June 20, 2010

Net Assessment in Defence Policy

The following article appeared in the Business Standard on June 20, 2010.

Net assessment involves simulations, opposition analysis, critical reviews and low-probability, high-impact contingency planning

The 1980s witnessed an extraordinarily fervent debate in the United States about the ability of the Soviet military to inflict a decisive conventional defeat in Europe against American and Nato forces. At the policy-making level, the debate swung between those who believed that the US and Nato could thwart a Soviet blitzkrieg but still required nuclear weapons in Europe as a deterrent, and those who believed that the West would likely be defeated in a conventional conflict but had a chance of defending itself successfully.

At the same time, the public debate that took place in the media was dominated by overwhelming pessimism. Commentators argued, with a conviction bordering on certainty, that the Eastern Bloc had the means and ability to overpower Nato on the plains of central Europe. This debate revolved almost exclusively on the balance of conventional ground forces and it continued right until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the concomitant dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.

Over the course of the wider debate, the optimist camp pointed to at least four fallacies in the pessimistic arguments. First, in their view, the pessimists unquestioningly believed the assessments of US commanders — particularly the Supreme Allied Commander-Europe — without considering their vested bureaucratic interests in exaggerating the Soviet conventional threat. An inflated threat assessment was, after all, a means of consolidating the alliance and securing additional resources. Second, they assumed that because the Soviets had performed a particular exercise or had written about a certain plan or tactic, that they had the ability to execute it, which naturally inflated Soviet capabilities.

Third, the pessimistic view was unduly influenced by work in the classified intelligence realm, which relied upon a large number of sources, but fell short on analysis due to the vagaries of intelligence production. And finally, pessimistic scenarios tended to favour the offence, on the grounds that it held the initiative and could employ an element of surprise, with little regard for the fact that defence rendered substantial advantages of its own.

If this sounds eerily familiar, it should be no surprise. The context and ensuing discussion have shockingly similar parallels to some of the ongoing debates in India over the Sino-Indian balance. Media reports, often citing anonymous army sources, reveal the service’s woeful unpreparedness in dealing with a hypothetical conventional offensive by China. There is little consideration of the air balance in these analyses, let alone the role that nuclear weapons can — and do — play as a dampener of conflict.

The collective assessment in the public domain of China’s military modernisation programme, based on piecemeal reports of varying levels of reliability, produces a picture in toto of ‘the ten-foot-tall Chinese’. There have been few, if any, unclassified Indian studies of the ability to hold sparsely-populated mountainous terrain in the event of a conventional attack by China. Nor, outside the government, have the wider political implications of a hypothetical Chinese conventional assault been seriously thought through.

The Indian public debate would benefit tremendously from enhanced net assessment. The purpose of net assessment — a concept that took hold at the US National Security Council and subsequently at the US Department of Defense with the establishment of the Office of Net Assessment in the 1970s — is to provide an objective and rigourous evaluation of military competition. This could involve simulations, opposition analysis, historical and cultural studies, critical reviews, and low-probability/high-impact contingency planning.

The absence of such analyses is being remedied in Indian governmental circles, with the National Security Council Secretariat taking much of the initiative. However, far more needs to be done in the public domain, both as a means of restraining wild speculation and providing context to those media reports that do reveal thinking within the Indian armed forces and the national security establishment.

Whether or not India presently underestimates or overestimates its position, comprehensive and objective assessments of current and potential military competitions would result in necessary course corrections. Areas of weakness could be identified for further resource allocation while imprecise exaggerations would prove less distracting. An open and cooperative government and responsible media can help produce a more accurate picture of where India stands with regards to its military preparedness. But with New Delhi home to an ever-growing number of think tanks and policy research institutes, the task also falls upon them to ensure that the public debates on India’s multiple military endeavours remain in perspective.