DRDO's Dhanush Howitzer, displaying its superior prowess at DefExpo 2018, a large defence exhibition showcasing military equipment, on the outskirts of Chennai on April 11, 2018

by Pradip R Sagar

With a few months left for the Lok Sabha elections, the people of India has a lot of expectations from the last budget of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government. And the armed forces are no exception to it.

While presenting the Union budget last year, then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had mentioned the allocation for defence as a priority. However, he could only give a modest hike of 7.81 per cent in defence spending and a major chunk of the defence allocation went to pay the salaries and pensions. As a result, for the first time the spending on defence pensions went up to Rs 1.08 lakh crore, a sharp increase of 26 per cent compared to the previous year. Besides, a salary bill for the serving personnel was of Rs 1.15 lakh crore last year.

In the year of 2018-19, India spend only 1.57 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP), the lowest since the 1962 war with China. Meanwhile, China had allocated 3 per cent and Pakistan spends 3.5 per cent of their GDP on defence. While India has 1.25 soldiers per 1,000 people, China has 2.23 and Pakistan has 4.25.

For re-equipping the armed forces, defence ministry received Rs 2.95 lakh crore. But with a heavy baggage of committed liabilities of the previous years, there was hardly any money left for new purchases. But even then, the Indian Air Force signed its biggest deal of nearly Rs 40,000 crore to procure S-400 air defence missile systems from Russia along with a two frigates deal in October last year by the Navy. 

Last year, the IAF had received the biggest portion of defence budget with Rs 35,755 crore to make payments for Rafale fighter jet, Apache attack helicopters and Chinook heavy-lift choppers.

Amid the ongoing dogfight between the government and opposition over the Rafale deal, the IAF has made a payment of about Rs 34,000 crore to the jet manufacturer. An instalment of Rs 13,000 crore is also to be made later this year. The total cost of 36 Rafale jets with 13 India specific enhancements will cost Rs 59,000 crore and the first aircraft is expected to be delivered by the end of this year. All 36 Rafale jets will arrive in India by 2022.

But there are many critical and important defence programmes that need to be addressed, like the mid-air refueller, which have been neglected for long probably due to budgetary constraints. The IAF’s 1960s-vintage AVRO transports, once workhorses in logistics duties, are in poor condition and need urgent replacement. The IAF had initiated a replacement process in June 2011, but the programme is still hanging in balance with no immediate solution. Simultaneously, the IAF's concern is to rejuvenate—an urgent need to place new engines—its fleet of 123 Jaguars, as the fleet require upgrading of its auto-pilot and close combat missiles, navigation system and weapon aiming systems. However, the Rs 12,000 crore project is still struggling to get a clearance from the finance department. Termed as "deep penetration strike aircraft", the Jaguar is designed for low-level strikes against enemy ground targets like air bases, land forces and warships. “It will give some respite to the depleting combat fleet of the IAF," an IAF officer said.

The Army had received Rs 26,688 crore as capital budget with a cut in the tanks and armoured vehicle category. The Army has also managed to get its first artillery gun after three decade, with the induction of M-777 ultra light howitzers and K9 Vajra. But the Army's need for bullet proof jackets to basic infantry combat rifle are yet to be fully met.

Besides, another critical area, which has been ignored repeatedly is the Army's need for Light Utility Helicopters—a lifeline for soldiers posted at the world’s highest battlefield on the inhospitable Siachen Glacier in the Himalayas. The acquisition process went through three cancellations, the latest in 2014.

The Army aviation got Rs 1,812 crore budget for last year. The Army is depending on its vintage helicopters fleet of Cheetah/Chetak and they have lived way beyond the threshold by more than 12-15 years which were purchased from France and inducted into the Indian Army over 40 years ago in 1971. The Army headquarters, while highlighting some of the obsolete issues which are dogging the fleet including component failures, low reliability, accidents and increased structural failures, went on to call the fleet as “death trap”. The Army has lost 15 of its pilots in the last ten years in crashes involving Cheetah and Chetak helicopters.

But after so much of deliberation, in 2015, India and Russia have agreed to manufacture the Russian Kamov Ka-226T helicopter in India. But due to budgetary crunch, there is hardly any movement in the programme. The Kamov will be built in collaboration with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the defence PSU which is already facing financial crunch in the absence of any bulk order.

The Indian Navy had received Rs 20,848 crore last year and would require a lot more to complete its on-going programme including naval utility helicopter and next line of submarine. The Indian Navy is left with only one aircraft carrier and the country's first indigenously built aircraft carrier Vikrant is under construction at the Kochi shipyard and is expected to join the fleet by end 2020. The proposal to develop second indigenous aircraft carrier has also not taken off with limited money in the Navy's kitty.