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India's national security: Rhetoric needs to be matched by action

The defence budget in India is rarely discussed in Parliament in an informed and objective manner and is often characterized by bitter political rancour and a zero-sum approach. National security must impel some degree of bipartisan political consensus but, that alas, remains very elusive in the current times, writes C. Uday Bhaskar for South Asia Monitor.

Feb 26, 2016
By C Uday Bhaskar
 
The annual budget will be presented at the end of February and the manner in which India allocates fiscal resources for its military and related national security will come under brief scrutiny, even as the Indian army was deployed in Haryana to deal with what was essentially an internal, law and order situation which the local police and paramilitary forces were unable to control.
 
This context is relevant for the institution of the Indian military which is sustained by the annual defence budget, which is not only significantly small when compared to that of other burgeoning powers like China, but which also is an often ignored entity in the national psyche. Despite the threadbare allocations made to it, the commendable professionalism and the apolitical nature of the Indian military have provided the much needed critical core for the trajectory of India’s democratic experience. 
 
Concurrently the institution has been tasked to maintain national sovereignty and territorial integrity and acquire a competence that spans the bandwidth from nuclear weapons and missiles to low-intensity-conflict and terrorism that was manifest in Mumbai on November 26, 2008 and  on the outskirts of Srinagar as recently as on February 23, 2016 when  Indian soldiers lost their lives.
 
To nurture the military (that is army, air force and navy), India allocated INR 2,467 billion  (USD 40.5 billion  approx) in February 2015 – the first full budget presented by the Modi government.  While this is a sizable amount, it is relatively modest by the global norm for major powers. This allocation of USD 40 billion was estimated to be 1.75 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 
 
Many other countries with a less complex security challenge allocate between 2 to 4 percent of their GDP for defence, but given India’s socio-economic priorities and the scale of the human security challenge, it is unlikely that India will be able to allocate significantly greater resources than the current trend. Thus, one may expect that the defence allocation that will be presented next week will be in the range of USD 40 billion and this does not include the pension allocation.
 
Is this amount enough for India’s overall defence preparedness? The  short answer is no, and the challenge for the higher defence management  is to create the kind of  military that will be  able to adapt to the changing nature of warfare and  national security and also provide the requisite credibility to India’s political and  diplomatic orientation.
 
From the Nehruvian non-alignment of the Cold War decades, Delhi now identifies ‘strategic autonomy’ and the profile of a leading power as its preferred objectives in the international arena. However, the achievement of the delineated goals will remain elusive when another stark reality is noted. India remains vulnerable to arms imports as it does not have a robust indigenous defence production base. The Modi government’s focus on “Make in India’ can be seen as an earnest attempt to redress this inadequacy.
 
The scale of the challenge is daunting and the defence budget will have to provide the necessary resources to nurture this gradual transformation – from being an importer of military inventory to that of a technologically proficient nation that can be part of the global military manufacturing eco-system.
 
Currently India has the ignominy of being the world’s largest importer of arms and accounted for 14 percent of the global total in 2014-15.  China is in the second place at 4.7 percent.  Over the last 15 years, India has spent up to USD 120 billion to import military inventory and technology and given the tight control over such know-how (both design and manufacturing)   and poor strategic planning – the domestic Indian manufacturing base remains woefully inadequate in the defense sector.
 
Two examples are illustrative. Despite the fact that India has one of the largest military plus paramilitary and police forces in the world (over two million, if they are all taken together) and each of them requires a  good personal weapon like a revolver or  the Kalashnikov equivalent. 
 
However the  sad reality  is that India still does not have a credible design and manufacturing capacity in this domain. Yes, a country that has nuclear weapons and which is now set to commission its own nuclear propelled and missile capable submarine (Arihant), does not design its own revolver or an automatic personal weapon.
 
Furthermore, the country does not even have adequate ammunition-making capacity and the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report tabled in parliament in May 2015 noted that the Ordnance Factories Board (OFB) had failed to provide the army the specified quantities and hence  the shortfall was 73% in all types of ammunition. 
 
Clearly this is a very unsatisfactory situation and is reflective of a larger structural problem, wherein the Indian military is very deficient in its overall inventory - and the highest levels of  the national security apparatus  have opted to live with this undesirable status quo for years - of  depleting platform numbers, obsolescence and a non-existent domestic defence manufacturing base.
 
Thus the challenge for the Modi government and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar in particular is to create the necessary policy framework within which to bring about this transformation, and all of this with the relatively modest fiscal resources that are available - about USD 41 billion.
 
The inventory of the military (platforms like tanks, ships and aircraft) is provided for in the capital component of the defence budget and some trends are instructive.  The capital component is shrinking relative to the revenue component (this caters to pay and allowance and other standing costs for a one million plus military) and is now below 40 percent of the total defence expenditure.  And, even more discouraging is that even the total capital component is not spent, and this under-utilization is a reflection of the many inadequacies that afflict the higher-defence  lattice and is symbolized in what is better  known  as the 'Bofors syndrome'.
 
The defence budget is rarely discussed in the Indian Parliament in an informed and objective manner and is often characterized by bitter political rancor and a zero-sum approach.  National security must impel some degree of bipartisan political consensus but, that alas, remains very elusive in the current times.
 
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal interest and commitment towards national security and the focus on ‘Make in India'  is commendable. But  the need to implement earnest rhetoric to ground reality  is even more urgent now  in relation to the  Indian military than  ever before.
 
(Commodore Bhaskar is Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. He can be reached at cudaybhaskar@spsindia.in)

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