India’s new national budget accentuates its stagnant defence spending. India’s defence spending figure of $46.3 billion contrasts starkly with China’s $177.5 billion, underscoring the yawning power gap between the two. Indeed, India’s defence budget is smaller than even China’s trade surplus with it, highlighting the extent to which India underwrites China’s hostile actions against it.
To be sure, national security has little relationship with the level of defence spending. Bigger military outlays do not mean greater security. What matters is how the money is spent to boost indigenous capabilities, deter adversaries and project power. As a relatively poor country, India must balance national security demands with pressing socio-economic priorities.
The government has rightly sought to rein in defence spending. However, military modernisation continues to lag due to stalled defence reforms, with two-thirds of the defence budget earmarked just for salaries and other day-to-day running costs. On top of that, pensions cost $16.4 billion which is not part of the defence budget. The Army’s spending on modernisation, for example, has been a mere 14% of its budget.
Worse still, imports eat up the bulk of the modernisation outlays. For many years, India has been one of the world’s top arms importers, spending billions of dollars annually. Have such imports made India stronger and more secure?
The answer unequivocally is no. The imports, far from being part of a well-planned military build-up to make India regionally pre-eminent, have lacked a clear long-term direction. They have often been driven by the individual choices of the three services to meet pressing needs. In many cases, the imports have been influenced by foreign-policy and other non-military considerations. In fact, the initiative on some major systems came not from India but from selling countries.
India’s approach of importing conventional weapons without a clear strategic direction or forward planning is a recipe to keep the country perpetually import-dependent. Contrast the near-term considerations that often guide conventional-weapon imports with the strategic, long-term factors driving India’s nuclear, missile and anti-satellite capabilities. After Balakot, for example, India has rushed to buy stand-off weapons.
The paradox is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, by launching the “Make in India” initiative in 2014, recognised the critical importance of industrial power for national security. And yet, little has changed significantly. In fact, the customs duty waiver for arms imports in the latest budget not only confirms that the “Make in India” programme has yet to take off but also promises to block domestic arms production from becoming competitive.
The threats India now confronts are largely unconventional, yet it remains focused on importing conventional weapons. Without waging open war, regional adversaries are working to undermine India’s security, including disturbing the territorial status quo, mounting surrogate threats, sending in illicit arms, narcotics, terrorists or counterfeit Indian currency, and aiding Islamist or tribal militancy.
India, of course, needs to adequately arm itself for self-defence in an increasingly combustible region. But conventional weapons can scarcely be effective in countering unconventional or emerging threats, including from malware aimed at sabotaging power plants, energy pipelines and water supplies. Cyber warfare capabilities, underpinned by artificial intelligence, will be key for national security and future war-fighting. If India invested in this domain 10% of what it spends on importing arms, it could become a cyber superpower.
Make no mistake: No nation can build security largely through imports. Indeed, with its reliance on imported weapons, India can never be a power to contend with. In the past decade, India alone accounted for about 10% of global arms sales volumes. Yet its defensive mindset persists. Any imported platform or weapon makes India hostage to the supplier nation for spares and service for years.