Sunday, April 1, 2012

Armed with no doctrine

Vice Adm Premvir Das (Retd)

India’s defence expenditure for 2012-13 has been budgeted at Rs 1.94 lakh crore, or about $39 billion, representing 1.9 per cent of the country’s GDP. This is an increase of 17 per cent over the previous year’s Budget estimates and is just more than 13 per cent of the expenditure actually incurred last year, as reflected in the revised estimates.

Given our several security compulsions across the border and at sea, it may appear that we are not spending enough on our defence. In comparison, China, which we view in adversarial terms, will spend over $100 billion — though it is widely believed that some expenditures, for example on its strategic forces, are incurred outside this budget. Even the published figure is two and a half times ours — however, in terms of GDP, it is about the same. Though some of our expenditure on strategic capability is also shared by the Department of Atomic Energy, the fact remains that in absolute terms, we have some way to go before we can achieve combat capabilities that are close to what we need. However, even as we seek to move in that direction, what causes greater concern is the sub-optimal way in which we make use of the amounts that are provided, insufficient as they might be.

First, any expectation that India can spare more than two per cent of its GDP on defence in the foreseeable future is wishful thinking. Spending on social sectors like education and health is abysmally low and needs to be doubled, even trebled, if we are ever to attain the quality of life that people in developed countries routinely expect.

Further, despite proclamations to the contrary, it is unrealistic to expect serious curtailment in the subsidies that are currently provided, be they in fertilisers, food or fuel. Though calls for “biting the bullet” are good rhetoric, these are bullets that simply cannot be bitten.

We have to accept that in the years ahead, defence budgets, as percentages of GDP, will continue to be what they are and have been. Yes, in absolute terms, the figure will continue to rise as GDP grows, and so the challenge lies not in crying for more but in putting what is available to good use.

Last year, Rs 1.64 lakh crore was budgeted for defence, 40 per cent for capital expenditure (modernisation) and 60 per cent for ongoing maintenance such as salaries, stores and so on. As it happened, at the end of the year we had spent 39 per cent on the more desirable first (Rs 63,000 crore against Rs 66,000 crore) and 61 per cent on the second (Rs 1.08 lakh crore against Rs 98,000 crore).

For 2012-13, the defence ministry has been given about Rs 80,000 crore for capital (41 per cent) and Rs 1.14 lakh crore (59 per cent) for revenue. Given our past record over decades, it is quite unlikely that even this modest readjustment can be attained. Armed forces of substance spend close to 50:50 of their resources on modernisation and maintenance despite much higher salaries for their people and costlier equipment.

The reasons they are able to do so are essentially two: one, their manpower is much lower; and two, their spending on weapons is tightly focused. We are unable to achieve either since our circumstances and our methods of working do not allow it.

To establish the type of defence capability that India needs, there must be some guiding parameters. One simply cannot go on adding forces as we have been doing – a corps here, two divisions there – as we did first after Kargil, and then because of the perceived threat from China. Neither was covered by any holistic study of what the country needs. This would normally be highlighted in a national strategy doctrine.

Several National Security Advisory Boards have seized themselves of this task, only to leave it undone; proceeding beyond the draft stage is something we are unable to do. In the absence of any guidelines, all are on their own. The army says that the borders will be seriously threatened unless we add 60,000 more troops. The air force claims a 45-fighter squadron force level that was “authorised” in the mid-1960s, leave aside the fact that we have moved from Vampires and Gnats to Su-30s, and that the good old MiG-21 is being replaced by no less an aircraft than the Raphael.

The navy does its own thinking, trying its best to add to its force levels despite the money crunch that the first two investments impose on available resources. Yet, at every gathering of those “who have been and will not be” – a term once used to me by an outspoken MP to describe the retired “strategic analysts” – our focus should be more on storms now gathering at sea.

Though adequate measures to look after the land borders are, no doubt, necessary, it will be unwise to concentrate on them to the detriment of what is needed to cope with the developing security scenario. Consequently, a holistic and well-articulated doctrine, even more than money, is critical to defence preparedness.

The second and related issue is to balance capital and revenue expenditures. This lies within the realm of the defence ministry. First, serious efforts must be made to weed out large sections of manpower that contribute little to combat readiness.

Retain the strike and associated supporting forces by all means, but wield the axe on the others; seek a reduction of 100,000 in the next five years. We must achieve a 45:55 capital/revenue expenditure ratio by 2015.

Second, do not allow the armed forces free rein in their individual modernisation projects; tie these up with overall capability.

Third, for God’s sake, speed up the process of acquisition. Once you have made up your mind, do not get hassled by letters from all and sundry, including MPs, who question one proposal or another. In the present environment, vendors who lose will always employ such tactics, and at every level.

The guiding theme should always be combat capability. Anything that even remotely threatens it needs to be eschewed. Do not allow combat readiness to be put in jail, even as wheeler-dealers are allowed to grab Page-3 spaces in national newspapers.

A new global strategic scenario is evolving, and the next 10 years may still see some sort of a détente among major powers. They offer India a window of opportunity to put its house in order. There is no knowing what might happen thereafter.

The writer is a former director-general of the Defence Planning Staff. He has also been member of the National Security Advisory Board

Also read ‘Deep deficiencies abound in defence procurement -

INACTION in procurement is not the solution. We need to procure at double the pace to make up for past delays.

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