Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Defending the indefensible

(First published in The Pioneer dated March 27, 2012)


The latest incident of China conducting a ‘live-fire’ exercise in the Tibet Autonomous Region bordering India to test its multi-role J-10 fighters armed with laser-guided bombs is a reminder that India must always be in a state of ‘quality preparedness’, and not just ‘preparedness’ — which the Union Ministry of Defence points out that our Armed Forces always are. Of course, our Armed Forces are ever prepared and willing to take on any challenge to the country’s security and sovereignty and they can be trusted more than many other wings of the Government to perform their task fearlessly and with sincerity. But they also need to be equipped with the best arms and ammunition that are available in the market and be backed by the requisite logistical support. This requires a committed political push that must transcend platitudinous talk and convert into action on the ground. Unfortunately, that has not been really happening. The Budget allocation for defence for the year 2012-13 tells the story.

While it is true that there has been a ‘substantial’ increase by more than 17 per cent in the allocation for defence in the coming fiscal, this increase is based on the Budget Estimate for the year 2011-12. It is actually close to only 13 per cent when the figure for the Revised Estimate is taken into consideration. Of the Rs 1,93,407 crore that has been allocated, less than half — Rs 79,500 crore — is going to be spent on procuring modern weapons. The rest will largely be used in areas such as salaries, pensions and other maintenance costs. In 2011-12, the pay component represented more than 31 per cent of the total defence budget and comprised some 28 per cent of the defence budget growth. In other words, the hike in defence allocation by a mere 13 per cent is not going to give the Armed Forces the kind of money they need to invest in medium and long-term modernisation projects, but it will just about suffice to take care of the immediate commitments or near-commitments of purchase of equipment that they have made in recent months, such as for 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft, 145 Ultra Light Howitzers and 197 Light Utility Helicopters.

Even if we take the relatively healthier figure of a 17 per cent increase over the Budget Estimate as an indicator of the good things to come, if only to put up a feel-good façade, there is another dampener: Our Budget allocation for defence is a piffling 1.90 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product, which is marginally up from an equally pathetic 1.84 per cent in 2011-12. The reason for this near-stagnation is the repeated failure of the Defence Ministry to aggressively push its agenda before the Government and extract respectable allocations. After all, the Government has found the means to allocate higher funds to social sectors and other areas whose Ministers have been pushy enough or have had the clout to take their case right up to UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. Although Union Minister for Defence AK Antony too enjoys that rare access to Ms Gandhi, he has not been able to use it to the advantage of the Armed Forces.

In fact, the only time in recent memory when the defence allocation went up significantly was in 2009, a few months after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. The allocation was the hiked by as much as 34 per cent. Do we need terror attacks to make the Government sit up and realise that defence is a priority sector too?

The Defence Ministry should have been more assertive, more so when several Standing Parliamentary Committees on Defence have repeatedly recommended allocations that should be at least three per cent of the GDP. But the lack of aggression on Mr Antony’s part to make this happen became evident after the Budget proposals were announced. He expressed satisfaction over the 17 per cent hike and claimed that the Union Minister for Finance had assured him of more funds in case the Armed Forces needed them in time to come. Mr Antony is a Minister with impeccable personal integrity and has been able to steer a Ministry that has had a notorious reputation for shady deals, away from controversies. Unfortunately, his eagerness to maintain that clean image has also resulted in various decisions being halted in their tracks. If there is one establishment that cannot afford status quoism and paralysis in decision-making, it is the Defence Ministry.

Any move to hike defence allocation and accept the levels of modernisation that our Armed Forces need are guided largely by the external environment — on what is happening across the borders. Strangely, it is a reality that our political establishment shies from acknowledging on the record. This has made the UPA Government almost apologetic over every measure (relatively small and few) that it has taken to upgrade the country’s defence needs. Every time it has taken a step in that direction, particularly along or close to the Line of Actual Control bordering China, the Government has been quick to dismiss the suggestion that it was doing so to counter Beijing’s designs. ‘Our measures are not country-specific’, has been the refrain of the Government. But defence upgrades do not take place in a vacuum. If there is nothing to defend against, why spend money on defence? We have a volatile neighbourhood and countries in the region like China, Pakistan and Nepal have been giving us sleepless nights. It is because they are the way they are that we have to continuously upgrade our defence needs to a larger extent that we presently are doing.

These countries have never been defensive about their designs. A World Bank report in 2011 said China’s military expenditure was reported at 2.01 per cent of its GDP in 2010. Since China’s economy is much larger than India’s, this two per cent of GDP translates into several billions of dollars in excess of what India plans to spend. Take just one figure: India plans to spend over $100 billion on defence acquisitions in the next five to 10 years. It is an impressive figure, but is only 40 per cent of what China spends on its defence. Pakistan too had increased its defence allocation by 12 per cent in 2011-12.

The fact that India has overtaken China as the world’s biggest importer of weapons does give the impression that our defence establishment has at last woken up to the reality of modernising fast. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, imports from India now account for close to 10 per cent of the total global arms market. But this surge has less to do with any sustained upgradation measure that the country has been engaged in, say over the last decade. It’s the clutch of recent deals that India has entered into with foreign suppliers or is in an advanced stage to close that has given it the ‘distinction’ of emerging as the world’s leading arms importer.

It also has to do with China’s decision to concentrate on indigenous production of defence products such as stealth fighter jets and aircraft carrier-related material, after it had recently been on a buying spree. Still, China’s share of the global import market is at a formidable five per cent. But the most interesting aspect in all this — and India cannot have ignored that — is that China is also an exporter of arms. According to SIPRI, China is now the world’s sixth largest seller of defence equipment, only behind the US, Russia, Germany, France and Britain. Pakistan is one of its valued clients. The significance of this development is too obvious to need further mention.

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