In the past, Finance Ministers would eulogise the armed forces in their budget presentations for their ‘heroic sacrifices…etc’ and then followed by a deafening thumping of desks in Parliament, indicate the defence allocation, adding, “if more is needed it will be given”. With this government, this format has become variable.
This year’s defence funding is so depressingly low that its impact is being felt even now, by the services.
In its 41st report to Parliament this month, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on defence headed by BJP’s Major General BC Khanduri lamented that the capital allocation for modernisation of Rs 21,338 crore for the army (committed liabilities Rs 29,033 crore), with a shortfall of Rs 17,757 crore, will have an adverse effect on its combat capability.
'Indian Armed Forces Not Fit for War’
In his deposition before the committee, the Vice Chief of Army Staff, Lt Gen Sarat Chand, did not mince words:
The budget has dashed our hopes. At least 25 of the 125 Make in India projects will have to be dropped or suspended.
To add insult to injury, Rs 5,000 crore has been demanded as GST, for which there is no budgetary provision. Chand’s revelations should have embarrassed the government, as the story is the same for the other two armed wings.
The Navy’s allocation has declined from 13 percent in 2012-13 to 8 percent today. It had sought Rs 33,458 crore but was allotted just Rs 20,000 crore. The Air Force is the worst off – a shortage of Rs 42,000 crore against their requirement for modernisation.
Altogether, all three services will need more funds to pay even the instalments for old projects. There is even a hole in the revenue budget of Rs 1,282 crore meant for maintenance, training and upkeep of weapons.
Alas, the defence budget is a poor cut-and-paste job by the Ministry of Finance.
That is why Khanduri, Sapper officer, was blunt in his declaration that the armed forces were ‘not fit for war’. The defence budget for 2018-19 is the lowest since the 1962 war: 1.49 percent of GDP.
Senior officers are asking what it will take for the government to equip the armed forces to fight a two-front war as enshrined in the government’s Operational Directive to the Service Chiefs in 2009.
Since then, while the collusion between China and Pakistan has been cemented, funding for modernisation has progressively reduced – one key reason being the skewed tooth-to-tail ratio of 67:33.
That has resulted in the salary and pension bill skyrocketing, on account of OROP and the 7th Pay Commission. Whatever the reason, it is the responsibility of the government to keep the armed forces modernised, fit and ready for war.
The Standing Committee, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Finance Committee help Parliament to maintain oversight on defence preparedness, military capabilities and budgetary inadequacies.
Why Is There No Action to Address Such Drastic Deficiencies?
Year after year, they report major deficiencies and anomalies in structure and equipment shortages which will adversely affect war preparedness. Hollowness in critical capabilities including shortages in ammunition to fight even a ten-day war remains.
Why is it that the deficiencies being highlighted by the armed forces and the parliamentary oversight committees are not being addressed? It is said that the Defence Ministry has taken up the meagre budget with PMO, but that seems unlikely.
When the defence budget was first announced, the new Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman loyally stated: “The armed forces would be able to absorb the increase (actually, shortfall) in defence modernisation”. Sitharaman is a first-time MP and first-time defence minister and a member of the prestigious CCS.
But more importantly, a protégé of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. Never before has a first-term MP made it to the hallowed portals of the CCS.
‘PM Has Time to Meet Virushka, But None For Chiefs of Indian Armed Forces’
A very senior officer of the armed forces told me last week that National Security Advisor Ajit Doval has convinced Prime Minister Modi that there will be no war – one- or two-front. The only violence in the country will be confined to insurgency and left-wing extremism.
The rest of the narrative is predictable. He said that the Standing Committee has no teeth and is a mere ritual. He added that the Defence Secretary is responsible for the defence and security of the realm.
According to this senior officer, the reports that we send to the MoD on operational readiness or other combat-related issues are suitably doctored (some slides are even deleted) for presentation. Funds allotted to us for modernisation are invariably less than the previous year’s committed liabilities.
Sometimes it may be possible that you get some money for modernisation from the public sector undertaking, he said, in case it has failed to deliver the order.
When I asked why senior officers like the Chiefs don’t meet the Prime Minister to apprise him of the critical hollowness in capability, he said, “He knows”.
He added that the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, Admiral Sunil Lanba, has been trying to meet the PM for months over anomalies of the 7th Pay Commission but he has not gotten an audience. However, the PM squeezed time from his busy schedule for a meeting with Virat Kohli and his wife Anushka Sharma.
He also said former Defence Minister Parrikar was very unhappy in his job. His heart was in Goa but he was frustrated he could not implement any serious reform or push finance for additional funds. The choke point, he said, is the PMO.
Arun Jaitley: A Finance Minister With Many Answers to One Question
The answer to the eternal question of why defence is taken for granted, and meagre funds given for modernisation (besides the no-war-syndrome which ignores deterrence) is encapsulated in different answers given to the same question by Jaitley in two successive budget interviews (2017-18 and 2018-19) on Doordarshan asked by the same person – Ashok Bhattacharya, Editorial Advisor, Business Standard.
In the first interview, Jaitley said, “We can allocate more funds if the Defence Ministry can speed up its acquisition mechanism… they can get as much money as they want. Budgetary allocations are only indicators. Defence gets the highest priority.”
In the second interview, his reply was: “I would be only too willing to make available for defence whatever extra was required… if I had more”.
In an interview to The Hindustan Times on 4 February he said: “I would have loved to give additional funds. But it is the size of the cake… or I enlarge the fiscal deficit.”
Lest you forget, this is what Khanduri said in his reports number 35 and 36: “India is not combat ready, armed forces underequipped and procurement and policy, inadequate.”
Consequently, the Service Chiefs should refrain from making statements on being ready for two or two-and-a-half front wars. They should stop breast-beating and instead do something to help fix the anomalies.
Last year, the French Chief of Defence Staff, Gen Pierre de Villiers, resigned after President Macron cut USD 1 Billion from the army budget without consulting him. In 2008, British Gen Lord Dannatt came close to resigning when the government threatened to axe the acquisition of 70 multi-role Lynx helicopters for the Army and Navy.
It’s time for action, not words.
(General Ashok K Mehta is a founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the Integrated Defence Staff. The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of The Quint or its editorial team.)