Re-energising India’s National Security Structures


“National security” is one of the most misunderstood and misused expressions in our national discourse. In the present politically charged atmosphere, debates have been raging about whether certain actions of the government promote national security or only its election prospects.

It is generally accepted that national security is much more than defending our borders against external aggression and countering insurgencies domestically. It includes economic security, technological strength and foreign policy. Yet, efforts to reform structures to bring a holistic approach to national security immediately encounter resistance. Any reform arouses turf battles and vested interests. The national security system is no exception.

First Shot At Security Management

It is remarkable that the first effort for a holistic approach to national security was made only in 1990. Until then (as pointed out in the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) report), security management was based on a framework made by Lord Ismay (Lord Mountbatten’s Chief of Staff) to a national leadership “not fully conversant with the complexities of national security management”. In August 1990, the government set up a National Security Council (NSC) to evolve an integrated approach to national security policy-making and a Strategic Core Group (SCG, headed by Cabinet Secretary) to assist it. The intention to constitute a National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) was announced. The NSC met once (in October 1990); the NSAB was not constituted.

Based on the recommendations of a task force headed by senior political figure K.C. Pant (which studied the experience of other countries), the government notified (in April 1999) the constitution of a NSC, with Prime Minister, Home Minister, Defence Minister, External Affairs Minister, Finance Minister and Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission as its members. The NSC was to promote integrated thinking on use of the political, military, diplomatic, scientific and technological resources of the State to promote national security goals and objectives. A broad canvas was indicated for its deliberations:

  • external security environment
  • security threats involving atomic energy, space and high technology
  • economic security threats from global trends, trade, finance and ecology
  • internal security, counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism and intelligence
  • patterns of alienation: social, communal and regional
  • trans-border crimes: smuggling, traffic in arms and narcotics
  • intelligence collection, coordination and analysis

The post of National Security Adviser was created by the same notification. The SCG was renamed Strategic Policy Group (SPG), with an expanded composition. The NSAB was constituted earlier, in December 1998, as an advisory body of eminent persons outside the government to advise on national security issues referred to it.

The Churn Post-Kargil War

The Kargil war in May 1999 focussed national attention on the multiple dimensions of national security. Despite the military victory, evidence suggested that intelligence voids, coordination gaps, technological shortcomings and structural issues could have been better handled before and during the crisis.

This realisation resulted in three intensive analyses: an internal government review by the Cabinet in July 1999; a report by the KRC, headed by well-known strategic analyst K. Subrahmanyam (December 1999) and recommendations of a GoM (Group of Ministers), headed by the Home Minister (February 2001). The GoM was assisted by four task forces on Intelligence, Defence, Border Management and Internal Security, each with professionals of impeccable credentials. The recommendations of the task forces and GoM, which incorporated suggestions of the KRC, were approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security. This body of decisions is the foundation of today’s national security management system. It was the first comprehensive review of our security mechanisms in their entirety and the first (and only) one to be made public, after excision of sensitive information (mainly relating to intelligence). It was presented in Parliament and is on the Internet.

These reviews resulted in new structures and coordination mechanisms. At the apex of these structures and mechanisms, at the official level, is the National Security Adviser. He is the principal security adviser to the NSC. His authority flows directly from various Cabinet decisions over the years.

A major lesson from Kargil was that intelligence agencies should be tasked for requirements of security agencies; there should be close coordination between them to plug intelligence voids; they should be equipped with modern technological tools and, at the same time, there should not be unnecessary duplication of expensive, sophisticated technical equipment—such equipment could be centrally procured and used as a common resource by all concerned agencies. The NSA oversees the implementation of these objectives.

When India became a nuclear weapons power, command structures were created for its strategic forces. The Cabinet Committee on Security approved the constitution of a Nuclear Command Authority, with a Political Council and an Executive Council. The Political Council, chaired by the Prime Minister, is the sole body which can authorise the use of nuclear weapons. The Executive Council, chaired by the National Security Adviser, provides inputs for decision-making by the Nuclear Command Authority and executes directives of the Political Council.

