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Three things have triggered this week’s thought process.

One, the wide dismay in the strategic community over the stationary defence budget.

Second, the statement by renowned American strategic scholar Christine Fair to ThePrint’s Srijan Shukla that Lashkar-e-Taiba isn’t another terror organisation but a low-cost special operations unit of the Pakistani army for waging asymmetric warfare India can’t match. And that India can’t defeat Pakistan in a short war.

Third, the interesting findings in the book authored by late Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, first spotted by Vishnu Som of NDTV, about how the IAF gave Israeli engineers access to its old French Mirages so they could be modified to carry the Russian R-73 air-to-air missiles. This is when their original missile, Matra-530D, had become obsolete.

It is finally the thought of Israeli experts fitting Russian missiles on French Mirages owned by the Indian Air Force that brought back late lyricist Shailendra’s immortal lines from Raj Kapoor’s classic, Shree 420: ‘Mera joota hai Japani, yeh patloon Inglistani/sar pe lal topee Russi, phir bhi dil hai Hindustani’ (my shoes are Japanese, trousers British-made/my cap may be Russian, but my heart is still Indian). These lines were heady for a new republic in 1955. Must these continue to describe the state of its armed forces 64 years later?

Let’s examine the budget-versus-GDP issue first. This year’s defence budget, Rs 4.31 lakh crore including pensions, is almost exactly 2 per cent of the GDP. If you exclude pensions, it will be 3.18 lakh crore, or about 1.5 per cent of the GDP.

Two good questions arise: Can India defend itself with so little? And can India afford a defence allocation much higher than this? The immediate response is, no to first, yes to second. Confession: I might also have said so until sometime back. But I was wrong.

In the strategic debate, the distinction between the GDP and the national budget isn’t always made. Only the budget belongs to the government, not the GDP. The more apt way of looking at defence spending, therefore, is as a percentage of the national budget.

Today, at 15.5 per cent, it is the largest item in the budget, after debt repayments at about 23 per cent. This is more than what we spend on agriculture, rural development, education and health put together (15.1 per cent). Another half a per cent of the GDP or 3.5 per cent of the budget is spent on central paramilitary forces. From where will any finance minister shift more to defence?


Also read: How’s the josh? For defence sector, the real question is where’s the money: Shashi Tharoor


Our data journalist Abhishek Mishra has mined the defence budget trends for me since 1986, when it reached its peak of 4 per cent of the GDP in the years of Rajiv Gandhi’s heady military expansion—when, incidentally, today’s Mirages started arriving. Budgets have since risen on a consistent, stable and conservative basis, and averaged 2.82 per cent of GDP (World Bank figures). With the 1991 reforms, GDP growth picked up.

In the last 20 years, from Kargil onwards, the average budgetary increase has been 8.91 per cent per year. You can shout, scream, complain, but it is now evident that no government is going to be so fiscally irresponsible or politically foolhardy to massively increase defence spending by either printing more money, or taking away from the little that goes to the poor as subsidies (6.6 per cent of the budget) or agriculture, health, education, rural development etc.

Expectations that a more muscular Narendra Modi government would do something dramatic were misplaced and unfair. Modi is nobody’s fool or a reckless militarist. A robust strategic posture does not mean Modi was about to convert India into a national security state like Pakistan, bankrupt it, and keep rushing to the IMF.

Indian strategic debate, therefore, has to reposition itself at this new realistic level. This is about what is affordable. The growth would only keep pace with the GDP. So, if the GDP is $5 trillion in 2024, the defence spending will be about 2 per cent of that. The debate, therefore, has to be about how much defence and what kind of defence can this money buy India.

At current force levels, India is much too strong for Pakistan in a longer (two-weeks-plus) war. But that is unlikely today. Remember, even our last two wars were merely 22 (1965) and 13 (1971) days. But Christine Fair is also right to say that today India can’t defeat Pakistan in a short war. The question we need to ask, in fact, is more provocative: Does India have the superiority in critical areas to deliver a deterrent punishment to Pakistan for its asymmetrical mischief (as in Pulwama) with greater certainty and evidence of outcome and minimal risk to Indian lives (unlike Balakot)? Balakot and the skirmish the day after showed we do not have that edge at this point.

Of course, in a longer or more extensive engagement, the IAF’s numbers and skills would have prevailed more decisively. But why should a country with one-seventh of your defence budget and a mere 3 per cent of your foreign exchange reserves be able to outrange, outgun and even outnumber you at a moment of its choosing? Which brings back the same tricky question: Are we spending our defence rupees right?


Also read: Narendra Modi govt can’t increase defence budget. Best it can do is go for reforms


India has two primary strategic needs: A defensive hedge against China, which makes its costs for any territorial push prohibitive, and a punitive deterrent, which would deny Pakistan the space for asymmetric mischief without fear of punishment.

