Disruption in economic growth by the current pandemic was expected. It has stopped economic activities and their revival would be a serious challenge world over. India is certainly not an exception. Like all countries its economy has suffered considerably and is imperative to make suitable adjustments in the expenditure to meet the unforeseen calamity.

However, the needs for the defence sector should be carefully examined to ensure that our long term goals for modernisation of forces do not get adversely affected. This is all the more important as the defence budget for the current year 2020-2021 was not sufficient to meet the requirements of the big-ticket items. The defence budget of ₹ 3.37 lakh crore is merely 5.8% more than the previous year- hardly to cover inflation. Out of this, ₹ 1.18 lakh crore is under the capital outlay and ₹ 2.18 lakh crore under the revenue head. The capital outlay for 2019-2020 was ₹ 1.08 lakh crore and in the revised estimate it was  1.15 lakh crore. Hence, the increase in the capital outlay was negligible.

The above had attracted concerns of defence experts that this meagre increase could drastically affect the major acquisitions of the Indian Armed Forces. The Indian Navy is demanding restoration of 18% of the defence budget since 2012 from the current level of 13%. Soon after the announcement of the budget, it was indicated by the experts that the Indian Armed Forces would have to rework plans for acquisition of new equipment and weaponry.

In the above context, the recent announcement that the defence budget could be slashed by 20 to 40 per cent is worrisome. This means the reduction would be between ₹ 40,000 crore and  80,000 crore. This would further curtail acquisitions in the current year.

In the present context, some readjustment would be necessary but it must be kept in view that our goals for modernisation remain unchanged. Our past experience in this regard deserves attention.

Prior to 1962, India had been neglecting defence sector and we had to suffer for want of contemporary weapons. Thanks to the war, our attention was focused on strengthening of Indian Armed Forces which paid rich dividends in 1965 and 1971 war. Later the process of modernisation of armed forces pushed to lower priority. The Kargil Review Committee had examined the view of experts that enhanced defence budget was necessary for modernisation. While it did not advocate any percentage, it stressed that the modernisation process should be accelerated. Subsequently, the National Security Advisory Board carried out two studies- the National Security Review and National Defence Review. Both stressed the need for speeding up the process of modernisation of forces, keeping in view our enhanced requirements.

While India need not compete with China, its defence modernisation would have security implications. The Chinese in the last 20 years have increased their official budget by 850%. Experts point out that actual budget at least one and a half times more than the official budget. This country has close defence links with Pakistan and keeps on getting advanced weapons from China. We have to cater to the worst-case scenario of conflict at two fronts.

China was reported to have conducted an underground nuclear test. One can be certain that its data would be shared with Pakistan. The recent report of the US State Department has highlighted the continued proliferation activities of China and its earlier assessment that China had biological warfare capabilities.

The manner in which China had concealed information on Coronavirus, suggests the need for investing more on biological warfare by the Indian Armed Forces.

Given the economic slowdown and shortfall in the government’s revenue collection, which is worsened by the pandemic, cut in the defence budget is unavoidable. The CDS Gen Bipin Rawat has a daunting task of making readjustments that would have minimal impact on the modernisation process. The armed forces are considering introducing reforms and curtailing the manpower. Gen Rawat has to work out a fine balance between the manpower cost and the modernisation expenditure. Final goals would have to be pursued for modernisation of forces keeping in view the fast changes in our security environment. It may be pointed out that the modernisation process of the Armed Forces has been explicitly spelt out in the Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP), which had been approved by the Ministry of Defence. The LTIPP covers the period up to 2027. We had been giving emphasis on the projects which are ‘Made in India’ to enhance our indigenous capability. This should be given a greater emphasis now as it would be cost-effective. Overall national security interests should also be kept in view while working out adjustments in the modernisation plan of armed forces.