The debate on the necessity of first writing a National Security Strategy (NSS) before undertaking the exercise of theaterisation, has gathered some echoes, recently. However, the need to pursue an in tandem approach for all visualised essential elements to fall in line before embarking on theaterisation will further delay an already retarded pace in evolving jointness to its full potential. The article debates a few important aspects of procedure to adopt to progress the intent of theaterisation.
For some years now there has been considerable commentary and speeches from a few quarters– but especially from military veterans– about the great necessity of a National Security Strategy (NSS) as a prelude to almost any defence reforms to be undertaken. Of late, there have been a few voices urging that any theaterisation ought to be only attempted after the publication of such a document. The suggestions may seem sensible on the face of it, but problematic if one goes a bit deeper into various aspects of the NSS especially as it began in the US.
Uncle Sam’s NSS
This writer’s own understanding of the American NSS began in the US while on a course at the US Naval War College 21 years ago. The first trimester was themed “National Security Decision Making” (NSDM) and we studied the processes that the US followed in an analytical, questioning way with the two professors in our small seminar of about 14 students looking at it critically. At first, I was quite impressed by the hierarchy of documents, the strict processes and formality of decision making. It was also a time — still not even a year since “9/11” — when the rolling back of the Taliban in Afghanistan was going well from almost everyone’s perspective. The next war of choice to oust Saddam and get rid of his “WMD” still seemed beyond the horizon, even if war drums were faintly being heard. The war did begin in the Spring of 2003, while this writer was still part of the course.
It led to a few discoveries as one began going a bit deeper into American processes that I hardly knew about while also aware that these were missing in India and in our armed forces. After all, formal jointness in the US could be traced to the Army-Navy Board of 1903 followed by several moves towards jointness, marred by inter-service rivalries that cast their shadows for decades.
The first was digesting the Goldwater Nichols Act (GNA) 1986 that actually legislated more strongly the need for annual formulation of a NSS by the US President. This is in Section 603 towards the very end of the GNA and it amends Title I of the National Security Act of 1947. As mentioned by this writer in a series of three articles on Jointness in 2019-2020, the aim of the GNA was to make the Chairman of the CJCS not stronger, but more effective and to tighten civilian control over the armed forces https://bharatshakti.in/cds-from-infighting-to-warfighting-from-integration-to-jointness/.
The second discovery was that the exercise of NSS has hardly been annual. In fact, since the first promptly came out in 1987, there have been only 19 NSS in the first 36 years since the GNA of which 12 were out in the first 14 years! The breakdown for President’s is: Reagan-2; HW Bush-3; Clinton-7 in 8 years, a record compliance level; GW Bush-2; Obama-2; Trump-1; Biden-1 in 2022, but an interim one in Nov 2021.
The third realisation was that domestically, a NSS ought to have generally concluded internal political debates about national security rather than set off new ones about shortcomings, or worse, as far as opposition, interest groups and sometimes other capitals were concerned.
The fourth was (and used to be part of seminar discussions as I recall) that a NSS did not really help to make better and more coherent National Defense (sic) Strategy or a Quadrennial Defense (SIC) Reviews as a result.
The fifth –undertaken out of personal curiosity — was to see how much the NSS between 1987 (the first) and President Clinton’s final NSS of Dec 2000 informed/ impacted or even was linked to statecraft or to military planning from the US’ point of view in wars and peace between this period. It was quite difficult to see clear and useful connections between strategy documents and outcomes. Interestingly, it was during Clinton’s presidency, that NSS began getting subtitles: Engagement and Enlargement in 1994/ 95/ 96; For a New Century in 1997/98/ 99; and his final NSS For a Global Age in 2000. The subtitles stopped after that until the Biden administration’s Oct 2022 edition which was suffixed Renewing American Advantages.
An Exercise in “Extended Speech Writing?”
The above background is helpful in making two more points. In an informal video conversation with the CEO of an important US think tank, he responded to this writer’s query on the degree to which a current or past NSS is used within the Pentagon. Having worked as an official in and outside the Pentagon, his observation was unambiguous. To paraphrase, he said it was very marginal if at all. These documents could be found in some corner, and never really referred to.
The second is the limited utility of strategy documents in the public domain, especially in democracies, where regime change is a periodic reality and where different degrees of political-diplomatic constraints make them internationally palatable but of marginal national utility. According to Paul Lettow’s thoughtful essay, (U.S. National Security Strategies: Lessons Learned, TNSR Spring 2021) there are other problems too. He takes readers into the period after 1945, when US Presidents sent out/ commissioned internal studies, policy and strategy papers that remained classified for decades. Other than references to them, they were not public documents but provided effective guidance. He avers that after the end of the Cold War “Those public documents (NSS) were often products of a far less rigorous and analytical process than those which had been pursued by Cold War presidents and more closely resembled an extended speechwriting exercise, disconnected from any prior or ongoing systematic planning.” He does recognise that NSS have several useful aspects even in the public domain, if they are products of due processes and serve to protect and further a nation’s security interests.
