For the Indian armed forces, military modernization was perhaps the biggest casualty under the previous UPA-led government. From numerous procurement scandals to the inability of the government to foster indigenization of research and development, the nation’s defense preparedness is at a nadir. The Air Force’s primary fleet is a shambles, the Navy has yet to put the INS Arihant into operation, and the Army has no definite timeline for implementing the F-INSAS program. All this when India consistently ranks as the world’s largest importer of arms.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have taken a tougher stance against external threats, but if he is to follow up on the rhetoric, he will need to make strengthening the armed forces a top priority for his government. And the first step to take is to modernize the forces.
The BJP’s election manifesto promised to strengthen the country’s defense industrial base. There was considerable excitement in the defense and security sector, which had the impression that to maintain a high level of operational readiness the new government would remedy procurement policies and fast track indigenization by privatizing industry. But to establish a solid military-industrial base and fast-track indigenization, the government needs to have a long-term plan, to guide development. That is precisely what it does not have. In the absence of a defense white paper or grand strategy, the defense focus has been very much short term.
As a recent IHS Jane report notes, India is set to become the fourth biggest military spender in the world by 2020, surpassed only by the U.S., Russia and China. It will be critical for New Delhi to have developed an overarching strategy by that time, to avoid excessive spending and give direction to future development.
Limited Defense Vision
India has historically kept Pakistan at the center of its defense posture, which would account for the heavy militarization of the northern frontiers, even though Pakistan does not pose an overt conventional risk to India. The failure of the government to adequately consider China, the Indian Ocean Region, and – more importantly – new areas such as cyberspace and orbital platforms has been the subject of much criticism. Pakistan and China have made significant advances in asymmetric warfare, but given the way they allocate the defense budget and the executive decisions they take, India’s politicians seem to have an unsaid prohibition on developing the requisite deterrence capabilities to counter this threat.
The new government’s defense budget allocation is set at 1.78 percent of the GDP, and 12.76 percent of the total central government allocation, which is about 12 percent more than the interim budget tabled by the UPA government in February 2014. It is still below the 2 percent cap India has historically bestowed upon the armed forces, courtesy of the Congress. However, the real worrying factor is the allocation of funds between the different arms of the military establishment. Approximately 53 percent of the total defense budget has been allocated to the Army, 24 percent to the Air Force, 17 percent to the Navy, 5 percent to the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and 1 percent to the Ordnance Factories. Of the three services, the Army received the greatest increase (19 percent). The Navy’s budget was increased just 3.5 percent, and the Air Force actually had its share reduced by 5.6 percent. The DRDO, on the other hand, received a substantial funding increase of almost 60 percent. In other words, the government is still fixated on conventional paradigms, rather than revamping security policies to address the growing concerns of the present. That would explain why it has approved a $162 million increase in defense capital outlays, to develop its railway systems in border areas.
Time and again, the inefficiencies of India’s top military R&D body has been highlighted, with no signs of improvement. The DRDO, best known for missed manufacturing deadlines and cost overruns, has little to show for its six decades of existence. The Tejas Light Combat Aircraft and the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program’s Nag missile are primary examples of the organization’s problems.
Ironically, this has never been due to paucity of funds, as successive governments have been more than generous in allocating its budget. The 2014 allocation saw DRDO’s budget increase from $967 million to $1.5 billion, the single biggest increase in the history of the organization. Whether this move has been dictated by blind faith, or whether it is to compete with the new cap on foreign direct investment (FDI) remains to be seen.
The government seems to have realized that DRDO can no longer function by reverse-engineering under the pretense of indigenization, which may explain Modi’s notable displeasure with the organization earlier this year.
And although the government has increased the FDI cap in the defense sector from 26 percent to 49 percent, this will not be enough to kick-start a robust defense industry ecosystem in the country. According to experts, the only advantage here would be to medium-sized suppliers in existing joint ventures, given that new investment still requires government approval. And since foreign companies still can’t exercise management control over local joint ventures, the Indian market is going to remain unappealing to the larger foreign defense firms.
More Infantry vs. Modernization
An interesting debate that arose earlier in the year was the government’s decision to provide $9.7 billion in funding to deploy a mountain strike corps along the Eastern frontier, primarily aimed at establishing a ready-deterrence factor against the PLA presence in Tibet. Although this idea had been in the pipeline for a while, the decision to move on it at a time of increased instances of border incursions by the Chinese leaves one to wonder whether it was a hurried decision again aimed at the short term. The Indian Army is one of the most infantry-heavy forces in the world, and would hardly seem to need yet more boots on the ground.
Rear Admiral (Retd.) K. Raja Menon has called on India to investing in its naval capacity to counter the presence of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean Region. Dominance in this region would give New Delhi a very useful advantage, as Beijing’s present resource reliance on Africa creates important sea lanes for it in the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, the decision to go ahead with the mountain corps formation indicates that this thought has not crossed the Indian political mindset.
A cohesive and practical civil-military framework should ideally be at the core of any government. Unfortunately, the reality in India is far removed from this. The Nehruvian policy of sidelining the military echelon from matters of national security still persists today, as evidenced by the reluctance of the Central government to establish a Joint Chief of Staff position. A disconnect between the Service Headquarters and the Defense Ministry results in duplication, inefficiency, and slow processing, often leading to an impasse and finger pointing.
Under the previous UPA government, external procurement was a mess. Given a long history of shady deals, an extra-cautious approach would seem logical. However, A.K. Antony’s paranoia has robbed India of several chances to make a positive impact on Indian defense. The blacklisting of companies at the slightest hint of corruption (unproven mostly, such as the Scorpene deal allegation), has also resulted in a backlog of other procurement deals (such as the US-2i ShinMaywa from Japan, which uses machinery from Rolls Royce, another suspended entity). Major defense industries such as Rheinmetall AG have severed ties with India due to this practice.
As a result, the armed forces are forced to function with inadequate weaponry, while the procurement timeline is indefinitely extended, and the costs rise.
Granted, India’s military development woes are a collective problem, encompassing almost a decade of mismanagement, structural limitations, bad decisions, and obsolete policies. As such, it is unrealistic to expect an overnight improvement with the change in the government. However, regional and global tensions will not wait for the Modi government to acclimatize. It is imperative, then, that the new government make military modernization on a priority, to give India towards the strategic prominence its leaders have long sought.
Amit R. Saksena is a postgraduate scholar at the Jindal School of International Affairs, Haryana and is a Wikistrat intern analyst.