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Ajai Shukla: Failing to plan, planning to fail

Ajai Shukla 

Ajai Shukla

If evidence were needed of the United Progressive Alliance's (UPA's) shambolic defence planning, try this. The military's 15-year equipment forecast, the foundation of long-range equipment planning, requires twice the money that current budgeting levels provide. Essentially, the defence ministry has signed off on a national security plan that it cannot fund.

The military's long-term integrated perspective plan (LTIPP) forecasts weapons requirements for the 12th, 13th and 14th defence plan periods - for the 15-year period from 2012-13 to 2026-27. According to this, the army, navy and air force will acquire Rs 31 lakh crore worth of equipment during this period. That amount will be available, provided the defence capital budget continues to expand at the 10-year average rate of 13 per cent per annum. Yet a closer look reveals that the requirement is hugely underestimated, based as it is on current prices. It ignores inflation, which is 10 to 12 per cent per annum in defence equipment; it disregards foreign exchange rate escalation, although the LTIPP was drawn up when the dollar was Rs 53; and it is oblivious to growing manpower costs that steadily erode the capital budget.

Officers who are realistic about financial planning say that funding the LTIPP would require 2.5 to three times the current procurement allocations. Even if a new government stepped up defence spending from the current 52-year low of 1.74 per cent of gross domestic product to, say, two per cent of GDP, that would buy only half the equipment projected in the LTIPP. Given fiscal realities, anything more than two per cent is unlikely.

This raises a larger, crucial question: should the military's equipment planning be circumscribed by a hard-nosed assessment of fund availability? Or should equipment projections be based on threat assessment with the government bound to find the money required? Were it to be just the former, a parsimonious finance ministry would hamstring operational planning. In the latter case, quixotic threat assessments would evoke unreasonable demands for funds.

Clearly, there must be a consultative, iterative process that harmonises financial flows with the imperatives of national security. The finance minister already has the structure - the defence accounts department headed by the Controller General of Defence Accounts, working under the Secretary (Defence Finance). The military, lamentably, has no empowered tri-service commander or headquarters that can authoritatively adjudicate and prioritise between the three services. Instead, there is an ineffectual halfway house, the Headquarters of Integrated Defence Staff, which the defence ministry set up in 2001 to avoid appointing a chief of defence staff (CDS), which a mistrustful government fears as an unwelcome concentration of military power.

Even the watered-down alternative to a CDS - a four-star, permanent chairman of the chiefs of staff committee (COSC) that the Naresh Chandra task force recommended last year - has been scuttled by the defence ministry. Consequently, each service plans in competitive isolation, making maximalist demands and then negotiating with the other two services to expand its budgets, force levels and turf.

In the circumstances, a yawning gulf between plans and reality is inevitable. The LTIPP lists the purchase of 126 Rafale fighters, a Rs 1 lakh crore acquisition that will require Rs 15,000 crore (15 per cent) in down payment when the contract is signed. The reality is that this year's capital budget for new purchases is under Rs 5,000 crore. Where will the air force get Rs 15,000 crore that the plan provides for? Will the finance and defence ministries triple the allocation? If yes, will the army and navy forego other equipment they planned to buy this year?

Clearly, hard prioritisation is needed to match demands to budgets. This cannot be left to the three services, which compete for the same pot of gold. Most operational tasks, such as the destruction of an enemy airbase, can be achieved with various weapons systems held by different services. An empowered tri-service commander would prioritise and allocate such tasks in order to avoid wasteful duplication of capabilities. Another example of waste is airspace defence, for which the air force is allocated almost half the capital budget; yet the army and navy spend prolifically on air defence systems, almost as if the air force was not there. This is also true of surveillance, where each service is creating expensive capabilities. The truth, as one general says, is, "You require two eyes to see. You don't need six eyes."

Meanwhile, without a tri-service commander, there are no joint operational tools to deal with contingencies like a high-impact terror strike in India or a political assassination. An Osama-style operation, with the three services operating in tandem, is currently inconceivable.

In the absence of a tri-service commander, army, navy and air force interests govern crucial decisions, rather than the larger military interest. In the COSC, where the three service chiefs sit together equally, they know unanimity is essential for the defence ministry to accept a decision. Consequently, they negotiate vital procurement decisions through quid pro quos with other services, rather than through a hard-nosed, joint evaluation of alternatives. When the army wanted a Rs 68,000 crore mountain strike corps (MSC) for the Sino-Indian border, there was no rigorous, tri-service evaluation of whether China could be deterred through other means, such as a naval blockade in the Malacca Strait, or through nuclear signalling. Nor did the army evaluate whether one of its three existing plains strike corps could be reconfigured into an MSC. Instead, the navy and air force agreed to pass the MSC proposal in exchange for army concessions elsewhere, arriving clubbily at the lowest common denominator of capability creation.

A new government might have the energy to kick-start jointmanship. The appointment of an empowered tri-service commander, whether CDS or permanent chairman COSC, would be a good place to begin.

Twitter: @ajaishukla

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First Published: Mon, May 12 2014. 21:44 IST