Internal, classified versions of such documents are not only useful, they are imperative. But, overall credibility of both versions can hinge on their coherence, robustness and some evidence of its practice in diplomacy, and military steps as required.
Policy or Strategy Documents?
A factor that this writer appreciated is that so-called strategy documents, i.e., Ways that reflect Ends (i.e., objectives of the strategy) while looking at aspects of Means (i.e., Resources) are essentially Policy enunciations and not quite beyond that. Policy could be adequately enunciated in the public domain, but the issues of vagueness and homilies are avoidable. Consequently, road maps (strategy) can be laid down based on the larger objective(s) of policy. These can have public versions but it is the internal ones that actually matter.
Second, the absence of a government’s public admission of having a NSS does not necessarily mean it does not have internal versions. It can also be appreciated that in this matter, a government may neither confirm nor deny. The inference we may draw is that if only one NSS is to be written, then it should be the classified version. And, if so, it is reasonable to assume that commentators may neither know of its existence nor its contents. Either way, this is not a deal breaker.
That said, contextually, lack of strategic planning may manifest itself in any system in the ineffectiveness of strategic execution across the D.I.M.E lines of statecraft. Planning has a root requirement of systematic, cross agency Thinking followed by putting thoughts on paper. With major work having been done, contextual adaptation to the strategic issue to be addressed becomes easier by tweaking the plan(s). After all, Thinking and Planning are quite synonymous. Yet, as Lettow points out rigour and thoroughness while very essential could also be less than adequate.
Plurality of Strategies
A moot point that this writer has been thinking about is that a nation, large or small, cannot properly conceive a single strategy as titles of such publications invariably suggest. One can concede that a title like “National Security Strategies” sounds less robust than when in the singular. Inside, though, NSS needs to have the Ends-Ways-Means plan across the DIME construct of statecraft. Likewise, a defence strategy document should prioritise multi-dimensional military strategies. The Indian Navy’s 2015 Strategy publication is titled in the singular, but actually has five strategies in it. These are chapterised separately, but there are inter-twining elements, of course. For teams that draft such strategy documents, it may be useful to keep the de facto plurality of strategies even if the convention of singularity in the title may be difficult to overcome, so widespread is the misconception of the possibility of a single national security strategy.
Are Militaries Lost in the Woods without NSS?
Given the limited utility, based on realistic assessments of public NSS documents– including equivalent white papers from China—a question which needs to be answered candidly is this: what exactly are the armed forces looking for in a NSS that is seriously impeding them from force planning, transformation, and deep organisational reforms? In the past four years since 2019, objections have been sequentially raised in media by commentators recommending going slow on theaterisation. The suggestion for not going ahead in the absence of NSS is the latest one, and not one highlighted earlier, as far as one can remember.
Policy directions for reforms and reorganisation are available in India from political leadership not dissimilar to those in other countries, China included. Sequential objections for delay are hardly helpful and point to the disadvantage of linear thinking that has dominated military and bureaucratic affairs for decades. One can see echoes of such linear thinking in several areas. When construction of modern airports started in the early 1990s under new models like PPP (Cochin was the very first), there were arguments for first doing railway stations before taking on airports. Or, the linearity of first improving congested city roads rather than the Quadrilateral and other highway projects. Or, the observation that since we had not made an indigenous rifle, or even good winter clothing, what was the point in aiming for the AMCA or sophisticated missiles and torpedoes.
The counter to this is that while we should have progressed everywhere, it is in the nature of development that jumps are made geometrically instead of linearly. Eventually, a rising tide lifts all boats. So, to return to the question that is sometimes asked, but not quite answered is what exactly do the armed forces need from an NSS? In its absence, what part of say, theaterisation cannot be thought through? And, if the armed forces know what should be in the NSS for them to move ahead, why do they need it spelt out if they already know it?
Taking the argument forward, it is also possible to make military strategy documents, in public and classified versions in the absence of NSS. Indeed, this statement is not hypothetical; it has been the case for over two decades. The utility, or otherwise, of such documents is based on the effort and rigour put into them as this writer pointed out in reference to the Joint Doctrine for Indian Armed Forces 2017 https://bharatshakti.in/an-analysis-of-the-joint-doctrine-of-the-indian-armed-forces-2017/.
Lettow’s caution about the need for analytical rigour obviously applies all across the hierarchy of documentation and none of this is helped by conjuring up catchy titles for any strategy document or even legislating periodicity, especially an illogical annual NSS as did the GNA.
To conclude, it would be good to have a NSS in two versions (there may already be a classified version, but this writer would not be aware of it), but it is difficult to agree that the existence of such a document is a deal-maker for the armed forces or that its absence can be a deal-breaker especially in logically proceeding ahead with theaterisation.
Rear Admiral Sudarshan Shrikhande (Retd)