Even though the threats to Indian security have far from subsided and the wish list of the armed forces, for modern weapon systems being long – with many items on their inventory now three or four decades old – the Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, chose to make no mention of what would be the allocation for India’s defence in 2016-17 in his Union Budget speech. This is not only an unusual departure from past practices but it raises questions about the message this government wishes to send out, as China has launched a modernisation drive for its forces that could parallel in scale the opening of its economy and Pakistan, India’s other nuclear armed neighbour, is desperately seeking military parity with India while sponsoring cross border attacks with impunity.

Explanations for Mr Jaitley’s glaring omission about the defence outlay -since he had, last year announced an outlay of Rs 2,46,727 crore, – range from keeping the figures discreet so that it doesn’t alarm India’s rivals to there being no need to do so, as other allocations like the budget for external affairs aren’t announced either. Reading between the lines, it appeared that only a nominal increment of around 4.5 percent – in keeping with inflation figures – would in reality be initiated for the services. The pension bill was added to the defence budget for the first time in recent memory, as though to remind the services that the OROP burden would cost them their modernisation.

Even as every political party pays lip service to national security needs, in reality India’s defence spending has steadily declined as a percentage of its GDP. Last year, India’s defence budget had slipped to 1.74 percent of its GDP, even though it is fair to say that India’s military spending could go upto 3 percent of its GDP. In comparison, the US spends 4 percent, China 2.5 percent (though its figures are questionable) and Pakistan 3.5 percent on defence. Worse still, India’s per capita expenditure on defence is less than $10, while the average expenditure of the top ten spenders in Asia is USD 800 approximately. India’s soldier-to-citizen ratio, at 1.22 per 1,000 citizens, is among the lowest in Asia.

While the IAF’s long standing demand for fighter jets – and the decision to buy 36 ready to fly French Rafale fighter aircrafts – has received much media coverage, the most pressing needs are of the army that battles terrorists, insurgencies and natural calamities, often with its silent and uncomplaining infantry soldiers, who need better clothing, bullet proof vests, night vision devices and helicopters to ferry troops and equipment to far flung glacial heights. But its long standing demands – for over Rs 40,000 crore worth of immediate equipment – is still awaiting funds. No wonder, the defence minister, Mr Parrikar has asked his ministry and the three services to try and complete this process in the next few months. But that is just fire fighting and still doesn’t address the bigger question of: “whether India can defend itself in the event of a two front attack – from China and Pakistan – and battle terrorists as well?” The answer sadly at this stage is ‘no’.

Apart from fighters, tanks, ships and missiles, what India desperately also needs is to invest more in improving its infrastructure along its Chinese border, and early warning systems – like hi-tech Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) systems – to counter China’s tactical and numerical superiority. And with every terror attack sponsored by Pakistan, like that in Pathankot, security costs only go up, as the IAF now has to enhance security of all airfields. But worse still, we may soon be back to where we were 50 years ago, when our troops fought the Chinese in 1962 with obsolete weapons or none at all, and then Pakistan attacked India in 1965, confident that its much better equipped forces would be victorious.

A similar essay by Maroof Raza was first published in BW BusinessWorld on March 7, 2016.

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