Monday, 17 January, 2022
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India is more secure than we fear, and our political leaders are smarter than we concede

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Politicians must be made to understand that defence expenditure is like an insurance premium on national security, so defence budget needs to be boosted.

The Army’s submission to the parliamentary standing committee on defence has brought public attention momentarily back to the narrative of “our defence budget is inadequate”. Sage analysts made the point that with so much of our defence equipment falling into the vintage category, India is certainly in no position to fight the two-front war that the armed forces have been directed to prepare for.

The question is: who thinks India will fight a two-front war?

Defence officers and security analysts do, as they should. The political leadership – past, present and, I dare say, future prime ministers – do not. In fact, going by their actions, you can conclude that they do not think national security is a big problem at all. Over and above the purely political task of winning elections and staying in power, the public issues they are more concerned about are jobs, subsidies and the implementation of social programmes. Serious politicians across the board agree that achieving high economic growth is the primary national interest.

They believe the borders are reasonably secure, insurgencies are reasonably under control and India is, by and large, safe. Which is why prime ministers don’t meet the service chiefs regularly, care little about foreign intelligence reports, but pay attention to the political parts of domestic intelligence briefings.

At this point, if you are a defence officer or a security analyst, you are likely to say that the political leaders “don’t get it”. You are likely to look down on politicians for caring more about the next election than about the two-front war that you are concerned about.

But seriously, it is those who believe a person can get to the top of the political heap by being insensitive to real issues that need a strong reality check. P.V. Narasimha Rao, H.D. Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi might have different political styles and ideological persuasions, but every single one of them packed an astute, political sense of national priorities. Looking at the view from the very top, it is unlikely that they saw or see defence and national security as something to lose sleep over.

If Prime Minister Modi does not seem to be overly concerned about a potentially turbulent summer in Kashmir, firing across the Line of Control and Chinese moves in the Himalayas, it’s perhaps because he assesses them to be less worrisome than outside security analysts do.

That’s actually good news. If a leader who rose to office in a highly-competitive democracy believes that the country is reasonably safe, we should be relieved, not upset. Revealed preference — from tepid increases in defence expenditure to inattention to military reform — suggests that India is safer and more secure than what the strategic community believes.

No prime minister even remotely thinks of a two-front war once he leaves the annual military commanders’ conference. And because he has the power to do something about it, is quite likely to avoid getting close to a war-like situation on even half-a-front. Even under extreme provocation, the Vajpayee government limited Kargil and squibbed Parakram. After 26/11, the UPA government didn’t strike at Pakistan. After Pathankot, the “surgical strikes” that the Modi government ordered assuaged domestic politics without taking us remotely closer to war. At Doklam, both India and China were careful not to contain the military situation that eventually de-escalated without a shot being fired. The Modi government did not even intervene in the Maldives, where a military operation could have taken place at relatively very low risk.

If we watch what successive Indian governments have done — as opposed to believing what they say — we reach the simple conclusion that our political leaders, in their wisdom, do not believe a two-front war is likely or inevitable. Plus, they have the power and instruments to avoid it. Plus, they understand enough about nuclear weapons to know that it’s wise to steer clear of war.

Rejoice, for all is well. There is, however, a problem. Because political leaders aren’t too concerned about national security, our military capacity is falling short of what might be necessary to defend ourselves against potential threats in the future. Frequently, military officials and analysts try to draw attention to defence needs by showing how India is underprepared for a two-front war right now. But the prime minister doesn’t think this will come to pass, so he probably privately rolls his eyes when he hears this. It’s easier for him to use diplomacy to avoid getting into a situation that could escalate to a war, than invest political capital in military modernisation. The ghost of Bofors still haunts New Delhi.

Those of us who work on strategic issues must recognise that India is more secure than we fear, and that our top political leaders are smarter than we are willing to concede. This means trying to scare the government to allocate more money for defence is likely to fail, as it usually does. In fact, we are in an era where public outcry over a genuine national security lacuna can easily be addressed through television programmes and social media hashtags.

So we need a new, different way of making the case for defence reform and bigger defence budgets. One way forward would be to impress on the political system that defence expenditure is like an insurance premium on national security — that it is best to buy insurance when we are young and healthy. You buy additional insurance for additional risks that might arise in the future. You must do whatever you can to stay healthy, but get adequate insurance to cover you in case something bad happens.

Likewise, instead of talking up a two-front, or a two-and-a-half front war, it might be better to persuade the political leadership to insure against a list of specific future risks. Including pre-existing conditions.

Nitin Pai is director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy.

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Nitin, I accept the unlikely eventuality of a two front war. However, when you contend that our political leadership is astute enough to realise this and therefore doesn’t pay attention to the two front band wagon, I have doubts. Could it possibly be that they are in denial because their basic knowledge of the subject is lacking? Made worse by lack of professional advisors.

