Two major aspects bedevil our approach to our national security. In fact, they are not only relevant to national security but almost to all other spheres of our functioning as a nation.
First is the aspect of being reactive to emerging situations. A peep into history would show that from time to time, series of raiders and marauding hordes have descended on our land, plundered it, occupied it and ruled over us. Starting from Alexander to Mohammad Ghazani, the Portuguese, the Mughals, the British and even the Chinese have occupied different parts of India. However, during the same period, we do not find many instances of our indigenous rulers going outwards to capture or rule over distant lands. In fact, even while trying to defend our land against incoming adversaries, our actions have been reactive in nature rather than proactive or offensive.
We may ascribe this characteristic to our peaceful and non-aggressive nature. We indeed believe in peaceful co-existence and do not covet others’ territory/possessions. However, it does place us at the receiving end most of the time when dealing with the aggressors. More importantly, it does not bode well for our national security in a global environment wherein territorial integrity remains sacrosanct.
Even post-independence, the culture of being reactive has stayed with us, leaving us in a relatively disadvantageous situation of trying to restore status-quo-ante at great cost and effort. In 1948, 1965 and 1999, Pakistan initiated aggression against us. We reacted to her aggression and fought back to regain lost territories. In 1971, Pakistan carried out pre-emptive airstrikes on the morning of 03 Dec, despite the expectation worldwide that India would initiate action to set right the wrongs committed on the hapless population of Bangladesh, by attacking Pakistan.
In 1962, China’s aggression found us totally surprised and unprepared, resulting in a defeat for us. Having achieved their objectives, the Chinese retreated. Again, this year, we were exposed to Chinese expansionism in Eastern Ladakh and we are still trying to convince them to go back.
In most of the above cases against Pakistan, it was the grit and determination of the Indian soldier that saved the day for us and gave us victory despite following a reactive philosophy. Against China in 1962, while our soldiers fought valiantly, the odds were too heavily stacked against them to change the outcome decisively. Encounter at Galwan on 15 June has amply highlighted what Indian soldiers are capable of achieving if they are provided with the requisite wherewithal.
The second worrisome aspect, partially related to the first one, relates to our tendency to react only when a crisis is upon us. In fact, this habit seems to be embedded in every sphere of our functioning. How else can one explain the massive traffic woes in our urban conglomerates while the infrastructure is always trying to catch up? Or, hazardous pollution caused all over North India by burning of wheat crop stumps annually with the solution still not in sight.
In the realm of national security, why must only a strike by Pakistan trained terrorists at Uri or Pulwama galvanise us into action when terrorist attacks on security forces are taking place on a daily basis? To stop the proxy war in J&K by Pakistan, it is just not enough to launch an odd trans-border strike like Balakot every couple of years. There has to be a continuous pro-active approach for the adversary to realise the costs of supporting a proxy war and thus deter him from doing so.
Coming to Eastern Ladakh, our intelligence agencies should have picked up aggressive Chinese movements and massing of additional formations well in time, especially since nothing can happen overnight in Ladakh with the requirement to go through acclimatisation lasting weeks. The other possibility that we ignored timely warnings of their build-up is more worrisome! The need to reinforce weakly held positions in Eastern Ladakh knowing well the Chinese propensity to indulge in salami slicing was overwhelming, the moment their movements were discovered.
The problem with decisions taken during crises is that they are taken in a hurry with the specific aim of getting over the crisis. They tend to ignore the long-term perspective besides being expensive. In matters of national security, it is important to foresee emerging situations and have plans ready to tackle them. Thus, it was that in 2008-09, we envisaged a two-front threat and sought approval for raising four divisions, which the government agreed to. Of these, two were raised in 2010 and the rest came later in the form of Mountain Strike Corps, which is now proving to be of great relevance.
The global reality is that the rise of a nation will always be opposed by the others. We have seen examples of Germany rising twice only to be defeated during the two world wars. During the rise of China in the eighties and nineties, Deng’s advice ‘hide your capabilities, bide your time’ held China in good stead. Having become powerful, it now feels strong enough to indulge in expansionism not only towards its western borders but also towards the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
A developing nation needs to be economically strong before it can allocate adequate resources to become militarily capable. A fine balance has to be ensured between national security and economic progress while moving forward. COVID 19 has definitely put brakes on our economic progress and it would take time to recover from it fully. However, in view of the emerging situation along the India-China border, we have no choice but to rush for emergent imports. This was avoidable if we had allocated a larger percentage of GDP to Defence in the past.
Initiatives like ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ and ‘Vocal for Local’ are indeed excellent for developing a strong India. However, in defence production and induction of the weaponry into the services, a gestation period of at least 10-15 years is required. ‘Make in India’ initiative, which commenced in 2014 has not been able to make much progress until now. The private sector would also require deep pockets to incur heavy expenditure over a prolonged period before expecting any returns to flow in.
The current record of accomplishments of our DRDO and PSUs including OFB does not enthuse much confidence. Our thriving private sector needs to be incorporated not only in the field of defence production but also in futuristic areas like artificial intelligence, cyber, space, and IT. Frequent changes in Defence Production Policy, almost on an annual basis, have acted as a major dampener. The new policy, in its new avatar as the Defence Acquisition Policy (DAP) 2020, is expected shortly and would hopefully address all major concerns. The DRDO has to play an important positive role in encouraging and guiding aspiring entrants from the private sector by imparting technical knowhow until such joint projects become commercially viable.
The Chinese expansionism is now forcing us to rapidly develop our border infrastructure, which is in a poor state compared to what the Chinese have on their side in Tibet. Strategic roads that we started working on at the beginning of the millennium are still not complete. Road construction in border regions is expensive and a time-consuming process. To hasten it, the BRDO needs to be allocated additional funds as well as state of the art road construction equipment.
In some forward areas, road construction activity is delayed due to lack of environmental clearances. In Sikkim, the state government’s action of designating Pangolakha Wildlife sanctuary and Kanchanjunga National Park in the forward areas has resulted in a ban on any road construction without environmental clearances, which at times takes years to be granted. Our judicial system needs to be responsive to national security requirements which are focused primarily to serve the national interest.
Finally, the necessity of increasing the defence budget to at least 3% of the GDP has been highlighted to successive governments by various committees and the military from time to time. Even after project ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ is fully implemented, this level of expenditure would be needed to maintain a military relevant to growing national aspirations. The Chinese ‘official’ expenditure on the military has been approximately four times ours for the last two decades. The Pakistan military, of course, takes as much as it requires from the national kitty.
In the current geopolitical environment, the territorial integrity of the nation is of paramount importance. The onus of defending it falls squarely on the military. The Indian soldier has repeatedly demonstrated his fighting capabilities successfully. However, the nation needs to provide him with the necessary wherewithal to enable him to perform to his potential.