A two-front war is not an impossibility, but so very unlikely. China’s stakes in the world are very different, India is perfectly capable of fighting in self-defence, and between three nuclear powers, one thing you can presume is no one would lose a full-scale war without taking the others down with it. This is where a second breath of realism is needed: Stop psyching yourselves with the spectre of a two-front war. Don’t paint the devil on the wall. Focus on what is clear, present and realistic.

At this point, neither the Army nor the IAF have that immediate, punitive deterrent power against Pakistan. Forget a three-week war, on the LoC, where the action is, Pakistan has until now fielded better infantry weapons, body armour, sniper rifles and matching artillery. The qualitative air power mismatch and our complacence, especially under 10 UPA years that allowed it to build, was highlighted on 26-27 February. The only service with a decisive and pulverising superiority over Pakistan today is the Navy. But using the Navy punitively raises the escalatory spiral, and creates a mess in waterways sensitive for the rest of the world.

Of the Rs 4.31 lakh crore defence spending, the largest head is pensions, at Rs 1.12 lakh crore, followed by salaries of the three forces (excluding civilians and DRDO) at Rs 1.08468 lakh crore. Another Rs 1 lakh crore plus are spent on other fixed costs, maintenance and consumables. What is left as capital budget is a couple of hundred crores, even less than salaries. This is why each of the forces is scratching around to pay to modernise this or that, and making do with jugaad: A platform from here, missile from there, radar from somewhere else. Of course, as we always know, it is the man behind the machine that matters. Because, “…phir bhi dil hai Hindustani”.

An aspiring superpower deserves better. If it can’t spend more, it has to spend better. You must not fight with salaries and pensions. Your soldiers deserve even more. But must you have such large manpower for full career service? There is need to make the forces smaller, niftier, snappier and punchier. Think of innovative ideas of shorter service and something like American ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps). Some progress in that direction is being made as this government is not as wary of change as the UPA. India needs a change of doctrine. And its strategic community should stop re-fighting wars of past.


Also read: Bilateralism has failed. India can make peace with Pakistan only with big-power guarantees


 

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12 Comments Share Your Views

12 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Mr. Gupta
    You claim to be an intellectual and yet you nonstop write substandard articles and video when the subject is Pakistan. . The big question is; Can an Indian journalist ever be professional and neutral when it comes to Pakistan? All they do is bad mouth and bring their own prejudices against Pakistan in the analysis. It is becoming absurd and comic to say the least.
    Please rise above pettiness and cover issues from various angles.

  2. Prof PK Sharma, Freelance Journalist,Barnala(Punjab)

    Ironically, nation and its interests are in the vacuum !
    The nation is facing the music because those at the helm of affairs of the nation have not the top most priorities of national interest before them. Their priorities are to hoodwink the masses by way of hollow ploys and gimmicks and deep mismatch between saying and doing !

    Their only and only motive is to stay in power for too long not on the basis of performance but on the basis of sheer rhetorics and jugglery of
    words. Not allowing and tolerating openness of ideas, sharply averse to healthy criticism,the polity believes in frittering away the time and energies in meaningless pursuits.

    There is a yawning gap between deserving and desiring.

    Now very briefly coming to your topic in question “Modi is n’t about to change India into a national security state …… ” how nation’s defence
    budget justifies any hike when India did succeed in getting Masood Azhar Jaish-e-Mohammed Chief declared as a global terrorist.
    In addition to that, India has very ” cosy relations ” with big powers- be it China, America,France,Russia, Japan ,United Kingdom etc. Hence, defence stream has no cause to worry at all !

    I really wonder by resorting to “austerity and economy” in nation’s defence budget, why has there been no enhancement in the education and health care system budget allocations ?

    How can we dream of economy of the nation jumping up to five trillion dollar in five years when we do not intend to improve the standards of education by imparting affordable quality education and offering affordable health care system to the masses ?

    Mr.Gupta, can the nation hope to strengthen its economy in future without improving the levels of these two “Welfare State” concepts ?
    Please devote ensuing saturday’s National Interest space for these twin disciplines too !

    Prof.P.KSharma,Freelance Journalist
    Pom Anm Nest,Barnala (Punjab)

    P

  3. We are surprised and disappointed when we see that the article was written by S.GUPTA who is a pillar of journalism in the Indian journalistic space. But that does not forbid being critical of him. At first the conclusion of his article, which is rather abrupt, seems remote-controlled. By who? He only knows the reply to this question. Of course we can agree to his conclusion. But the essential is not there. A reflection on the Indian defense tool cannot shelter behind reflections emanating from foreign observer so competent they are! No, we must ask ourselves why there is a mistrust between Indian politics and the military establishment? Why do so many reports published these last years sleep somewhere in the offices? Why the existing rivalry between the 3 armed forces helps to facilitate the game of politics when they are exercising the responsibilities. One day we are on the side of the ground forces, the next we are with the air force, and then with the marine forces! Moreover, this leads to a fragmentation of acquisitions: thus aviation advocates such choice of equipment, the navy another choice etc … Military attachés also have their share of responsibility in the choices made in terms of acquisition. Moreover, they are not based on an overall defense strategy, but favoring immediate potential enemies. The result is the present situation of the armed forces. We are not serious. We can hope that there is no Chinese threat. But a defense strategy cannot hide this threat. We must begin with a simple measure: the reform of everything involved in defense. We have a defense minister who has been Minister of the Interior. The participant in the defense and security of the country should be thoroughly investigated. There are areas of economy and economies of scale to be made first. To embark on a downsizing is difficult because the States participating in the military forces of the country are not limited as it was in the past to a few states. But is such an approach in the country possible given the electoral impact of such an orientation. Only the time-the five years in front of the government- will be able to give an answer.

