Bottomline | Horse Before the Cart

Only a strategic defence review will put the needs of the military in perspective

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

The single most important lesson to emerge from the recently announced 2015 defence outlay is what comes out each year: there will never be enough money. Hence, instead of carping about lesser funds for increased military threats, it would be wiser to cut the coat according to the cloth.

India should rationalise its long-overdue military threats and great-power aspirations by policy and doctrinal review, restructuring, mindset and training before it seeks capabilities (which require unlimited funds). It is asinine for a nation with two-military lines to move away from threat-based to capability-based procurements, something that the United States with global commitments does. There is, thus, an urgent need for a Strategic Defence Review (SDR), an exercise announced by the Vajpayee government in 1998 before the nuclear tests, but never done since then.

The Modi government, perceived to be sympathetic to the armed forces, has allocated Rs 2,46,727 crore for defence in the 2015-16 budget, an increase of 7.7 per cent or Rs 17,727 crore over current year budget estimates. This is consistent with defence allocation trends since 2011-12, when the economy was doing extremely well. Since then, each year, the defence allocation increase has been about Rs 20,000 crore, an amount that has catered for inflation, foreign exchange fluctuations, and financial obligations over purchases already done, leaving a measly amount for new procurements. Interestingly, during this period, nearly Rs 10,000 crore has been returned each year (it is Rs 6,630 crore this year) by the defence ministry as unutilised money meant for capital (modernisation) purchases.

Given this, the finance ministry rightly argues that there is little requirement to increase allocation when present funds remain unutilised. Why give the armed forces (hypothetically speaking) three per cent of the GDP (a recurrent demand of most analysts), when it cannot use even the present 1.74 per cent? It is not the finance ministry’s problem if defence bureaucracy is inefficient enough to not spend available funds so that supplementary grants could be asked for.

Or if generals decide to increase massive manpower (17 mountain corps) without field-force rationalisation which would generate adequate resilience within.

Or if the three defence services undercut one other and the Integrated Defence Headquarters (responsible for tri-service capital acquisition prioritisation) and cosy up to defence ministry bureaucrats for faster and out-of-turn acquisitions.

Or if the defence services cannot distinguish between military threats and great power aspirations and what their job is versus the paramilitary.

Or if the defence minister believes that his sole responsibility is to seek funds for modernisation, and peddle the ‘Make in India’ slogan before the needed review of Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) policy has been announced, thereby putting the cart before the horse.

Or if defence journalists start comparing India’s defence allocations with China, a nation which undertook military reforms in the Eighties and is a global power.

It is time the truth be told. Even if annual defence allocations were to increase to three per cent of the GDP, it would be impossible for India to fight a two-front war with China and Pakistan – two formidable military powers with nuclear weapons. Prime Minister Narendra Modi should know that armed forces (anywhere in the world) are meant for wars and not for unending no-war-no-peace situations (counter-insurgency and coastal defence operations). Thus, Rs 2,46,727 crore defence allocations for 2015-16 is really a wasted sum, which given the state of economy and poverty in India, should have been better utilised.

The way forward is rather simple with Prime Minister Modi and his National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, taking the lead in defining and rationalising military threats to prepare a defence policy. Doval should instruct the chairman, chiefs of staff committee to prepare a joint paper on the two-front military threats and how to meet the challenge. Once done, he should get other stakeholders – Atomic Energy Commission, Defence Research and Development Organisation, Strategic Forces Commander, deputy NSA responsible for cyber-warfare, Indian Space Research Organisation and intelligence agencies heads – to meet with the chiefs of staff committee to prepare a doable joint response (SDR) to deter threats. In doing so, the stakeholders should assess the six domains of war, namely, land, air, sea, space, cyber and nuclear, with each being made aware of others’ core competency.

Prime Minister Modi, who started his term in office meeting with the three defence services chiefs (discontinued soon) once a month, should review progress of the work done under Doval’s stewardship with all stakeholders and, thereafter, separately with his Cabinet Committee on Security at least once in three months. This will bring all political heavyweights to understand military power and its essential role in diplomacy and homeland security. This will shift the burden of defending India away from the bureaucrats and military leaders to where it should belong – political leadership.

Once the policy has been crafted, the three defence services should undertake restructuring preceded by an internal field-forces review. For example, the army, whose force levels are based on manpower should aim to become a lean, mean and efficient force with adequate modernisation and war wastage reserves, which is achievable within the allocated resources and with little need to transfer funds from capital to revenue head for pay and allowances. Similarly, the air force and navy, whose force levels are based on equipments and platforms, should strive to become balanced forces needed for both single service and joint operations.

Only a strategic defence review will put the needs of the military in perspectiveAt present, the air force is grossly short of combat aircraft and the navy lacks submarines. All this is achievable if the services remain focus on their primary task of defending India from external aggression. Aspirations of strategic reach will fructify only when India’s territory is secure and the country has a vibrant indigenous defence industry – which is not the case now.

Restructuring is not the responsibility of the defence services alone. Doval, being overall responsible for six domains of war, should constitute two committees to review the 2012 Naresh Chandra report (follow-on to the 2001 Arun Singh committee report) under existing realities of a two-front threat. One committee should look into conventional threats, which, for example, can no longer be addressed by a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) or a permanent Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee, a post rendered in-fructuous even before its creation. A CDS, coming from the defence services, will only be qualified to bring synergy between three war domains of land, air and sea.

The other committee should review the nuclear aspects as both China and Pakistan are known to have tactical nuclear weapons. At a time when both adversaries have a seamless transition plan from conventional to nuclear war, disconnect between India’s conventional and nuclear capabilities is a dangerous proposition.

Meanwhile, the army – which is most affected by military lines – should progressively go back to its primary task on the disputed borders. It must understand that its use (rather misuse) in Jammu and Kashmir is for political expediency rather than national security purposes. Take the case of the recently-sworn in chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who on the first day of assuming office thought it fit to credit Pakistan for allowing the recent assembly elections to be conducted peacefully by controlling infiltration. The army, which took credit for checking Pakistan-sponsored infiltration, can do little to rebut Mufti as he is in a coalition government with the Bharatiya Janata Party. This incidence underscores tough days ahead for the army. On the one hand, Mufti, as head of state Unified Headquarters, is likely to undermine the army’s counter insurgency efforts. On the other hand, the army, having done this job since 1990, lacks the mindset and training for war. The new state government should be a wake-up call for the generals.

The navy, which has been centrally involved in coastal defence since 26/11 (terrorists’ attacks in Mumbai), should press Delhi to give complete responsibility to where it belongs – the coast guard. The navy, unlike the army, does not have manpower, and its limited expensive assets are being flogged on coastal defence since 2008. Moreover, Chinese threat in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has increased alarmingly. Given all this, and the fact that India does not have a shipbuilding industry anywhere close to China, the admirals should ensure that the Indian Navy does not become irrelevant in its own area of responsibility. In short, instead of blaming limited defence allocations, the defence services should seek deterrence with available assets – something that can be done with the correct mindset and training.


Call us