The National Security Adviser

Twenty years ago, not many countries had the institution of a National Security Adviser. Today, every major country has one, though the designation may not be the same. Typically, the NSA (or equivalent) is appointed directly by the executive head of government, is someone who enjoys his/her confidence, has immediate access and coordinates national security-related actions of the government. Therefore, the quickest and most effective means to reach a foreign head of government during times of crises is through the NSA. It is a channel which has often been used to great effect. In March 2003, NSA Brajesh Mishra telephoned U.S. NSA Condoleezza Rice on the eve of our Parliamentary debate on the U.S. invasion of Iraq and asked her to inform the U.S. President of the expected criticism of the House. This advance warning softened the U.S. response somewhat, at a delicate stage of our negotiations of the Next Steps to Strategic Partnership (which eventually led to the nuclear deal of 2008). Calls have similarly been made to the NSA of Russia, when critical issues of cooperation needed the immediate attention of President Putin. Dialogues of our NSAs, deputies and secretariats with their counterparts in major countries have made valuable contributions to security cooperation.

The NSA’s formal appointment is in the Prime Minister’s Office. In this capacity, he assists the PM on foreign policy, defence, atomic energy and space issues (besides internal and external security) in the same way as other officials in PMO assist him on other subjects. When India and China appointed Special Representatives to address the boundary problem from a political perspective and to directly report to the leaders, PM Vajpayee appointed his NSA as India’s Special Representative. The NSA has since been India’s Special Representative.

National Security Reviews

The national security reviews identified the roles that national security structures need to play to ensure considered formulation and coherent implementation of policies with a bearing on national security.

The most important is a national security strategy, which is a synthesis of foreign, defence, internal security, economic and other policies. Formulation of every element of the strategy needs inter-departmental consultations before political decisions are taken; thereafter, it needs coordination to ensure an all-of-government approach to its implementation. A similar cooperative approach is also required to defence management, evolution of military doctrines, defence funding and self-reliance. The nuclear posture, strategies and technologies are the responsibilities of relevant structures, as also intelligence tasking, coordination and integration with policies and actions. Another priority is to deal with cross-cutting areas or those that may fall through the cracks of the ministerial system. Cyber security is one such, with ramifications for internal security, protection of critical infrastructure, banking, business and defence (to name just a few). The multiple dimensions of maritime security, strategies for moving up the rare earths value chain, self-reliance in strategic materials all require inter-ministerial coordination, reconciling of conflicting interests and eventually decisions from a national security perspective. Similarly, relations with major strategic partners—USA, Russia, China, Japan, EU—can only be managed by compromise on interests in some areas to secure advantage in others; getting a ministry to sacrifice its sectoral interest to benefit the nation in another sector needs careful consideration and higher direction.

It is now about 18 years since the first comprehensive overhaul of the national security apparatus. A review was conducted in 2011 by a committee headed by veteran civil servant Naresh Chandra and reforms were made as per its recommendations. India’s internal and external security environment has changed considerably even since then. Great power relations are in a state of flux as never before, with uncertain consequences for the balance of forces in our neighbourhood. Even as we balance competition and cooperation with China, our strategic partnerships with the U.S. and Russia are complicated by their acrimonious standoff, requiring unpleasant compromises. Global commons in space, oceans and cyber are being contested. The nature of military conflict has transformed, with space, cyber and electronic systems reinforcing conventional and nuclear forces. Artificial intelligence, quantum computing and other technologies are finding ever-new applications, which are lethal in the hands of terrorists and enemy forces, while their use by defence forces and security agencies could gain them decisive advantages in war and counter-terrorism. Social media is a powerful tool for both terrorism and counter-terrorism. Domestically, cybercrime, sub-national movements, inter-state and inter-regional disputes, demographic disruptions, agrarian distress, food and water security need study, analysis and response.

The structures set up in 1999-2001 and fine-tuned over the years now need another comprehensive review to create the systemic capacity to meet present and future challenges, including staffing, functioning, technical capacity and skill sets. This is an exercise that has been undertaken over the past year, some of which has gone unnoticed and some has attracted uninformed criticism.