  4. As usual, a balanced analysis
    Pensions outgo and salaries needs to be curtailed.May be a voluntary cut scheme, as in case of gas cylinders or railway concessions?
    Population pressure is another drain

  5. Recently China under Xi Jinping announced that it would be building up its military, and by 2050 the Chinese armed forces would be the greatest and most lethal force in the world.

  6. Shekhar, you understand naught about Bharat Mata’s political economy of FOOD, ENERGY, AGRICULTURE, CROP CHOICES and CROPPING POLICIES. Ashok Gulati writes much, understand the little within his area of core competence. Bites off more than he can chew, which is fine. You would do the nation a service if you could try and include many more voices in a thoughtful debate on agriculture, energy, thermodynamics, and the issues of logistics in our defense spending.

    Why and how are these areas interconnected? Don’t my choices seem rather scattershot, lumping logistics, defense spending, and out serious problems in agriculture and energy use? Why not bring in people who are not glib talker like you and who do not pretend to be intellectuals, also like you? Yes, they may have spent years at so-called IV ( not Ivy) League schools, but that counts for shit, my fine-feathered friend. Ask Christine Fair.

    I doubt you will have the moral courage or enterprise. Right now you are off on a clever balancing act, pleasing Modi, having sucked up to owlbaba, before the elections.

  7. In all the chest thumping, back slapping bravado that we hear now a days about our military strength, it’s a good thing that there are a few journalists like Shekhar Gupta who take a realistic look at our real strengths and weaknesses and bring us down to earth, as it were.

  8. A great article raising the right questions. The most fundamental change that Modi should bring (as also mentioned by Surendra Barsode) is integration of the three wings with a Chief of Staff. There are many strategic routes available to choose from and India doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel of thought, just add to it and innovate, with support from top leadership, and perhaps even veterans, to make the forces lean and well-equipped. Better selection of smaller numbers, exploration of low-cost but effective arsenal and fearless but smart spending of the budget will surely deliver results. Will look forward to the comments by military experts on this excellent article.

  9. If Pakistan is hurting India through unconventional means, it is not written in the Book that India cannot / should not respond in kind. Those capabilities must already exist; they can be strengthened. The intention is not to harm ordinary Pakistanis but to deter acts which have tarnished Pakistan’s image in the world and also harmed it domestically. 2. Talking about Pakistan’s cross border terrorism all the time, in all global fora, is yielding diminishing returns. There is the problem of Kashmir which should be addressed, both domestically through a substantive political process and bilaterally with Pakistan. Even the supposed political / electoral gains from this elevated tension will begin to ebb after a while. 3. Our complex history with China is a tragedy that needs to be undone. As late as 1960, the Chinese premier visited India, offered an east – west swap that would have set things at rest. 1962 is the outcome. In a way, it is fortunate that the asymmetry between the two Asian countries is now so marked that war / frozen hostility need not be unchanging reality. Accept the facts of life, forge a more productive equation / modus vivendi. 4. Personally I am not a fan of the trajectory Indian foreign policy has been taking in recent years. Starting with our smallest neighbours, the world is falling out of love with India. That is getting compounded by the increasingly dismal state of our economy. More than relying on larger defence budgets and redressing the imbalance between personnel costs and military hardware, we need to make India a country and a society the world genuinely respects / admires / looks up to, one indication of which would be the way we are reflected in the western media.

    • Shri ashok JI – I may be wrong but it doesn’t look like you have ever lived in the West to have the authority to comment on how Western media operates. It is much more complicated my friend, than your straight line thinking.

  10. A thought provoking article in the ‘national interest’ by Shekhar. Indian armed forces are like an elephant who who has no defense against tiny ants but can fight tigers and need huge amount of grass to eat! It is not clear whether our Armed Forces are not aware of short term armed superiority of Pak or it is the political leadership which is holding them from getting required capability. Most likely, it is both! We need to spend our resources smartly, just like Pak does with perfect Management By Objectives (MBO) philosophy. It is sensible to look at defense expenditure as a proportion of budget rather than GDP (depending on what portion of GDP is in the pocket of Government through taxes). Let us begin a 5 star Chief of Staff with cabinet rank and a national security doctrine and think proactively thereafter.

  11. There won’t be a by-the-book conservative PM in India who truly swears by patriotism, free markets, zero Socialism, fiscal surplus to pay for powerful modern military. This is a curse which the country has to live or die with.

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