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Why military reforms are always elusive
Rhetoric like ‘India is prepared for a two-front war’ will not change realities. Only careful planning and budgeting will fuel defence modernisation and cut manpower costs. We must learn from the UK
Keeping his promise of making America great again, Pentagon has been given the biggest ever defence Budget in the US’ history. And India, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to make militarily strong in his pre-election speeches, advocating ‘heads for head and jaws for tooth’, has been awarded the lowest Budget… one can add ‘ever’: $716 billion is an increases of upto 17 per cent that will improve combat readiness said Defence Secretary Jim Mattis. In 2002, the defence Budget was $345 billion but rose sharply after Afghanistan and Iraq.
India’s defence Budget, including salaries and pensions, has touched $62.8 billion. Of this, only $43.4 billion is for defence. While the revenue Budget has increased phenomenally due to the Seventh Pay Commission and One Rank One Pension, capital expenditure for modernisation is flat and in real terms, concave. The defence Budget is 1.57 per cent compared to the lowest ever 1.49 in the 1950s. Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, in his Budget speech, highlighted operational preparedness and modernisation without mentioning that the Armed Forces have to fight a two-and-a-half front war. The Parliamentary Standing Committee, headed by BJP’s BC Khanduri, in their reports 35 and 36 say categorically: “India is not combat ready, is under equipped…” In other words, modernisation is woefully inadequate.
Defence spending, as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), is highest in Saudi Arabia (10 per cent) Russia (5.3 per cent) the US (3.3 per cent) the UK (56 billion pound or two per cent) and India $62.8 (1.5 per cent). China is big spender but reliable figures are seldom available. Defence allocations in the UK have been stramlined due to the overall size of the Budget. It has the largest defence expenditure in the European Union, second highest in Nato and fifth largest in the world.
Early last month, reports in London suggested that the Treasury has ordered military cuts of nearly 20 billion pound in the next 10 years. This led to the junior Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood, threatening to resign. Like the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi assists the Ministry of Defence with Budget advice and other defence reviews, Royal United Services Institute in London does a more detailed analysis of defence spending, presenting options and plans with required funding. The revenue expenditure for National Security Capability Review (NSCR) (distinct from Strategic Defence Review) may take defence out of it and have a separate defence capability for new equipment, equipment support and new capabilities. The NSCR is being done appropriately by National Security Adviser Mark Sedwill, Ajit Doval’s counterpart. The Ministry of Defence’s annual Budget for modernisation is 36 billion pound of a defence Budget of 56 billion pound and there are never any instance of failure to utilise money for combat readiness.
In India, over the last 10 years, at least Rs 50,000 crore meant for capability enhancement was returned to finance, either on demand or non-utilisation. Compared to the revenue and capital figures, the UK is able to utilise between 65 and 70 per cent of the Budget on modernisation. In India, capital expenditure works out to less than 30 per cent, which is the reason for the Parliamentary Standing Committee’s observation that the Armed Forces are not combat ready despite service Chiefs periodically telling the country they are ready for a two-front war. Modernisation accounts for less than one-fifth of the allocation by the Ministry of Defence. To a question why more funds are not given to defence, Finance Minister Jaitley gave different answers in successive years. In 2017-18, he said the “Armed Forces do not have a mechanism to spend the capital Budget”. This year, his reply to the same question was: That it had to do with the size of the cake available…otherwise fiscal deficit would expand”. The capital to revenue ratio of India’s defence Budget works out to 33 per cent to 67 per cent which is the opposite of the British defence Budget.
That is why Infantry soldiers, who man the Line of Control (LoC) 24X7 and are deployed in hostile terrain, do not even have a modern rifle, bulletproof jackets and helmets. These projects have been in the pipeline for 15 years and have been cancelled, revived, and cancelled again for mysterious reasons. Not all permanent defence on the LoC are shell-proof to direct hits from artillery and anti-tank missiles. We are losing soldiers on LoC and hinterland due to absence of robust security and camps and permanent shell-proofing on posts.
After decades of lethargy, new Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has appointed a 13-member committee that will review all modernisation projects which are cleared but stuck in the pipeline. The committee has a high-sounding title: RM’s Advisory Committee on MoD Capital Projects above five billion rupees to strengthen modernisation and defence preparedness, the by-words of Jaitley’s defence Budget speech. Whether this is one more committee to expedite capital defence expenditure or time pass as in previous years, only time will tell. Last month, following the news of 20 billion pound cut over the next 10 years in the UK set the cat among the pigeons. Many options were put on the table of amalgamating forces like Commando Brigade and Air Assault Brigade and pruning defence commitments. For example, in one option the Army could reduce from the existing 82,000 to 50,000 the smallest number since the battle of Trafalgar.
Remember, the UK has the most advanced Trident sea-launched nuclear ballistic missile capability worth 36 billion pound and two of the world’s most modern aircraft carriers, prompting a journalist to quip that the UK could become Belgium with nukes. With an empire from Belize to Hong Kong for over 200 years, will the UK now have to shed its power projection capabilities/expeditionary forces or restrict defence mission to ‘defence of our shores, including counter-terrorism,’ remain tied to Nato and Europe and defend the UK from next generation threats like cyber warfare? Resilience and deterrence will remain the defining catalysts for defence and combat readiness. Still for the British soldier, losing his cap badge is the ultimate grief.
India must take a lesson from the UK on defence planning and procedures to incorporate modern methods of comparing capabilities of aircraft carrier, Rafale squadron and 17 Mountain Corps. Till we adopt the programmes, plans and Budgeting systems, it is unlikely that we will be able to achieve the 70:30 target for modernisation and manpower costs. India must also undertake a strategic defence review to fix tooth-to-tail-ratio. This retards modernisation.
(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the revamped Integrated Defence Staff)
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