The Ministry of Defence has fixated on process rather than outcomes for decades with little effort to remedy this, stymying timely modernisation of the military. Meanwhile, no branch of the government or military has made serious progress toward manpower reform to free up defence funds for capital expenditure.
That the COVID-19 pandemic has and will continue to ravage India’s defence budget is indisputable. The ministry of defence has already been ordered to limit capital spending for the first quarter of the fiscal year, covering payments only for existing contracts under execution and leaving no room for new procurement. Reports suggest that the centre could be considering savings between Rs 400 and Rs 800 billion from the defence allocation of 2020-21. With budgetary bloodletting such as this, capital acquisitions are always the first to be pruned, followed by funding for consumables such as fuel, spares and equipment, while pay and pensions typically remain untouched except as a matter of last resort. Given the Prime Minister’s mammoth Rs 20 trillion stimulus announcement earlier this week, it is safe to assume that the defence budget will be heavily constrained not just this year, but for many years hence. Consequently, there is emerging debate within the Indian defence establishment about the importance of gearing capabilities to deal with national security challenges in this new fiscal environment.
The looming resource crunch, however, will force the Indian military away from traditional threat based planning (TBP) toward capability based planning (CBP), constrained by the Indian government’s fiscal limitations and lack of strategic articulation. While there is enough room to argue the merits of either approach, even the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) has alluded to a reorientation in planning, stating that the armed forces “should not go in for large amounts of imports by misrepresenting our operational requirements,” and that the military needs “to be realistic, start adjusting and have a major relook at our operational priorities and what we actually need.” Although few could argue that the Indian military misrepresents threats to justify procurement, and fewer still could claim the military is anything even approaching the state of the art on the hardware front, the fact is that India’s infamous defence procurement ‘system’ derives very poor value for every rupee spent — whether on capital acquisitions, sustainment or training.
India’s threats have remained fairly constant in the form of Pakistan and China, for decades now. Both states represent distinct threats as well as share commonalities. Pakistan’s active sponsorship of terrorism and militancy represents a unique threat requiring a tailored response involving combat engagements that regularly claim casualties along the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir and in the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). On the Line of Actual Control (LAC) dividing India and China, combat is non-existent but aggressive patrolling continues, the current pandemic doing little to mitigate confrontations between the Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Continental security challenges then, remain a fixture for India.
China is a more pronounced threat than Pakistan in the domain of non-contact warfare. This covers operations across the space, electromagnetic and cyber domains. Indeed, cyber, space and electronic warfare are treated as an integrated whole by the Chinese military with a unified information warfare service in the form of the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF). For India, these capabilities enable asymmetric escalatory action against the ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ of adversaries. Meanwhile, kinetic action as regularly witnessed between India and Pakistan is unlikely to abate, remaining a tangible threat that places demands on a separate set of capabilities.
This is where CBP and TBP will have to be balanced. Generally, a capabilities-based approach suffices to the extent that capabilities provide sufficient flexibility and adaptability for a range of missions and tasks. Since India has a relatively predictable — albeit challenging — threat environment, this makes native development and external acquisition of capabilities somewhat easier. Nevertheless, India will need to sustain expansion, training, improved performance of special operations forces, increased Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities in the form of manned and unmanned platforms alike, while also building capabilities to cater for a Pulwama-Balakot type contingency. China has been anything but dormant during this pandemic, flexing its military muscle in the Pacific as well as closer to India, and will clearly give Indian military planners little breathing room, budgetary woes or not.
The Ministry of Defence has fixated on process rather than outcomes for decades with little effort to remedy this, stymying timely modernisation of the military. Meanwhile, no branch of the government or military has made serious progress toward manpower reform to free up defence funds for capital expenditure. These chickens are now coming home to roost.
Without getting into the thorny issue of manpower reform, which will not address immediate funding issues anyway, some options do remain open. What little funding remains for modernisation must be predictably and sustainably directed to specific priority areas, not spread thin over hundreds of competing programmes across multiple branches of service. Piecemeal contracting will not solve the military’s problems, and chickenfeed transactions will not sustain any industry — domestic or foreign. If needed, the Department of Military Affairs will have to wade in, settle any inter-service disputes, and chart clear capability roadmaps based on pessimistic budgetary assessments. Procurement cannot continue as it did in the days when time and money were wasted parsing fanciful wishlists in the form of long-term perspective planning documents completely divorced from reality. However, the onus is not entirely on the uniformed services. The country’s civilian leadership will also have to finally make a serious attempt at defining what the military is actually supposed to accomplish — without this high-level direction, perspective planning at the military level will always be broader than it needs to be.
Sustainment is key to readiness, and this is where significant local benefits can be derived in the near term, without risking schedules and funding on major platform-level import substitution. Since sustainment is next on the budgetary chopping block after procurement, it makes sense that expenditure on this front be in rupees and directed toward domestic industry. Ramping up local sourcing at the sub-assembly or component level, to say nothing of local labour, should also make domestic small and medium manufacturers attractive as exporters. This is not to say that any and all levels of defence exports should not be targeted. The old adage that one needs to ‘spend money to make money’ applies here, and a market oriented export promotion strategy with dedicated funding would go a long way in sustaining Indian industry as the domestic budget shrinks.
It would be inaccurate to call this pandemic an opportunity — it is an unforgiving system shock. But Indian defence planning can address the constraints imposed by COVID-19 in a manner that ensures the military is well placed to benefit from future resource increases, rather than squandering them.
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Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...Read More +
Angad Singh was a Project Coordinator with ORFs Strategic Studies Programme.Read More +