Security demands strategy before action
Accounts of the National Security Adviser (NSA), Ajit Doval, as a man of action have only been reinforced by his response to the terrorist attack at the Pathankot airfield early this month. While a laudable quality in an operational-level commander, however, when this trait (to take action) is present in abundance in a person required to function at the strategic level, it may be problematic.
Perhaps, the most onerous responsibility of the NSA is his duty as Secretary to the Political Council of India's Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) and as Chair of its executive council. The appointment requires a cool, reflective, person to tenant it. The Pathankot episode throws up the question: Whether Doval is the best man for this sensitive job.
On this score, the criticism attending the response to the Pathankot terror attack should not be spin-doctored into oblivion. The Prime Minister on a visit to the site, and the Army Chief in his Army Day press conference, have tried to restore confidence in the system. Acknowledging a few home truths would better serve the system.
A key point was brought forth by the previous NSA, Shivshankar Menon. He observed the cancellation of the NSA’s trip to China for strategic-level talks, implying this was an instance of misplaced priorities. Second, an NSA getting involved in essentially a tactical-level operation is liable to miss the wood for the trees. Third, the NSA's bypassing of institutions such as the Home and Defence Ministries and the military serves to sap traditional chains of command and constitutionally ordained authority.
Since the NSA is at the fulcrum of India's nuclear command and control, these observations have implications for India's nuclear command and control.
India's NCA already has glaring lacunae. As revealed in the commentary in the aftermath of the Pathankot episode, India's National Security Council (NSC) system has been created through an executive order in 1998. It has not been institutionalised and sanctified by an Act of Parliament ever since. As a result, the NSA is an oddity in the parliamentary system, only owing accountability to his appointing authority, the Prime Minister. This further empowers the Prime Minister's Office, detracting from India's parliamentary democracy by making it resemble a presidential system.
The NSA serves as link between the Political Council of the NCA that comprises the Prime Minister and principal ministers, and the Executive Council, comprising of the significant officials, military chiefs and scientific heads. Even this responsibility of the NSA has no legislative authority underwriting it. The press release of January 3, 2003, from the Cabinet Committee on Security that met to operationalise India's nuclear deterrence policy at best serves to inform. It cannot be taken as sanctioning this role of the NSA. The responsibility needs being invested with legal content.
The insertion of the NSA in the nuclear command loop is such as to act as a buffer between the political head and the military chiefs. To fulfil this function, the NSA has the support of the NSC Secretariat (NSCS), which is under the Deputy NSA and part of the PMO. The strategy programme staff that informs decision-making and implements nuclear deterrence and employment strategy is, however, not under him directly, but is in the NSCS.
The Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) commands the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) that is in charge of India's crown jewels, its nuclear arsenal. The staff support of the Chairman COSC is the Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff. Further, the Chairman COSC receives his marching orders not from the Prime Minister or Defence Minister, but the NSA. Since the Chairman COSC is himself double-hatted, also serving as head of his service, the NSA’s role assumes a greater significance. In effect, the general commanding the SFC is willy-nilly reporting to two heads: the bona fide military chain of command and the more significant, but civilian, NSA.
This reveals a structural problem in India's nuclear command and control in which accountability is with the military, but the authority is with the NSA. Governments in this century, including the current one, have promised to create the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) or permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. A CDS, with executive teeth in the nuclear realm, would ensure convergence of accountability and authority. That the reconstitution of the dysfunctional National Security Advisory Board has been held up for close to a year now does not lend confidence on this score.
The deficiencies of this system are such as to preclude buffeting from the angularities of personalities. As demonstrated on other occasions such as the Special Forces operation in Myanmar in the middle of last year, the NSA has a tendency to join the action. Conflict will serve up temptations aplenty for him to roll up his sleeves. The NSA would be better advised to exercise considerable self-restraint and allow the national security institutions to work their mandate, to enable him to take a wide-angled view of crises and conflict. Servicing the NSC in a sober manner would enable him to give relevant inputs as the fulcrum of the NCA.