The Indian Air Force (IAF) conducted a major air power demonstration exercise titled ‘Vayu Shakti’, involving 137 combat aircraft on Saturday, 16 February in Pokhran, Rajasthan, and by unhappy happenstance, this mega exercise was preceded by the terror attack on the CRPF convoy in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir.
Both events point to the nature of the spectrum that the management of national security calls for – from the hi-tech, trans-border capability inherent in air-power, to the more familiar challenge of terrorism and its fidayeen variant – the dreaded suicide-bomber.
Current Requirement For 400 Combat Aircraft
It is instructive to note that at Pokhran, the IAF fielded the upgraded MIG 29 in an air to ground role demonstration, and the other platform mix in the 135 plus aircraft included Sukhoi-30s, Mirage 2000s, Jaguars, Mig-21 Bison, Mig-27, Mig-29, IL78, Hercules and the ever-dependable Soviet origin AN- transport 32 aircraft.
The professional will note that the fighter mix at Vayu Shakti is a vintage combat fleet, and the Sukhoi 30, which qualifies as the latest induction, goes back to 2002. In short, for 16 years and counting, the IAF has not been able to induct a major fighter in a sustained manner with adequate numbers.
The received wisdom is that the IAF needs 126 aircraft urgently – and this has been stated gravely since 1996, when this figure was arrived at in the College of Air Warfare (CAW), Secunderabad. Experts aver that this figure is no longer valid, and that, objectively assessed, the current requirement is for 400 combat aircraft as replacements for an ageing fleet.
A Shrinking Capital Allocation % in Defence Budget
As the Rafale controversy has demonstrated, India is unable to arrive at a speedy and uncontested decision-making process for major military acquisitions, and this pattern is unlikely to be altered in the near future. In short, expect more mud slinging and name-calling in the run up to the election, once the post Pulwama sobriety fades from public memory.
However, both Vayu Shakti and the Pulwama tragedy point to a much deeper structural challenge in relation to the enhancement of Indias’s composite military capability. This relates to the fiscal allocation which is referred to as the capital allocation in the annual defence budget.
In an earlier comment, the defence budget announced in the interim budget had been analysed, and the big picture is far from encouraging. The capital allocation percentage of the defence budget is shrinking progressively, for the major part of the total allocation budget is taken away by the revenue costs – of which pay and allowances and pensions is a major component.
The inflexible inter-service allocation of the Indian defence budget is broadly as follows:
- Army under 60 percent
- Air Force under 24 percent
- Navy under 16 percent
Within this, given the nature of the Indian security challenge that the Indian Army is tasked with – from Doklam to Uri-Pulwama as it were – it remains manpower intensive; one million plus personnel. The other two services are smaller by way of personnel, and are more platform intensive. As a result, India has one of the most skewed army- air force-navy personnel ratio which is 21:2:1.
Total Capital Distribution in Defence Budget
Consequently, the total capital distribution is as follows:
- the Army spends about 11 percent of its budget for modernisation and acquisition of new inventory
- the Air Force manages a higher peg of 35 percent
- the Navy hovers at about 27 percent
However this figure is to be seen in context, and for this year, the Air Force has no choice but to remain lean – and alas, hungry. The reason is in the numbers. In the interim budget of February 2019 and the capital allocation, the Air Force had sought Rs 78, 895 crores and was allocated Rs 39,347 crores, even as its committed liabilities amount to Rs. 47,413 crores. In other words, existing liabilities will consume all of this years allocation and will make deep inroads into the next years allocation as well.
Navy’s Share in Defence Budget Is the Least
With such a limited capital funds allocation and a yet-to-be-proven domestic manufacturing capability in aviation, India’s ability to acquire the appropriate degree of air power will alas, remain well below the desired median.
The Navy has a similar challenge, and though it is projected as a major security provider in the expanding Indo-Pacific region, the platform mix is uneven and below the levels required. One stark illustration – the need for replacing truly OLD minesweepers, has been mooted since the late 1990’s, and the country is now likely to acquire some vessels in an urgent fast-track manner from a foreign supplier. The reasons are embedded in the poor capital allocation, and that the Navy’s overall share of the defence budget remains the least – and is unlikely to change in a hurry.
Our Soldiers Are Ill-Equipped to Tackle Terrorists
In a manner tangentially related to Pulwama, India is dealing with the internal security/ low intensity conflict compulsion (LIC-IS), with very limited infusion of new technologies. This includes the personal equipment of the infantry soldier – and by extension, his counterpart in the paramilitary organisations like the CRPF. A case in point is the personal rifle of the soldier or the police constable in LIC-IS duties.
While the terrorist may have the latest Kalashnikov equivalent, the Indian soldier is often fighting for flag and honour with a less capable weapon (usually the INSAS) and pays with life and limb due to this inherent asymmetry.
And the ignominy is that, 72 years after independence, India has not found the wherewithal and the resolve to design and manufacture something as basic as a credible rifle at par with the global mean. A review would reveal that resources – both fiscal and human – are rarely made available in a sustained manner, such that an enabling ecosystem can be nurtured for the modernisation of the Indian military machine.
Will Pulwama make a tangible difference? The citizen lives in hope, even if it is dulling.
(The writer is a leading expert on strategic affairs. He is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies. He can be reached at @theUdayB. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)