by Ranjit Bhushan

India’s defence modernisation programme needs to shed its twin bogeys; one, a severely induced cash crunch that is impeding its growth, and the second, excessive politicisation over military purchases, which has dogged the system since news of kickbacks to politically powerful agents captured national imagination back in the 1980s. As is well known, India is one of the world’s largest – if not the largest – buyer of arms and ammunition.

The conventional defence narrative revolves around this pet theme. With a fund crunch at hands, the armed forces are slowing down modernisation projects or slashing operational requirements, while also delaying payments to defence PSUs and foreign armament companies for contracts inked earlier.

This polemic, frankly, needs to move on. While money is always available for immediate operational needs -- like small arms and military gear -- the larger cause of defence modernisation is always a drag, not just in India, but elsewhere in the world. Sure, most countries of the world are not as sensitive to threats as India is, what with the world’s fastest emerging military superpower China in the north and a military state like Pakistan in the west, both hostile and with whom India has a long history of engagements, both overt and covert.

Recent reports suggest that arms acquisition cases are piling up in the Cabinet Committee on Security without being cleared due to the shortage of funds. The armed forces have told Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh that there is “critical requirement” for additional funds during the ongoing financial year.

According to one projection, the 15-lakh-strong armed forces had estimated an additional requirement of around Rs 80,000 crore for modernisation, plugging critical operational gaps and paying `liabilities’ at the revised estimates stage in December. The figure of Rs 80,000 crore has been scaled down to 40 percent, which works out to about Rs 32,000 crore. The IAF and Navy have already spent over 85 percent of their allocated funds. Payments to defence PSUs are being progressively stopped, or at best, slowed down.

Resultantly, the three defence services are being forced to curtail their operational necessities on several fronts. The army, for instance, has cut down its long-standing requirement for 5,719 new-generation sniper rifles by two-thirds to just about 1,800 guns now. Similarly, the Navy has been told to slash its requirement of 10 more Poseidon-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft, which are packed with radars and weapons for anti-submarine warfare, at a cost of over $3 billion, from the US. The defence ministry is also likely to delay the actual inking of the virtually finalised deals with the US like the Rs 13,500 crore pact for 24 multi-role MH-60 ‘Romeo’ helicopters for navy and the Rs 4,168 crore acquisitions of six Apache attack helicopters for the army, officials have told the media.

Conventional War Is Obsolete

However, Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, who commanded the crucial 15 Corps in Jammu and Kashmir, believes that the Indian defence forces itself are in transition. “A conventional war is now obsolete. This is the era of hybrid warfare – smart wars, cyber targeting, air power and space battles. Conventional armies are more like deterrents,” he points out.

Officers acknowledge that ballooning revenue expenditure (salaries and day-to-day running costs) eats into capital outlay for modernisation for the manpower-intensive armed forces. India’s defence budget in recent years has been falling, but more significantly, an increasing component of the funds is being allocated towards salaries, pensions and other operating expenses. And given the demographic trends, the nation’s pension bill is becoming larger, even surpassing the salary bill.

The Modi government’s first budget of his second term generated predictable reactions, but Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has allocated Rs 4.31 trillion for military spending, keeping it unchanged from the February 1 interim budget. Compared to around 17 percent in 2014-15, this year’s defence budget will comprise 15.5 percent of government expenditure and only 2.04 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), as compared to 2.28 percent of GDP in 2014-15.

But that is a natural corollary. Experts believe that India’s defence policy faces numerous challenges and lack of resources is a much-hyped signature tune. Defence reforms are needed urgently, but no one seems particularly bothered about it, with all public discourse centred on defence allocation in annual budgets.

India’s defence dilemma has been amply demonstrated by the fact that even Narendra Modi, who was elected in 2014 with a thumping mandate, found it difficult to move ahead with the procurement of 30 odd fighter jets in his first term, despite the fact that IAF has a dwindling number of fighter squadrons to confront air threats posed by China and Pakistan.

The gamble of purchasing arms that may not be needed in a particular theatre, is hardly ground enough for officers of the defence ministry not to sign on or delay defence purchases for the fear of investigating agencies coming back to them at a later date asking inconvenient questions. In any case, it is the government’s job to ensure that officers’ unfounded fears are allayed. It is therefore not surprising that India’s top political leadership has been calling for reforms and it is here that the country’s defence planners need to find their métier.