NTRO: India's Technical Intelligence Agency
By RS Bedi VrC
In the Indian Defence Review issue of Oct–Dec 2007, Shri B Raman, wrote an article on Indian Intelligence which I read with great interest—especially since the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) figured in it. At the very outset, let me state that Shri Raman is highly respected in the Intelligence community. I personally also hold him in great regard. It is not my intention to comment on the views expressed by him in the said article. However, I will take the liberty to comment on the issues that he has raised about the NTRO. I take this liberty because I was intimately involved in a number of discussions with the Kargil Review Committee and later the Task Force when the process of making recommendations for the restructuring of the Intelligence apparatus, was in progress. More importantly, I actually raised the NTRO from scratch.
While creating an organisation with multiple responsibilities and a complex charter from scratch, it made no recommendation, and gave no guidance whatsoever as to how such an organisation could be raised. No magic wand was either provided. Was it purposely left vague and ambiguous?
As the process of raising the Task Force got underway, a concerted disinformation campaign was launched by some civilian agencies that may have had reason to feel threatened. At times this campaign tended to become personal. But that is another story. Initially, the disinformation had little impact, but with the change of guard in 2005, it started to have the intended effect. Result: even such eminent people as Shri Raman have accepted most of what was said as the truth. To me this comes as a big disappointment—especially since Shri Raman was one of the authors of the report of the Task Force.
NTRO being a completely new organisation has so far had no voice and no clout. It has plodded on in the face of intense hostility, getting no sympathy from existing structures. I feel it is time to speak out in an effort to remove the clutter in people's minds, to put things in perspective, and to put to rest many myths, some of which have found a place in Shri Raman's article under reference.
The said article has raised the following issues with regard to the NTRO:-
- NTRO was to focus on the collection of TECHINT and handle all future investments in equipment and collection efforts and that the existing capabilities of IB, R&AW, DGS and MI agencies should not be affected
- NTRO should focus on Cyber Intelligence and Cyber Counter Intelligence as existing agencies did not have significant capability in that field.
- In implementation of Task Force re-commendations there were major modifications leading to "bifurcation" of the existing capabilities of the R&AW and DGS.
- The "bifurcation" resulted in an "emaciated DGS" consequently weakening its TECHINT collection capabilities against China and in the case of RAW, against terrorism.
Before I tackle the issues enumerated above, we need to go back in time to understand why the Kargil Review Committee, and later the Task Force, recommended the raising of the NTRO. Both these bodies did a thorough study of the existing TECHINT capabilities, and concluded, that they needed to be considerably enhanced and restructured, and that reforms in this area should receive the highest priority. A glaring shortcoming noticed in the existing structures was that the agencies controlling TECHINT assets were loath to share information with other consumers in a timely manner— the product being available to only such agencies that owned the collection asset. Thus, timely and vital intelligence was lost to those that needed it the most. It was also observed that the existing TECIHINT capability, as recent events had revealed, was not only inadequate to meet present security concerns, but more importantly, was not in a position to address emerging security concerns, particularly in certain strategic areas such as CYBERINT and the missile environment developing in and beyond our neighbourhood.
Let me assure the reader that the deficiencies that the Task Force noted in the system existing at the time were not imaginary. I should know as I headed the Aviation Research Centre (ARC-DGS) for six years (1997-2003). The fact is that interpreted/finished intelligence products given to the RAW by the DGS were delayed in transmission to consumers not by days but by months. Matters improved when I took steps to short circuit procedures and make important pieces of intelligence products available to the consumers directly. Efforts to formalise this system by transferring intelligence data directly from the DGS to consumers was scuttled by the RAW. This is a matter of record.
When it came to implementation of the cabinet decisions taken on the functions of the NTRO, there was massive resistance from existing civilian intelligence agencies—most of it based on illogical reasoning, and not surprisingly, a lack of understanding of what modern technology was capable of achieving.
While on this subject, it is worth recounting that efforts to make available resources of the DGS to sister agencies for carrying out counter terrorism operations not only did not receive encouragement but were cut short. Reason? The credit for the success of a series of operations conducted by the sister agency with the support of the DGS was garnered by that agency with the RAW/DGS not getting a share in the credit—so was it perceived by the RAW. This too is a matter of record.
