Defence budget: The central government has talked smart, not acted smart

The unambitious and low-key budget is emblematic of the Narendra Modi government’s approach of trusting in only small, cautious, steps. So nobody expected that the defence allocations would be used to reorient an Indian military that’s been long in the rut. This would have been a disruptive thing to do to shake up the armed services which, owing to weak political direction and oversight have compelled governments to rubber-stamp whatever they decide is in the national interest.

Predictably, defence allocations of Rs 2.74 trillion falling to 1.63% of GDP has sparked concern, while ignoring the fact that an enlarged budget would have led to the squandering of the taxpayer’s money anyway. The problem at heart is this: The Indian military weighs its self-worth purely in terms of in-date weapons. Absent contrary political instructions as corrective, the preoccupation is with importing hardware, whether or not this is cost-effective, or even appropriate. The result is a mangled decision matrix in which instead of threats and grand strategy defining strategy, force structure, and weapons requirements, in that order, the existing force composition dictates the threat and the choice of armaments and strategy. Whence, the army’s money-guzzling three strike corps, that are way in excess of need, have monopolised the army’s modernisation and maintenance budgets, even though this capability is usable only in the desert and the plains, justified only by the “Pakistan threat”, and driven by a largely unimplementable ‘Cold Start’ strategy.

The Modi government has talked smart, not acted smart. It has failed to channel efforts and resources to secure military capabilities principally to deter China, which would, naturally, also take care of any contingency involving Pakistan, and fetch a larger strategic and international political dividend besides. Indeed, the raising of the only mountain strike corps (17 Corps) is languishing for want of funds. A desperately needed reorientation of the armed services will have to be rammed down resisting throats. Left to itself, the Indian military, which seems incapable of transformative change, will stick to its outdated outlook, operational bearing and plans.

The Modi regime can use the fact of scarce financial resources as lever to change the military mindset as is routinely done in the more mature democracies. Selective approval of expenditure schemes can re-shape and redirect the armed services. A start along these lines can, perhaps, be made to prepare for next year’s budget. The defence capital (or procurement) budget — the nub of the issue — is, in any case, declining. It was Rs 945.88 billion in 2015-16, decreased by 8.7% to Rs 863.4 billion last year, plateauing at Rs 864.88 billion in this fiscal, except only two-thirds of this sum will be actually available for purchases. It is a trend that’s likely to continue.

Considering that in excess of Rs. 3.71 lakh crore (or, roughly $55 billion) are already committed to purchasing weapons systems from abroad, and 10% as first payments in hard currency amounting to some $5 billion on the numerous contracts already made, the only option is to shrink the numbers of units contracted for, and to adjust the payments already made against the reduced outgo.

If the idea is to channel monies to realise more rational forces and capabilities, the signal has to be sent to the armed services that the government will not tolerate business-as-usual. Certain programmes are ripe for down-scaling and would set a precedent. Thus, the Field Artillery Rationalization Plan estimated to cost $12 billion can be shaved to $4 billion by reducing the demand for 1,580 towed 155mm/52mm caliber howitzers, 100 tracked self-propelled (SP) guns, 180 wheeled SP artillery, and 814 mounted gun systems by two-thirds, leaving enough hardware to meet the requirements of a single, compact, consolidated, corps-strength mobile warfare capability on the western border.

The deal for 464 Russian T-90MS tanks costing $4.3 million each in a contract worth nearly $10 billion, requires termination, not least because it is a buy at the expense of the indigenous Arjun Main Battle Tank that comprehensively out-performed the T-90 in test trials in all aspects in all terrains but was rejected as “over-weight”. This is an outrage requiring speedy rethink, if defence minister Manohar Parrikar is serious about not cutting the “indigenous” out of the government’s ‘Make in India’ policy. The plan for new generation infantry combat vehicle numbers too will require pruning to around 730 units costing Rs 52.5 billion, instead of 2,200 new ICVs for Rs 157.5 billion.


A similarly ruthless attitude should lead to the nixing of the 36 Rafale aircraft deal for $12 billion — engagement of Modi’s ego to this transaction notwithstanding, especially as the air force sees it as a means of pushing the government into buying 90 more of this supposedly “medium” multi-role fighter — a category of aircraft known to no other major air force. It will save India the down payment of Rs 97 billion. The navy, likewise, should be strongly dissuaded from accepting the American EMALS (electro-magnetic aircraft launch system) costing $533 million each for the second and third Kochi-built aircraft carriers.

