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?
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?
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.