by Manoj Joshi

Next Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in Singapore as the keynote speaker in this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier defence summit. Defence officials and military chiefs of regional and western alliance countries, are eager to hear what he has to say. India is currently billed as the Great White Hope of the anti-China alliance in what is now termed the Indo-Pacific. So far New Delhi has been generous on rhetoric and low on substance. But expectations will be that Modi announces measures to dramatically raise India’s military profile in the region.

Modi’s India fancies itself as a “net security provider” and a “leading power” that shapes rather than reacts to policies. But its key instrument – the military – is in a parlous state. Indian navy ships, some state of the art otherwise, lack long-range anti-submarine protection because it has not been able to clinch a deal to acquire 147 medium multi-role helicopters. Indian submarines, especially the modern Scorpenes, lack heavyweight torpedoes used to sink vessels at some distance. As for the second indigenous aircraft carrier, it seems to have been shelved at a time when China is making them on an assembly line.

Each of the three services have critical deficiencies, even though India is the world’s largest importer of major arms. Earlier this year, a report of the Parliament’s standing committee on defence cited the serving army vice-chief as saying that 68% of his force’s equipment was of the “vintage category”.

The committee also revealed that India actually spends a huge amount of money for its defence. Officially, this year’s defence budget is Rs 2,79,305 crore. But this leaves out the astonishing Rs 1,08,853 crore in pensions and Rs 16,000 crore spent by the ministry of defence (MoD) itself. The real total is Rs 4,04,365 crore, 16.6% of all government expenditure. The capital expenditure to buy new equipment, Rs 93,982 crore this year and considered grossly inadequate, is 33% of the total capital expenditure of the Union government.

Increasing this would certainly be unconscionable in a country where nearly half the children suffer from stunting because of malnutrition. But at the same time the country cannot afford to have a million plus military in a condition where they cannot accomplish the tasks they are expected to do. The country’s leaders have been told this by the forces themselves and the various specialist committees who have recommended deep structural reform of our military and MoD. But the political leadership has lacked the will and the application to undertake the task.

Reform is needed at four levels – first, in insisting that the MoD be run on professional lines by specialists both civilian and uniformed. Second, to get the military to fight as an integrated force by appointing a chief of defence staff to lead the process. A third and separate level relates to the deep overhaul of the defence R&D and industrial system by bravely dismantling the current structure and reconstituting it on new and better terms.

A fourth more complicated level is that of manpower. India cannot afford its 1.2 million strong army. One consequence of this is the growing pension bill; another is that with salaries and allowances eating the budget, no money is left to buy equipment to modernise. One solution is to recruit most of the personnel for a limited time – 10 years or so – and shed them, minus pension. At an average age of 28 they should be mandatorily recruited into government services, especially the state police and paramilitary.

Government has recently set up a new defence planning committee (DPC) under the NSA to advise the MoD on these issues. Considering the limited time on hand for the principals of the DPC, one wonders what its goals are: To actually do something, or block the pesky parliamentary committee from highlighting these problems.