Maj-Gen Amrit Pal Singh (Retd)
The defence budget at Rs 3.18 lakh crore stands out by its opaque reference in the Finance Minister's Budget speech for many reasons. The first is that the Finance Minister was the Defence Minister before the elections and the expectations were that the minister would factor the criticalities of the forces. Second, that the outlay for pensions at Rs 1.12 lakh crore is more than that of Rs 1.08 lakh crore for modernisation. In a technology-driven, short and sharp conflict scenario, the skew towards modernisation seems only in words, not in allocations. The announcement of customs duty exemption for defence imports is, on the other hand, an indicator of the inadequacy of the indigenous production capability.
The national security narrative is what the present government rode on to garner votes by fanning patriotic sentiment by display of muscular responses to terror. The optics of the Balakot strikes and the ramping up of patriotic sentiment by using the armed forces served the political ends and rich dividends have been reaped. Things, however, have not changed much as far as security threats in J&K are concerned since then. The unprecedented security measures by infusing paramilitary forces (PMF) post the Pulwama attack and for the election period was probably the reason for the terror-mongers to lie low. Now that the security grid and forces’ presence has been diluted, the incidents of attacks on security forces have resumed. This is happening amidst reports of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Jammu and Kashmir (ISIK) moving in to fill the vacuum created by the elimination of cadres of Pakistan's ISI-backed outfits.
The Home Minister’s recent announcement of the continuation of the policy of ‘zero tolerance’ for terror also seems to indicate lack of fresh ideas or any attempt to adopt and pursue a workable anti-terror policy. It is only when spending on procurements for conventional war are pruned can there be development of additional technological means to counter increasingly non-conventional threats. In the face of the receding threat of conventional conflict, it is prudent to focus on cutting the size of conventional forces.
The cost of raising PMF units is the same, if not more, as of regular army units. Pay and other monetary parameters have also increased the costs of maintaining the PMF. As the strength of the PMF regularly increases to meet internal security duties, there is no corresponding move to relieve almost one-third of the army from deployments in J&K and the North-East. The rightsizing of the army, which is an ongoing exercise, can only gain traction if the bulk is relieved from such secondary duties and expenditure for internal security, which the Home Ministry is mandated to do. The budgetary constraints being what they are for the armed forces, the task of internal security must be fully handed over to the Home Ministry. However, withdrawal of the army is the biggest paradox as it only belies the confidence of national security planners in such a move despite the enormous expenditure put into creating PMF capabilities.
In the run-up to the Budget, the big ticket and yet basic requirements of the forces such as assault rifles, bullet-proof jackets and artillery guns for the Army, submarines and helicopters for the Navy and fighter aircraft to bolster the severely depleted Air Force squadron strength were discussed, along with the capability builders, such as the S-400 air defence system. In addition to conventional capability development, the need to acquire cyber, space and technological capabilities to fight unconventional attacks by the enemy needs to be factored in while making allocations. The much-touted ‘Make in India’ initiative also has not produced tangible results despite being accorded high priority. In fact, the apparent push towards making defence procurements import-dependent by the removal of customs duty will only take away due efforts from developing indigenous capability.
It may also be correct not to air security concerns publicly. However, the ongoing rift between the bureaucrats and the armed forces is only widening the existing chasm and taking centre-stage for the wrong reasons. The need for the government to rein in both sides in the larger interest is more relevant now than ever before. The leverage that such a situation affords to inimical propaganda and psychological warfare attacks can — and is — causing irreparable damage. The resolution of the issues plaguing the service community and its modernisation plans warrant the incorporation of the uniformed fraternity's representatives in decision-making regarding matters military.
This is something which the government which has pushed for induction of experts into governance can start with. In tandem, the appointment of senior commanders of the armed forces must be seen as merit-based by the rank and file of the forces rather than as backing of political favourites in what is seen as politicisation of the last bastion. In a situation where most of the military hierarchy in all three services are due to undergo a change, the time is ripe to set the agenda and focus areas that will achieve a much-needed roadmap and action plan for the country's national security.
The construction of a Comprehensive National Power is synonymous with the recognition of forming a national strategic culture that nurtures the economic, military, cyber and space aspects. The creation of the Defence Procurement Committee (DPC) brought the functions of planning and procurement under the NSA and it is hoped that the present allocations lead to the much required roadmap for modernisation with focus on promoting the strengths of indigenous technology such as software and space capabilities. The Budget has been called a 10-year-vision-based one and this must translate into a long-term plan for a sustainable capability-based development-cum-procurement plan with focus on prioritisation and inter-service synergy. A non-lapsable capital procurement fund that can be carried over fiscal years will be needed to help resolve the long gestation period of the procurement process and to retain priority of equipment induction, both by indigenous and import routes.
The present inventory of ageing equipment and depleted numbers is glaring and demands attention from all quarters — uniformed, bureaucratic and political. Development of superior technological capability and equipping of the forces needs to be in the forefront of the national security narrative. National security is not only about allocation of funds but also signals the government’s intent and policy.
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