Reverting to the subject—what were the recommendations made in the final report of the Task Force on the subject of TECHINT? Based on its discussions with various organisations, it made some significant observations. First, it was of the view that the agencies put too much emphasis on ownership of facilities and assets rather than prompt access to specific classes of information. Second, that all expensive and new facilities should be "owned" by a central organisation to be created for the purpose, and third, that there were distinct advantages of two lines of intelligence reporting, provided, duplication of collection assets was planned and co-ordinated. It then went on to recommend the creation of an agency where "imagery intelligence (IMINT) from all possible sources could be fused with all other forms of TECHINT to paint a more complete operational and strategic intelligence picture of our targets" and that "the NTRO should undertake this task". Based on the above, the Task Force recommended the setting up of the NTRO with the following charter:
- Plan, design set up and operate any major new TECHINT facilities as approved by the Technology Co-ordination Group (TCG), keeping in view the rapid convergence now taking place among hitherto different technologies (as per the Task Force definition, TECHINT comprised COMINT, ELINT, TELINT, MINT and CYBERINT).
- Examine and process plans for the acquisition of all new facilities/equipment by the intelligence agencies costing more than 3 crores (later 20 crores) for consideration by TCG.
- Plan and establish modern, secure digital networks connecting the intelligence agencies in Delhi as well as (where required) outside Delhi, guide and direct development of advanced techniques for CYBERINT, Cryptanalysis and Cryptography within the country, and develop capabilities for defensive and offensive cyber operations. Create, support and maintain a common data base of requisite information as approved by the TCG so that intelligence can be rapidly disseminated among all concerned agencies according to authorised guidelines and protocols.
- Explore and establish facilities required for monitoring missile launches, or preparation thereof , in any country of interest.
- Carry out such other projects or programmes as TCG may direct.
The NTRO was to "acquire and operate" such assets as may be required to fulfill the above.
The charter approved by the CCS for the NTRO was paraphrased, but contained all the responsibilities as per the Task Force recommended charter. Various divisions were created in the NTRO in a way that it could address all aspects of the allotted charter. At no stage of its functioning did NTRO trespass into areas not dictated by the charter. Shri Raman's accusation that NTRO "started performing some of the tasks which were already being performed by the R&AW and the DGS" is unjust. As a TECHINT agency at a national level, NTRO will setup and operate TECHINT facilities dictated by its charter and there is bound to be some overlap and duplication which as accepted by the Task Force, has its advantages. Moreover, NTRO products will be available real time to all consumers, whereas DGS products are for RAW's consumption only.
It would be worth mentioning that it is the National Security Agency that provides the bulk of intelligence (through TECHINT) for all of USA's strategic operations. It was heartening, therefore, that serious thought had been given to the future.
At this stage, let me digress a little. I need to take up cudgels with the Task Force. While creating an organisation with multiple responsibilities and a complex charter from scratch, it made no recommendation, and gave no guidance whatsoever as to how such an organisation could be raised. No magic wand was either provided. Was it purposely left vague and ambiguous? When I put this question to some of the authors of the Task Force report I got no answer except that there were "time constraints". While recommending the creation of the NTRO, the Task Force did, however, state that "It is not proposed that all the equipment now available with the different agencies necessarily be centralised under the control of this new organisation". Implication—that while all assets should not be transferred, if necessary some could be. In the entire report, this was the only hint/pointer towards how a beginning could be made.
It was in January 2003 that I was asked to take up the task of setting up the NTRO by the then NSA Shri Brajesh Mishra. His clear direction was to set up the organisation on the lines of the USA's National Security Agency. It would be worth mentioning that it is the National Security Agency that provides the bulk of intelligence (through TECHINT) for all of USA's strategic operations. It was heartening, therefore, that serious thought had been given to the future.
