By Nantoo Banerjee
For children playing war games in computer, witnessing the display of India’s armoury, its air force fighters flying past and scrambling over Rashtrapati Bhawan, daredevil army jawans on motorbikes, replica of naval frigate, tanks, guns and missiles at the country’s annual republic day parade in Delhi’s famed Raj Path has always been the most exciting part of the event. But, not for the knowledgeable and defence experts who know how under-equipped are the country’s combat forces compared to those of Russia, China, France, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Japan and the United States, militarily mightiest of them all. Therefore, one may think that exhibiting India’s military toys before the US president Barack Obama at the R-Day function may not exactly be a brilliant idea, after all.
For its size and population, India’s military spend on modern war equipment is among the lowest. Barring the rare-use missiles, very little of high-tech war equipment is manufactured in India. Nearly 70 per cent of India’s military hardware is imported. Though India boasts nearly a two-trillion-dollar economy, its annual war equipment import is worth less than five billion dollars. Honestly, there is nothing much to show off India’s defence might that the world’s top merchants of war are not already aware of. India’s military, among the world’s largest in terms of the number of combatants, regular and reserve, is also among the most underequipped. Almost 65 per cent of the annual defence budget go into the routine spending on personnel and establishment. The annual expenditure on armament and spares acquisition is only around $8 billion, domestic and imported, or less than 50 per cent of total cost of procurement and maintenance.
According to published figures by Pentagon, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and the Jane’s, China spent over $188 billion on military programs in 2013. China’s official budget has grown by an average of 9.4 per cent each year in real terms since 2004. “China’s military investments provide it with a growing ability to project power at increasingly longer range,” observed a Pentagon report. However, it is still far less than the US military spending of about $640 billion in 2013. In comparison, Russia’s military spend in 2013 was $88 billion. Saudi Arabia, the fourth largest defence spender, budgeted $67 billion for its military, representing 9.3 per cent of its GDP.
On paper, India ranks 9th in annual defence expenditure. In 2013, it was budged at $47.4 billion, or 2.5 per cent of its GDP, according to the SIPRI, though the amount mentioned by IISS was much lower at $36.3billion, or 1.8 per cent of GDP. The big variation could be because of the fact that the actual expenditure was much less than the budgeted one. A good portion of India’s annual defence budget is left unspent almost every year and drawn back to partly cover the large general budget deficit. As mentioned earlier, the expenditure hardly presents the state of the country’s military arsenal. Interestingly, India’s defence budget, accounting for 16 to 18 per cent of the total annual budget barely manages a 10-line mention in the finance minister’s 90-minute-long speech. It provides no insight of the working of the defence department, leave alone even a general information such as the strength of Indian Army and its tooth-to-tail (frontline combat soldier-to-staff) ratio.
India’s poor domestic defence manufacturing capability has been a key reason behind its under-armed military over the years. Export is expensive. Foreign exchange is dear. Choice of technology and products is limited. As against a total of $402-billion arms production by the world’s top 100 companies in 2013 (SIPRI report), the combined sales of three defence manufacturers from India, the 9th largest defence spender, was only $5.5billion. Of the three Indian defence manufacturers, figuring in the top 100 list, only Hindustan Aeronautics (2013 sales $2.582 billion) improved its ranking to 42 from the previous year’s 43. Bunched together, Indian ordnance factories (combined 2013 sales at $1.918 billion) lost five ranks from 49 to 56 in terms of sales. Bharat Electronics, the third firm in the list, lost six ranks to 82 out of 100 with a turnover of only $1.054 billion in 2013.
Historically, from the period of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the country didn’t trust its people and enterprises to manufacture defence hardware. Successive prime ministers kept high-tech defence production out-of-bound for India’s private enterprises for reasons best known to themselves. The ministry of defence production did little to improve the performance of the technology-deficit, under-productive and high cost state-owned enterprises. The Modi government may be trying to change it all by inviting foreign suppliers of war equipment to ‘make in India’ offering higher equity stake, control over their guarded technology and substantial management freedom. But, it may still take a while for those global war equipment giants to respond to the new prime minister’s call.
Globally, the war industry has been most profitable. It has also been known as notoriously shady when it comes to striking sale deals with national governments, bribing political executives, bureaucrats and generals. Ironically, India’s political masters found more comfort in dealing with such international arms wheeler-dealers and discouraged domestic manufacture of high-tech defence equipment. The practice has been going on despite bribery allegations in defence import contracts continuing to tarnish the image of successive governments, beginning with Nehru’s (jeep import scandal) during the first arms engagement with Pakistan over Kashmir, soon after the independence (1947-48).
The size of India’s armed forces on headcounts had never represented the quantity and quality of its military arsenal. Not that President Obama or the world is ignorant about it, but making a display of India’s armoury before foreign such top ranking visitors from countries that have been feeding Indian forces for years may appear to be rather funny. However, the US president may not mind. Conversely, the snapshot of India’s arsenal may encourage him to lobby for more US arms sale to the country. In fact, Modi may even bite the bait to strengthen the country’s national security in the face of growing Pakistani military menace along the LoC and Chinese incursions across the LAC. (IPA Service)