Strategic Policy Group - Evolution of Integrated National Security Structure
C D Sahay, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

In a significant decision that could have major implications for India’s over all approach to national security, the Government of India, through a notification (October 8, 2018), announced reconstitution of the Strategic Policy Group (SPG) of the National Security Council (NSC) by bringing it directly under the charge of the National Security Advisor (NSA). Earlier, the Cabinet Secretary used to coordinate the activities of the SPG.

The newly constituted SPG will have, in addition to the NSA, the following high functionaries of the Government dealing with different aspects of national security, as its members:-

  1. Vice Chairman, NITI Aayog,
  2. Cabinet Secretary,
  3. Chief of the Army Staff,
  4. Chief of the Naval Staff,
  5. Chief of the Air Staff,
  6. Governor of the Reserve Bank of India,
  7. Foreign Secretary,
  8. Home Secretary,
  9. Finance Secretary,
  10. Defence Secretary,
  11. Secretary, Department of Defence Production and Supplies,
  12. Scientific Adviser to Raksha Mantri,
  13. Secretary (R), Cabinet Secretariat,
  14. Secretary, Department of Revenue,
  15. Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy,
  16. Secretary, Department of Space,
  17. Director, Intelligence Bureau,
  18. Secretary, National Security Council Secretariat.

As per the notification, representatives of the other ministries/departments may be invited to the SPG as and when necessary (Source: Government of India N. , 2018).

Brief History of Security Review in India

Till the year 1998, India did not have a fully integrated intelligence and security architecture. Intelligence agencies used to collect, analyse and disseminate processed intelligence to the consumer agencies while the responsibility for preparation of net-assessments and long-term policy reviews/projections was addressed by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), traditionally headed by a senior intelligence officer and assisted by concerned ministries and agencies.

This system had its obvious limitations in coping with the growing complexities and demands of a country on the fast track route of changes in its regional roles and global aspirations which was sought to be addressed with the creation of the National Security Council (NSC) in November 1998. Simultaneously, the office of National Security Advisor (NSA) was for the first time created, a new entity for Indian security governance. Prior to this, the security related activities were overseen in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) by the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister. The NSC comprised of various layers of decision-making apparatus ranging from strategic analysis, internal security, governance, armed forces, law, science and technology, and economics. These segments were manned by domain experts who recommended solutions and addressed policy issues referred to it by the NSC.

For strengthening the intelligence apparatus, the JIC of Cabinet Secretariat was established with the task of assessment of intelligence, the coordination of functioning of intelligence agencies and tasking them. It also facilitates itself as an interface with the NSC (Raman, 2004). Creation of these entities marked the beginning of a new approach under which India started to have integrated institutional support towards national security (Frey, 2007).

Post-Kargil conflict, based on the recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) submitted to the Government in January 2000, it was decided to go in for a major overhaul of national security apparatus and the processes of decision making. Special focus of that initiative was on strengthening the overall security framework in the country, capacity building in the field of intelligence, internal security, border and defence management. The core principle behind this development was to evolve a more efficient and cost-effective national security system, capable of dealing with threat profile of 21st century (Government of India G. C., 2000). This led to the establishment of a high-powered agency called the NSC with a clear charter to advise the PMO on matters related to national security and strategic concerns.

The SPG was originally created as part of the NSC to advise the Government on all matters of national security and strategic importance. The SPG was designed to be the key agency to undertake periodical strategic defence reviews and come up with policy options for the NSC to deliberate and decide upon. In this context, SPG was seen as the first ever formal mechanism established by Government of India for inter-ministerial coordination and integration of relevant inputs significant for the formulation of national security policies. In this task, it was to be assisted by the NSC Secretariat (NSCS) and the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) as its dedicated think-tank. The NSAB brought together, under a formal structure, a group of eminent national security experts comprising senior retired officials, civilian as well as military, academics and distinguished members of civil society having vast expertise and experience in areas Internal and External Security, Foreign Affairs, Defence, Science & Technology and Economic Affairs (Government of India M. , 2014).

Why the Changes and Their Implications?

It is widely acknowledged that over last two decades, since the initial constitution of the NSC and its related entities mentioned above, India’s internal and external national security scenarios, the variety of challenges faced by the country, and the dynamics of inter-play of competing and conflicting regional and global powers, have all undergone paradigm shift. In today’s time, with widespread use of technology, states are losing their borders, external forces are managing to tap the domestic fault lines and have the character of an internal security problem (Doval, 2010). This was also reiterated in the KRC which accepted the fact that external component or threats have acquired a significant place in internal security of India (Government of India G. C., 2000). This has emerged as a serious security challenge for India to tap it proactively.

Internally also, the security situation in different parts of the country have become more complex, ideologically intense and extremely violent. Terrorism and Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) continue to pose the gravest challenge and threat to national security. With India’s own rise as a regional power, the immediate neighbourhood too is fast turning into an arena of competing aspirations of other powers like never before. These changes in the strategic environ are well known and have been extensively debated by the strategic community, needing no repetition here. Suffice to state that the national security architecture designed in the aftermath of the Kargil War, was getting fast outdated.

