Ad hoc defence

In my Business Standard column today I argue that structural reform of the armed forces is the unfinished business of Kargil:

It may appear that the country has been lucky to have escaped without too much damage for another 14 years. But the failure to restructure our armed forces in line with contemporary needs will impose strategic costs beyond just delays and scandals. The current structure, divided as it is between the army, navy and air force (and within their constituent arms), is unable to holistically conceptualise India’s strategic environment.

Take, for instance, the Cabinet’s approval for a new mountain strike corps to handle the Chinese threat along the unresolved boundary. It involves an army formation of 45,000 soldiers and a cost of Rs 62,000 crore over 2012-17, tasked with mounting an offensive in Tibet in the event of a Chinese attack. This move was widely hailed as a robust Indian response to China’s aggressive actions along the boundary and its steadfast refusal to move towards a settlement. Few asked where the money and the soldiers are going to come from. As my colleague Rohan Joshi notes, the army is already short of 10,000 officers and 30,000 soldiers. With slower economic growth, higher social expenditure and looming deficits, how does the government plan to finance this expansion?

The bigger question, though, is not the financial cost but the opportunity cost. Is an army strike corps India’s best response to the strategic threat from China?

It is possible to argue that by choosing an army strike corps, New Delhi has played right into China’s hands. Beijing has, by inexpensively raising tensions along the Himalayan boundary, managed to induce New Delhi to invest in an expensive military asset that is unlikely to be used. Nuclear deterrence makes a direct military conflict between the two countries unlikely; and a large-scale conflict necessitating the use of corps-level formations is even more unlikely.

Meanwhile, the geostrategic contest of our times is being played out in the oceans. The only regional force that can challenge the Chinese navy’s quest to dominate the Indo-Pacific waters is the Indian navy. And guess what? India has Rs 62,000 crore less to spend on the naval expansion of the kind that would have countered China’s maritime power.

Perhaps the decision to invest in a strike corps is the better one, though this columnist disagrees. Yet, absent the long-pending restructuring of the armed forces, we can never say that the big trade-offs were adequately weighed.

Fourteen years after Kargil, the country certainly cannot afford such ad hoc functioning. [Business Standard]

Coincidentally, another op-ed in another newspaper by one of India’s foremost thinkers on strategic affairs takes up this argument in greater detail. Admiral Raja Menon packs quite a punch in the pages of The Hindu when he argues that instead of a mountain strike corps, a “a flotilla of nuclear submarines and a three carrier air group” makes more sense:

Most of all, we appear not to have assessed the Chinese weakness and strengths. Their strength is the huge logistic network that they have built up in Tibet. By creating a one axis strike corps, we have played into their strengths. The Chinese weakness lies in the Indian Ocean, a fact that even Beijing will readily concede. The clash between their political system and economic prosperity requires resources and, increasingly, the Chinese resource pool is Africa, which generates massive sea lines of communication (SLOC) through the Indian Ocean. Today, they are merely SLOCs; tomorrow they will be the Chinese Jugular. Beijing’s paranoia about the Indian Ocean is therefore understandable but the threat according to its strategic commentators comes only from the U.S. Sixty thousand crore spent on strengthening the Indian Navy’s SLOC interdiction capability would have given us a stranglehold on the Chinese routes through the Indian Ocean. The Himalayan border, the entire border, could have been held hostage by our strength in the Indian Ocean with an investment of Rs.60,000 crore. [The Hindu]

While I am not a fan of aircraft carriers, I am of the same opinion as Admiral Menon on the need to invest in naval and expeditionary assets. The absence of a higher defence structure that can look at strategy in a comprehensive manner—including the nuclear dimension—is causing India to engage in linearism, incrementalism and ad hocism.

Where are our defence economists?

Defence budgeting would do well with more economic reasoning

One of the topics discussed at the Takshashila Executive Programme on Strategic Affairs in New Delhi earlier this month was the issue of defence budgeting. Mukul Asher and Sushant K Singh have an op-ed in DNA today that covers one aspect of it—the need to have competent defence economists in New Delhi’s policy & budget planning establishment.

Here’s an extended excerpt:

The current focus in defence sector budget formulation, in parliamentary approval process, and in post-budget assessment is almost solely on accounting procedures and practices. Even these are outdated as neither outcome nor accrual budgeting, which permits both income-expenditure flows and balance sheet assets and liabilities to be formulated, are utilised. The capital component of the defence budget involves multi-year expenditures and planning, which annual budget cycles are unable to accommodate effectively.

The current defence budget formulation largely involves incremental budgeting (e.g. 10% increase in nominal terms over the previous period), with usually no separation between inflation-induced and real increase in expenditure. No groups at the planning or strategic levels, whether at the Planning Commission or at the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Committee appears to be analysing the defence budget from forward strategic planning perspective incorporating current and prospective threat perceptions. The budget proposals are also not subjected to analysis from the perspective of defence economics as a distinct sub-discipline and profession.

This is a serious gap, which needs to be urgently addressed in an era when geo-politics and geo-economics are increasingly inter-related. While this is recognised by other major powers, particularly China, India has been relatively slow in integrating the two to enhance its economic and security space and leverage.

An important step towards integration of the two would be to give greater prominence to the role of defence economists at every level of the defence sector, and encourage their coordination with economists in other sectors.

There are three critical aspects of defence economics: projecting national resources available now and in the future; working out the proportion of these resources which should be allocated for internal and external security and division of resources within each of the two areas; and tracking the efficiency with which the resources so allocated are used.

