The defence budget and getting military priorities right

The existing year-to-year defence budgeting scheme means that the armed services cannot be sure their capital acquisitions plans will be funded as per their preferred time-frame. This is because the government commits itself financially, but only notionally, to the entire programme, with no guarantee that any particular hardware purchase will be funded in regular annual tranches. This last does not always happen because the defence budget is subject to the availability of resources, the relative weightage accorded defence compared, say, to food subsidies and MNREGS, and the individual Service’s expenditure priorities. Thus, in the annual budget to be announced tomorrow by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherji, the defence spend may result in the acquisition cycle of many weapons systems being, willy-nilly, stretched, as in the past, over a longer period of time.

The year-to-year budgeting is, however, only part of the trouble.  The far bigger, more serious, problem is the helter-skelter military acquisitions plans that the Defence Acquisitions Council usually approves, and is the result as much of individual service-oriented planning processes as the current Service chiefs’ pet projects that get inserted as priority buy for no rhyme or reason other than as the Chief of Staff’s prerogative. But this sort of thing illustrates the desperate need for an institutional mechanism for inter se prioritisation both within each Service and between the Services’ requirements. What occurs at present is the Chief who has the defence minister’s ear or is in thick with the Defence Secretary ends up with his Service’s top requirements getting the push, especially in meetings the defence minister invariably has with the finance minister in the last days before the Union budget is finalized. This, of course, is a ridiculous way for the defence ministry of a would-be great power to function, but that’s the operating norm, not a rational procedure. The absence of joint acquisitions planning leads to a mindless kind of military modernization predicated on haphazard purchases of virtually whatever armament comes to hand and is a damning indictment particularly of army and air force, the navy being a bit better in this respect. It is good reason why India is not taken seriously as a military power.

It is not as if the Indian government is unaware of the problems. The Chief of Defence Staff organization would have eased such problems, but that’s nowhere on the horizon. The existing tri-Service Integrated Defence Staff, because it is reduced to acting as secretariat for the Chiefs of Staff Committee, is denied an independent joint-Service  acquisitions planning role and, in any case, is not devoid of individual Service pulls.  The outcomes of this fairly anarchic state of affairs were outlined by me, as adviser, defence expenditure, in the classified report to the (Tenth) Finance Commission chaired by former Defence Minister K.C. Pant, and accepted in toto by, the Narasimha Rao government in January 1995. It argued for re-working the expenditure priorities of the Services, for a mechanism for inter se prioritisation, and for shifting the military focus from Pakistan to China. The report recommended a corresponding diversion of resources from fighting assets with an exclusive Pakistan-front utility to forces deployable against China, including a sizeable offensive mountain warfare-capability, and  greatly augmented sea control and sea denial strength.

But no government has bitten the bullet and implemented the Finance Commission recommendations for restructuring the military forces. It would have required, in the main, the reorganizing of the vast armoured and mechanized formations that eat up a disproportionate amount of the defence monies in such a way as to retain a corps plus several independent armoured brigades to deal with any Pakistan contingency, but otherwise transferring the skilled personnel and establishment to offense-capable Mountain Divisions. Equipped with light howitzers, light tanks, lightly armoured Infantry Combat Vehicles, and integral heli-lift, and able to debouch from the “Demchok Triangle” in the Aksai China area and the northern Sikkim plains, these forces would take the fight into Tibet. Quite apart from rendering the army more relevant for wars of the future and give it a genuinely offensive sheen, it would have created novel options to deal with the Peoples Liberation Army. Instead, the army is stuck with the four new Mountain Divisions it got sanctioned, which will inevitably end up on the pre-positioned line behind the Line of Actual Control. Indeed, according to a commander of one of these new Divisions, his troops are doing picket duty, guarding a road well behind the border! For all the brave talk of an offensive Mountain Corps amounts to nought. If the Indian Army lacks the foresight and drive to reconfigure itself, the air force persists in its fighter folly, securing hideously expensive and newer combat planes, at a time when drones are becoming the future.

The generalist bureaucrats, manning the Defence Ministry, alas, simply do not have the knowledge base and the skill sets to think up innovative solutions for force transformation and, understandably, prefer making safe decisions on the basis of precedent which last doesn’t require any expertise or application of mind. In turn, they compel defence ministers, who rely on them for advice, to stay with the status quo, tethering the Services to the orders-of-battle of yester-years. The country, of course, ends up being the loser and paying the price in war.

The government is apparently reconciled to deficits in the air and land forces capabilities. Something called the offsetting strategy (propagated in the quasi-official document ‘Nonalignment 2.0’) entails responding in the maritime sphere to any aggressive Chinese action across LAC. So a Chinese attack on Tawang, for instance, will be countered by sinking Chinese merchant marine or even a warship or two in the Indian Ocean. In that case, the country should be prepared to lose all the territory China has claimed, this time without any prospect of its return as happened in 1962, which is  politically unacceptable. The offsetting strategy makes as much sense as the army’s fighting a reactive war on Chinese terms, and IAF signing on for the MMRCA and the fifth generation Su-50 PAK/FA fighter.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in civil-military relations, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Military Acquisitions. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The defence budget and getting military priorities right

  1. Jagdish says:

    Jaswant Singh in his last budget in 2004 had introduced a non-lapsing defense acquisition fund but was discontinued by the subsequent UPA administration.

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