Easier said than done. When it came to implementation of the cabinet decisions taken on the functions of the NTRO, there was massive resistance from existing civilian intelligence agencies—most of it based on illogical reasoning, and not surprisingly, a lack of understanding of what modern technology was capable of achieving in terms of real time dissemination of information/ intelligence. The importance of the requirement of a national level agency, whose product could be shared on real time basis by all possible consumers, and not being restricted to the owner of the TECHINT collection assets, was lost on these agencies. Knowledge, information and intelligence is power and why should one want to share such power with others? The emphasis, therefore, was on exclusive ownership of assets for collection of TECHINT rather than the ability to access information/intelligence even in real time from such assets controlled by the central agency.
Coming back to the subject, much has been said about taking away existing assets from various organisations resulting in their "emaciation". We need, therefore, to see what exactly the NTRO has taken in the form of assets, from where and why. Where the R&AW is concerned, no resource/asset was either sought or transferred. In fact, various requests, both verbal and in writing for officers to be deputed to the NTRO from the R&AW were not given the courtesy of even a response. Let me further add that all TECHINT projects of the R&AW proposed consequent to the establishment of the NTRO were approved by the TCG of which NTRO is a member. That, the NTRO is in some way responsible for impacting on the R&AW's anti-terrorism capabilities is a figment of imagination and nothing but a myth.
How about the DGS? Its TECHINT collection assets and present status is discussed below:
- Communication intelligence: This remains untouched as no asset was either asked for or transferred to the NTRO.
- Electronic intelligence: This remains unaffected. Nothing was asked for, and nothing was transferred. In fact, a completely new project and one of upgradation was approved by the TCG post the creation of NTRO.
From the beginning, I was of the firm view that the defence forces had their own intelligence requirements for their operational needs which should not be tampered with.
- Imagery intelligence: The DGS IMINT assets/resources were made up of one satellite and a number of airborne platforms. Of these only the satellite (2 meter resolution) was transferred to the NTRO keeping in mind the future satellite acquisition program of the country and the recommendation that all future and expensive TECHINT facilities should be placed under the NTRO. Of the very large number of IMINT analysts in the DGS, not one was transferred to the NTRO. Let me very emphatically state that even though the satellite's control was transferred to the NTRO, the data received is being made available to the DGS in as real time, since modern technology enables this. The NTRO, has since added much finer resolution satellites to its inventory, the data from which is available to the DGS immediately. What is important is the fact that consumers other than the DGS and RAW can task the NTRO and receive data directly whereas in the old arrangement it was only the DGS/RAW which had access to the data. Unfortunately this fact is being glossed over.
- Telemetry intelligence: This capability of the DGS had been lying defunct for almost a decade and its manpower under-employed. Since the charter of the NTRO involved the monitoring of the missile environment, the telemetry aspect of the DGS was transferred to the NTRO. The loss of this non-functioning, dead as a dodo resource from the DGS to the NTRO has had no adverse impact on its capability.
A summary of the facts: no loss in COMINT capability, no loss in ELINT capability (in fact enhanced), no loss in IMINT capability (in fact enhanced). Shri Raman's comments that "bifurcation" and the transfer of the resources from the DGS to the NTRO has had an adverse impact on the collection of intelligence related to its target area is, therefore, somewhat perplexing. In fact this is another myth. If there has indeed been a downward trend in the DGS abilities in various areas of its functions, the transfer of assets to the NTRO is not the reason. The reason for this trend must, therefore, lie elsewhere.
As far as the defence forces are concerned, none of their assets /resources were asked for, nor transferred. From the beginning, I was of the firm view that the defence forces had their own intelligence requirements for their operational needs which should not be tampered with. The NTRO would be the civilian organisation which could supplement and augment the efforts of the defence forces, particularly, requirements of strategic intelligence (through TECHINT only). The only resource that the NTRO received from the defence was in the form of manpower which was highly experienced in various TECHINT disciplines and which was critical to establish the NTRO. For this, the NTRO will always be grateful, as no other organisation was willing to help.
Also essential is the compression of the time and extension of space in transmitting intelligence and information which technology now makes possible. The revolution in Military Affairs dictates this requirement.
