News Measly defense budget has severely undermined India’s military

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Headlines like “DEATH BY BUDGET: Is this the Indian Army’s angriest report to the government?” read in conjunction with the 41st report by Indian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defense have indicated an uproar of sorts in the media. But reading these in isolation depicts only part of the criticality

by Prakash Katoch

Add the rot within the Ministry of Defense (MoD), which functions without any accountability as revealed by Dr Subhash Bhamre, the junior defense minister, in a presentation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

A measly 11.7 million rupees (US$180,300) in foreign direct investment came into the defense sector from 2014 to December 2017, compared with the overall FDI inflow of 3,868.85 billion rupees during the 2016-17 fiscal year, and India is still largest arms importer, having spent more than $100 billion in the past 10 years, with defense imports going up by 24% in the 2013-2017 period compared with the preceding five years.

This is the state of affairs despite the sprawling governmental defense-industrial complex comprising government-controlled research, ordnance factories (OFs) and manufacturers.

To top this, Comptroller and Auditor General of India reports over the years have been pointing at massive across-the-board corruption. Nearly 30% indigenous defense equipment is substandard and has artificially inflated costs. This despite Joint Secretary-level officers of the MoD and Department of Defense Production (DoDP) on all boards of the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), Defense Public Sector Undertakings and OFs.

The future, therefore, may even be bleaker. Dr Bhamre may have pointed to the rot in MoD with reference to “Make in India,” but that has remained the situation since independence.

The Indian Army is distraught, with 213.38 billion rupees for modernization insufficient to cater for 290.33 billon rupees in committed payments for 125 ongoing schemes, emergency procurements, ammunition to sustain 10 days of intense fighting, and other ordnance requirements.

A 4.5% increase in revenue allocation has been consumed by the seventh Central Pay Commission’s implementation. A balance of just over 3% doesn’t even cater for inflation – adversely affecting routine maintenance, emergency procurements and ammunition for war.

An additional burden of 50 billion rupees on account of the goods and services tax is not catered for; some ongoing programs may have to be foreclosed and there is no money for 23 new schemes; the MoD delegated financial powers to the vice-chief of army staff and sanctioned 14.87 billion rupees for beefing up security of camps and posts, but no separate budget was allotted, even with re-prioritizing the total shortfall 215.78 billion rupees.

From the army’s 13-page input to Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defense, its most scathing observations with respect to weaponry and equipment is that 68% is vintage, about 24% current and only 8% state-of-the-art. The navy and Indian Air Force are in a similar state.

Queries are being raised about the army’s timing in raising this now, and not during the earlier regime. The inquisitors forget that a leaked letter by General V K Singh to the then-prime minister in 2012 talked of critical voids, and he was not the only armed-service chief raising an alarm.

The political hierarchy and bureaucracy are briefed periodically at Unified Commanders and Army Commander-level conferences every six months, in addition to periodic written reports to the MoD. Significantly, the website of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry acknowledges that as of 2016 50% of Indian military’s defense equipment was “obsolete.”

The Indian government’s defense budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year at 1.58% of gross domestic product is the lowest since 1962. The purported increases over previous years in all budgets under the Modi government have been negative in actual terms without catering for inflation and associated issues.

After the terrorist attack on the Indian Air Force’s Pathankot base in January 2016, the government appointed a committee under Vice-Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant-General Philip Campose. The committee submitted its report to the MoD in May 2016, pointing out gaping holes in security and asking for funds, besides other measures.

These should have been met on emergency basis. But it finally took the terrorist attack at Sunjwan Army Camp on February 10 this year for the expenditure of 14.87 billion rupees to be approved, with Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman demanding completion within one year, without allotting any funds.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley says periodically that there is no dearth of finances for the Armed Forces but simultaneously caps defense projections arbitrarily without considering operational imperatives. On top of this, funds get surrendered.

Soldiers are short of small arms, surveillance capabilities, communications, and protection and survival equipment. Camps and installations continue to be without adequate protection despite heightened proxy war.

There is need to augment artillery, armor, air defense, anti-tank capability and helicopters, and to induct drones. Ammunition needs to be built up.

The army’s Battlefield Management System pursued for 13 years has been foreclosed for lack of funds. Other information systems such as the Battlefield Management System and Command Information and Decision Support System are crawling at a snail’s pace. The Tactical Communication System required 20 years back is still not in place. Border infrastructure continues to be in a poor state, as seen during the recent Chinese intrusion in the Tuting area.

Most tanks and infantry combat vehicles are not fit for nuclear, biological or chemical warfare because of the non-availability of a particular type of air filters and rubber seals.

Procurement of new infantry combat vehicles has just been cleared, but execution may take years. The Future Infantry Combat Vehicle project is yet to be cleared.

The MoD-DRDO nexus has not permitted private-sector participation in the defense sector to come up the way it should have. The Dhirendra Singh Committee had recommended strategic partnerships purely for the private sector, but the DRDO is coming into every project through the back door because of the MoD. The DRDO’s focus should be future technologies but instead is on commercialization.

The Long-Term Integrated Procurement Plan 2012-2027 approved by the government and the 12th Five Year Plan were based on defense allocation at 3% of GDP, but the actual allocation has always been much lower.

When General Charles de Gaulle became the French president in 1959, France was militarily weak. De Gaulle ensured that the French defense budget remained greater than 2% of GDP, sometimes touching 5%, resulting in France emerging as a militarily strong power. The current French military expenditure is 6.2% of GDP. India needs a sustained defense allocation of 3-5% of GDP for the present and coming years, in addition to allocations catering for inflation and associated expenditures.

In the US, all theater commanders and SOCOM (Special Operations Command) chiefs make pre-budget presentations to a congressional committee, covering present operational capabilities. The funds requested are allocated with their future operational capability requirements. It is this committee that projects the budget requirements to the Congress.

India needs to bring Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defense into the loop similarly. Let this committee project the budget requirements to the government in writing, with operational justifications. That would streamline the defense allocations, replacing current ad hoc arrangements.

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