Each year at budget time, we see the usual guns versus butter argument doing the rounds. The Rs. 141,703 crore outlay for defence in the interim budget for 2009-10 represents the third highest year-on-year increase since Independence. The larger allocation was admittedly triggered by the Mumbai terror attack’s unprecedented ferocity and sophistication.
The present increase is 34 per cent above the previous year. This has impressed many dyed-in-the-wool militarists enough to stop asking if the allocation is enough to address the nation’s security imperatives. With each day, our external security threats are growing. Since 2001, terror attacks carried out by Islamist groups outside Jammu and Kashmir have multiplied and become more sophisticated. Last year broke all previous records in terms of deaths and injuries, with Pakistan’s fingerprints all over the carnage. Yet we have been restrained and muted, much to the horror of ordinary Indians.
For how long can we afford this sort of Gandhigiri? There is little doubt that if there is a repetition of a Mumbai-style attack, we will have to throw the ‘soft power’ approach to the winds. But would India then have the capability to deploy its hard power quickly and effectively? Unfortunately, it may lack the capability to mount such a retaliatory response as its conventional superiority has been eroded over the years.
Today India spends only slightly more than the world average and less than Pakistan on defence as a percentage of its GDP. So our repertoire of options will continue to shrink while Pakistan adds to its veritable array of conventional weapons, thanks to a never-ending supply of American military and economic aid.
While we have been floundering and trying to get world opinion on our side, China has quietly been building up Pakistan’s military might, and determinedly adding military muscle to its own growing economy. When military budgets around the world shrank after the Cold War, China feverishly augmented its defence forces. In the decade ending 2007, its defence budget grew at an average rate that was more than three times that of India’s.
The growth of the Chinese navy is of particular concern for India, more so for its remarkable underwater capability. Since the end of the Cold War, China has commissioned more than 30 new submarines, both nuclear and conventional, and is also beginning construction of an aircraft carrier that will give it the capability to project power over great distances.
To enhance the reach of its burgeoning naval power, China has obtained support facilities in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, in addition to the deepwater facility it has in Pakistan’s Gwadar port — virtually encircling India. It has also built a massive naval facility in the strategically located island of Hainan. The growing Chinese naval strength will undoubtedly alter the balance in East Asia and the Indian Ocean, with the latter area being of vital importance to India, given our critical dependence on the sea lanes for overseas trade, especially energy imports.
In the face of these threats, there is no option for India but to further enhance its defence spending. But the question ‘how much is enough’ defies an easy answer. During the height of the Cold War, like from 1951-70, US, France and Britain spent an average of 7.59 per cent of their Gross National Product each year on defence. The amount China spends on defence is a typical example of the importance a nation aspiring to be a great power assigns to military might.
But India can’t increase its military budget without first revamping the existing defence acquisition system. It’s ironical that the existing one cannot effectively handle higher defence allocation, supported by India’s poor track record of not being able to fully spend its defence budget every year since 2000-01. This is a sorry statement about a country virtually under siege. The present system has also hampered the optimum development of a vibrant and indigenous military-industrial complex.
What we need is to replace the present system with an integrated body comprising civil, military and non-governmental experts, tasked with all stages of acquisition, from initial planning to lifecycle support. This will allow for single-point accountability, something crucial for an efficient acquisition organisation.
Thomas Mathew is Deputy Director-General, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.