Savings from such hard-headed procurement decisions will make available funds for appropriate capabilities, and indigenous design and technology projects, such as the Tejas 1A and Mk-II, and the navalised LCA, ordered to proceed on the concurrency principle of induction along with capability refinement, with senior air force and navy brass made accountable for their success, a procedure followed by all major militaries.

As this can happen within the time-frames for induction of imported aircraft, imports are pre-empted. The freed-up funds should also be invested in designing, developing, and producing a small 25 ton tank with an engine optimised for high-altitude operations to equip three mountain strike corps.

Published in the Hindustan Times Feb 14, 2017 at;  and in the print (Delhi) edition under the title “Reorient focus, cut the flab”.

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 Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, China military, civil-military relations, Culture, Decision-making, Defence Industry, domestic politics, DRDO, Europe, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Navy, Military Acquisitions, Military/military advice, Pakistan, Pakistan military, Russia, russian assistance, SAARC, society, South Asia, United States, US., Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to Defence budget: The central government has talked smart, not acted smart

  1. Downsizing the 3 strike corps along the western border makes sense but it won’t happen thanks to the lopsided threat perceptions in New Delhi.

  2. Prasad says:

    Just 2 words .. “Spot On”. Nothing more, nothing less.

  3. Shaurya says:

    A 25 ton tank? What do you have in mind? Elaborate please on APU? the main gun, aux gun, missile firing capabilities, armor, ERA, wheeled/tracked, safety…i am getting visions of WW2 models!!

    Keep in mind, once we do crossover to the high plateau, it is fine tank territory in many places.

    • Still high altitude, and that’s the problem with even starting up the T-72s fielded on the Sikkim plains. A 25-30 tonner more as an armoured rocket and missile carrier.

    • andy says:

      I think what Bharat has in mind is a tank akin to the Chinese VT5 which weighs 33 to 36 tons depending on the configuration deployed.

      • Shaurya says:

        OK. The Indian FICV program can enable many of these configurations, including a 105mm main gun with a wheeled/tracked configuration, light armor, air deployable, etc. The same platform can enable say an Akash for air/missile defense, Pinaka (currently on an 8*8 truck). Essentially our version of the Stryker. It would not be a tank though. It would be an infantry assault fire support vehicle. What we need to do is find a mobility solution for the ATAGS. We probably need about 5000 of these FICV in all types of configurations both to replace the BMP2 and be available for the China front.

        There is a nasty little secret of war, that many lay Indians (like myself) are wont to accept. In war there are losses. The west has invested itself in a strategy called technological overmatch. One of the main purposes is to minimize risks to life. I am not sure we can either afford the same level of risk mitigation. I know it is a cold thing to say, but hot war is better fought with cool minds to achieve meaningful objectives. We need to be clear on what losses we are willing to take and at what cost.

  4. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    But what if the pakis get even more tanks or howitzers etc. at friendship prices? Isn’t the Karakoram Highway to make sure such a cooperation does takes place as and when the need arises for the China-Pakistan combine?

    Occasionally I also do numbers on these things but the problem seems bigger than just a re-allocation from Pakistan front to China front.

    Mota mota we will spend 70% on personnel, 20% on running and maintenance and only about 10% of the defence budget on the capital acquisitions. Defence budget translates to 50 billion USD. And MoD returned about a Billion USD.

    My harebrained level estimates for the replacement cost of existing equipment :
    Navy = 1 billion USD / 7400 tonne Kolkata class * 200000 gross tonnage = 27 billiion USD
    Air Force = 700 UFO * 120 million USD each / 1000 = 84 billion USD
    Army = 4000 tanks * 5 million USD + 1500 howitzers * 1.5 million USD = 22 billion USD
    Total = 133 billion USD to be replaced every 30 years.

    But since these forces have been in existence for several decades so a 15 year average life would be required.

    At 30 years it would be 4.5 billion USD yearly replacement cost and at 15 years it would be 9 billion USD.

    Pls feel free to give a lot of things & take out a small amount of something from the above. It is only meant to show the principles in work. And you still see how it is an impossible task to equip ourselves with the current attitude based on imported maal-masala. And everything is yesterday’s costs and numbers. Not even representative of what is needed for the future. There is no hope unless we do IDDM seriously like the Chinese do theirs.

