Does India need to restructure its national intelligence system? Will legislative sanction and oversight help define an individual agency’s mandate and promote inter-agency co-operation? These and other vital issues were discussed by a distinguished delegation of current and erstwhile intelligence officials at Observer Research Foundation on February 24. The discussion was titled “Future Challenges To India’s Intelligence System”.
There are currently 14 intelligence agencies active in India, making any discussion on reform challenging numerically as well as doctrinal as they each have different mandates often overlapping each other. This highlighted the need for inter-agency co-operation and creation of planned duplicate capabilities in the face of unpredictable threats and a wide area of coverage they are expected to provide. Given the limited resources currently shared amongst these different agencies, it is of outmost importance to put into effect a structure where there is oversight and accountability to reduce wastage of these limited resources.
The Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) is the only agency mandated to carry out external intelligence operations. Created in the 60’s to navigate the paradigms of the Cold War, it has over the years seen a huge change in its operating environment. It stands accused of neglecting its mandate of providing human intelligence (HUMINT) and focusing technical intelligence (TECHINT) and open source intelligence (OSINT). It is facing chronic shortages in its ability to recruit specialised personnel and language specialists. This in turn highlights the need to start exploring the possibilities of private contractors working in specialised areas for the intelligence community and promoting the idea of lateral talent recruitment.
Some interesting turf battles were played out amidst discussions on the challenges facing the intelligence community. The R&AW insists on being the sole and nodal agency for any interaction with foreign agencies even as other agencies point out the impracticality of such a scenario given the nature of intelligence work in an ever globalised world. Another bone of contention is the recent setting up of a China desk by the Intelligence Bureau (IB), an exercise of duplication of capabilities that the R&AW feels is a waste of limited resources. The IB however believes such duplication should exist in line with the concepts of redundancy and it falls under its mandate to conduct counter-intelligence against specific threats. Then there is the old quarrel between the ARC and the NTRO over who should be the premier ELINT agency.
The IB which functions nominally under the Ministry of Home Affairs is increasingly being bogged down covering domestic affairs as an information gathering arm of the government. IB gets tasked to collect information where the information already exists in the government from other departments and agencies. A major portion of its human resources gets diverted doing daily police work like verifications, something that the agency claims it does not do any better than the police forces but simply consumes a lot of its time. It came under criticism for not doing enough counter-intelligence work which is one of its primary mandates. It was also chastised for its woeful lack of language specialists and the quality of its lower rung operatives, reflecting a sense that the overall problem lies in something much more fundamental. The quality of people being drawn into these intelligence organizations is low as the intellectual capacity of the country is still quite undeveloped. The need is for smart people to run smart organizations in a smart way.
Another organization’s scope and mandate that has come under scrutiny was the National Technical Research Organization (NTRO). Should the NTRO deal with ’Techint’ in all its manifestations? Is it time to start giving it offensive and defensive cyber capabilities? It currently duplicates capabilities which are similar to the Aviation Research Centre (ARC) which functions under the R&AW. We can see the ARC being integrated into the NTRO in the near future. The NTRO is also the agency tasked with monitoring offensive missile launches against India. The DIA can be developed into another ’Techint’ agency with a planned overlap with some NTRO functions for redundancy.
All, however, is not as bleak as one may choose to make it out to be. India has become more adept at gathering and using (IMMINT) gathered through satellites and aircraft. The big challenge is to develop a system for the real-time transfer of this imagery over secure networks The recent launch of the GSAT-7 for the Indian Navy being a step in that direction, with a second satellite the GSAT-7A already in the pipeline.
There is a consensus that the future challenges cannot be foreseen as they will emanate from the cyber world, space, the ocean, failed states and fundamentalism. The current intelligence system is woefully inadequate to meet these threats. It is imperative for intelligence agencies and forces to develop the capacity and depth of organisation to deal with such unpredictable threats. Reform so far has, however, been episodic and has driven by the belief that that there are moral solutions to political problems. This reform has to be, however, driven by political will and understanding.