The Army and the Air force under the stewardship of Gen NC VIJ and Air Chief Marshall, Shashi Tyagi respectively, were more than helpful. In fact, the helpful attitude of the IAF needs to be acknowledged by the NTRO for the understanding and co-operation it exhibited in finalising and approving a blueprint for one of the more important functions of the NTRO in which apart from the NTRO, the IAF and the Strategic Forces Command had vital stakes.
I need now to address Shri Raman's comment that the Task Force had wanted the NTRO to "focus on Cyber intelligence and Cyber counter intelligence". He also states that "instead of undertaking a crash program for the development of capability in that area it started performing some of the tasks already being performed by the R&AW and DGS". The comments imply that NTRO did not undertake a program for the development of CYBERINT capability. Shri Raman is wrong. The facts are that a division within the NTRO was created for this specific purpose. After detailed discussion at the level of the TCG, various responsibilities in this area were given to relevant agencies. Certain functions given to the NTRO required enablement by the Government because of legal issues for which the NTRO was required to draft a legislative bill. I recall that this task was completed in 2005 and the draft bill was forwarded to the department which was made responsible for having the bill processed. I understand that the said bill is gathering dust somewhere. Meanwhile, the building up of capabilities of the CYBERINT division of the NTRO got all the attention it deserved.
A careful reading of all the facts stated above would reveal that (a) the NTRO has sought to build its capabilities only in the functions dictated by the charter and responsibilities given to it (b) that the role/functions and charter was at no stage modified in a manner to affect the functioning of other agencies, and (c) that the "bifurcation" of resources or assets in no way adversely affected either the DGS' capabilities to cover its target or RAW's capabilities in the field of counter terrorism. In all sincerity, I hope that this disinformation campaign will at some stage be halted and the myths that have resulted from such disinformation, permanently put to rest.
While we are still on the subject of reform of the intelligence apparatus, it would be worthwhile examining whether our present intelligence apparatus is geared to cope with our strategic ambitions.
In the recent years one has often read in various publications references to India's strategic ambitions which include projection of its power beyond its shores. The nature of its present and projected procurement of weapon-systems, particularly by the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy reflect that ambition. Clearly we have the potential to realise such a goal. However, a realistic appraisal of the current status of the various factors essential to achieve this would show that the synergy required to attain the necessary capability is lacking.
In a recent interview given by the Army Chief, he is reported to have stated that while a set of measures had been put in place in terms of training institutions and joint communications by the three services to achieve such a synergy, a whole lot of other measures such as command and control were yet to be addressed. Most importantly, he mentioned that the Chief of Defence Staff would be in place at an appropriate stage and indicated that the process could take up to a decade. All these measures/reforms would have to be successfully completed before we declare ourselves to be a military power of any consequence.
As far as strategic intelligence is concerned, our HUMINT, in my view, provides less than 5 percent of the requirement. OSINT would contribute between 10 to 15 percent while TECHINT rakes in the balance 80 to 85 percent.
Apart from the jointness of the three services, there are other ingredients which are vital and without which the level of synergy required to successfully project our power strategically cannot be achieved. The most important of these elements being Intelligence. While such ingredients as procurement of appropriate weapon systems, communications, and command and control issues are being addressed and are moving apace, what about Intelligence? Accurate and readily available information/intelligence would play a vital role in making these new weapon-systems effective. Also essential is the compression of the time and extension of space in transmitting intelligence and information which technology now makes possible. The revolution in Military Affairs dictates this requirement. Real time dissemination of information/intelligence, sophisticated analytical tools for quick and accurate analysis, on line data base and universal connectivity, apart from effective collection methods, are all essential ingredients of a modern intelligence apparatus required for strategic operations. Such a capability would act as a real force multiplier. Some of our adversaries have already taken significant steps in this direction while redesigning/modernizing their military/ intelligence structures. The question is where do we stand? Is our present intelligence apparatus capable of delivering the goods and becoming an effective part of a seamless organisation necessary to become a potent military power. This needs serious examination.
