Can India afford to simultaneously modernise all three defence services at its current pace?
Yesterday, India jubilantly tested the long-range Agni-V ballistic missile for the second time, en route to the missile’s induction into the Strategic Forces Command in several years. But trouble looms on India’s borders. In the recent monsoon session, Defence Minister A.K. Antony stood before Parliament to defend the government against the charge that it is permitting Chinese encroachment along the border and Line of Actual Control. Ground realities are difficult to discern from New Delhi, but much of the Indian media seems fearful that the Chinese are winning a slow border game of chicken. To the west, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif continued to make conciliatory noises towards Delhi while also chairing a National Command Authority meeting, which affirmed its support for “full spectrum deterrence”.
To deal with this rough neighbourhood, India has embarked on an ambitious military modernisation programme. Indians have triumphantly witnessed progress on a nuclear ballistic missile submarine, the Arihant, whose reactor recently went critical; watched the aircraft carrier Vikrant set off from dry dock; cheered news of the successful Agni-V test; and learned of political clearance to raise a Mountain Strike Corps in the east to be headquartered at Panagarh. Each of India’s three armed services is moving to modernise itself.
But can India afford it all? The defence budget for 2013-14 grew by 5 per cent over the previous year, with defence capital acquisitions growing by 9 per cent. But, with inflation averaging more than 5 per cent since February, and the rupee depreciating by 14 per cent against the dollar over the same period, that modest nominal budget increase is actually a real budget decrease for defence. In a time of austerity, strategic planning is about prioritisation. How should India prioritise its future military modernisation to meet its envisioned security requirements? Each of the three services can claim urgent need.
First, there is the Indian Air Force. Saddled with an ageing, shrinking set of fighter aircraft and a stalling deal to buy France’s Rafale, the IAF desperately needs an infusion of modern