If the defence forces have to retain talent, wages of its personnel have to be on a par with other branches of the government and the civilian economy(Sunil Ghosh/HTPHOTO)
If the defence forces have to retain talent, wages of its personnel have to be on a par with other branches of the government and the civilian economy(Sunil Ghosh/HTPHOTO)

Think creatively to offset funds crunch in defence

The defence budget is shrinking. The CDS can play a key role in ensuring the most efficient use of resources
By Harsh V Pant and Kartik Bommakanti
UPDATED ON JAN 30, 2020 06:52 PM IST

The era of high defence expenditures is behind us. In the 2019-20 budget, the government allocated 15.47% of Central Government Expenditure (CGE) to defence. In 2017-18 and 2018-19, the share of resources allocated was only marginally higher, standing at 16.8% and dipping to 16.6%. It is improbable that this year’s budget will witness a significant increase in defence expenditure.

Herein lies an opportunity to think creatively . For a start, the recent establishment of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) can offer a way. Since efficiency is at a premium in resource allocation, the CDS should guide the government on personnel issues, training, budgetary priorities for each service and even logistical requirements for the services. A key step the CDS must undertake is encouraging the establishment of Integrated Theatre Commands (ITCs), which are essentially joint combatant commands. The CDS should push for this in consultation with the service chiefs, including the tri-service personnel within the CDS and the ministry of defence (MoD). They must be geared to guiding, constructing and planning. Commanders of ITCs can bring efficiency if they have operational and some budgetary control over the forces under their command.

Additionally there are other pointers. First, the CDS with assistance from his staff could prepare recommendations regarding force planning that are realistic to the extent they reflect available resources. Although capital acquisitions under the terms of the mandate of the CDS are outside his purview, the CDS’ importance in bringing efficiency to other areas is crucial. For instance, the CDS can help develop initiatives that are scenario and mission-specific. These recommendations and initiatives need not be confined to a single service. They could involve missions undertaken jointly by the Air Force and the Army.

Second, the CDS’ role in bringing resource efficiency can also be extended to joint training and shared use of logistics between the services. Defence budgeting in India is listed under different heads such as supplies, personnel, equipment, maintenance and so on. This is primarily an accounting budget in that it gives a view about defence expenditure, but it cannot tell us how efficiently the planners in the MoD and the armed services spent the money. Indeed, this is an opportunity for the CDS to play a greater role in what defence economists call functional costing which does not account for the entire Army or Air Force’s budget. Rather, it provides a budgetary account of the Indian Air Force (IAF) air transportation, IAF air defence budget or the Indian Navy’s (IN) sub-surface budget. These budgets could cover specific units involved in missions as well as the support functions employed to sustain and execute them. Thus, if maritime aircraft are geared for a surveillance and reconnaissance role, they can be costed to reflect the importance of maritime missions relative to other missions. Resource allocations for specific platforms could be made on the importance of a mission.

In addition, the CDS could consider reducing the service tenures of Indian Army (IA) officers recruited under the Short Services Commission (SSC) from the current six years to four years, including training. On a selective basis, Non-commissioned Officers (NCOs) should be given a pathway to become commissioned officers.

Notwithstanding the fact that capital allocations are outside the ambit of the CDS, he must play a key role in shaping the acquisition and deployment of weapons systems and platforms. The CDS should encourage the services to select personnel for oversees training. This is an investment, but it can bring greater efficiency to how and where the defence establishment allocates resources for the armed forces and the missions they pursue. The CDS should play a role in long-term defence planning in concert with the defence secretary and the service chiefs in making changes to existing plans by adjusting for shifts in technology, threats and fiscal realities.

Beyond the CDS’ role in generating efficiency, governments cutting across party lines need to understand that the Indian armed forces are among the largest all-volunteer services in the world. However, if they are to retain a critical mass of their best-trained, talented and experienced personnel, they must recognise wages for the armed forces cannot fall well below the professions in other branches of the government and civilian economy have to offer. While there will always be personnel, regardless of the wages given will serve, an all-volunteer military does not necessarily mean an abysmally low-wage fighting force. Otherwise, collapsing retention rates will spell the reverse problem of undermining quality and India’s national security.

Harsh V Pant is professor, King’s College, London, and director of studies, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Kartik Bommakanti is an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

The views expressed are personal

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