Since the 1999 Kargil War, successive Indian governments have muddled long term defence planning with ad-hoc military purchases. A Strategic Defence Review – a routine exercise in the US and UK – could be just what is needed to cut through the inertia and place India’s military on a firmer footing against the Chinese.
Prompted by aggressive Chinese posturing on the Line of Actual Control, the Indian government has loosened the purse strings for the Indian armed forces. Emergency military purchases worth up to Rs 500 crores can now be negotiated directly by the armed forces with foreign vendors, without approval from the Ministry of Finance. Since the border confrontation in Ladakh began, teams from the three services have been shopping abroad for much-needed weapons, ammunition and spare-parts. Over 100 deals, worth an estimated $5.5 billion, have already been concluded so far.
Given the situation, the armed forces cannot be faulted for wanting to plug the gaps in their capabilities as quickly as possible. However, the cost of these emergency defence purchases would be difficult to justify in the absence of a long term strategic plan that takes into account both existing and future threats to the country. It is here that a Pentagon-style Strategic Defence Review could help India’s military rationalize its procurement priorities and sharpen its combat capabilities.
Why India needs a Strategic Defence Review
The Modi government has shown great foresight in finally creating the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), a policy decision that had been hanging afire since the Kargil Review Committee recommended it in February 2000. This is because civilian bureaucrats do not have the professional acumen to sufficiently grasp the strategic rationale for specific weapons and equipment requested by the armed forces.
In the UPA years, the armed forces had been regularly returning unspent funds from the annual defence budget. This is despite the fact that big-ticket purchases such as 197 light helicopters for the Army and minesweepers for the Navy have not materialized, despite multiple rounds of tenders and trials.
Till date, big-ticket purchases such as 197 light helicopters for the Army and minesweepers for the Navy have not materialized, despite multiple rounds of trials and tenders.
This has put the armed forces in the pitiable position of making do with existing equipment that is clearly well past its prime. It appears that the government is well aware of the problem but lacks the resources to fund a comprehensive overhaul of the country’s military hardware. If anything, the COVID-19 catastrophe will only eat into budgetary allocations for defence.
Inter-service rivalries cost during Kargil War
The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has pointed out the lacunae in defence procurements with alarming regularity in recent years. Obsolescence of equipment and lack of ‘jointness’ or integrated tri-service planning have been a common theme in successive reports released by the country’s top watchdog.
However, the problem is rooted in a historical distrust between the individual services, each with its own procurement priorities that often competes with that of the other two. Case in point: Across the world, attack helicopters are operated by armies in support of troops on the ground. The US Army, for instance, fielded 500 Apaches as of April 2020.
In India, these helicopters have been historically controlled by the Indian Air Force (IAF) which flatly refused to operate them in support of the Army during Kargil War of 1999. This resulted in avoidable casualties during ground operations to evict Pakistani intruders at the peak of the conflict.
This hit a raw nerve with the Army which recently opted to buy its own attack helicopters at significant cost to the economy. In February, it concluded a $930m deal to buy 6 Apache attack helicopters even as deliveries of 22 of the same helicopter, contracted by the IAF, are underway as part of a deal signed in July 2018.
What India sorely needs is a Strategic Defence Review that can put its military aspirations into perspective for all stakeholders – policymakers, bureaucrats, the armed forces and citizens of this country.
What India sorely needs is a Strategic Defence Review that can put its military aspirations into perspective for all stakeholders- policymakers, bureaucrats, the armed forces and citizens of this country.
How other countries do it
Military budgets have rarely ever met the expectations of India’s armed forces tasked with protecting the country’s borders in a highly volatile neighbourhood. However, the situation is the same for armed forces in virtually every other country. Militaries across the world are either putting off big-ticket purchases or paring down their numbers in light of the economic scenario in their respective countries.
Given the threats that India faces on both its flanks, the armed forces need a long term modernization strategy. While the CDS Gen. Bipin Rawat has urged the three services to prioritize their requirements, more will need to be done to balance revenue costs such as salaries and pensions with capital expenditure on weapons and ammunition.
In the UK, for example, there have been 4 Strategic Defence Reviews since 1998, with the British government preparing for yet another later this year. This is in addition to a Defence White Paper produced in 2003-04. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the UK government brought out another document meant to reorient resources towards the emerging threat of terrorism. Since 2010, this exercise has been repeated every 5 years because of the need to “more frequently reassess capabilities against a changing strategic requirement.” The latest editions have also given due attention to areas such as cybersecurity and internal security.
Watch: What Boris Johnson’s armed forces review meant for the UK Army
Across the Atlantic, the US has been coming out with a Quadrennial Defence Review every 4 years, since 1997. The US Department of Defence recently subsumed the exercise into the National Defence Strategy (NDS) which is equally comprehensive in its analysis of US military preparedness and tries to recommend ways to meet future threats. Budgetary allocations and military requirements are vigorously debated with active participation from serving and retired officers of the US armed forces.
The US has been coming out with a Quadrennial Defence Review every 4 years, since 1997.
This has not only helped the two countries get better returns from their defence spending but also ensured that their armed forces are adequately armed and equipped to tackle threats.
Lessons for India
India’s aspirations to be a global power demand the ability to exercise ‘hard power’ to both deter enemies and secure its economic interests around the world.
Though the Modi government has sincerely tried to boost the capabilities of the armed forces, it needs a holistic approach that will reconcile the country’s legitimate defence needs with the present financial reality. In this context, conducting India’s first-ever Strategic Defence Review could be the first step to realizing the vision of q from the strategic point of view.