The costs of military bloat

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherji in his budget speech announced defence allocations of Rs 1.93 lakh crores with a set aside of Rs 79,579 crores for capital acquisitions adding, portentously in Parliament, that if needed the defence spend would be increased further.  During the year, the armed services will no doubt pitch for precisely such a hike by persuading the government that this or that armament purchase is something the security situation demands and the service absolutely cannot do without. This is the norm primarily because the generalist civil servant populated Ministry of Defence has no competence technically to evaluate the Services demands and arrive at an independent judgement about the slew of military requirements — whether these merit funding, can be kept pending, or are unnecessary. The professionalism of the armed forces is assumed to mean that everything they ask for is ipso facto correct and, therefore, worth buying.

The Finance Ministry, for its part, does not even bother with the pretence of making an informed judgement. Its attitude is that its representatives – the Financial Advisers (FAs) attached to major units, formations, and the various acquisitions wings, etc., are presumed to have ruthlessly wielded the scissors, cut out extraneous or wasteful expenditure, and what sums have survived their scrutiny are not worth vetting all over again. The trouble is, rare exceptions apart, these FAs, despite spending their entire careers looking over military shoulders and monitoring expenditure programmes, are ignoramuses in all but name when it comes to genuine knowledge about, and insights into, the military. Because the metrics used for examining expenditures are institutionalised ones, the premium is on sticking to the script and raising the same sets of questions, rather than on acquiring any expertise.

The FAs, however, pick up clichéd phrases that they have heard bandied about and which they use every now and then to show they are clued in. Thus, a former secretary, defence finance, Vijayalaxmi Gupta, the day after this year’s budget was presented grandly pronounced in a short newspaper article that the goal of the defence ministry ought to be to obtain “lean, mean war machinery”. Wisely, she didn’t venture into providing details. Except, because lean-ness and mean-ness are generally considered qualities any self-respecting military should manifest, she probably repeated them without meaning anybody any harm.

This begs the question: What if the Finance Ministry had a cell with a high-calibre staff of genuine military analysts, trend spotters and technology evaluators, whose assent was mandatory for funding of military programmes? The Finance Ministry then would be like the Treasury was in the United Kingdom in the inter-war years, 1917-1938, which instead of funding more big-gunned Dreadnought-type ships the Admiralty was enamoured of, chose proactively to finance the aircraft carrier to keep this option alive until its value was appreciated. In India, this sort of discriminate forward thinking and funding by the Finance Ministry is  unthinkable, whence the flourishing of the “lean, mean” rhetoric among the uninformed civilians gumming up the defence works in the North and South Blocks.

The “Lean, mean”-phrase is, in fact, the stock rationale of every senior uniformed officer asked to justify the usual mindlessly configured acquisitions plans of his service. This is because the military brass has discovered that it loosens the purse-strings without the Service having to sacrifice any portion of its acquisitions plans. It is another matter that these plans accomplish precisely the reverse – render the military fat and complacent. Thus, legacy combat arms with declining utility, flourish with continued investment and infusions of marginally better weapons systems that gouge huge sums out of the defence spend. For example, the army’s armoured and mechanized formations featuring vast holdings of tanks and armoured personnel carriers and infantry combat vehicles suck up funds, but do not produce proportionate conventional deterrence. This is so, in part, because their deployment in war on the western front is limited by the army brass’ apprehension of the Pakistani nuclear tripwire. It has led to the so-called ‘Çold Start’ doctrine, according to which armour from the pivot corps and the three strike corps are expected, to obtain shallow penetrations inside Pakistan, being publicly disavowed by the army chief, General V.K. Singh even though it is very much the operational philosophy. If this disavowal were taken seriously then there’s every good reason to not maintain such large armoured and mechanized establishments, and pruning these would be in order.

Indeed, consolidating the strike corps into a single corps  plus for any Pakistan contingency but otherwise shifting the trained personnel to man an additional six to eight offensive Mountain Divisions deployed for sustained operations on the Tibetan plateau, would rejuvenate the armoured and mechanized corps as little else could. This will give the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army units, planning to walk en masse across the Line of Actual Control, pause for thought and worry and, moreover, make this combat arm relevant for the future. But that’s not how the army or any other Service sees things. Every new capability is viewed as an additionality involving extra manpower, funds, and new hardware purchases. As far as I know, there’s not a single instance of an armed service transforming a part of itself into a future-appropriate force.

This status quo persists only because of a deeply flawed system of national security decision-making that, far from being shaped for 21st century travails, hasn’t even been dragged out of the colonial age! Pre-1947, the Imperial General Staff (IGS) in London strategized and issued orders for C-in-C, India, to implement. The empire is long extinct, but the IGS was not replaced by an Indian Chief of Defence Staff, recommendation to set up which by the Higher Defence Re-Organization Committee has been disregarded by successive governments in Delhi. The three Services, in the event, prepare to fight wars mostly separately, thereby cumulatively running the country’s national security interests into the ground and at increasingly unaffordable cost to the exchequer.  What the country ends up with is suffering the ill-effects of the blind (politicians) being led by the ignorant (bureaucrats), aided and abetted by the blinkered (the military).

[Published in the ‘New Indian Express, Friday, March 23, 2012, and at]

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 Politics, Military Acquisitions. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The costs of military bloat

  1. sagar says:

    Mr Karnad’s learned views in this article are informative. The need to pump in additional resources to cater for the north is real. However, pruning the strike corps would be at the cost of inviting an attack from the west. Lessons from history…

    • Lessons from history should not be over-drawn. Pakistan is a relatively small, fragile, country on India’s flank. To anymore consider it a credible threat is to undermine this country’s standing in the world and highlight its flawed threat perceptions. It is also willfully to be unprepared for the likely conflict with China in the future.

  2. sethu says:

    Thank you sir for these very insightful comments. Have you even found some resonance within sections of the establishment, to these points?

  3. Jagdish says:

    The lack of specialized civilian experts, who can question the budgetary allocations as demanded by the services is an essential component of oversight, sorely lacking in today’s structure. We pride ourselves in having a stable babucracy but it seems these babus have become buffoons (apologize for the harsh language) resulting in a culture of bribery in the higher defense services themselves – as is evidence in the 100’s of defense contracts for mundane items.

    The current expose by COAS VK Singh is just the tip of the iceberg for what goes on in MoD on a daily basis.

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