Changes were thus required, and required urgently, not only by way of upgrading composition of the SPG, but along with it the entire supporting structure constituting the NSC and the NSCS. The objective had to be to create a well-integrated, robust entity capable of providing vital, well researched inputs on the growing list of critical challenges faced by the nation from within the country and outside. The planned reorganisation may not be viewed in the limited perspective of addition of a few names in the list of members constituting the SPG or the decision to have NSA to lead its deliberations. While greater clarity should soon emerge on the composition of the final architecture of the NSC, it would appear that the NSCS will have well-defined verticals headed by at least four Deputy NSAs including Chairman, JIC, and also be assisted by a senior level Military Advisor.

It also appears that the recent decision in April 2018 to set up the Defence Planning Committee as also the recent approval for establishment of Defence Cyber, Space and Special Operations Agencies, could well be a part of a larger reform initiative to bring in greater synergy and dynamism in the national security architecture of India. In this context, even the decision to give the NSCS/NSC etc. an independent headquarters at the Sardar Patel Bhawan, New Delhi, or the reported transfer of posts with personnel from Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) to the Intelligence Bureau (IB) to strengthen border intelligence/security establishments, send positive signals of Government’s intent and approach.

This timely transformation in national security architecture was perhaps also necessary in the context of a discernable change in the operational approach of the present Government in dealing with security threats. It was always felt that traditionally, our security/intelligence establishments were episodic and reactive in their approach and response. An oft-quoted example of this was the manner in which the tragic Mumbai attack (26/11) of 2008 was dealt with. Strategic analysts have copiously commented on this event, mostly suggesting that the intelligence relating to the event was trickling in bits and pieces and shared but regrettably, and that either all these could not be pieced together to construct the larger picture or the agencies required to carry out the operations to neutralise the plans of the terrorists could not eventually do so. Admittedly, these comments are being made with the limited details available in public domain and should not be seen as an indictment of any agency/establishment.

As against this, in the more recent events like the attack on Indian Air Force (IAF) airbase in Pathankot of January 2016 or the Uri attack later that year, irrespective of the end results, it appeared that the security establishment followed up the intelligence leads in a pro-active manner till the end of the operations. The ‘Surgical Strike’ of September 29, 2016 was the finest example of pro-active response (Government of India M. , Press Statement by DGMO, 2016). It may also be mentioned here that a similar approach is discernable even in the ongoing anti-militancy operations in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) where intelligence driven, well-coordinated operations by combined detachments of the security forces against hardcore militants, have been proving highly effective. Another case in point could be the ‘seek and destroy operations’ carried out across the Myanmar borders on June 9, 2015 (Government of India M. , 2015). Yet another example of the new pro-active and coordinated approach has been the Government’s initiative to synergise the investigative efforts of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to neutralise terror funding linkages of the militant groups. The creation of exclusive unit at NIA for the investigation of LWE related cases and establishment of Multi-Disciplinary Group (MDG) comprised of various agencies to restrain Maoists from financial and other logical support seems to have sent the right message of Government’s uncompromising approach to deal with terror in all aspects (Press Trust of India, 2018).

There could be more such examples in support of the basic proposition that an intelligence/security revamp was required to sharpen the overall decision-making process thus bringing in synergy and coordination of approach and action under decisive and pro-active leadership. This strengthening of national security architecture could well be the outcome of its review by the PMO in 2017. The comprehensive review ascertained various aspects significant to the national security and recommended certain changes in the security architecture of India. These developments are considered to be in line with the recommendations of the review (Gokhale, 2018). It is assessed that the reconstitution of SPG under the leadership of NSA will ensure smooth coordination and implementation of decisions taken by the SPG.

Way Ahead

These systemic measures being put in place would need to be effectively implemented by all concerned in the right spirit. The integrated approach to national security as spelt out so far are steps in that direction and highlights the coherent utilisation of all elements of national power to safeguard the national interest. There are however, at least two major areas of reforms that need to be addressed. One of these relates to the creation of a coordinating center for effective operationalisation of terror related intelligence inputs that was sought to be earlier addressed by setting up a National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) which could not muster across the board support from the States. That proposal, in a suitably modified for could be revived at an appropriate time after fresh consultations with the State governments. In the alternative, to start with, the authorities could consider putting together a small group of operational hands from intelligence and selected security forces and the NIA to take up the task of coordinating operations.

The other issue requiring major reforms is the manpower policy of the Government for intelligence and security agencies. It has been repeatedly recognised that these services should not be treated as ‘normal’ bureaucracies. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had said that to attract the best talent and to retain them, the Government had to do much more. These observations are still valid and need to be taken up on priority with a view to evolving a holistic approach and not coming up with band-aid solutions.

And finally, there is also an urgent need for India to evolve a bipartisan policy on security-governance by developing a Comprehensive National Security Strategy. For this, a comprehensive security review is need of the hour. Unfortunately, as in the past, one does not yet discern an across-the-board national consensus building in the media nor in the political arena. This calls for serious introspection and a national debate. Hopefully, this will happen in not so distant a future. The strategic community can and should play a major role in this.

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