Tuesday, March 21, 2023
HomeOpinionIndia’s defence needs money. If Budget can’t provide it, we need to...

India’s defence needs money. If Budget can’t provide it, we need to change how we fight

India’s Service chiefs or retired senior officers need to tell hard facts to the government. Can we actually fight a two-front war?

Text Size:

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.

Also read: Indian tourists can keep the Chinese away from LAC. Govt must open borders

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.

Also read: ‘Stark need for modernisation’ — why armed forces want a big jump in defence budget

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.

Also read: Strike Corps reorientation comes for Ladakh but Army needs larger restructuring

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.

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Support Our Journalism

India needs fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. ThePrint – with exceptional reporters, columnists and editors – is doing just that.

Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in India or overseas, you can take a paid subscription by clicking here.

Support Our Journalism


  1. A modern Army needs a modern and realistic pension scheme. Counties like US and Britain have adopted New pensions schemes in 2018 and 2015 respectively which meets present demands. Its about time Indian army adopts a new blended pension scheme for all Armed personnel joining from a particular time frame( eg 1 jan 2022) without affecting those who joined before, like being done by the US and UK.
    Even the pensions cuts recommend by the CDS if it were backed by a contributory pension scheme would still be favourable for future defence personnel and at the same time save money for modernization.
    For example let us consider a blended pension scheme in which the government contributes (years of service + 10)% of highest salary in the past year in addition to a contribution of 10% from the defence personnels monthly. For a personnels serving upto 20 years this will give him a pension equivalent to 40% of his salary, for 30 years service a pension equivalent to 50% of his salary. If such a pension scheme was implemented in the first few years we would ve saving 8000-10000 crore annually but after 20 years we would be saving 50,000 crores annually which would help us reduce the gap we have with China. Quick fixes will not solve our modernization problem the Armed forces needs to plan years ahead an start fixing its most obvious problems i.e the rising pension bills.

  2. Didn’t CDS Rawat had been boasting of 2.5 wars ready since 2017 India Doklam incursion? IAF chief was also ready to strike China deep. INavy under QUAD frequently threaten to blockade China sea lanes in Malacca Straits and Indo Ocean.

    If India can’t even win a war with Pak that is 6x GDP smaller, its thinking to entangle 6x GDP larger China of most modern military 2nd to USM, while facing insurgency in all its illegal occupied lands stretching from West J&K Ladakh, to NEastern 7 states of Sikkim, South Tibet, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram,….Even Nepal and Bhutan.

    The writer think IA child play of 70 little drones is impressive, when China has long demonstrated its capability of synchronizing thousands of drones using AI program. Its drones technology is on its own League of advanced that even USM refuse to give up using DJ.

    To threaten China with missiles with only 200km range is a joke when PLA multi rocket launchers are capable of devastated everything in 300km range. Not to mention China full array of formidable missiles even USM fear.

    Talking about nuclear, the moment India launch one, entire India will be vaporized instantly. Hence its not a deterrence but liability, while China conventional power is simply overwhelming for IA.

    India highest tested yield is 30ktons atom bombs, est. 200 in numbers. China is only nation still own 60x 3Mtons hydrogen bombs, coupled with est. 300x 150~500ktons war heads in hypersonic missiles. It also has 2nd strike capability India lack, submarines launched SLBM JL3 & tactical bomber HK6.

    China will fight with full spectrum of modern algorithm, AI, autonomous, drones, cyberspace, laser, EW, kinetic energy, cruise missiles with Beidou precision, supported by thousand of advanced 4.5++ & 5Gen fighters, integrated layered air defense, advanced nuclear/AIP submarine fleet, world best Type 055 warships, etc. which India is completely lacking and will not able to close gap in long future.

    It will be one sided slaughter by China if war broke out. And then there is Pak who will open another war front to liberate J&K and Gujarat, while Nepal will seize opportunity to take back all its lost lands occupied by India. Sikkim, Bhutan, NEastern states will want liberate from IA occupation.

    Arm racing will only bleed India from any meaningful development. To just keep the GDP gap with China, India ought to grow at 45% p.a. rate. So India can never close the forever widening defense budget gap.

    Such crushing defeat will disintegrate India, much worst than 1962. And there will be no US & Soviet to interven. Knowing such unbridgeable great disparity, and ascertained devastating defeat consequence, India should give up all its delusion of Chanakya expansionism dream in Greater India, and make peace with all neighbors to usher in Asia Century prosperity together.

    US want to kill 2 birds with one stone, let India fight China to last Indian and halt two largest Asia nations rise. Modi is playing with fire to ride on US wave thinking it can exploit for own advancement in expense of China.

    Its akin to self digging grave to entangle one rising superpower in East, while befriend another superpower in West that Kissinger infamously said: ” To be US enemy is dangerous. To be its friend is fatal.”

    • You know nothing my dear .Am from secret service ,just stumbled seeing your incomplete truth about India’s modern warfare ecosystem…Just keep in mind you only know what you are shown in media,news channels..We have 5 th generation warfare program which is confidential.So stop scaremongering because you are getting this update from a Defence officer.. However we are planning to showcase these things in expo.

