by Lt Gen Kamal Davar (Retd)

It does not require any preeminent strategic advice to a government to pontificate that requisite military strengths and combat capabilities of a nation take inordinately long to achieve. That India is located in one of the most Geo-Politically stressed regions in the world with two of its neighbours, both nuclear powers, individually and collusively posing a serious threat to India’s security is a well-accepted truism. It is also a harsh reality that nations, even among the affluent, find it more than difficult, if not impossible, to allocate adequate resources for funding other countless basic necessities required for their peoples.

The debate between defence versus development remains a constant battle lending itself to no easy answers. Nevertheless, there was no mention of the allocations for defence or its significance for the nation’s security by the former Defence (now first-time Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman). It indeed is a disappointing mindset. That the BJP romped home in the last general elections, largely on the pillar of national security, the non-mention of defence (specific allocations relegated to the Annexure of the budget document) was indeed surprising and unacceptable.

Before commenting on the merits or otherwise of the Defence Budget 2019, it will be prudent to briefly look at the depleting combat capabilities of India’s Armed Forces. That the Indian Armed Forces have to contend with a two and half front threat is a distinct possibility (challenges emanating from China, Pakistan and internal security).

The IAF’s fighter squadron strength has fallen from the required 42 squadrons to a mere 30. The Indian Navy’s submarine fleet and its aerial component too are down to operationally unacceptable levels to counter Chinese Navy’s maritime assertiveness in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.

The Indian Army too suffers from gross shortages in a variety of weapon systems, platforms, ammunition holdings besides the raising of the much-touted Mountain Strike Corps has been put on hold. The development of infrastructure required in the regions bordering China too requires immense fillip. The Indian Armed Forces capabilities in the newer domains of cyber and space too require to be energised. Modernisation of the Armed Forces has suffered over the decades owing to not only shrinking budgets but tardy acquisition processes and the lack of carry-over financial allocations in capital budgets from one financial year to the next. 

It is also pertinent to note that owing to the general elections which were to be held this year, the Interim Union Budget for 2019-2020 was announced in the Parliament by stand-in Finance Minister Piyush Goyal on February 1, 2019. The defence budget outlay of Rs 3,05,000 crores ($43 billion) did witness a marginal increase of 6.96% over the 2018 defence budget. For the first time, the defence budget did cross the 3 lakh crores figure. However, this increase still pegged the defence budget to merely 1.45% of the GDP---- the lowest budget to GDP ratio since the 1962 war. Successive parliamentary committees (including those headed by BJP stalwarts) have recommended allocations for defence to be kept at 3% of the GDP.

According to most defence analysts, Sitharaman’s defence budget outlays, announced yesterday, being pegged at what then Finance Minister Piyush Goyal’s had announced on 1 Feb 2019 is disappointing as it will not match up to the ambitious modernisation plans of the Indian Armed Forces. A cursory mention by Sitharaman to exempt the import of defence equipment from basic customs duty was hardly adequate. Instead, it was hoped that the Finance Minister would have been far more pragmatic towards the nation’s inescapable security needs.

It is the fervent hope of all in the nation that the Modi government will now encourage genuine public-private sector participation in defence production under the “Make in India” programme whilst also inviting major foreign defence players to establish hi-tech defence production facilities for the forces. India’s own DRDO and defence PSUs need both generous resources and firm governmental management for our forces to get an uninterrupted supply of state-of-the-art equipment.

The government has now its work cut out to locate and earmark further resources for vastly sharpening India’s arsenal. Governments must never forget the simple fact that a nation’s economic resurgence possible only in a safe and secure environment.