By Dhurjati Mukherjee
With threats from China persisting for quite a few years, the need for defence modernisation has gained credence in recent years. As early as December 15, 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing the Combined Commanders Conference stated: “Modernisation and expansion of forces at the same time is a difficult and unnecessary goal. We need forces that are agile, mobile and driven by technology, not just human valour. We need capabilities to win swift wars, for we will not have the luxury of long drawn battles.”
However, eight years down the line, the transformation process Modi directed to be implemented, is in disarray. There has been much rhetoric from the political and military hierarchy and the media, giving out details of numerous standalone reforms in the offing. However, none of the major reforms, except a policy with respect to self-reliance in defence equipment, which is yet to bear fruit, have fructified.
Undeniably, the need for such modernisation entails huge expenditure but statistics reveals defence expenditure which made up 2.8 percent of GDP way back in 2011-2012 had fallen to 2.1 percent in the last fiscal. The need for rapid improvement in India’s defence capabilities obviously calls for huge resources at this point of time.
Between FY12 and FY22, defence expenditure increased at a rather nominal annual rate of 9.5 percent which made it rather difficult to implement plans of modernisation. It needs to be pointed out here that possibly pension expenditure of defence took away the lion’s share of resource, jumping to 14 percent on year-on-year basis during the same period. Experts believe that if the present trend continues, the space for modernization may reduce further in the present decade.
Meanwhile, the military is without a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), further complicating the situation. The annual defence budget, currently pegged around $75 billion, is unlikely to see a dramatic hike due to competing demands from other sectors in a developing country like India. Quicker appointment of a capable person in the post of CDS is expected to bring synergy among the Army, Navy and Air Force, which often pull in different directions in planning, procurements and operations. This would entail concrete long-term plans in systematically build military capabilities with proper inter-service prioritisation in tune with India’s geopolitical objectives.
Five months were enough to set up a board under the defence minister to shortlist three names for the appointment through selection in a transparent manner for approval by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet. Obviously, the bitter experience of the public spat between the CDS and the Chief of Air Staff over fundamentals of air power may have influenced the government to indefinitely put the issue of tri-services integration on the back burner. The tri-service integration and creation of theatre commands is essential with the CDS is the linchpin for transformation.
Meanwhile, India happens to be the world’s third largest military spender but haphazard planning, ineffectual policies, piecemeal reforms and the fledgling domestic defence-industrial base all combine to make the country the world’s largest importer, accounting for 11 percent of global imports. However, the armed forces continue to grapple with shortages on several fronts, be it fighters, submarines, helicopters or different kinds of ammunition.
Although India has taken a step forward by creating the tri-service Defence Space Agency, Defence Cyber Agency and the Armed Forces Special Operations Division, these would have to be made full-fledged commands. While such policies need to be taken early, the more important aspect is the need for bringing down imports and starting indigenous production with collaboration and strategic partnerships of foreign companies. But reports indicate that not much progress has been witnessed in this area.
Though the government has been emphasizing on indigenisation for quite a few years, not a single strategic partnership project has taken off under the much touted ‘Made in India’ policy till now.
The first project to make six diesel-electric stealth submarines with independent propulsion for greater underwater endurance, at an initial cost of Rs 43,000 crore under Project-75 India is still far away from the actual contract being inked after the longwinded initial short listing and tender process. Among the foreign shipbuilders who showed interest, the French and Russians have already formally pulled out of the competition. The other SP projects have not even reached the preliminary stage. The IAF’s quest for 114 new 4.5 generation fighters with fifth generation capabilities for over Rs 1.25 lakh crore, which has seven foreign contenders, is yet to be granted the initial “acceptance of necessity” by the defence ministry.
However, it may be mentioned that the defence ministry has decided to increase the Capital Acquisition Budget (CAB), around 64 percent of the modernisation funds approx. RS 70,221 crore has been allocated for purchase from the domestic sector. As mentioned above, the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ and ‘Make in India’ mission, which includes the defence sector, manufacturing of sizable defence equipment has not taken place as contemplated. The government had prepared a negative list, which includes light combat helicopters, artillery guns; these items will not be imported by anyone thus encouraging self-reliant India. But it remains to be seen when indigenous manufacturing would start in a big way.
Experts are of the opinion that the government must carry out a long-term strategic review to evolve a ‘National Security Perspective 2050’. From this must emerge a progressive security strategy reviewed periodically and matched with the forecast of the GDP. This is the responsibility of the government and not the military and has been pending for quite a long time. The above process will decide the size and capabilities of the armed forces. Currently, we are engaged in incrementally reforming the armed forces tailored for wars/conflicts of a bygone era. What we need is a concrete plan of transformation to be steered by an empowered committee under the defence minister and the CDS.
The whole question of transforming the military is possibly the biggest challenge for the government. While more resources need to be allocated to the defence sector, there is need to cut down on salaries and pensions and diverting that amount towards indigenisation of defence equipment. Efforts in this direction should start immediately and a concrete plan adopted. — INFA