Expansion of NSCS

The NSCS (National Security Council Secretariat), which has formally been a part of PMO since 2002, is being expanded to strengthen its capacity to deal with the complex challenges to national security. This is not merely a physical expansion, but an effort to identify skilled personnel in the entire range of domains mentioned above, from within and outside government. The idea is to equip it with the skills for professional and comprehensive analysis of issues, formulation of strategies for approvals at appropriate levels and coordination between central and state government departments for effective implementation. Four verticals have been identified, three of them headed by a Deputy NSA (and the military vertical is headed by a Military Adviser of equivalent rank). The Strategic Affairs vertical would deal with India’s strategic and security interests in our neighbourhood and in key geographies. The Technologies and Intelligence vertical would work on infusion of the latest technologies for intelligence, civil and military domains and coordinate efforts to plug technology gaps that could impact national security. The Internal Affairs vertical would focus on ongoing issues in J&K and the Northeast, counter terrorism and counter insurgency issues and next generation threats. The Military Adviser would provide a military perspective to national security policy making; his vertical would focus on military developments in our neighbourhood and defence requirements in India’s strategic environment. These are naturally only broad indicative descriptions. Also, this expansion is still a work in progress, since selection of the appropriate specialised staff for various functions is a time-consuming process. It may be noted that in all these areas, the NSCS is not expected to encroach on the responsibilities of any of the functional ministries or perform executive duties. Its responsibilities are those of a secretariat, analysing options, recommending policies and coordinating actions in implementation of decisions, whenever tasked to do so.

One small, but important, tweaking of the existing system was reconstitution of the SPG, with NSA as its Chairman. The logic was obvious: NSA is the principal security adviser to NSC and the SPG is “the principal mechanism for inter-Ministerial coordination and integration of relevant inputs in the formulation of national security policies” (as per the 1999 notification). Some of the criticism of this decision is based on inaccurate information. It is not a snub to the Cabinet Secretary to be a member of a Committee of which NSA is chair. When the SPG was chaired by the Cabinet Secretary, NSA was not a member, the Deputy NSA was. In fact, the original order constituting the SPG clearly indicated at least a co-equal status of NSA and Cabinet Secretary, by providing that either of them could direct the convening of the SPG. It may also be noted that government bodies are chaired on functional considerations. The Atomic Energy Commission and the Space Commission are both chaired by the Secretaries of these departments but their members include NSA, Principal Secretary to PM and Cabinet Secretary, all of whom outrank the Chairperson.

Defence Management

The importance of higher defence management for national security has been mentioned. The problems have been identified and articulated ad nauseum over the years: rational allocation of resources between the Army, Air Force and Navy; alignment of defence capability with security threats and strategic objectives; streamlining procurement procedures and harnessing them to our defence manufacturing goals; and promoting genuine jointness in the Services, among many others. The responses to these challenges need coordination of multiple agencies. As noted earlier, war-fighting is no longer on land, sea and air; cyber, space, electronic and information domains are involved. Analysis of strategic threats involves understanding of the complex course of the current global geopolitical flux. The economic viability of ‘Make in India’ in defence depends on creating appropriate investment conditions for industry and a defined exports regime. Matching defence capacities to strategic threats and ambitions requires consultations between the foreign, defence and finance ministries (at the least). Defence management, therefore, needs extensive inter-ministerial coordination. This was the rationale for the Defence Planning Committee (DPC), set up about a year ago. The Committee, chaired by the NSA, includes the three service chiefs, Defence, Foreign and Expenditure Secretaries and Chief of the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), with the Headquarters of the IDS as its secretariat.

Though the terms of reference of the committee covered precisely the issues recognised as problem areas, there has been criticism from many directions. It has been variously described as bringing in a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) by the backdoor, putting a police officer in charge of the armed forces (sacrilege!), marginalising the Defence Minister, her ministry and the armed forces. It has been said that DPC cannot produce results because it has the same officials who are responsible for the crisis in defence management in the first place. Finally, there is the recurring refrain: that power and decision-making are being concentrated under one all-powerful security czar.

The responsibilities of a CDS, recommended by the GoM (this is in the public domain), were (a) to provide single-point military advice to government; (b) administer the strategic forces; (c) enhance efficient planning through intra- and inter-service prioritisation; and (d) ensure jointness in the armed forces. Of these, DPC will only deal with inter-service prioritisation, where too it will seek collective recommendations of the armed forces and the Defence Ministry. Its recommendations have to be accepted by the Defence Minister and will then go through the political approval process. It is difficult to see any marginalisation in this. As for the composition of the DPC, one can imagine the furore that would have been created if it contained members not directly involved in defence planning and administration.

