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The Rediff Special/ Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

Why are we so apathetic about our defence expenditure?

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The finance minister presented his Budget to Parliament last week. He intoned, as usual, how important the government considers defence and that where defence is concerned the government will not be found wanting. And that was that.

The grants for defence may not even be debated in Parliament. After all, they have not done so for the past four years. In the usual after-Budget comments one is unlikely to find a single one on defence appropriations. A few experts in their columns will point out that at 2.7 per cent of the GDP we spend far less on defence than Pakistan and China.

Why are our countrymen so apathetic about our defence expenditure? The Indian public has never grudged a single paisa of the enormous amount that is spent on our armed forces. They have willingly given whatever the services have asked for and wished them well. But surely, in return, the defence ministry owes it to the taxpayer and indeed the general public exactly how their money is being spent, whether it is being spent wisely and show some concrete evidence that we are getting the defence that we pay for.

As we stand today, both India and Pakistan are facing considerable economic difficulties. A large part of these difficulties is the enormous expenditure both countries are incurring on their defence apparatus. This is not an IMF-World Bank line. The arms races between the countries is a fact of life. Consider, for example, the following.

For nearly twenty years after Independence, the navies of both countries managed quite well and lived happily without submarines. The transfer of one old submarine by the United States started the arms race. Before long both countries acquired a submarine arms race. Before long both countries acquired a submarine arm, Pakistan with six French subs and India with eight Soviet models. India then acquired eight Kilos from the Soviet Union and four HDW type. Pakistan countered this with a Rs 40 billion contract to buy three French submarines. India then went for two more Kilos and is likely to build more at home. That, of course, is not the end.

Watch this space for more excitement.

To counter Pakistan's acquisition of Ukrainian tanks, India is negotiating for some T-90 tanks from Russia at a cost of about Rs 20 billion.

India has already signed a Rs 60 billion contract for 40 SU-30 aircraft and another for Rs 45 billion for three frigates, again from Russia

The Russians are trying their best to sell the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov to India. It is believed the carrier comes free but the refit will cost upwards of Rs 20 billion!

Both India and Pakistan resemble nothing so much as two men drowning in a pool of financial difficulties. Both are excellent swimmers but are wearing heavy defence boots, which are weighing then down. Both are unwilling to get rid of their boots. They would rather drown than save themselves.

Some of the people who applauded the entry of both countries into the nuclear club last year had hoped that eventually nuclear deterrence would result in a reduction of conventional forces. But nobody is even talking about it.

Let us look at it this way. A projection of our economic situation into the next century makes it abundantly clear that the days of indulging the armed forces of the country are now over. Holy cows are taking a beating. We are at last beginning to talk about an end to populism gone berserk and a curtailment of subsidies. It will not be long before the spotlight and possibly even the axe falls on defence expenditure.

Even with the present outlay, most of the expenditure is on the revenue side. Fully 85 per cent of the Army budget goes towards maintaining the huge 1.2 million force and its equipment. This leaves very little for modernising the equipment. The Air Force and the Navy, being more capital intensive, are facing the same problem. Under the circumstances the only way of maintaining the quality of the armed forces is downsizing. Pakistan is in an even worse situation economically. They cannot expect to squander away 7 per cent of their GDP on defence, even if the Services have a bigger clout in that country.

So why not make a virtue of necessity? Today the climate between the two countries has improved considerably following the resumption of Test matches, cultural exchanges and the Vajpayee bus ride. The time is ripe for some serious talk on a mutual reduction of conventional forces.

Are we serious? Reduction of armed forces when India is facing Pakistani militants in Kashmir? Why not? The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks between the United States and the Soviet Union began at the height of the Cold War when both countries had thousands of nuclear missiles targeted on each other. It took more than ten years of negotiations, but eventually resulted in a reduction of warheads and an easing of tensions.

Today both India and Pakistan face each other with umpteen divisions, a large number of ships and submarines and numerous aircraft. Will it really make a difference, in the eventuality of a war, if both sides are a few divisions, submarines and aircraft short?

Is Mutual Reduction of Armed Forces a pie in the sky scheme? Will it be impossible to achieve any tangible results given 50 years of hatred, distrust and three wars? Not necessarily.

It is nobody's case that MRAF can be achieved in a week, nor a year. But possibly after five or ten years an agreement is quite possible and a start has to be made now. The present is an opportune time to make a start. We should make a beginning now before economic compulsions force us to the negotiating table. Better do it on our own than allow the IMF to twist our arm to do it. We might even see Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharief being bestowed the next Nobel Peace Prize.

The Rediff Specials

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