The Embraer ERJ-145 flanked by two SU-30s fly over Delhi, at the 71st Republic Day Celebrations, on January 26, 2020. Photo: Press Information Bureau, GoI

India’s defense budget is shrinking in real terms under the Narendra Modi government, undermining its long-held ambition to be a great power.

Faced with an unprecedented economic crisis, India is cutting back on defense modernization so it can continue to pay salaries to its armed forces.

On February 1, political observers noted that India’s finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman did not mention the allocation for defense in her budget speech, officially the second-longest since 1991.

On paper, the increase in the budget from last year is a mere 5%, but when inflation is added, it is a cut in real terms. Which means the money given to defense is less than last year.

This is continuing a tradition under Modi’s government where defense budgets have been abysmally low. Last year, in percentage terms, the defense budget fell as low as 1962, the year when India faced a crushing defeat against the Chinese in a border war.

Crippling shortages

Nearly three years ago the then Vice-Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Sarath Chand, told the Parliamentary Standing Committee of Defense that the Indian Army had no money to pay for existing weapon modernization contracts, let alone purchase new weapons.

This budget continues with that trend and is going to leave the three armed forces and the Indian Coast Guard with very little money for modernization. Most of the budget goes towards paying salaries and pensions, which are increasing every year as more people retire.

This is bad news for the three armed forces.

The Indian Air Force, which is sanctioned for 45 combat aircraft squadrons, is down to 28. With a fleet of old Soviet-era aircraft, it has been forced to shut down its existing squadrons and retire its old fighter aircraft. That means it has less planes to fight wars.

The air force needs 306 modern fighter planes to make up the sanctioned 45 squadrons. However, it is only going to get 36 Rafale fighter planes that were contracted for in April 2016. To strike the Jaish-e-Mohammed terror camp in Balakot, Pakistan, India had to use the 40-year-old Mirage 2000, and even then, missed the main target as the Crystal missiles could not be launched successfully.

The urgent replacement for 126 fighter aircraft that was sanctioned nearly 10 years ago will have to wait. Even if the aircraft were selected after trials and negotiations had been completed today, there would not be any money to buy them.

Frank O’Donnell, an expert on South Asia and postdoctoral fellow at the US Naval War College, who spoke to Asia Times in his personal capacity, believes the current budget “will come as a disappointment to India’s present and potential future security partners.”

O’Donnell, also the co-author of India and Nuclear Asia: Forces, Doctrine, and Dangers, said: “This is not a budget designed to substantively address the costly military equipment and technology modernization needs that intensify for India every year.”

Unreliable partner

For nearly three decades India harbored ambitions of becoming a regional power in Asia and eventually a global force to be reckoned with. Those ambitions mostly depended on a modern military force that could quickly deploy in the region to pursue strategic objectives. It actively sought a partnership with the US for its maritime operations in the Indian Ocean.

As a keen watcher of the US-India strategic relationship, O’Donnell is worried that a poor budget sends the wrong signals to countries like the US, which viewed India as a key partner in the Indo-Pacific.

This budget was also revealed only weeks after US Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger and the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia remarked that the US now shares India’s perspective of an Indo-Pacific that stretches to the East African coast.

“This signals the level of US commitment to operationalizing the India political and security partnership. These senior officials were publicly supporting moving past their traditional strategic planning division of the Indo-Pacific into INDOPACOM, CENTCOM, and AFRICOM geographic combatant command areas of responsibility. This commitment was also underlined by US exchanges with India late last year to attempt to rejuvenate the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative to co-develop leading defense technologies.”

India’s navy is facing a similar crunch. It has only one aircraft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya, while the second indigenous aircraft carrier is on hold. It has only about 10 submarines, the old Soviet-era and German HDW submarines.

Of the six French Scorpene submarines, only one is fully operational. India needs at least 20 more submarines to achieve any credible deterrence against the Chinese navy.

In sharp contrast, the Chinese have already been building their aircraft carriers and their submarines are now known as one of the most silent in the world, making it impossible to detect them. This means India’s naval capabilities to counter the Chinese navy as a part of the Quad – a grouping of the US, India, Japan and Australia – will be very limited.

India’s strategic interests range from the South China Sea in the east to the Horn of Africa, in the west. This includes the Indian Ocean as well as the crucial sea lines of communication (SLOC) through which most of its crude oil imports come. These are also crucial trade lanes that India needs to protect.

As a case in point, the Indian army uses the INSAS rifle that was designed and introduced in the mid-1980s, but is now one of the most obsolete small arms in use today. The army continues to use the Soviet-era T-70 and T-90 tanks from Russia.

It still uses the Swedish Bofors artillery guns as its mainstay weapon, which was purchased in the 1980s. The fighting capabilities of the Indian army will continue to deteriorate at a time when China is rapidly modernizing its armed forces. India lives in a difficult neighborhood with Pakistan and China at its borders.

Several years of low budgets will have a major and immediate impact on the ability of India’s army, navy and air force to fight a successful war. At a public function Prime Minister Modi recently announced that the Indian armed forces could defeat Pakistan in a war in just seven to eight days.

With such a budget, India would be lucky if it could protect India in a war against Pakistan. China, which is now establishing military bases abroad, will only increase its superior edge over India’s military capabilities.

But experts like O’Donnell are also worried that the overall slowdown of the Indian economy will have an ominous impact on India’s great power ambitions.

“The Indian economy is forecast to have grown by only 5% in fiscal year 2019-20, its worst rate in over a decade. A strong economy is the basis of a strong national defense, and with it India’s potential power projection abilities,” he said.

“Unless the Modi administration ceases spending political energy on inflaming communal tensions, and instead returns to the agenda of economic reform and growth, India’s partners and adversaries will begin to consider if there are natural ceilings to its ability to project power in future.”

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