Budget 2019 allocations for defence are disappointing, govt needs to focus on reforms and restructuring within army

No surprises here. The Budget 2019 allocations for defence were predictably as disappointing as the last such exercise. Figures from the Ministry of Defence indicate that after taking inflation into account and the steep climb of the rupee, the declared rise of a little over three percent is a mere mirage.

Inflation, which stands at about 3.6 percent, eats into that figure. Similarly, the rise of ten percent in capital expenditure from Rs 86,488 crore to the present at Rs 93,982.2 crore will certainly be eroded by currency fluctuations.

As experts in the field note, the defence budget as a percentage of total GDP has been falling steadily over the last decade, which seems to belie the thumping of chests against China and Pakistan by political leaders of different hues. Experts from different fields will decry the inability of this or that service to buy a particular weapon system, while others will bemoan that the army continues to get the lion's share of defence funds.

The truth, however, is somewhat nuanced. First, it’s not just the figures that count. After all, the combined defence expenditure, as Laxman Behera points out, jumps from 1.49 percent to more than 2.16 percent of the GDP (2018) when pensions and other expenses such as Border Roads and Defence Estates are included. That is still only almost to the level of 3 percent that is being asked for by analysts.

Even within this, it is true that the only figure that continues to be upwardly mobile to rise is the pensions bill (Rs 87,825.40 crore to Rs 1,08,853.30 crore over two years) while all other heads are probably stagnant. But at more than Rs four lakh crore, that’s a lot of money, especially since it doesn’t seem to have created a lot of difference in how the services actually fared.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

Essentially, allocations don’t matter beyond a point. The question is how you spend it – particularly in a country where resources are always likely to remain scarce for the foreseeable future. As everyone knows, any military strategy making essentially means cutting your coat according to your cloth, and then making sure that it’s the right fit with some minor adjustments. That’s pretty much never been done in India.

A start has been made this year by army chief General Bipin Rawat. His restructuring plan for the army is truly path-breaking and is aimed at reducing numbers that have almost doubled since 1962.

It's not that the need for a drastic re-haul was not recognised before. Committees by the dozen have made recommendations that have gathered dust, as the army and the government of the time were unwilling to address them. Since about 2014, this has begun to change. The government has already begun to implement the Shekatkar Committee Report which was aimed at achieving what the British, for instance, had done at least a decade ago – which was to outsource tasks of the support establishment to the industry, or like the postal department, to close them down altogether.

Much of the unprecedented speed at which the reform is being carried out is reportedly due to the energetic MoS Defence Subhash Bhamrein. In India, reform of any kind has always been personality driven. That’s a danger in election year. A change in faces could stall the present thrust and go back to stagnation which bureaucracies are comfortable with. It eases the pain of decision making.

The army chief’s plan will be the first time that the fighting elements are going to be restructured and reduced in numbers. That takes quite a lot of doing. After all, the Chinese PLA – which began the exercise in the 1980s – has reduced its numbers by more than 5,00,000 and in recent years, has begun diverting resources to increase its other arms. There lies the crux of the problem for India.

First, as Sandeep Unnithan reports, it is unclear whether savings effected by the army will actually be re-allocated to it, or otherwise spent, depending on ministry decision-making. Apart from what appears to be a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with the government, there is little else to indicate whether a Defence Ministry known for its vagaries will actually square the circle by providing the money saved to acquiring badly needed capital expenditure for the army itself. It could well argue, with some reason, that other services are more urgently in need of funds.

That brings the argument to the second issue. Since the time of the first BJP government, recommendations by the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) have included suggestions for a National Security Strategy and a doctrine that would give some parameters for defence planning. That was not done for years, partly due to the inability of the armed forces to come to a common ground, and in part due to the almost historical dislike of the Indian political class to put anything down on paper.

A basic issue dogging the armed forces is the question of what kind of war it expects to fight in the future. Barring some accord in terms of borrowed jargon like ‘technology-intensive’, 'air-space dominance’ and other such enticing terminology, each service has, over the last few decades, trumpeted its own capabilities which would ‘win’ a war, which in turn naturally justifies them getting the largest chunk of funds.

Thus, both the army and the air force wound up getting an air component including armed helicopters, for instance, modelled on doctrines taken up by the US, which has a role and resources quantum leaps ahead of us. Thus the 'air land battle' found favour in the India-Pakistan context, as does the lure of the Indo-Pacific Ocean strategy that now beckons.

The core problem is with that old ‘cut and paste’ technique. Despite impressive management and training colleges, we seem to be unable to think for ourselves. Or on the rare occasions when we do, it’s never accepted unless it has been ‘footnoted’ from a foreign (read white) source. India has to decide what kind of a war it is capable of fighting and then jointly prepare for it.

That brings in the second aspect. It is inconceivable that the Indian Armed Forces don’t have a joint doctrine for war fighting. Generals and captains alike have written hundreds of papers at those very training institutes on the need for jointness. But when it comes to the crunch, each service has so far hung on determinedly to its assets, and refused to part with a dime, let alone a battlefield role.

Preparing singly is expensive and wasteful. Pravin Sawhney and others have repeatedly pointed out that jointness means not just some inter-services organisation, but true joint commands. At the top of the suggestion list is that hoary old chestnut – the need for a Chief of Defence Staff. If that hasn’t happened, don’t blame the bureaucracy. It’s the services themselves who are digging in their heels.

Finally, or rather, the exercise that should set all of the above in motion is the decision by the political class on what its prime national security objectives are. These are the very basic requirements which will allow a country to function independently in the international arena.

That includes not just safeguarding territorial integrity but a host of other issues such as ensuring freedom of sea lanes and deciding whether the neighbourhood safety, for instance, is the business of New Delhi or not. If it is, the armed forces have to prepare for it, and more importantly, allowed to use their funds as they think fit. But most importantly, the politicos cannot ask the armed forces to undertake such a neighbourhood watch (or rescue), and then withhold the funds needed for it.

Back to front, therefore, the politicos have to decide the role of the armed forces through a national security strategy, after which the armed forces have to work on how to train, operate and buy weaponry together to achieve the government's objective, to fight a war that everybody agrees on its terms of its possible direction and nature. That will then decide the defence budget, which should be a single figure reference point, and not broken up artfully under different heads.

It’s a simple exercise. Rumour has it that the exercise by the Defence Planning Committee under the direction of the National Security Advisor is probably nearing completion. Ideally, such a document should be set in stone before elections. After that, hopefully neither a political tinker or a tailor will choose to embark on a new exercise that upends the first one. The finance ministry will have a fit. And they won't be the only ones.

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Updated Date: Feb 03, 2019 19:03:54 IST

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