Even as China flexes its muscles along Ladakh, and pokes and prods at other spots along the borders, there is apprehension whether India’s declining defence budget can ever be adequately beefed up to deal with a clear and emerging threat. This comes alongside the Ministry of Statistics lowering projections of GDP shrinkage to 7.7 per cent, which is even worse than the 7.5 per cent estimated by the Reserve Bank of India. There is enough there to worry the Narendra Modi government, and Nirmala Sitharaman’s trick last year of presenting one of the lowest defence budgets since 1962 as an actual increase can’t be repeated at a time when there’s an enemy at the gates. But then it’s the difficult situations that should produce imaginative thought. There’s a way. But for that, be willing to think differently about how you fight.
Holes in the budget
First, the budget figures themselves are enough to make you weep. The most recent report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence(PSCOD) notes a severe gap ‘across departments’ in projections and actual allocations, which has been steadily rising for all three Services — the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy. The Army takes the largest share (almost 56 per cent in 2019-20) but still struggles with modernisation because its revenue to capital ratio is 83:17 rather than a desired 60:40. That means there’s little or nothing left for buying equipment after pay and allowances have been cleared. At almost 14 lakh, we now seem to have the largest ground force in the world, after China cut its army by 50 per cent in a modernisation push in 2019. The second-largest land power is North Korea. That’s a comment in itself. Add to this, a pension bill that is larger than Pakistan’s entire defence budget, and you get the picture.
Then there’s the budget’s snowballing effect on modernisation. The Navy inducted just two submarines in 15 years. Compare that with the two new subs China reportedly inducted just in 2020, even while its fleet size is three-times larger. The SDC rather plaintively asks why most existing submarines are being ‘maintained’ for more than 25 years, when it has been informed that maximum life is exactly 25 years. The Air Force has had its Rafale fleet cut down from a planned 126 to 36, while talk of buying 110 new fighter aircraft seems to have been turned around to buy local. That’s not to play down the Tejas. It all just comes together in a rather blurry picture. Reportedly, we just spent Rs 5,000 crore for ‘emergency’ purchases after the Ladakh stand-off began. That speaks poorly of India’s current capability, apart from the fact that it slices up the cake remaining for 2021-22.
Getting it right: Just who do you have to fight?
First, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence’s hearings over the years are replete with gallant Service officers telling the panel that they would still manage India’s defence no matter what. That’s admirable, but someone, either the Service chiefs or a group of retired senior service officers, need to tell the hard facts to the government. Can we actually fight a two-front war? And as the PSCOD notes, our equipment is not enough for more than 10 days of hard fighting, presumably along one front. These and other ‘ifs and buts’ need to be made clear to the government. Consider the Pentagon reaction to defence cuts under Barack Obama. The 2012 National Defense Strategy said the US’ Department of Defense would make “clear distinctions both among the key sizing and shaping missions… and between these mission areas and all other areas of the defense program”. That was a clear message — as manpower was being reduced, the department could not and would not be able to fulfil everything Congress demanded of it. By all means, tell them what you can do. But also tell them what you can’t.
At a second level, the government, in turn, needs to tell the Services what it actually expects from them. For instance, military exercises that envisage a drive deep into Pakistan are never going to happen, not under a nuclear overhang. Do we need to be ready to ‘get back the whole of Kashmir’? No, nobody wants it. Besides, we can’t deal with the slice we have. A rationalisation of tasking helps to pare down the list of acquisition to what you need, versus all those goodies you’re never going to get. The newly created Department of Military Affairs could focus on cutting out the flab in expectations. The numbers will then come down by themselves.
Just what kind of warfare can we afford?
Choice of warfare is always about relative advantage. Remember that Gandhi’s strategy of non-violence was not just a moral stand. It was fine strategic sense. When the other side has more guns, go under and use the moral bludgeon. And it worked. From our massive movement of men and machines to Ladakh, it seems that the government is planning to reverse 1962, which speaks of resolve. But don’t replicate that warfare in this day and age. A lesson in how to win a war and grab back (some) of what you lost can be found in the Azerbaijan-Armenian war where the Azeris used drones and technology to showcase the future of warfare. The technology is hardly new, particularly after the highly successful drone attack on Saudi oil facilities in 2019 that severely disrupted oil production.
Luckily, the Indian Army is already there, announcing mock operations using some 75 drones. But that’s only half the battle. Try getting the Air Force to see sense and switch a part of its mission away from fighters to the more prosaic unmanned vehicles. The fact is that the age of the flamboyant fighter pilot is almost over except in public relations wars with Pakistan. For the Navy, think instead of drones coupled with long-range reconnaissance aircraft as the option for future policing of the oceans. It’s far cheaper, and produced much faster, than those photo-friendly frigates, which you can keep ready when you choose to project power. Not to occupy foreign lands, but just reach out a long arm. And if anyone has difficulties with this, Foreign Affairs points out that China is already exporting armed drones to 11 countries, including, most recently, Pakistan.
Drones are just one aspect of rapidly evolving technology that goes from mind games and Artificial Intelligence to energy weapons, and space. Explore those where we have a particular strength to ‘make in India’, and quickly.
Bring on those missiles
For those still pining for 1962 comparisons and the appalling non-use of the Air Force, don’t forget our missiles. Not the nuclear-capable long-range Agnis, but their smaller cousins such as the Prahar (150 km) or the Pranash (200 km) solid fuel missiles. That range fills the gap between the MLRS (multiple launch rocket systems) and the nuclear-capable Prithvi. The latter is being targeted for export as one of the cheapest missiles available on the international market, which speaks for itself. Short-range missiles, in actuality, have only marginally more ‘kill power’ than heavy artillery. But they have one important trait – deterrence. Both sides know that escalating to missiles is a whole new level. That’s why deploying them defensively and in large numbers is important. As China jabs us along multiple locations with the precise intention of stretching our land force, deploy missiles at each new location. That should make them pause.
Outsourcing is not just for the IT industry
Other options for the armed forces to raise money exists, instead of such quick fix and decidedly questionable ideas as selling of defence lands. Because the budget problem will remain, you’ll have nothing to sell next year or the year after that. Instead, consider outsourcing specific services, particularly logistics to firms with dedicated expertise in the area as Britain has done. True, the ‘last mile’ will still have to be covered, but it does mean erasing costs of an entire arm. There’s more, but it requires the Indian bureaucracy to loosen up, and allow a dynamic force to raise its own funds. The ideas are there, tied down by files and lack of flexibility.
As Winston Churchill said, never let a good crisis go to waste. This is the time for letting loose not the dogs of war, but a tsunami of good ideas that will build up the force, and not erode morale by suggestions such as extending retirement and cutting pensions. All it requires is a pen and some doodling, and a willingness to think differently in the Ministry of Defence, in particular. Open out those windows and let some fresh air in.
The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.