“Army critical of defence budget,” was a headline in this newspaper on March 14, with other newspapers also focussing on the “dashed hopes” of the Army while reporting on Vice-Chief of Army Staff Lt. Gen. Sarath Chand’s interaction with the parliamentary standing committee on defence. Television debates which followed had the all too familiar trend. The ruling party’s spokespersons talked about how the government had worked to strengthen the military while the Opposition accused them of paying inadequate attention to the forces.
What is the reality? As usual, it lies somewhere between the two extremes. According to a recent report by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India was the largest arms importer in the last five years, accounting for 12% of global imports. The Indian defence budget has now overtaken that of the U.K. to become the fifth largest in the world.
Despite this, as the Vice-Chief of Army Staff pointed out to Parliament’s standing committee on defence, the current capital allocation is insufficient even to cater for “committed liabilities”, which is payments for equipment under contractual obligation. Also, 68% of the Army’s equipment is under the ‘vintage’ category and the situation is unlikely to improve in the near future. Equally worrying is the adverse impact on infrastructure development and strategic roads where there is a severe shortage of funds.
An insufficient defence budget impacts not only modernisation but also the current operational readiness of the force. Reduction in revenue allocation means cutting down on training requirements and routine replacement of items like surveillance and protective equipment.
The strategic environment in Asia is well known. Asia is developing into a multipolar system, with Russia, China, India and the U.S. jockeying for greater influence. As John J. Mearsheimer points out in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics , “(Asia) will be an unbalanced multipolar system, because China will be much more powerful than all other Asian great powers, and thus qualify as a potential hegemon… And when you have power asymmetries, the strong are hard to deter when they are bent on aggression.”
It is a reality that conventional state-on-state conflict is on the decline, particularly between nuclear nations. However, one region where such a possibility exists is South Asia. India faces not only a long-term strategic challenge from China but also the continuing efforts by Pakistan to somehow maintain a semblance of military balance with India by keeping the Indian Army tied down in Kashmir, and developing a credible nuclear force.
India’s dilemma is neatly summed up in the U.S.’s National Intelligence Council report, ‘Global Trends: The Paradox of Progress’, “Geopolitically, [South Asia’s] greatest hope is India’s ability to use its economic and human potential to drive regional trade and development. At the same time, Afghanistan’s uncertain prospects, extremism and violence in Pakistan, and the ever-present risk of war between India and Pakistan probably represent the greatest challenge to unlocking the region’s potential.”
Can India, India ranked at 131 in the 2016 Human Development Report, and with 55.3% of the population living under “multidimensional poverty”, afford a higher defence budget? Conversely, can a weakened military support India’s ambition to achieving great power status? Japan, despite being the second largest economy at one time, was never considered a great power because of its limited military capability.
Regular strategic consultations between the political and military leadership are rare, and when they do take place it is generally for crisis-management, not long-term strategy. But the security challenges, both internal and external, facing the country have to be squarely addressed. The government and the military need to quickly come together and be on the same page. Currently, there does not seem to be a coherent or common assessment, and one example of this is the debate on the two-front war.
The two-front war
The service chiefs have constantly reminded the government that a two-front war is a real possibility and of the need to prepare for it. It is quite obvious that the government does not take this too seriously, as evidenced from budgetary allocations and glib statements that the forces are ‘reasonably and sufficiently equipped’. The first step to resolve this contradiction is for the government to order a comprehensive strategic review of the future threats to India. This will provide a clear picture to the political leadership, and also directions to the military on its doctrine and force structures. A long-term capability development plan can then be prepared by the military and approved by the government. This will form the basis for the defence budget. The annual bickering over the mismatch between what the military demands and the actual allocations made will be avoided.
The government must also take a holistic look at all border-guarding forces — the Army, Assam Rifles, the Border Security Force and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). While the Army leads in responding to all Chinese provocations such as Depsang, Chumar and Doklam, the border is technically the responsibility of the ITBP under the Home Ministry.
Recently, it was announced that the government was planning to raise nine ITBP battalions to “reduce the inter BoP (border outpost) distance” along the China border. Not only does this reflect an inadequate understanding of how the border is to be manned but completely ignores the existing deployment of the Army. A comprehensive and an integrated approach to border management could result in considerable savings.
The military’s challenge
The military also must understand the realities of India’s finances and look to reconstruct itself. Military capability is not all about money. As a RAND monograph, “Measuring Military Capability”, points out, “Military effectiveness (is) the outcome of the resources provided to the military and its capability to transform these resources into effective warfighting capability. A country may provide its military with generous budgets and large cadres of manpower, but if the military’s doctrine is misguided, the training ineffective, the leadership unschooled, or the organization inappropriate, military capability will suffer.”
The military must stop talking in terms of numbers, of squadrons, ships and divisions, and focus on capability. This is much more challenging than harping on raising divisions and squadrons because it confronts us with the crucial issue of defining the type of capability that India needs for future warfighting. It will force us to search for the new and the unexpected, and to look at technologies such as robotics, autonomous systems and artificial intelligence to enhance our military capability.
There is a crying need to move towards greater integration among the three services and with the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The luxury of each service running its own training, administrative and logistics system is no longer affordable. The MoD, staffed entirely by civilians, seems oblivious to defence requirements and follows a procurement process which appears completely broken. An internal report prepared late last year by Minister of State for Defence Subhash Bhamre pointed out that only 8-10% of 144 proposed deals in the last three financial years fructified within the stipulated time period. Greater integration could improve efficiency.
Civil-military differences over defence budgets are an inevitable part of any democracy. However, these differences can be minimised if there is a common understanding of the contours of a national security strategy, and of the genuine requirements of the military for putting this strategy into effect. On its part, the military must focus on capability for future warfighting, not mere numbers.
Lt. Gen. (retired) D.S. Hooda is a former Northern Army Commander