NEW DELHI — The small increase recently announced in India’s defense budget has raised questions about the military’s combat readiness in the near future and underscores the need to push weapon buys through an overcautious bureaucracy.
“Combat capability needs to be redefined. In terms of pure holdings of equipment, we may appear to be far better off than Pakistan, but when we compare the decision-making process and the heavy bureaucratic interference, Pakistan will score better and hence an overall capability matrix may indicate a par. In terms of China, we are definitely far behind,” said K.V. Kuber, a retired Indian Army colonel and the CEO of a consulting firm based here.
Indian defense spending will increase 5.2 percent in 2013-2014, totaling $38 billion, compared with a jump of nearly 11 percent by China, which will spend $115.7 billion.
While no officer would openly say India’s combat worthiness is inferior to either China’s or Pakistan’s, in private they admitted the slow pace of spending on new weapons in the past five years has eroded capabilities.
A senior Army officer also said the blacklisting of several foreign companies in recent years has proved counterproductive and has favored “our enemies.”
India announced its budget Feb. 28 against the backdrop of the AgustaWestland VIP helicopter scandal and the subsequent ordering by the Ministry of Defence of a probe by India’s anti-fraud agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation. If the Italian company is blacklisted, it will join Denel of South Africa, IMI of Israel, Rheinmetall of Germany and Singapore Technologies.
An MoD official, however, said emphatically that India’s combat worthiness has not been compromised and that lack of money will never prevent military modernization.
Still, some defense analysts said erosion of combat capability will become apparent in a few years if the current low level of defense spending is maintained.
“To my mind, the present level of combat capabilities in the conventional spectrum are adequate; however, given the fast clip of defense modernization and capacity-building by China, there is likely to be a serious deterrence gap that may become evident by 2015, and, if not effectively addressed, will lead to debilitating weakness for India by 2020,” said Rahul Bhonsle, a retired Indian Army brigadier general and defense analyst.
India needs to spend enough to prepare for a fight against China and Pakistan simultaneously, said several officers and analysts.
“This year’s defense budget has been pegged at 1.79 percent of the projected gross domestic product [GDP], which is the lowest since 1961-62, when it was 1.66 percent. China and Pakistan spend between 3 and 4 percent of their GDP on defense,” said Gurmeet Kanwal, a retired Army brigadier general and defense analyst.
Not only has spending on defense slowed in real terms (relative to the U.S. dollar), the domestic defense industry has not grown adequately to fully meet the needs of the armed forces. India imports nearly 70 percent of its weapons and equipment.
The 26 percent limit placed on overseas investors in defense industries, and the government’s preference for state-owned companies over private firms, account for the slow pace of industry growth, said an executive of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industries, which lobbies for domestic companies.
“We get bogged down by a few reports of corruption,” Kuber said. “Instead of addressing the core issue of corruption, we take the path of least resistance to cancel contracts and blacklist companies. I do not think the industry resorts to corruption because they are fond of it — it may be because they are forced into it.”