In Defense of Defense

Nearly two weeks ago, India unveiled the Union Budget for 2019-2020 – the nation’s first tangible insight into the priorities of the government it resoundingly reelected. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman delivered the opening vindication of the budget at its introductory press conference. She touted India’s continued devotion to primary budgetary demands, such as rural development, education, and agriculture, but glossed over nearly all mention of India’s defense sector. But to FM Sitharaman’s credit, the latest budgetary proposal offers little defense-related substance worthy of mention. In composition, size, and ambition, India’s budget insufficiently positions its defense sector against contemporary threats and emergent challenges confronting India’s strategic objectives. 

Underlying the composition of defense funding are dangerous, worrisome trends. First, the broad majority of the defense outlays, nearly 60 percent, assign funding to be spent on salaries, benefits, and pensions for India’s five million uniformed, civilian, and retired personnel. This figure has risen from 45 percent of military spending to its present value in just four years. Future estimates project these outlays, driven primarily by defense pensioners, will swell in size, endangering the viability of future defense budgets.  

Furthermore, the slice of the defense pie apportioned to capital procurement is perceptibly down, shrinking from 21 to 18 percent over the last four years. On the surface, this figure appears to represent the moderate success of Prime Minister Modi’s “Make in India” campaign away from foreign-based procurement, but truthfully, this relative decline cannot be attributed to burgeoning domestic industry. PM Modi’s vision, while bold and savvy, has been significantly underfunded in preceding budgets, effectively kneecapping its capacity for takeoff. Instead, the sheer weight of India’s pension burden is the chief cause for the derailment of sustained investment in accruing military hardware and technology.

Ultimately, the defense budget’s configuration is hardly reassuring to a military charged with being the nation’s premier fighting force. In modern war fighting, threats evolve swiftly and decisively. Idle budgets, specifically those which ignore self-destructive trends, are detrimental to national security interests. Within the defense budget, preference should be given to reforming the pension system, restructuring forces to moderate manpower expenses, and facilitating outlays to R&D and capital procurement. Prolonging the current state of affairs is strategically inept for a nation whose priorities could not be more patently obvious. 

Juxtaposed alongside previous budgetary allotments, this year’s proposal is noticeably smaller. The 2014-2015 defense budget comprised 17 percent of government expenditure; this figure has slipped to 15.5 percent in the current fiscal year. Traditionally, defense spending has been subordinated to domestic concerns in India. Immediately following a general election, wherein which appeals to voters via domestic policy were a predominating force, it’s ostensibly rational for this trend to endure. 

The illogicality of a reduced budget, however, surfaces from the necessity for wholescale military modernization. Across the board, the Indian Army, Navy, and Air Force operate on the bare essentials for deterrence and offensive capabilities. Consider the Air Force, for instance: scores of Soviet-era aircraft – helicopters, combat planes, reconnaissance aircraft, and more – are aging swiftly, many operating beyond their decommissioning dates, while nothing permanent has been assigned to take their place. 

Similarly, the Navy is increasingly constrained by inadequate outlays against China’s mounting presence in the Indian Ocean. Projects devoted to bolstering India’s submarine and aircraft carrier fleets have stalled as funding earmarked for renovation has stagnated.

The Army, no less, has sought basic provisions to reinforce the confidence of its mission. Stationed along the Pakistani border, the Indian Army has the high obligation of securing a tenuous peace between two nations seemingly in perpetual confrontation. While the Army has requested improved tools for surveillance, armor, and offense, it is doubtful they will receive these enhancements.

India’s immediate geopolitical environment is not conducive to the lethargic continuation of the status quo. Threats accumulate multi-dimensionally, with adversaries impinging upon India’s spheres of historical dominance in South Asia, the Indian Ocean, and elsewhere. Equipping the relevant forces with cutting-edge technology, full financial support, and the impetus to uphold India’s national interests is a requisite for any national budget. Any shortcoming to this end potentially compromises mission readiness, and ultimately, military success. Regrettably, this budget endangers just that.

Lastly, the Union Budget’s prescribed allocation to the defense sector is not representative of the nation’s distinctive image of itself. Historically, India has been the mainstay presence in South Asia and a foundational pillar for economic integration between continents, cultures, and people. A resurgent China, which has extended its geopolitical reach into Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, East Africa, and most notably, Pakistan, threatens to subdue the scope of India’s influence. China’s all-weather with Pakistan, broadened by the Belt and Road Initiative, signals the grandiosity and permanence of Chinese influence frustrating India’s long-held sway in South Asia. 

For India to effectively counter this and other currents undermining its regional sway, all levers of national power must be utilized and harmonized toward the common end of asserting influence. Invariably, military power will factor into this large, geostrategic enigma enveloping continental Asia. India’s preparedness, and even willingness, to contest the struggle for regional primacy – its regional primacy – is rightfully questionable. The Union Budget’s uninspiring contribution to defense is unnerving to regional partners who look to New Delhi for leadership, stability, and deterrence. Moreover, this budget falls woefully short in reaffirming India’s historic authority, which has forever been the cornerstone of Indian exceptionalism. 

Perhaps now, it seems, India may not want a preeminent role for itself. Its defense budget is overtly diffident and modern vision for itself is yet unclear. But the day will dawn when India recognizes that by wholly embracing its national power, it better shapes the dynamism of South Asia ever favorably toward its geostrategic aims.

Image Credit: Dominique A. Pineiro