    Taking the IAF squadron strength as an example, I don’t think the 40+ squadron requirement was based on an imaginary threat. You cant move your air force from one front to another at a moments notice. Even if you can you will then have to leave one flank bare. The enemy will certainly take advantage. Apply the same logic to the ground and naval forces and the two front talk is not just a David Copperfield scenario of Sir, can I have some more.

    What we need is more debate on the subject at an appropriate level. What we need even more is to realise that those involved in the debate are not there merely to strengthen turf but to genuinely look for solutions to safeguard our security.

    While you have readily brushed off defence of the country as secondary to economic growth, development and the like I remember my basic training where I was told the first priority of any government is to safe guard and protect the territorial integrity of the nation. The military is only a tool to help the government to achieve that.

  2. Some of the comments apear to come from reputed defence ranks. I have one question for them, I am aware about situations that all the defnece wings indulge in. “How to spend the budgeted amount” else the surpus will be returned back, this is the pain every financial year. In a rush to spend the budgeted amount to look good on projections of expendeture, a lot of crap items are bought and most of the time at exorbitant costs. It may be surprising that how even mundane looking office supplies in every depertment adds up to few thousand crores every year. But this is how fitments are done unfortunately, e.g. by buying laptop / computers that was not needed, office equipments, repairs that were not needed. Just to look good on spend commitments. These kind of waste expendetures easily amount to $1-1.5 billion every year. This is an open secret that no one is ready to address. Even centralized procurement is not addressing this issue.

  3. Nitin you seem to be going by what you’re hearing in the lounge and by virtue of your access to the media shoot off a over the drink counter argument! Front or no front of you want to be taken seriously you need armed forces to back your claim. Why are we soft peddling Tibet? Because we feel that if we ruffle the Chinese they can hurt us! Armies read Armed Forces are not to fight or win wars but to avoid them! Get your basics correct because you have the power to influence opinions! Sucking up to the political masters is okay to an extent!

  4. This wisdom that you talk about extracts a daily price in terms of lives. Like Israel, is better to be warriors indulging in trade than vice versa. This story of fawning hero worship caused the debacle of ’62. The defence budget is increasingly burdened by the need to pay for the perks of a large number of civilians and non combatants, thus diluting the status of those who actually fight, as well as cause shortages in ammunition and obsolescence in weaponry. The armed forces are the final instrument of foreign policy. Speak softly, but carry a big stick.

  5. How can you be sure a two front war will not be imposed on us?
    We don’t have to start a war. In fact the best way to avoid a war is to be better prepared and let the world know we are..

  6. I agree with Gen Oberoi, also if India seeks to be on the high table,, soft power alone would’ nt do !! Yes it’s an insurance policy, which will ensure that we don’t face a crisis. But the time to take out that policy is now . Also let’s understand that the Armed Forces are not seeking stand alone capability for Two Fronts, but a minimum acceptable capability to make our deterrence credible.

  7. A very balanced view! Two front or two front plus war is created for purposes of training, logistics, other wherewithal for the Armed Forces. More for internal consumption, goal setting, testing skills of Commanders at operational & theatre level. A benchmark shall we say as AFs hv long gestation period for manpower Plg, weapon/equipment procurement & infrastructure creation the three prerequisites for war machinery. In spite of apparent chaotic political environment we have astute leadership & hv come a long way since 1962 or even 1965.if we listen to the cacophony of voices specially from the mil writers we would feel unsafe,
    Couldn’t agree with you more. ?

  8. Dear Nitin,
    When the military talks about lack of a viable defence budget, it is not for a two or two and a half or more front wars, it is actually about our inability to fight even one front war!

    I am sorry to say that basing your arguments ONLY on fronts indicates a lack of knowledge about security issues, even though you belong to a Think Tank that is supposedly among the top think tanks of our country.

    Your article reminds me of what the first PM of India had stated – “we do not need an army; the police is good enough for us” or words to that effect. Perhaps you have forgotten 1962!

    You have mentioned fawningly about the wisdom of our politicians, but omitted altogether the professional acumen of the armed forces hierarchy, as well as the rank and file of the military, who have to do the fighting with obsolete weapons.

    I am sorry to state that an article of this nature, instead of awakening up to realities smacks of an ostrich-like mentality – bury your head and all will be well!

    Jai Ho!!!

  9. I like your article Sir and generally agree with you!
    But we still need to modernize the front line which tackle insurgency , get modern fighter jets in our very depleted Air squadrons and arm the Submarines with weapons! We are not asking for a lot but lets play aggressive catch-up at-least…Hate hearing news story about outdated weapons !

  10. Most retarded article ever. Muslims and Chinamen are trying to wipe us off the face of the earth, it’s time the government stops sleeping, cuts social programs, and makes our submarine based nukes easier to fire and triples the defence budget.

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