The above requires developing a competent group of analysts specialising in defence economics. Currently, no university in India, to our knowledge, offers such specialisation at any level. The need is particularly acute at the post-graduate levels. The absence of such expertise in defence related think tanks is also striking. The media and professional military and economic journals have also not promoted this branch of economics.

In the short run, such specialists would need to be trained (or recruited from) abroad; particularly in the US where defence economics is a thriving discipline. But there is no substitute for developing indigenous capacity to train its own defence economists and analysts.

As India revamps its higher education sector, and Knowledge Commission advances the scope for applying knowledge and technology to a wide variety of sectors to bring about greater economic efficiency, the need to subject the defence sector to greater economic reasoning and analysis should receive deserved consideration.[Asher & Singh/DNA]

Poseidons for the Indian navy

Buying arms from big trading partners is a good idea

From the geopolitical perspective, the Boeing P8I “Poseidons” that India has contracted to purchase are very good deal. India should ideally purchase military equipment from countries with whom it has broad and deep trading relationships. The current situation is quite the opposite: India has next to no non-military trade with Russia, and a little with Israel—the two largest military equipment suppliers. This gives them undue strategic and commercial leverage, which Russia has been exploiting to its advantage.

So India must deepen trade and investment with Russia and Israel. And buy arms from the United States, with whom it has wide-ranging economic ties.

Another reason for increasing the American share in India’s equipment mix is operational interoperability. India must develop the capability to interoperate with US and its allies as it will become necessary in a variety of future conflicts. This does not mean buying whatever is on offer—for instance, while augmenting amphibious capacity with landing ship tanks is a good idea, purchasing a huge aircraft carrier is not.

Weekday Squib: Tastes like chicken and top secret

Depicting the undepictable

Trevor Paglen could tell you, but then he would have to destroy you. But he’s written a book you could read—presumably without any danger to your life—on the Pentagon’s secret budget. Well, not the secret budget itself, but how black projects are visually represented through patches on military uniforms. As the International Herald-Tribune reports, these include “Skulls. Black cats. A naked woman riding a killer whale. Grim reapers. Snakes. Swords. Occult symbols. A wizard with a staff that shoots lightning bolts. Moons. Stars. A dragon holding the earth in its claws.”

Paglen’s website says

The symbols and insignia shown in the Symbology series provide a glimpse into how contemporary military units answer questions that have historically been the purview of mystery cults, secret societies, religions, and mystics: How does one represent that which, by definition, must not be represented? [Trevor Paglen]

My op-ed in Mint: Clearing the decks for defence modernisation

Defence budgeting and procurement processes need a overhaul

That the procurement process is holding back defence modernisation is relatively well-known. In today’s op-ed in Mint, Sushant and I throw more light on another aspect: only a small fraction of India’s defence budget is available for modernisation.

Excerpts:

Putting resources to better use.
Effective use of money by the Armed Forces needs an overhaul of the budgeting and procurement processes

Illustration: Malay Karmakar/MintAs expected, the defence budget for 2008-09 has crossed the Rs1 trillion mark. After adjusting for inflation, this constitutes an increase of only 5%. For the first time since the early 1960s, India’s defence outlay has declined to less than 2% of the gross domestic product (GDP)—a sign of the chasm between the rhetoric and reality on national security…

India’s transformation into a middle-income country requires its Armed Forces to be more capital-intensive. Yet only around 10% of the defence budget is actually available for modernization, compared with around 30-40% in developed countries.

…nearly two-thirds of the amount for capital acquisitions from foreign suppliers, too, is pledged for assured and received deliveries. Payments for major defence purchases from foreign vendors are spread over a number of years. This year, India will pay instalments for earlier purchases such as the Sukhoi aircraft, the Gorshkov aircraft carrier, T-90 tanks, Talwar-class frigates, Scorpene submarines and for many other smaller contracts. Thus, only Rs8,000-9,000 crore ($2 billion) is available for new acquisitions this year.

The initial down payment on new acquisitions is generally around one-fourth of the total cost. So, the defence ministry can theoretically sign contracts worth $8 billion for new equipment this year. Capital allocations for coming years will then have to cater for instalments of these acquisitions. Despite returning more than Rs4,200 crore, the ministry will be asking for additional capital allocations this year; it justifiably believes that allocations already made will be largely used up by earlier contracts.

Defence modernization is based on a long-term integrated procurement plan (LTIPP) of the defence services. LTIPP for 2007-22, spanning the 11th, 12th and 13th Plans, is scheduled to be approved by the Defence Acquisition Council by October 2009. Going by the past record, it doesn’t signify much. The 10th defence plan was never approved by the finance ministry, and two years into the 11th Plan, it also hasn’t been approved so far. Instead, the finance minister has agreed to an annual increase of 10% during the 11th Plan. [Mint]

Defence under-expenditure, again

The defence ministry surrendered 10% of its capital allocations last year

In the Union Budget 2008-09, unveiled by Finance Minister P Chidambaram in parliament today, the budgeted capital outlay for defence services has been increased from Rs 41,922 crore to Rs 48,007 crore, by around 14.5%.

That’s good news for military modernisation. If the albatross-like procurement policies would actually allow this money to be spent. Of the Rs 41,922 crore outlay in last year’s budget, the actual spending was only Rs 37,705 crore. In other words, the defence ministry surrendered just over 10% of its allocated capital budget because it couldn’t spend it. Significant among the spending shorfalls were: the Indian Air Force’s Rs 1843 crore and the Army’s Rs 940 crore under the head “Other Equipment”.

With the government showing no real signs of reforming defence procurement we can expect a similar shortfall this year.