Originally Published 2011-03-31 00:00:00 Published on Mar 31, 2011
The defence component of the national budget accounts for 14% of central government expenditure, but gets less than 5% of media space. Virtually no discussion on the issue takes place in Parliament either. A call for increased resources for national defence usually goes out only when defence spending by Pakistan and China makes headlines.
Defence, beyond action-reaction
Yet again, India's defence budget has escaped larger national attention this year. The defence component of the national budget accounts for 14% of central government expenditure, but gets less than 5% of media space, the bulk of which goes towards data released by the government with sporadic analyses by experts. Virtually no discussion on the issue takes place in Parliament either. A call for increased resources for national defence usually only goes out when defence spending by Pakistan and China makes headlines.

The world has seen such an action-reaction syndrome play out at the highest levels during the Cold War period. Both the US and the USSR devoted so many resources to their military capabilities that the world military expenditure had already touched $1.26 trillion by 1987. The following decade saw the biggest slump in military expenditure, which plummeted to $704 billion by 1996. Global military expenditure actually started looking up again even before 9/11 and it stood at $1.56 trillion in 2009. No country (or even the top 15 countries put together) comes close to the US military spend, which accounts for nearly 55% of the global expenditure. So it does not matter much when the US announces military spending cuts to the tune of $80 billion in the next five years. A corresponding increase in military expenditure by countries like China and India may just compensate for marginal cuts by the US or the UK. Significant cuts in military spending, however, are highly unlikely in the near future.

Three assumptions typify the current security scenario and generally determine the course of defence spending by states. First, receding nuclear and conventional threats in the West account for a drastic reduction in military budgets, especially seen in Europe. Second, global responsibilities coupled with the emergence of newer threats determine the course of American military spending, which is staying well ahead of others. Third, a combination of security dynamics and larger global power ambitions determine the military spending trends in countries like China and India. Somewhere in between are the countries of West Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa, whose military expenditure trends show different patterns. The increase in Russia's military expenditure in recent times is compensatory in nature rather than reflecting a quantum jump in military might.

Justifying military expenditure on the grounds of action-reaction is often found to be an easy way for the interest groups to demand more allocations. This is true of most countries, including the US. Even though some attribute the increase in US military spending to its global commitments and others to China's increasing importance, the huge gap between the respective military budgets of the two countries will take decades to be reduced, to say the least. Similarly, a China-India parity will certainly not happen in the immediate future.

A meaningful comparison between states' military capabilities is not easy, either from quantitative or qualitative prisms. It also does not matter beyond a point, as history teaches us that even a mighty state can be made vulnerable from unexpected quarters. Resources allocations for the military hence become a national choice, mainly revolving around a country's perceived or real threats, spending capacity and strategic ambitions. India's spending on defence should be examined from these angles.

A set of pointers are placed here for further debate on the subject. First, security conditions necessitate that India enhance its military capacity, hence a rise in allocations in the last few years. Second, spending capability is now directly linked to India's growing economic might, a trend likely to stay for at least a couple of decades. Third, striking a right balance is becoming more evident as the Indian MoD is striving to reduce revenue expenditure, pegged at R95,216 crore and accounting for nearly 58% of the allocations. Fourth, what is visible in the last ten years is a definite inclination towards equipment modernisation efforts as the capital expenditure has increased close to 600%, from R12,100 crore in 2001-02 to R69,200 crore this year. Fifth, allocations for R&D at R10,253 crore constitute about 6% of the budget, which is grossly insufficient.

India is now bragging itself as a ranking power, but a look at its spending patterns in defence says it all. Except for massive capital outlays, there is no other evidence to suggest reasons for India's hard power ascendancy in real terms, which should be equally complemented by a competent institutional mechanism, a robust force structure and a will to think beyond the action-reaction (read Pakistan and China). A country that sees itself as a self-reliant power with an arsenal of imported weapons is a contradiction in itself, which requires massive R&D allocations, up to the tune of 15% of defence expenditure for an indefinite period. In sum, as noted scholars Barry Buzan and Eric Herring point out, the state must prioritise its resources keeping its larger strategic goals in mind. In the case of India, this translates into being a well-organised (beyond regional) military power backed up by a formidable scientific and industrial defence base.

(The author is a Senior Fellow in security studies at Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: The Financial Express

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