Thanks to China, GoI must look at the defence budget as a wider security budget. Defending the LoAC will require such out-of-the-box thinking, investing in civil-military technology fusion like with drones and cyber capabilities

India is staring at a completely changed reality along the entire Line of Actual Control (LoAC), one which will have deep ramifications on India’s defence budget. Given the nature and extent of the challenge, it’s time for GoI to do a rethink on the way it plans and prioritises its military expenditure.

Currently, this exercise is guided by two poles. First is what the armed forces want, which is often a daunting list of high-cost wares to be bought off-the-shelf from foreign manufacturers. And second is the bureaucratic reluctance to sign off on such big purchases that lead to inordinate delays and, at times, avoidable complications. Invariably, what emerges, by all accounts, is a consensual, less optimal, but somewhat mutually acceptable, way forward. While this process has constantly come under criticism, it has survived largely because there was no imminent security threat that necessitated an urgent shift. But Beijing’s decision last summer to adopt a new, more militarily aggressive posture against India may just prove to be that trigger.

Because, it appears that China not only decided to deploy its troops through the winter months in Ladakh, but also maintained similar deployments across Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Bhutan (Doklam plateau) and other areas in the eastern sector. As a result, Indian troops have also been on the edge, prompting the description, ‘Siachenisation of the LoAC’, in some circles. Militarily, this sort of a term may appear excessive. But what it essentially means is that there will be longer high-altitude troop deployment resulting in increased costs, which will tug on GoI’s limited resources. That is a cost China has imposed on India, just as it has done on almost all its neighbours from Japan, Taiwan and Korea to smaller countries in the South China Sea like Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and beyond.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, between 2010 and 2019, Southeast Asian countries had recorded a 40% increase in their defence budgets. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced many of these countries to cut their military spend in 2020, which itself is fuelling concerns, given that China has raised its expenditure in the same period.

In this backdrop, and given India’s own limited resources, it’s important for GoI to adopt a broader understanding of security while making important financial commitments. It would be a folly to view the defence budget only in terms of equipment purchases. Just as it would be wrong to think of defending the inhospitable swathes of the LoAC by permanently posting troops there like in Siachen.

A Security Statement

For starters, higher military spending must not lead to more off-the-shelf weapons purchases. It should be aimed at creating a strong defence-industry complex because that’s not just good for the economy but also better counter to China. In other words, a military industry complex is a security statement in itself, perhaps more effective than equipping the military with imported weapons that have no production lines in India.

The big talking point in global military circles these days is how Azerbaijan got the better of Armenia after decades of stalemate over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh area. The war, which lasted broadly from September to November 2020, saw Azerbaijan successfully deploy Turkish and Israeli origin drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to neutralise Armenia’s Russian-origin T-72 tanks and S-300 air defence units.

While it would be incorrect to draw too many parallels, the campaign showed Azerbaijan achieving dominance of the skies using its drones, which, in turn, helped guide its long-range artillery to cripple Armenian forces. This was an unexpected military result, which showed that future wars will be fought and won on the coordinated, synchronised deployment of high-end technology, and not just on one or two weapon systems. Already, this campaign has triggered a debate on the utility of tanks in modern military warfare.

Defending the LoAC will require such out-of-the-box thinking, investing in civil-military technology fusion like with drones and cyber capabilities. It would be impossible to defend the LoAC without offensive intent. And that’s where these technologies provide credible options.

It’s also crucial to start repopulating border areas along the LoAC by improving connectivity to these areas. That alone can help clear any grey areas over territorial control, knowing well that China constantly shifts goalposts.

India needs to take a leaf out of China’s own five-year plans that have diligently pursued the objective of setting up border villages and towns, especially in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Today, China’s border areas are better connected by roads, which are being further developed through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This has allowed for settlements to come up in areas that earlier seemed inaccessible.

Drawing The Line

Expenditure on border infrastructure is as important as equipping the military. Which is why it must receive a similar significance. The faster this infrastructure grows, the better the chances of populating border areas with the intent of ensuring that they don’t have to migrate in the winter months.

In sum, the new China threat must prompt GoI to look at the defence budget as a wider security budget, not just a ledger on military expenditure. Countering China may start with defending the LoAC, but it is unlikely to be decided on that turf alone.