    The air force chief should stop justifying old mistakes of his team, by continually flying the Mig-21s. Nobody flies Mig-21s in this day and age. There is no point in trying to save money for Rafales and F-35 and 300 single engined bakwas. Just buy the goddamned Tejas. It is your J-10 or your F-16.

    Likewise Navy should just accept that LCA is the only dish on the table. If they want the best aircrafts then they should be willing to relent on the float category. And if they want both then they should be willing to just stay put in the harbor.

    And the Army should just stop pretending that they will design future tanks. Vardi ka design to amrikiyon se lena pada, pata nahi tanks kaise design kareinge.

    And the MEA should be transferred out, lock stock and barrel, to the best locations they want to go. Rest assured the choice transfers will work out way cheaper. Give their children scholarships too. And don’t forget, only one way business class tickets out of India, please. Ba-izzat but only one way.

    Sorry sir ji, merely shifting the budget around is simply not disruptive. It is merely incremental.

  5. Lavina says:

    Striking down demand of artillery guns by 1/3rd is fine, but how do we fill the gap????

    Doing away with T-90 tanks is also fine but again a major indicator of Victory on the battlefield is the No of enemy tanks destroyed. How do we win if we do not destroy enemy tanks.

    No EMALS is ok. But how do we address the Chinese aircraft carrier being developed with EMALS technology.

    It is also assumed that efforts made to develop Tejas will bear results. If this not a fallacy, could the author provide a positive input to justify reasons for his optimism. Who would be responsible for thrusting a non combat worthy aircraft down the throats of the Indian Air Force. Certainly not the author.

    What we need to ask ourselves is whether the adversaries are scaling down their capabilities???

    • The artillery and armour acquisitions, after the suggested reductions, will more than adequately fill the requirements of a single composite strike corps and a number of independent armoured brigades — after de-mobbing the three strike corps, and shifting the freed-up manpower and materiel resources to outfit two additional mountain offensive corps (besides the 17 Corps under raising) for the China front. Because, seriously, do we really expect many tank battles of the kind last seen in the 1965 War, and that too in a nuclearized milieu? This theme has been dilated at length in my books, including the latest Why India is not a Great Power Yet.

      The counter to PLAN carriers is not EMALS or even large capital ships/carrier but the supersonic cruise missile, the Brahmos. Surely!

      And Tejas is, in fact, the answer IAF doesn’t like. But await my longish piece in the OPEN magazine coming out this Friday.

      The Indian military has to begin to think differently, with the economics of defence in mind.

      • Lavina says:

        All post facts. How do you think India will tackle two Paki strike corps with one? This is neither fiction nor fantasy, it is foolish. Perhaps because such views are not subject to any accountability

      • Tanks are a childhood fantasy for many. But question is what is the technology evolution required in tanks for them to be relevant now. Clearly before tanks can press into action today you need air dominance in their field of operation, going by just what happened in Longewala.

        Neclear weapons make many decisions simple. If you go whole hog in nuclear then you can reduce immeduate requirement of expensive imported hardware that you can’t use anyway. Better to build private military industry in the time bought by nuclear stalemate. Forget no first use psychological block for a min.

        We have a nuclear stalemate in the Indian subcontinent. We did not respond with tanks for Kargil, Parliament attack or Mumbai. The sooner all of accept the changed scenario the better.

    • andy says:

      Why is it assumed that only a tank can take out another tank?The key to destroying pakistani tanks will surely be airpower,an aircraft can destroy more tanks than a T90.Once the SU30MKIs have ensured air dominance the ground attack aircraft can pick off the enemy tanks at will,thats why I have been advocating that if the IAF must induct western birds then they better start with the A10 warthog, which is a war proven and hardy A to G platform that can specialise as a tank buster, besides being cost effective.

    • andy says:

      Re:”What we need to ask ourselves is whether the adversaries are scaling down their capabilities???”

      Its not to do with wether the adversaries are scaling down their capabilities but how they are building them up,especially Pakistan.If there is one thing the IAF needs to learn from the PAF its how to induct new aircraft into the airforce,the JF17 is a prime example.It was inducted as soon as it was airworthy and other systems incorporated subsequently,in fact the IFR has been added only in the recent version and this is how its done worldwide eg;the F16 of the USAF whose latest version Block 70 is up for manufacture in India,this after a number of upgrades with newer systems,making a 70s designed bird valid for warfare in 2017 & beyond.

