Union Budget tells armed forces to cut the coat as per cloth
Lt General K J Singh
Defence outlay in the annual budget has once again belied expectations, pegged at Rs 3.18 lakh crores approximating to 1.5% of projected GDP, it is the lowest since the 1962 war. Pre-budget optimism was heightened as finance minister had piloted projections of the ministry of defence in her role as defence minister and it was natural to expect larger allocation since she knows the unsatisfactory state of inventory. Allocation marks 6.87% hike over the last budget’s revised estimates and barely caters for inflation. The only silver lining is waiving of basic customs duty on defence imports – likely to save Rs 25,000 crore, over five years. No wonder, the media has listed defence among losers’ category and treatment meted out as ‘blink and miss’ approach. Die-hard optimists can draw some solace from the government describing it as a budget with 10-year vision. It is hoped that experts will concurrently consider putting long-term defence planning and procurement back on rails to give the much-needed impetus to capability building and modernization.
The new defence minister, like his predecessors, had reiterated that financial constraints will not be allowed to impact capability building. On face value, this indeed seems very reassuring as all defence ministers and finance ministers maintain this position. While national consensus on macro issues alludes us, we have unanimity on assurances at least. The ‘feel good factor’ is further amplified with occasional booster dose provided by ill-informed media, heralding every ‘acceptance of necessity’ (AON) as induction. The AON actually is only the first step, more like starting the match. The conversion or strike rate of these for Army is as low as 30%. The Army on the average takes 30 to 40 AONs every year and every such announcement aided by media boosts ‘josh’ factor without sparing even an iota of ‘hosh’ or scrutiny for retracted and stalled AONs.
More importantly, the tortuous process between trials and price negotiations culminating into contract spans four to five years. Finally, the gestation of the equipment itself is limited by capacities and could be spread over another four to five years. Recently, an AON was granted for 464 Russian T-90 tanks leading to considerable muscle flexing on social and print media, aided by graphics, as if tanks were ready to roll down. It would have been more objective if flowchart of impending process and pitfalls were included in these reports.
In 2014, an outgoing Army Chief took a rather unprecedented step of flagging critical operational deficiencies, terming them as ‘hollowness’. Consequent to this letter and as points-man for capability building in the Army, I had to anchor hearing by Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence (PSCOD). We were literally put in the dock with real architects of this sorry state, bureaucrats (as mandated by the transaction of business rules), attending as observers. We heard oft-repeated assurances, the budget will not be allowed to impact defence modernization. Yet, in 2018, in another hearing, the same committee was given rude reality check, which spelt out that against stipulated equipment profile of Modern-30, Current-40 and Ageing-30, existing inventory was 8-24-68 mix and funds not even adequate to service committed liabilities.
The army had traditionally followed threat-based planning, which amounts to reactionary capability building to handle our likely adversaries and manage the hybrid war. This was revised to threat cum capability building, duly supported by mandated levels of deterrence, ‘punitive’ against Pakistan and ‘credible’ against China. Net assessment models had stipulated quantified comparative ratios, stipulating building up 1.5 to 1 superiority against Pakistan. Capability-based planning is more pertinent for catering for ambiguous or emerging threats like artificial intelligence, robotics, space and cyber warfare.
Notwithstanding, stated parameters, in effect, the Army has been following firefighting approach driven by operations branch rather than perspective planning. There are occasional welcome doses of demonstrative acquisition of force multipliers like Rafale, C-130j, Apache, S-400 and ULH through strategic government to government (FMS in American parlance) route. The Army has been forced to resort to emergency induction of ammunition, sniper and other rifles. With regional power aspirations and as a net provider of security, it is high time that we make our procurement system functional graduating to genuine capability-based planning backed by periodic net assessment audits. While ambiguity seems to be the currently favoured approach and is needed for a few surprise capabilities yet for stable deterrence, it is axiomatic to build transparency and demonstrate seriousness in capability building. The much-needed reform of creating a non-lapsing fund for capital acquisitions will alleviate our problems as towards close of the financial year, it becomes process driven scramble to book expenditure with the status of schemes often an overriding priority.
The current, 13th Army plan covers the period from 2017 to 2022 and even at the mid-term stage, it is still in the discussion stage. It is also learnt that current review is driven by fiscal pragmatism, wherein a number of schemes may reflect budgetary realities. To put it bluntly, the armed forces have been told to cut the coat as per cloth. For those, who are statistically inclined, 12th Army plan had approximately 700 schemes and this one may have only 300 schemes. While drafting a new plan, mandatory pre-plan review invariably shows slippages, hence, it is prudent to remain pragmatic in projections but the overall impact on capabilities must be deliberately considered. It may be worthwhile to take plan holiday for first three years of the current plan, recast and draw a well-considered plan in next six months and apply it from 2020 to 2025 with clearly defined targets and more liberal funding.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.