The 2015-2016 budget shows a provision of Rs 310,079 crore for the defence services. If this looks different from what you read in the papers, it is because it contains a sum of Rs 54,500 crore which is paid out by way of pensions for the defence services, and Rs 8,852 crore which are listed for the MoD secretariat.
By a sleight of hand, these are excluded from defence expenditure - but that does not mean they don’t come out of the central exchequer.
Of this, just Rs 94,588 crore is for capital acquisitions or new equipment for the services.
Therein lies the dilemma: Too much is being spent on pay, allowances, and maintenance of existing forces, and not enough is left over for the ever-increasing costs of modernisation.
And this will increase as the Indian Army expands by another 90,000 personnel in the coming five years, and the Navy and Air Force grow.
With the Services demanding top-of-the-line equipment, the question is: Can the economy can safely absorb the burden of defence expenditure?
In 1978, China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping proposed “Four Modernisations” – in agriculture, industry, defence and science and technology – aimed at making China a great power by the early 21st century.
We now know that they have succeeded spectacularly. What we may not be aware of is that defence was assigned the lowest priority.
The Chinese made sure they became an economic power before undertaking military modernisation which has gotten underway in the last decade.
India’s challenge is somewhat similar. Should it commit valuable resources to modernise its armed forces first, or should it get on the path of sustained high economic growth before doing so?
India’s predicaments are somewhat different. We need manpower intensive forces to police our borders with China and Pakistan, we also need modern forces to deter a rising China whose nexus with Pakistan is only intensifying.
How do we factor all this towards a defence policy that is successful and sustainable? Ideally, the Government’s national security goals should lead to a formulation of defence objectives which then yield a policy which is implemented.
The first challenge is to have a national security doctrine prepared through interaction between the PMO, Ministry of Defence, Home, External Affairs and Finance.
This would yield a strategy paper which prioritise our responses, identify the military capabilities required, as well pinpoint the industrial, scientific, technological and fiscal capacities required to meet the challenges.
The problem is that if you ask five Indians what their national security strategies are, you will get five answers.
What we need, instead, is an authoritative, official, assessment around which we can make our plans and policies.
Take, for example, external threats. The one area which gets little attention is the Persian Gulf area from which we get 65 per cent of our oil and where 7 million Indians work and send back some $40billion worth of remittances.
Yet, for the security of sea lanes from the Gulf and its littoral, we simply depend on Uncle Sam.
The second is to integrate defence planning with national plans – in other words, get the military and civilian Make in India programmes to synergise each other.
Associated with this is the need to link plans with budgets. The way things happen right now are illustrated by the Government authorisation for the Mountain Strike Corps last year.
The Corps were not in the Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP) 2012-2017 and hence not budgeted for.
The result is the Corps are up, by drawing personnel from existing Army units, and raiding the war wastage reserves for their equipment.
The third big issue is the need for restructuring the apex level management of the armed forces by a) appointing a Chief of Defence Staff and b) creating an expert civilian bureaucracy for managing the MOD.
Only then will we get realistic defence plans with proper inter-service prioritisation and which can be synchronised with the defence needs of the country, as well as its resources.
Minus this, we get landed in situations where each Service pushes its maximal demand simultaneously, and not having an expert civilian bureaucracy to adjudicate them, these either block each other, or force the Government to take ad hoc decisions.
The fourth challenge is to restructure our armed forces by integrating their functioning. There is no logic in having the eastern command of the IAF in Shillong, that of the Army in Kolkata and the Navy in Vizag.
The Lanzhou Military Region commander, one of seven commands in China, faces five Indian commands—the Northern, Western and Central Commands of the Army in addition to two Indian Air Force Commands.
The Services also need to look into their own structures and forces and cut unnecessary manpower and organisations which may have served a function in the past, but are no longer needed.
The phased reduction of the Rashtriya Rifles is one case in point. The fifth is to leave behind the colonial heritage of our defence R&D and industry and progressively corporatize privatise ordnance factories and field workshops.
They were needed in 19th and 20th century India but are not required now. In the coming years, budgets and acquisitions should be viewed in the perspective of longer term aims, rather than through bogeys of short-term demands.
Indeed, the Government should hold off making big acquisitions till it can sort out some of the more basic issues.
India is a nuclear weapons power and we do not face an existential threat from any state large or small, or for that matter from any non-state actor.
Before the Government plunges into the physical modernisation of the armed forces, it needs to put in place the much needed modernisation of the way we think about, plan and manage our national security system.
Buying or making shiny new hardware for the sake of looking modern neither enhances our security, nor helps our economy.
Mail Today March 2, 2015