Why India must radically re-orient and scale down its defence objectives

The conspicuously modest rise in the defence budget for 2018-19 highlights the mismatch between India’s grandiose strategic ambitions and our limited ability to fund them. Defence allocations, including military pensions, will rise by a token 8.1 per cent from the current year’s revised estimates of Rs 3.74 trillion ($58.45 billion) to Rs 4.04 trillion ($63.2 billion) next year. The usual suspects have lamented that this is far short of India’s “legitimate security needs”. But they seem to be overlooking the fact that successive Indian governments over the past two decades seem in agreement on what India can afford to spend on defence. In five budgets from 2009 to 2014, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government consistently allocated to defence just 16-17 per cent of its total annual spending. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has only continued that trend.

Yet, instead of cutting their coat according to their cloth, Indian planners and security commentators continue framing our defence objectives in the most unrealistic and expansive terms. Our military, they say, must be prepared to fight and win a two-front war, defeating Pakistan while simultaneously holding off China—a country with a far more capable military, which is unsurprising given that China’s GDP is four times India’s and its defence budget thrice as large. As if the two-front chimera were not enough, many commentators have been redefining the peril as a two-and-a-half front threat, in which—besides a collusive threat from Pakistan and China—insurgents in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) join the party, tying up large numbers of Indian troops in safeguarding military supply lines and disrupting movement. In addition to all this, the navy must ensure we remain masters of the Indian Ocean.

If our crumbly defence edifice is to be saved from collapsing under the weight of these burdens, we must radically re-orient and scale down our objectives. The chorus from our strategic elites to raise defence spending from the present 2.18 per cent of GDP to at least 3 per cent is clearly unthinkable across the political spectrum. What would help, however, are three urgent shifts.

First, we must reframe our security objectives realistically. While a two-and-a-half front war is a theoretical possibility, it cannot be the basis of our defence planning—it is only a worst-case cataclysm that we could manage, as a last resort, through nuclear deterrence. True, the army chief, General Bipin Rawat, has exhorted the military to be ready for war on multiple fronts, but sitting in Delhi, he is vulnerable to political rhetoric. In contrast, two army theatre commanders—with their feet closer to the ground—have cautioned against a two-front war. In Chandigarh last fortnight, western army commander, Lieutenant General Surinder Singh, warned that “It is never a good idea, never a smart idea, to fight a two-front war”, pointing out that skillfully managing relations with China would also improve our leverage with Pakistan. Meanwhile, Lieutenant General M M Naravane, commanding the Shimla-based training command, stated that calming the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan required “statesmanship, not brinkmanship”, and that a lasting peace needed a return to the negotiating table. Other commanders in Kashmir, including the recently retired Lieutenant General D S Hooda, have said a comprehensive dialogue, involving all stakeholders including separatists, would calm the Kashmir Valley.

It should be evident that the event of a two-and-a-half front war would represent the simultaneous and comprehensive failure of Indian strategy, diplomacy, border management and internal political management. Only the very rich can afford to structure their security for a worst-case scenario. Making this our benchmark for conventional defence capability warps defence planning, financial expenditure, troop deployment, and the direction and aims of diplomacy. Strategic prudence calls for the country’s top security planners to collectively ensure that India is never reduced to a position where it faces full-scale war on multiple fronts.

The second urgent shift must be a root-and-branch reform of the military’s disastrous personnel policy. With over half the annual defence budget splashed on salaries and pensions, less than a quarter is left for equipment modernisation this year. The military has swelled to over 1.5 million personnel—1,264,981 in the army, with the navy and air force accounting for another 238,562 personnel. Most of them serve for 17-19 years, retiring before they are 40 to continue drawing pensions for the rest of their lives. When they die, their wives or unmarried daughter continues drawing pension. With life expectancy increasing, the pension bill will soon exceed the salary bill.

Yet, little thought has been directed to why defending our mountain borders requires such expensive soldiers, mostly recruited from the faraway plains of India and rotated through high-altitude areas that they barely know and are physiologically unsuited for. Meanwhile, the military barely scratches the surface in recruiting from border areas to create units manned by locals to defend their own homeland. Wherever such recruitment has been tentatively attempted, as in Ladakh, Himachal, Uttarakhand and Sikkim, the units created—such as the Ladakh Scouts—have proven their superiority in their home environments. Such an approach is needed to create a large number of “National Guard” units, manned by local soldiers, recruited for 5-7 years with no pension liability. Based on the lessons that emerge, this “short service” model of recruitment should be progressively extended across the army, whittling down the pension bill. In the border areas, National Guard units would create employment where little exists, build national identity and boost local economies. This would require modifying state recruitment quotas to favour border states, but there is a clear strategic and economic rationale for doing so.

Third and finally, as recommended by numerous committees—the Kargil Review Committee in 1999, a Group of Ministers in 2001, the Naresh Chandra Task Force in 2016 to name three—the government must go ahead with integrating the service headquarters with the defence ministry. Currently, the army, navy and air force each have their own headquarters, staffed by uniformed officers, who must get sanctions for most subjects (expenditures, promotions, appointments, procurements) from the defence ministry, which is staffed almost entirely by civilian administrators with little military domain expertise. Given the deep institutional animosity between these two headquarters, even the simplest task is complicated and delayed, often out of sheer perversity. Combining them would yield many benefits: The chance for both to recognise and harness each others’ competencies, the reduction of decision-making layers and the creation of a benign civil-military relationship in which the political leadership, the bureaucracy and the military actively work together in achieving national security objectives.

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