other hand is now ready to be presented for discussion at the highest level. By all indications, it is first likely to be discussed and debated at the NSA and NSAB level before being taken to the CCS and the PMO as early as mid-May. Once approved, a gist of the fresh National Security Strategy is likely to be put out in the public domain. If that happens, it would be a major departure from the past practice when India has fought shy of articulating leave alone putting out a National Security Strategy document in public. Those in the know say at least three versions of a National Security Strategy have been attempted in the past but none of them were either approved or released for public consumption.
Another development that has largely gone unnoticed is the formation of a China-specific, MEA-run and funded think tank. Called the Centre for Contemporary China Studies (CCCS), the new think tank will only study China from an Indian point of view. Manned by serving officers drawn from the MEA, the three armed forces, the Intelligence Bureau, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and other relevant ministries and departments, CCCS will prepare reports and undertake specific studies on China at the behest of different government departments to provide real-time policy inputs to the decision-makers dealing with China. So far instance, the CCCS can be asked to provide quick inputs by the Commerce Ministry on the impact of US trade sanctions against China and the likely advantage that can accrue to India. Or, recommend a future course of action in India’s (largely positive) relationship with North Korea post the Trump-Kim summit. The CCCS’ governing body is headed by the External Affairs Minister and the NSA is the deputy chairman.
The DPC, as already reported and analysed, has been entrusted with four major responsibilities. Of the four—mentioned in the preceding paragraphs—the section on defence procurements has attracted the most attention in the public discussion so far because of recent revelations that majority of India’s military arsenal is either outdated or is getting there quickly. As a consequence, the DPC is expected to first concentrate on repairing the dysfunctional procurement process and align future acquisitions with the quantum of funds that are likely to be available in the next few years. It is here that the inclusion of Secretary Expenditure from the Ministry of Finance in the DPC is welcome. While the Defence, Foreign and Home Secretaries have always been part of committees and groups entrusted to deal with strategic issues, it is perhaps for the first time in recent years that a finance ministry official has been included in a high-powered committee dealing with issues of national security.
Similarly, the fact the DPC is headed by NSA Ajit Doval is a clear indication that the Prime Minister continues to trust his NSA to evolve a comprehensive roadmap and get it implemented. Since Doval has the Prime Minister’s total trust, he can be expected to get things moving faster than they otherwise would have. The arrangement however also has pitfalls: Mr Doval already has too much on his plate (dealing with Pakistan, China, US and Russia for instance), heading the nuclear command authority and handling the overall security situation. Now to expect him to deliver on these crucial issues looks a challenging task. However, as a trusted man of the Prime Minister, the NSA has the
necessary authority lacking in earlier committees that had suggested reforms and roadmaps to bring India’s national security architecture up to speed. Moreover, the committee can derive its strength from the fact that it constitutes serving officers and therefore will not be time or personality specific.
However, the formation of DPC has perhaps come a year too late. Its effectiveness would be demonstrated only after a couple of financial years have gone by. With general elections exactly a year away, there is very little the DPC can show as achievement before 2019. Would that hamper the functioning of the DPC? Perhaps not given that it is only one part of a larger change is that is being sought to be brought in in the larger national security framework.
Nitin A Gokhale