The present state of military relations between India and Pakistan has served to remind us of the importance of the country’s defence preparedness. New Delhi’s leaders have assumed a relatively benign security environment for the past decade. There have been boundary stand-offs with China, especially in the period 2008 to 2010, but these hardly represented a major military threat to the country. Pakistan has been more problematic but even there the Line of Control is almost pacific compared to the bloody years of the late 1980s and early 1990s when India lost literally hundreds of soldiers each year along the Kashmir faultline. Islamabad has preferred to use the indirect path of terrorist attacks against India. While horrific in their own way, these have not and cannot pose an existential threat to India as a nation.
This sense of quietude has been evident in India’s defence expenditure over the past decade. On paper and in rupee terms the defence budget has tripled between 2000 and 2015. But given the fact India imports almost all of its frontline arsenal and even mundane objects like boots, the better measure is these same figures in dollar terms. By this measure, India’s defence budget has barely budged between 2008 and 2015 from $48.23 billion to $51.26 billion. For those who will complain that given India’s development needs, the country should not even be spending what little it does on defence — the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute figures show that India’s military spending has been steadily falling as a percentage of GDP. Over the past decade defence expenditure has dropped from 2.8 to 2.5% of GDP, a figure well below the global standard of countries that live in as tough a neighbourhood as India does. India’s spending on internal security has followed a similar path and past waves of terrorist attacks have done nothing to change that.
However, if New Delhi is to adopt a policy of publicly announcing its reprisals against Pakistan and, as China’s enters another bout of overseas assertiveness, wants to strengthen its hold on its northern border, it will need to reverse these years of genteel neglect of the country’s security posture. There is already evidence of this in the way of purchases of fighter aircraft and military airlift capabilities. Unfortunately much more will need to be done. There are other security concerns that New Delhi must factor in. One is the slow but steady withdrawal of US military power from the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, leaving vacuums that India may inevitably have to fill. Then there are the new frontlines of cyber warfare and even geopolitically-driven infrastructure development. Though it goes against the grain of past policy, the government’s decision to approve arms exports and moves to encourage Indian private firms to manufacture weapons should, if successful, help defray the financial burden of a harder security posture. However, India must recognise that a defence policy of passivity and intermittent interest is increasingly no longer an option.