Reeling under acute financial crunch, the Indian armed forces expect increased allocation to meet their modernisation plans. The Modi government must deliver

In the backdrop of an economic contraction following the Covid pandemic, the Narendra Modi government will present the budget for 2021-22 next week. But all eyes will be on the money that the government will allocate to the defence ministry.

This is primarily because unlike most countries of the world, who are largely battling a slowing economy due to the COVID-19, India is facing another big challenge — China.

And so, there is a greater expectation among the armed forces, which have been reeling under acute financial crunch, for increased allocation to meet their modernisation plans.

The armed forces are up against China, a country with the second-largest defence budget in the world. In 2020, China’s official defence budget stood at $179 billion, three times that of India’s.

While India’s defence budget for 2020-21, including pensions, constituted 15.5 per cent of the entire expenditure plan of the central government, China’s official defence allocation was 36.2 per cent of the country’s budget.

I use the term ‘official’ because since the late 1990s, many analysts have believed that major components of Chinese military activities are not reflected in the defence budget released by the government.

In its latest report, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a Swedish think tank, pegged China’s actual defence budget in 2019 at $240 billion as compared to the official figure of $175 billion.

Let us understand one thing – India can never match China’s defence spending and it will be foolhardy to even think it should.

India, Choose Your Battles Wisely

The China challenge has made it important for India to decide what war it wants to fight. Does it want to pump in billions of dollars in acquiring new generations of existing systems or does it want to invest in technology of the future? Does India think the next war will be fought in the Himalayas or should it deem a naval war – in the waters – to be a wiser battle?

What is happening now is that China has forced India to deploy thousands of troops and equipment in the mountainous northern borders. India has and is in the process of buying numerous equipment under emergency clause to prepare against the Chinese military, which showed aggression on land.

Many in the defence establishment argue that the best outcome of the Ladakh stand-off would be a stalemate, which means neither India nor China gets to claim victory. But one must also ask whether China is looking at a war or is it simply trying to keep India engaged in the northern borders?

Sources in the defence ministry admit that one sphere where India has an advantage over China is the sea. But does it mean that the conflict should be shifted from our Himalayan boundaries to the waters of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean?

Not really, but China is smart to limit the conflict to the mountains. Sources in the Modi government argue that they will ensure that money is the least worry for the armed forces, which will be provided with everything they want.

Defence Budget, A Growing Concern

In 2018, then-Vice Chief of Army Staff Lt Gen Sarath Chand deposed before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence. He said that the Budget 2018-19 had “dashed our hopes” of adequate modernisation of the force.

“Allocation of Rs 21,388 crore foe modernisation is insufficient even to cater for committed payments of Rs 29.033 crore for 125 ongoing schemes, emergency procurement and other requirements,” Chand had told the parliamentary panel.

In Budget 2019-20, the Army’s capital share was Rs 32,474 crore. The budget for the forces can’t even meet the shortages.

Laxman Kumar Behera, associate professor at JNU’s Special Centre for National Security Studies, noted: “In the past seven years, the (defence ministry’s) gap between resource requirement and allocation, which briefly narrowed from 27 per cent in 2013-14 to 14 per cent in 2015-16, has increased to 30 per cent in 2018-19 and 25 per cent in 2019-20.”

There is no other way for the forces but to rationalise the expenditure. The three Services — Army, Navy, and Air Force — need to come together and rethink where the money needs to be spent.

Unanswered Questions

Would buying more tanks make sense when the enemy has anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) and attack choppers in large numbers? Would investing in the latest air defence systems make sense or importing more single engine fighters when India has its own? Does the Navy need more submarines or a third aircraft carrier? No one can tell if there will be dog fights in the future between two aircraft or would unmanned armed drones do the job. The recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia showed how modern technology can really pulverise traditional defence systems.

There are many such questions. And hence, it is important for India to have a coherent forward-looking policy on defence procurement and modernisation. The Modi government should put greater emphasis, financially speaking, on research. I don’t mean just the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) but the private sector as well.

The government should push ahead forcefully with integration of the three Services. It just does not make sense to buy the same set of equipment for different Services.

The government should have put its foot down when the Army and the Air Force fought over Apache helicopters, resulting in separate orders for the two Services and costing the defence budget at least Rs 2,500 crore.

China’s Thrust Can Be A Lesson

China is moving away from a manpower-intensive force towards a technology-driven force. Its military’s core strength is not in the infantry but its rocket force and the armed drones besides cyber and space.

The Chinese are investing in the technology and service of their future – Navy. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy is the fastest-growing naval force in the world.

Every year, the PLA Army’s share in China’s total defence budget is declining while that of the PLA Navy is growing. They are focussing on stealth technology for the Air Force, while looking to keep aircraft like JF 17 more for export. After all, money doesn’t come out of thin air. It needs planning and foresight.

It is time for India to think and act fast, too.