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SOURCE: THE WEEK

The recent cross-border killings of four Indian soldiers, including a captain of the Indian Army, and the Jammu army camp attack have once again heightened tensions along the border. Pakistan media is accusing India of creating a “war hysteria” in reaction to the defence allocation in India’s recently tabled Budget, with China also raising its eyebrows on the military spending.

However, in reality, India has set aside only 1.57 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the year 2018-19—the lowest since the 1962 war with China. This is in comparison to China’s 3 per cent and Pakistan’s 3.5 per cent of their GDP on defence. While India has only 1.25 soldiers per 1,000 people, China has 2.23 and Pakistan 4.25.

Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley during his budget speech in Parliament stated that defence allocation was a priority and gave the armed forces due credit for their work. However, with a modest hike of 7.81 per cent in capital, the Budget has literally put the modernisation of armed forces on the back seat as a major chunk of the defence allocation would be going towards the maintenance of the huge military.

“It is a depressing budget in terms of defence spending,” said Amit Cowshish, former financial adviser in the ministry of defence and now a research fellow of the ministry’s think tank IDSA. “With this allocation, the pace of modernisation will not pick up. But, this is bound to happen with so much burden on the government for implementing the one-rank one-pension scheme, in addition to the seventh pay commission. The pension allocations have doubled in the last two years,” Cowshish argued.

For the first time, defence pensions have reached Rs 1.08 lakh crore this year. This is a sharp increase by 26 per cent compared to last year’s allocation for the world’s second largest armed forces of nearly 15 lakh military men. Besides, salary bill for the serving personnel will be Rs 1.15 lakh crore in the coming year.

All this is happening amid a lot of churning in the ‘teeth-to-tail ratio’ to trim the military by enhancing the combat ability of the force. For re-equipping the armed forces, defence ministry has received Rs 2.95 lakh crore in comparison to Rs 2.74 lakh crore last year. With a heavy baggage of committed liabilities from the previous years, there will be hardly any money left for new purchases.

“Considering the present security atmosphere in the neighbourhood, the government has to do something to meet the critical shortage of armament. Special allocation of funds is the only solution I could see at the moment,”Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur told THE WEEK.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) has received the largest portion from this year’s defence budget. The budget for total modernisation of IAF at Rs 35,755 crore, has seen a mere Rs 200 crore increase from last year’s Rs 33,555 crore.

The budget for aircraft and aeroengines has been increased to Rs 24,708 crore this year, compared to Rs 19,200 crore in the last budget. However, a majority of this fund will be utilised towards the payments of Rafale fighter jet, Apache attack helicopters and Chinook heavy left choppers. Nevertheless, there are many critical and important defence programmes, which have been neglected for long, probably due to budgetary constraints.

The IAF has been struggling with mid-air refuelling capacity as its fleet of IL 78 tanker is plagued by maintenance problems. According to a senior IAF officer, who does not want to be quoted, the IAF desperately need more refuellers to stay prepared to counter China in the eastern sector, as it will extend legs of combat reach to the existing force level.

“The IAF has been raising the critical requirement of mid-air refuelling for over a decade. High cost of refuellers have shelved the proposals on two occasions,” Bahadur said, while adding that due to money, the IAF has to compromise only on 36 Rafale fighter jets. The IAF requires at least 126 such multi-medium role fighters.

Even a recent report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has highlighted that the IAF’s runways are too short for its Ilyushin-78 tanker fleet. The CAG added that their refuelling pods were dogged by failures and questioned the airworthiness.

Similarly, the IAF’s 1960s-vintage Avro transports, once the workhorses in logistics duties, are in poor condition and need urgent replacement. IAF started the process in June 2011, but is still hanging in balance with no immediate solution.

Currently, the immediate need is to rejuvenate the air force’s fleet of 123 Jaguars by putting new engines. Back in 2016, IAF former chief Arup Raha, had said that Jaguar was a capable aircraft but had some shortfalls in terms of engine power.

Termed the ‘deep penetration strike aircraft’, the Jaguar is designed for low-level strikes against enemy ground targets—air bases, land forces and warships. Upgrading with auto-pilot, close combat missiles, improved navigation system and weapon aiming systems required about Rs 12,000 crore. “It will give some respite to the depleting combat fleet of the IAF. Till we get new ones, at least we should go ahead with the existing ones,” an officer added. However, the upgradation project has been stalled by the finance wing of the defence ministry since long.

The capital budget of the Army, has only been increased to Rs 26,688 crore from last year’s Rs 25,175 crore. At a time when military experts constantly emphasise on the significance of enhancing our capabilities in the northern sector, money allocated for tanks and armoured vehicles have seen a major cut from last year. While Rs 3,193 crore was set aside for this purpose last year, the Army has got only Rs 1,972 crore this year. The Army has to be blamed for this as it had failed to utilise the allocated money in this category and returned nearly Rs 1,200 crore to the national exchequer.

Similarly, for artillery guns, from Rs 15,112 crore last year, it was increased only to Rs 17,197 crore this year. The Army has been struggling to get first artillery guns since the Bofors scandal. Though a deal to buy 145 M777 howitzers have been signed, it is yet to be delivered to the Army. “Repeated delays in signing contracts hurt miserably. Despite so many years lapsed in negotiations, we are not getting these guns at the cheaper rate. In fact, it is expensive now,” said an official, involved in the negotiations.

In addition, there is another critical area that has been ignored repeatedly—Light Utility Helicopters. These are a lifeline for soldiers posted at the world’s highest battlefield at the inhospitable Siachen Glacier in the Himalayas. The acquisition process went through three cancellations, the latest in 2014. The Army’s aviation budget saw a marginal rise to Rs 1,812 crore this year, compared to last year’s allocation of Rs 1,465 crore.

The Army is dependent on its vintage helicopter fleet of Cheetah/Chetak and have lived way beyond the threshold by more than 12-15 years. These helicopters were purchased from France and inducted into the Indian Army over 40 years ago in 1971.

According to the Army headquarters, some of the obsolescence issues that are dogging the fleet are component failures, low reliability, accidents and increased structural failures. It even went on to call the fleet a “death trap”. The Army has lost 15 of its pilots in the last ten years in crashes involving Cheetah and Chetak helicopters.

Currently, there are about 250 Cheetahs/Chetak in service with the army aviation corps. The airframe life of the Light Utility Helicopter is about 4,500 hours, but most of the Cheetahs in the Indian Army have logged over 6,000 flying hours. The engine life of the chopper is 1,750 hours and most have crossed this limit too.

But after a lot of deliberations, in 2015, India and Russia agreed to manufacture the Russian Kamov Ka-226T helicopter in India. But there is hardly any progress to the programme due to budgetary crunch. The Army’s plan to replace its glitch-prone INSAS rifles have also been delayed for two decades, with the primary assault rifles for the project yet to take off.

On the naval front, maritime force saw a meagre jump of Rs 20,848 crore this year, from Rs 19,348 crore. However, this includes the Rs 10,300 crore for the naval fleet.

The Navy is left with only one aircraft carrier currently, with the country’s first home-made aircraft carrier Vikrant under construction at the Cochin shipyard. Vikrant is expected to join the fleet by the end of 2020.

The proposal to develop a second indigenous aircraft carrier has also not taken off with limited money in the navy’s kitty. Project 75 India, which aims to have six second line of submarines, is also facing repeated delays.