The CDS is a critical position principally because India is a nuclear weapons power; the creation of structures for management and control of our nuclear weapons and strategic forces is important. His role in ensuring jointness is also important. Opposition from within the armed forces has ensured that successive governments since 1998 have not appointed a CDS. The present restructuring of the national security apparatus has not included this. It can only be hoped that the next government will bite this bullet. In most countries, the appointment of a CDS has been a top-down decision.

In recognition of the expanding dimensions of warfare, a Defence Space Agency was constituted in October 2018. It is a platform for cooperation of the armed forces with ISRO and DRDO for integration and better utilisation of space resources. It is deliberately not a Space Command, to signal India’s continued opposition to weaponisation of outer space and support for international efforts to strengthen the safety and security of space-based assets. At the same time, we have to protect our security interests in the face of threats from emerging space technologies. The capability demonstrated through the recent anti-satellite missile test provides credible deterrence against threats to our growing space-based assets. Even while opposing weaponisation of space, we should be alive to ground realities (or space realities, in this case!). The U.S. President recently announced the creation of a U.S. Space Command to focus on conducting all joint space warfighting operations and ensuring the combat readiness of global forces. Other major powers will not lag behind.

The creation of a Defence Cyber Agency (also in October 2018) aims to draw in available resources from government and outside, in coordination with the National Cyber Security Coordinator, to create strong defences for our military assets, including critical infrastructure. Cyber-defence and cyber-offence technologies and tactics are constantly transforming; a specialised, multidisciplinary and tactically agile agency is the need of the hour.

A few observations about the restructuring exercise and reactions to it: one, the basic structure of the national security institutions has not changed from that created in 1999-2001; it has been tweaked in response to changed circumstances. Two, all changes—SPG, DPC, expansion of NSCS, etc—have been approved by the competent executive authority, the Cabinet Committee on Security. Three, the role of these bodies is to formulate policy options and recommendations, which go to the political authority—in most cases, the CCS—for policy decisions. Therefore, none of the committees undermines the authority of senior Cabinet Ministers. Thus, the SPG is not (as has been suggested somewhere) a body where NSA conveys PM’s decisions, which all bureaucrats scurry to implement. Four, the NSA is appointed by the PM, but is the NSA to the NSC. Like the Cabinet Secretary, he is a civil servant appointed by procedures, which the competent executive authority has approved (back in 1999). The NSA heads the Secretariat of the NSC and the Cabinet Secretary heads the Secretariat of the Cabinet; both have distinct responsibilities. Five, it is an unfortunate fact that service loyalties and service antagonisms, not objective realities, have inspired most reactions.

National Security Advisory Board

The functioning of the National Security Advisory Board was also recently reviewed to see how it could be more responsive to the needs of the national security establishment. Though the membership has been held to manageable levels (it has a membership of 11; the notification in 1999 capped the membership at 30), it has a diversity of domain expertise: strategic affairs, military affairs, neighbourhood issues, insurgencies and radicalisation, internal and external intelligence, international commerce, finance and markets, artificial intelligence, cyber security and maritime affairs. The NSAB is not meant to mirror the executive by including every area of expertise relevant to national security. It can co-opt other domain experts for specific studies. As per its original mandate, it considers subjects referred to it by national security stakeholders. In addition, it aims to act as a bridge between the national security establishment and think tanks/research institutions working on national security and strategic affairs, so as to enhance communication and understanding of national security policies and perspectives. Looking ahead, it could act as a receptacle of public views on national security related issues, which it could convey to the national security establishment.

We in India have (this trait is also discernible in a number of other democracies) a contradictory approach to national security. Every time a crisis occurs, we bemoan the lack of coordination and leadership. But when resources are brought under one institution to ensure better coordination, it is dubbed empire-building.

There can be no argument that national security is the highest responsibility of a government and, therefore, of the Prime Minister. The Presidential notification on distribution of Cabinet portfolios states that the PM’s portfolio includes “all important policy issues and all portfolios not allocated to any Minister”. National security is not a portfolio with any Minister; it is therefore the PM’s responsibility to oversee the creation and operation of national security-related structures, through the NSC, CCS and other relevant Cabinet Committees. The reform of the national security structures now underway, including the creation of new coordinating bodies, should be seen in this light.

(The author is a former diplomat, currently Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board. Views are personal)


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