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Defence Budget 2016-17: A Clear Message to the Armed Forces

Air Cmde (Retd) Ramesh Phadke was Advisor, Research at Institute for Defence Studies and Anaysis, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 02, 2016

    At first I thought I had missed it but it soon became clear that the finance minister had in fact chosen not to mention the defence outlay in his long budget speech. There could be many reasons for this obviously deliberate omission. First, the finance minister perhaps did not want to highlight an insignificant increase of just 1.048 per cent over 2015-16 Budget Estimates (BE) or a mere 9.7 per cent over Revised Estimates (RE) of Rs. 2.33 lakh crores, and thereby once again underscore an under-spend in both capital and revenue allocations. Second, and more importantly, the Narendra Modi Government wanted to give a message to the armed forces that it will not automatically accept its demands. Third, the government also wanted to be rid of the tag of being the biggest importer of arms and to give a somewhat strong push for indigenisation. The armed forces would naturally not be happy with this mainly because they do not want to be blamed for any setback in a future military conflict as they were in 1962.

    The first indication of a pared down defence budget had come when India cancelled the contract for 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircrafts (MMRCA) and decided to purchase only 36 Rafale fighters from France. The second indication came when the prime minister in his address to the military commanders on board INS Vikramaditya told them to prepare for the future with an eye on finances and not go on ‘doing more of the same’. For decades, the various prime ministers had been telling the military to prepare for everything, from counter-insurgency or sub-conventional to nuclear conflict, blandly adding that the government will provide for the needs of the armed forces. This appears to have changed.

    The finance minister also gave a not too subtle message that like Deng Xiaoping had said more than two decades ago, “the chance of a major conventional war had receded but a local border war was possible”. It is, therefore, imperative that the armed forces prepare for ‘the most likely scenario’ rather than for ‘the worst case scenario’. But to be fair, this can only be done when there exists a clear national military policy/strategy, in the absence of which, and to meet the perceived threat, the armed forces have naturally been demanding the latest that is available in the world.

    To be sure, Pakistan has in the recent past increased its F-16 holdings from a mere 36 in the 1980s to 77 with eight more on order. Pakistan has also been manufacturing/assembling the JF-17 ‘Thunder’ fighter with Chinese assistance at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) for some time, and now has some 60 of these modern fighters on its strength. China too has added a huge number of indigenously produced fighters and a variety of other aircraft, arms and equipment to its inventory. The strength of the Indian Air Force (IAF), however, has been dwindling. That India has always faced a combined threat is clear, but the question is whether India should blindly go on buying arms in an unrewarding arms race with a far more rich and powerful country and bankrupt itself in the bargain. Is it at last becoming clear to the decision makers that smart procurement is meaningless without a smart strategy to utilise the smart weapon?

    Although many believe, and perhaps rightly, that casualties have been coming down and conditions are more peaceful in J&K, but repeatedly losing many highly trained and motivated officers and jawans in neutralising a few Pakistani terrorists cannot be accepted simply because such losses in the long run would be bad for the country’s morale. India cannot allow Pakistan to succeed in its ‘thousand cuts’ strategy and must use technology where possible. At Pampore, for example, the use of a Carl Gustav or a few rockets from a Mi-25 armed helicopter might have helped end the encounter earlier and with fewer casualties.

    Some legacy commitments like Siachen also need light helicopters that are in short supply because the Cheetah/Chetak fleet is too old. Bullet-proof jackets, night vision devices, light portable radars for use in the mountains, MANPADS such as the US Stinger, Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) and a multi-purpose light missile capable of being launched from ground and airborne platforms and UAV/UCAV are some of the items that the military must focus on, rather than on heavy guns and tanks and aircraft which in the recent past have only been used in limited numbers in urban settings against insurgents. In short, smarter or more lethal the weapon, the less usable it becomes.

    It is time India devised appropriate tactics to meet the current threat. Although India no longer enjoys the so-called conventional superiority vis-à-vis its western neighbour, it should be possible to impose ‘costs’ by other and smarter means. Perhaps the prime minister meant to suggest this when he told the military commanders to stop ‘doing more of the same’. The current defence outlay needs to be seen in this light. Shouldn’t the military planner begin by providing innovative options rather than indulging in mere ‘accountancy’? Shouldn’t the political leadership give the soldier a clear and well articulated military policy/strategy to meet the extant threat?

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.