      Compare this with the Tejas saga,which has been airworthy for years but inducted only recently,that too grudgingly by the IAF.Whenever the ASQR was changed it took more time to incorporate the changes leading to more delays.This pigheaded insistance of a completely developed aircraft before induction by the IAF must be a first in world airforce history.In this tug of war between the IAF and the ADA the whole Tejas program has suffered and is still suffering.What the innumerable delays have done is prevent the line pilots of the IAF from getting a feel for the aircraft plus devising and honing tactics.The problem is that this effort to make the Tejas program languish is still not over yet.One gets a sinking feeling that the Tejas is headed for a fate similar to the Arjun MBT,where a small number have been inducted into the armoured corps and DRDO having to work on a futuristic MBT,what this has done is keep the Indian agency busy designing and developing newer versions that will probably never make it in to the forces, while the Army goes about its merry way importing more T90 tanks from Russia.The Tejas seems headed down the same path.

  6. Jarin says:

    Bharat Karnad wants to equip military with third rate stuff made by DRDO. Armies equip themselves to win the war and not to do republic day parades showing off indeginous equipment. It would be foolish to think that being Swadeshi is more important than winning the battle. LCA and Arjun are no match to contemporary equipment .

  7. Rupam says:

    Sir why does the Air force not induct the Tejas when it is indigenous and better, why do they dislike it?

  8. Jarin says:

    If Indigenisation is the only way please start with developing a commercial aircraft and travelling in it yourself. A dreamliner costs as much as a Rafael and has a much wider market. Just leave warfighting with those who know about it.

    • Jarin@ — You must have heard the quip by the French premier Georges Clemenceu — “War is too important to be left to the Generals”, said for very good reasons.

      • Ha ha ha. Well said. No transparency is invitation for corruption and incompetence both. Look at HTT40 one Air Chief said we don’t need it. Asked GOI to cancel it. Then HAL built it with own funds. 3 years after rejecting it IAF chief said will induct in large numbers.

        Foreign weapons tie up military like nothing else. They cannot use these weapons in war since the west won’t let you fight wars than don’t suite their interest. We know this from history and also very logical. You have to start somewhere to build your own weapons and wipe off the largest importer ‘kalank’ from your heads.

        To satisfly our military heads’ love for foreign let’s fund our officers expensive German cars rather than outdated Ambis. But buy Indigenous platforms for war. This is cheapest way out.

  9. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    @Andy, a shooting match to take out Armour or Artillery firebases is one thing and holding ground is yet another. It is the later for which the Army and all its assets are needed.

    I don’t see how Indian armed forces can challenge the Chinese inside Tibet in any reasonable manner. People talk about it but things have never matured enough, beyond talking.

    If the challenge inside Tibet is going to remain feeble necessitating a holding of borders becomes the main objective in the north, then a ground invasion in the West (against CPEC) becomes necessary. How will a Sukhoi help in the ground invasion. And how do you conduct a ground invasion without armour.

    As I see it, BK and NSA-Doval are not wrong in saying that the armed forces need to be beefed up against China. But the main impediment in achieving that is the high fixed cost model that has already been chosen by the military.

    The fact that Pakistani challenge is provided for, beyond the levels of absolute necessity, does not seem like an impediment, if you are willing to acknowledge that war inventory for the Pakistani side can be provided for prior to the shooting war, by the highly evolved MIC that the Chinese have developed.

    The need to prepare for a 2 or 2.5 front war is not based on unreal imagining of threats. Only the preparation towards those objectives are hobbled. The objective itself is very much justifiable. And if the 2/2.5 front war can be thrown our way then we will need to assure defeat inside Pakistan. How will thinning out in the West serve us in that 2/2.5 front war?

    • ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

      We specifically need to be told that a holding in the West and invasion in the north is possible and we have covered this much ground preparing for that scenario.

      The MIC on our side is in a mess. The militaries have no pride in the local stuff and senior officers spend the better part of their day in decadent processing of whatever little knowledgebase they possess. The civil administration is bound to its stance in its negotiations with several foreigners. The general public is forever hobbled by poor economic management. This is not a preparation for a win in the north.

      Only possibility that such a scenario seemingly affords us is the holding of borders in the north and invasion in the west. That too if the mobilization on our side is managed the ideal way (ie. zero margin for error).

