India’s defence budgeting and the point of deterrence

To have India’s defence Budget and national security goals examined through the prism of electoral imperatives would be unprofessional

December 21, 2023 12:08 am | Updated 01:43 am IST

‘Developing a local defence industry takes decades, necessitating a smart balance to be maintained between imports and indigenous accretions to ensure the required potency’

‘Developing a local defence industry takes decades, necessitating a smart balance to be maintained between imports and indigenous accretions to ensure the required potency’ | Photo Credit: R.V. MOORTHY

The Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) programme of the Indian Air Force (IAF) earned the sobriquet of being the ‘mother of all procurements’ due its cost, pegged at around $10 billion in 2007. A decade later, the purchase of 36 Rafale jets was of limited value because the requirement was for 126 aircraft. Consequently, many IAF chiefs have spoken of the depleting squadron strength in the IAF, which is now an abysmal 32. It would take another 10 years before it reaches 35 squadrons, as stated by the current IAF chief. The Indian Army and the Indian Navy fare no better either with the media reporting major deficiencies with them too. With India in election mode and sops being showered on the electorate (even more certain before the general election in 2024), the allocation for defence in Budget 2024-25, which starts getting planned now, could take a hit. This could impact India’s deterrence posture, which defence preparedness is all about.

Need for judicious assessment

The question is whether ‘affordable defence’ — due to the perennial guns versus butter dilemma — will be the driving factor. Or, will ‘affordable effectiveness’ drive the defence Budget allocation? This is best illustrated by the IAF going in for 97 more Tejas Mk1A fighters to overcome the deficit in squadron strength, though this was to be achieved by the 114 multi role fighter aircraft project that the IAF has been pushing for. So, to rephrase the question, should Budget (allocation) be allowed to determine defence potency (remember General V.P. Malik’s quip during the Kargil conflict: “We will fight with what we have”)? Or, should the required potency drive allocations for defence?

The threat on the northern borders is a live one, and it would be unprofessional to dismiss our western neighbour’s present benign stance as indicative of a lessening of risk. India needs to be prepared for both. The imperativeness of a judicious assessment of how India plans to prosecute the next war could not be more pressing in these days of electoral one-upmanship.

Enough has been written on the inescapable necessity of accretion in sea power to deter China in the environs of the Malacca Strait and further east, as also in the Indian Ocean. The Army needs to modernise too and, considering its size, the Budget requirement would be considerable. The planning and budgeting in the Indian military before the Russia-Ukraine war was for a short sharp conflict. The logistics design was to stock up on 10i (10 days intense) war, and build up to a 40i scenario. The refrain has changed, with the leadership of the armed forces now visualising an extended war scenario, as seen in Ukraine. It is here that a recent prescient article in the authoritative website, War on the Rocks, titled ‘You go to war with the industrial base you have, not the industrial base you want’, weighs-in on the debate with its clairvoyant deductions, and needs to be studied given the publicity around the Atmanirbhar Bharat drive.

The indigenous drive, R&D

It needs no reiteration that the armed forces should be technologically modern at any given time. However, developing a local defence industry takes decades, necessitating a smart balance to be maintained between imports and indigenous accretions to ensure the required potency. The Atmanirbhar Bharat public relations drive notwithstanding, a hard clinical view is required on the realities of the armament supply chain that would be in place in the near to mid-term.

India’s defence Budget, in real terms, has been more or less stagnant. Defence expenditure (revenue and capital), as a percentage of central government expenditure, has been declining — from around 16.4% in 2012-13 to 13.3% in 2022-23. The Ministry of Defence had asked for ₹1,76,346 crore in 2023–24 for capital acquisitions but only ₹1,62,600 crore was allotted, creating a deficit of ₹13,746 crore.

In the sphere of research and development, the picture is not rosy either. The Global Innovation Index 2022 pegs India’s research and development expenditure at just 0.7% of its GDP which places it 53rd globally. China, incidentally, spent $421 billion in 2022, which is 2.54% of its GDP. Though the research and development allocation needs a substantial jump, it is good that 25% of the allocation was for the private sector

The government’s emphasis on indigenisation through the Innovations For Defence Excellence (iDEX) scheme and service-specific projects such as the Baba Mehar Singh competition for unmanned aerial vehicles by the IAF, and similar ones in the other two services, are laudable.

Similarly, the restructuring of the Ordnance Factory Board and promulgation of negative lists for imports instil confidence in the private sector for assured contracts. While all these are welcome, and the increase in defence exports heartening, it must be accepted that this drive still has a long gestation period. The momentum should be sustained with a continuum in policy making and adequate defence budgeting by making them election-proof in our boisterous democracy — bipartisan statesmanship would be key in this endeavour.

Costs are important and one must not spend scarce monies to face a 10 feet tall adversary when a pygmy exists on the other side. But what if there are two of them, both militarily adept, and not pygmies? And, India is not 10 ft tall either. China’s belligerence has resulted in the doubling of Japan’s defence budget, the increased arming of Taiwan by the United States, a reshaping of regional alliances and a historic U.S.-South Korea-Japan summit. It would be naive, nay unprofessional, if our defence Budget is not given its due and national security imperatives overridden by electoral imperatives.

Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur VM (retired) is former Additional Director General, Centre for Air Power Studies

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