Unprepared and vulnerable
Inadequacies in defence outlays for modernisation and maintenance of the various branches of the Indian armed forces will recklessly expose gaps in national security
Wringing of hands truly does not assuage the utter inadequacies of the Defence Budget. It is a new practice of hiding and then divulging. Like in the past, this budget was also hidden within the national budget for the fiscal year 2020-21 presented by the Finance Minister. Perhaps the government is not able to explain the dichotomies between its posture on national security and presenting a poverty-stricken, measly Defence Budget that stands at 1.5 per cent of the GDP. Thanks to the demonetisation of 2016, the GDP itself is losing resources of at least $40 billion in its growth each year after 2017. Pegged at Rs 4,71,378 crore ($66.9 billion), experts point out that it would be just enough to pay for the EMIs of the capital acquisitions of defence items on order and currently in the pipeline. Although the budget grew by about Rs 40000 crores from the previous year, it was deeply affected by a global inflation rate of about 3.56 per cent which substantially nullified the gains.
The budget would just suffice to pay the dues accruing from the orders of the super expensive Rafale Multirole Combat Aircraft, the M777 Ultralight Howitzers, The K-9 Vajra Self Propelled Gun, the indigenously developed Dhanush and the S- 400 air defence system. But what is deeply in doubt is whether the Indian Navy will be in a position to pursue its plans to acquire 200 ships or the P8i maritime reconnaissance aircraft. In keeping with the promises proffered by the government, will the orders for the 83 Tejas Mk 1A aircraft be placed on HAL and its dues expeditiously cleared? And in pursuit of plans of acquiring 114 combat aircraft, will the government overcome its inertia and take the next step in the direction for increasing the squadron strength from the declining 28 squadrons. The total spectrum of our surveillance capacity needs a review and an urgent systemic overhaul and a greater elaboration of which is being refrained from. On that score, the importance of lessons learnt from the Balakot strike could not be ignored and the fleet of AWACS needs to be increased, a task well within the capacity of the DRDO. Similarly, will the government be in a position to provide adequate funds for the completion of strategic projects on border roads and infrastructure? Will they be able to provide for the acquisition of advanced variants of assault rifles and other small arms needed to replace ageing arms for troops fighting a war with insurgency. One also sincerely hopes that the amount of $3.5 billion has been accounted for the procurement of 24 multi-mission helicopters for the Navy and the 6 Apache helicopters for the Army, the deals for which would be signed during the visit of the American President in the last week of February. These are only a few anxieties and one assumes that the government comprehends the nature of the strategic threat and acknowledges it within the establishment. An "Ostrich in the sand" attitude cannot work in my experience.
In his statement, the new Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and the Secretary Military Affairs has stated the obvious whilst taking the trouble of publicly acknowledging the acute shortages in the defence outlays. In his wisdom, he thinks that a prioritised staggered approach will somehow overcome the crunch for funds. One does wonder how this could come to be. In fact, that is what we have been doing all these years because there is no other option and we have thus fallen far back. We have forgotten that nation-states build military capacities during peacetime so that they can train and be ready for contingencies. We can not wait for emergencies to come up first. We have the example of Kargil in recent times. On the other hand, CDS' proposal to hock defence lands to get resources to pay for modernising the forces is patently dangerous. This is akin to selling the family silver to make ends meet. One would recall that such a notion was mooted in 1991 within India's Defence establishment at the behest of the developer lobbies who had their eyes on extremely valuable defence lands in the metropolitan centres. This notion was killed at the very outset by a sagacious leadership. It is worrisome to see such issues rearing their ugly head with the sale of defence lands being seen in the same light as the sale of PSUs. Why does the government not consider marketing defence bonds to raise revenues?
What is truly deplorable is the practice of making cuts to the pensions payable to ex-servicemen by associating them with shortages whilst only 55 per cent of pensions outlay is meant for them. The government minions are seemingly encouraging the dissemination of data to the media by this insidious averment. On the other hand, there are no media reports about the government not having revised the 'One Rank One Pension' remittances, due since July 2019. There are no attempts at removing the anomalies caused by past pay commissions and several other factors. The ex-servicemen organisations are battling in the Supreme Court since 2016 for a logical rationalisation of the OROP implementation and their efforts are being subverted by government lawyers who are purposefully delaying the proceedings by seeking adjournments for not being "ready". What is also hidden from the public gaze is that from 2017 onwards, serving military personnel are required to pay for their water and electricity consumption in full as compared to a large segment of Delhi citizens who receive free service.
Prashant Dikshit is a retired Air Commodore and strategic affairs commentator. Views expressed are strictly personal