    • andy says:

      Re:”Andy, a shooting match to take out Armour or Artillery firebases is one thing and holding ground is yet another. It is the later for which the Army and all its assets are needed”

      Fine but one would think that the mechanised and other infantry units would have ample firepower to hold ground once the enemy tanks are taken out by the ground attack aircraft.Tanks have to be used in conjuntion with infantry units.But no one including Bharat is reccomending that all tanks be thrashed by the Indian army,just that there is no need for overkill vis a vis tanks in modern warfare.

    • andy says:

      Re:”How will a Sukhoi help in the ground invasion”

      Sukhois are meant to be air dominance fighters,once the skies are swept clean of enemy aircraft by the Sukhois only then can invading ground forces proceed on their axis of attack.Plus the Sukhois will fly CAP missions to ensure that the advancing infantry units as well as ground attack aircraft can complete their missions unhindered by enemy air power.

    • andy says:

      Not to forget the Brahmos armed Sukhois that will be used to target high value enemy assets like command and control centers,ammo and fuel dumps etc quiet deep inside enemy territory from stand off distances.

  10. Atul says:

    The requirement of 180 wheeled SP artillery alongwith 814 Mounted Gun System is a phantom exercise. There is no example of wheeled SP artillery that can participate in the tender and not match up for Mounted Gun System as well. So, the wheeled SP artillery tender is waiting to be scrapped though not in the open domain yet.

    Further, your data on T-90 tank price is little bit confusing. 464 tanks x US $ 4.3 million = 1995.2 million, effectively US $ 2 billion. So where does the rest $ 8 billion go?

    • This figure is for armour modernization, I should have made clear. In any case, the rest of it goes into M-72 upgrades, replenishing the 1st line and spares holdings., etc., presumably.

  11. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    May be Doval and his cohorts modeled it all inside VIF. Modelling is a lovely thing, it can also be made to show that 1 Sukhoi can shoot out half the PAF because 1 Sukhoi can shoot 12 AAMs and 150 cannon shots while a PAF plane can be impaired by as little as 1 cannon shot. I love americana and their modelling.

    In real life the so called best general sought an overwhelming superiority in numbers and in some cases even in quality, before he went into East Pakistan, with 3 separate thrusts. And East Pakistan is the same size as present day Pakistan. Numerical superiority being 3X in ground troops, 5X or 6X in armour, ~2X in artillery, 13X in air superiority and ~100X in the seas and ∞X in diplomacy and no monsoons and a frozen up Himalayas and a bumbling opponent.

    People cannot expect to get equipped like 62/65, fight like 48 and win like 71 with diplomacy getting managed like 99. I agree the 3 strike formations cost much but not as much as the goddamned Rafales and 300 single engine airplanes and EMALS wala nuke carrier or the M-777. Rationalize on the imports and you have your monies for the new china specific formations too.

    In fact the author too should beware of these ideas because the final result may not be to his liking either. Ex Indian Army generals have several times on TV accepted that they cannot fight the Chinese with what they have. Which implies they should be given more money to fight. But you need only a few ‘thinking’ generals on the inside to route all the money released by economizing for a US inspired demilitarization in the guise of expensive imports and CKD manufacturing.

  12. &^%$#@! says:

    Two other points that need to be factored in are:

    1. the possible Pakistani acquisition of the HQ-9 SAM system (similar to the S-300). There is however some discrepancy as to the nature of the guidance system. Some sources claim that it is more akin to the TVM type used in the Patriot than that employed in the S-300 FLAP:

    This move, which appears to be very much on the cards, will render IAF attempts to establish air dominance difficult (to say the least).

    2. The IAF apparently lacks any significant “Wild Weasel” type platforms. Ideally, the SU-30 MKI would be the best a/c for this. The fact that even the Super 30 upgrade seems to be placed in the backburner, I don’t see the IAF progressing along this path given its own “unique” brand of what it is pleased to call “logic”.

  13. andy says:

    If some folk had the faintest idea about what they are writing they would know that there are numerous countermeasures to a SAM system (their kill %age is low anyway) or even an IADS,so cherry picking just one of them is the height of ignorance.Plus those who doubt the capabilities of the SU30MKI need to be in an institution rather than roaming free on the streets.

  14. rahul kumar says:

    we should start developing emals technology parallel to construnction of iac 2.

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