  3. A way to fight a war without money will be a great innovation.
    One can pretend everything but MONEY one must have.
    When that is not the case, wonder how wise it is to go public with such information which will only embolden the adversaries.
    For Governments to be told by India’s Service chiefs or retired senior officers the hard facts, implies that the governments have been stupid all these years.
    Then to top it “Can we actually fight a two-front war?” As if we have a choice.

  4. Expenditure on defence is a major outgo in the budget of all big countries. India has the longest land borders and coast, which is always vulnerable to attack by two belligerent neighbours who have intentions to violate sovereignty. But, as the author explains, India has not been spending enough on defence modernization for decades. The defence purchase scams have not helped either.
    The cutting down on defence expenditure has been more by default than by design. We have only so much money and so much to do. The solution is not in cutting essential expenditure on personnel for equipment. The nature of our borders (LAC) do not allow for reducing troop strength.. Neither can we let sown our guard on the West. The answer lies in developing a robust defence equipment manufacturing eco system, including R&D, in the country. The money now spent on imports remains within the country and creates jobs and improves GDP. A case of having the apple and eating it too.

    Unfortunately, we did not do that all this while. We have made a start now. Better late than never. An unfortunate state. But there is hope our Industry will deliver sooner than later.

  5. This article gives a broad brush to a lot critical defence aspects. Making wholesale generalizations. most of the titbits of information provided here is already discussed threadbare. Surprising to see such an article from former secretary of NSC.

  6. Military spends require money but govt don’t enough of it. Why? Because the economy is too small and underdeveloped to generate the revenues needed. Why? Because every effort by govt to try and expand the economy meets with stiff resistance from the opposition forces. So, then the the economy flounders, people have no jobs and things go downhill, and perhaps, the govt falls, and then maybe, the opposition takes over, and the whole sick charade starts all over again…like deja vu.

  7. Yes let some fresh air in. Not sure if this is possible with a government and bureaucracy which still wants to do it the old way. This government still wants to run temples, businesses, banks etc with tax payers money better spent on defence, education, healthcare etc. Till the government’s policy is to subsidize loss making enterprises, wealthy farmers, businessmen, crony capitalism expect no change.

    • Not to sure if the writer understands the complexity of force design or science of finanicial forecasting for long term (15-20 years) defence budget estimates, allocations and appropriations.  
      Evidence is in the writers comment: “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.”

      How, why and who has decided that desired ratios are 60:40?
      A major limitation resulting in absence of scientific decision making is the bureaucracy in our National Security and the Ministry of Defence staff. Our defence budget makes allocations between capital and Revenue expenditures, based on 1939 model, that hasnt changed since.
      The MoD bureaucracy is still limited in understanding that ratios of Defence budget to GNP indicates defence burden on society. Whereas defence budget ratio to national budget indicates Government priorities.
      Military capacities and acquisition is based on Planning, Programming, Budgeting system which assesses threats, needs, alternative force designs, allocations and appropriations over 15-20 years time planning. Not annual budget, as we make in India.
      Resistance to change, lack of knowledge and skills, reluctance to allow professional accountablity processes in the MoD thah can build methods of verification, scrutiny, monitoring of milestones and review of outcomes are cloaked under false arguments of secrecy.
      As a result, we merrily continue with our ad hoc decision making, while systemic waste, fraud and abuse continues to thrive

  8. The author has mentioned the Army’s 75 drones in glowing terms, but do we realize that these are just surveillance drones with a range of only 15-20 kms ? No attack capability at all. India has very few attack drones and Turkey is far ahead of India in this new area of warfare. In Turkey, one man with a lab and some funding managed to create a formidable drone force. What has DRDO done so far ? And China is exporting attack drones to many countries , and could have deployed them at the LAC as well.

    In terms of budget, during Indira and Rajiv Gandhi’s time we spent 3.7% of GDP on defence and saw a rapid build up including Bofors,MIGs and Mirage. It has dropped to just 2.7% of GDP now and that’s how we are facing shortages of vital equipment and consumables.

  9. We need more machines than men, only men (and women, preferably women in fact) we need are engineers/scientists/entrepreneurs. Enough expending money on OROP and canteens.
    History tells that wars are won by civilizations which relied more on technology than men. British empire was built around technology and not salaried armed men.

    • Engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs are also men (or women). British empire could not expand beyond the Himalyas to the North and beyond NWFP (now in Pakistan) to the West because they did not have a strong enough army to fight in those terrains.

      I understand your sentiments. But consider tat we are a huge Nation with long (more than 5000 kms) inhospitable land borders and a long varied coastal line.

      Tail piece: Don’t give anything to a soldier. Respect him. It costs nothing. He will give you all that he has.

      • Sir,
        I love your last line and completely agree with you. What a soldier offers is something much more than can be measured in monetary terms and the best a nation can offer it’s soldiers are grateful thanks and sincere respect.

Comments are closed.