The three main sources for obtaining information are human sources (HUMINT), open sources (OSINT), and technology (TECHINT). As far as strategic intelligence is concerned, our HUMINT, in my view, provides less than 5 percent of the requirement. OSINT would contribute between 10 to 15 percent while TECHINT rakes in the balance 80 to 85 percent. One would be pleasantly surprised if our HUMINT is able to significantly increase its contribution, to the information/intelligence pool in the years to come. OSINT has its limitations and is similarly placed. Between the two, these sources can never achieve the kind of reach required for strategic military operations. Let us, therefore, look at the state of our TECHINT since its primacy in collection of information/intelligence is obvious.
Inadequacies in our intelligence capability have shown up often in the past. Even in the matter of protecting our own borders, it has been found wanting. There are many examples. The most recent one being Kargil, prompting the Government to go in for major restructuring of the intelligence apparatus.
This is not to say that the Armed Forces should go slow, but to emphasise that the reform of our TECHINT apparatus must receive the attention it deserves, so that it can keep pace with the other important constituents of an effective military power.
I was one of those with whom both Kargil Review Committee and the Task Force interacted, in my capacity as Director, Aviation Research Centre (ARC).In the very first such interaction with the Task Force, Shri MK Narayanan, the present NSA, asked me a pointed question—"Don't you think it is time that India had a National Technical Intelligence set-up on the model of the National Security Agency of the USA?" The question was a clear hint of what the Task Force may recommend by way of reforms to restructure our intelligence apparatus. Eventually, the Task Force did recommend the creation of the NTRO "to plan, design set up and operate, all major new strategic technical facilities". The creation of the NTRO was central to the reforms recommended for the restructuring of the country's TECHINT.
For reasons mentioned earlier, the reforms recommended in the restructuring of the TECHINT apparatus of the country did not receive the attention they deserved. The level of confusion and clutter in the minds of those who manage our security apparatus, specifically the TECHINT, does not bode well with the reforms being concluded in line with and in the spirit of recommendations approved by the government. There is a pronounced lack of knowledge in the management of TECHINT collection and appropriate technology for the purpose. This deficiency also applies to the optimum use and deployment of even available assets. There is a recent example, where in an effort to achieve limited strategic objectives in our neighbourhood, the deployment of appropriate TECHINT assets was unimaginative, simply because assets, in the first place were very limited, are owned by different agencies. The obvious disadvantages of such a short sighted policy is lost on the custodians of our intelligence. Result: substandard intelligence, when you have the means to obtain much finer results.
One must sadly conclude that our current TECHINT capability, and the slow pace of reform, decidedly cannot cater to the quality as well as quantum of intelligence, required for successfully achieving our long term strategic objectives. It is, therefore imperative, that this aspect keeps pace with the acquisition of strategic weapon systems and other reforms in our military apparatus. Presently, the pace of progress is completely lopsided. This is not to say that the Armed Forces should go slow, but to emphasise that the reform of our TECHINT apparatus must receive the attention it deserves, so that it can keep pace with the other important constituents of an effective military power. In this manner alone can the level of synergy so necessary for war fighting be achieved. Even if pushed through with firmness, the reform process will take a while to accomplish as procurement and operationalisation of TECHINT assets cannot be done overnight. However, even if the completion of the reform process can be achieved in a decade, when the Armed Forces expect all aspects of their jointness to reach successful conclusion, it would be heartening.
It is not intended to make any re-commendations in this paper and how these could be achieved. Enough has already been said in the Task Force report. All that is required is a sincere adherence to the letter and spirit of that report and decisions of the CCS. However, it needs to be emphasised that for reforms in this area to succeed, there has to be a major change in the mindset of our intelligence set-up. A truly co-operative ethos has to be developed. This is not going to be easy. I might also add that it is in the interest of the defence forces, keeping in view their long term 'strategic ambitions, to nurture the NTRO, hold its hand, and help it to develop into a truly national intelligence (TECHINT) agency to enable it to supply the kind of intelligence product required for achieving the synergy, so essential for successful conduct of war.
RS Bedi, Founding Chairman / Secretary NTRO and former Special Secretary ARC-DGS.