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India on the sidelines as the big boys spend

By Ajai Shukla
March 15, 2017 09:35 IST
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As the United States and China joust for supremacy, India might remain on the sidelines with its limited resources, says Ajai Shukla.

After being sworn in as Americ'’s 45th president on January 20, Donald J Trump has trodden the promised tough line towards China, vowing to "build a military might so great... that none will dare to challenge it".

US conservatives are already drawing triumphal parallels with Ronald Reagan's defence spending spree in the 1980s that induced the former Soviet Union to spend itself into insolvency.

However, rival superpower China, which can scarcely ignore the gauntlet Trump has thrown down, has an infinitely more robust economy than that of the former Soviet Union.

How will Beijing respond to Trump's belligerence? What does this mean for India?

The starting point for any such analysis must be a closer look at whether America can actually muster the dollars needed for the unmatched military that Trump promises.

Trump's request for an eye-popping $54-billion (Rs 3.5 lakh crore) raise in defence spending comes after his predecessor, Barack Obama, followed up his troop pull-back from Iraq in 2010 by slashing defence spending from 4.7 per cent of US gross domestic product, to just 3.3 per cent of GDP -- a 22 per cent cutback that was unprecedented since post-Vietnam.

Obama followed that in 2011 by killing or cutting back on major weapons programmes, including the F-22 Raptor fighter, C-17 airlifter, multiple-kill vehicles, kinetic energy interceptors, airborne lasers and a combat search and rescue helicopter, saving America $487 billion (Rs 32.2 lakh crore) over the coming decade but sharply eroding US combat power.

In 2012, with the US military gasping for air, budget sequestration kicked the oxygen cylinder over by slashing tens of billions of dollars more from subsequent defence allocations.

Trump's requested hike will face serious opposition on Capitol Hill, given that those tens of billions would come from cutbacks to the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department.

Even if American legislators give their new president all he has asked for, that would still not suffice for the Pentagon's multiple aims -- maintaining a credible military presence worldwide, continuing drone strike campaigns in terrorist hot-spots, while also "rebalancing to Asia" to counter China in the Asia-Pacific.

Veterans such as Senator John McCain have criticised Trump for timidity -- for not demanding the resources needed to boost the navy from 274 ships to 350; and beefing up the air force by ordering the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in numbers.

The Wall Street Journal calls the US military a "hollow force", pointing out that almost two-third of the navy's backbone F/A-18 fighters, and three-fourths of the Marines', are grounded and unfit for combat; the air force is short of 700 pilots and 4,000 maintenance personnel; only one-third of the army's combat force is ready to deploy within 30 days, and the army is the smallest it has been since World War II, numbering just 470,000 personnel -- barely one-third the size of the Indian Army.

Nor is there much upside for Trump in implementing populist campaign promises to arm-twist allies, such as Japan and those in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, to stop "free riding" and start "burden sharing".

While most NATO allies indeed violate their treaty obligation to spend at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence, there would be little benefit to Washington were the allies to meet these targets.

As Stephen M Walt points out in a recent Foreign Policy article, NATO's combined weight is already far greater than Russia's -- its only conceivable enemy.

NATO's European allies are four times more populous than Russia, have a combined GDP that is 12 times bigger; and they already spend (not counting US and Canada) five times more on defence than Russia does.

The problem clearly is not a lack of resources, but rather the absence of planning and coordination. Trump will learn that Washington's pocketbook and presence in NATO is an essential display of its commitment to the alliance, not a handout to ungrateful allies.

In contrast to Trump's braggadocio, Beijing has announced a defence budget hike of just 7 per cent next year, its lowest in decades.

This takes China's official defence budget to $174 billion (Rs 11.5 lakh crore), barely one-third America's. Increase that by 50 per cent, which experts consider the undeclared part of China's defence budget, spent on its strategic forces, research and defence production units.

That places China's real defence spending at $261 billion (Rs 17.2 lakh crore), less than half of America's.

However, China compensates for its numerical and qualitative military inferiority by paring down its operations to the local and regional, eschewing the superpower obligations that stretch American forces thin.

For example, America's 19 flat-deck aircraft carriers (though it downplays nine of them as mere "amphibious assault vessels") are scattered across the globe.

China's fewer carriers (it currently has one but intends to build four to five) would all be stationed in its vicinity, creating a measure of parity with the US carriers that could respond to an Asia-Pacific crisis.

Further, with significantly lower personnel costs and most of its defence kit developed and built in China, the People's Liberation Army gets more bang for the buck than the Pentagon.

Finally, Beijing's defence spending is sustainable, amounting to just 1.3 per cent of its GDP (1.95 per cent factoring in undeclared expenses). China's annual economic growth can sustain an annual 7 per cent defence hike, even a 10 per cent annual raise provided Beijing is willing to grow defence expenditure to above 2 per cent of GDP.

The US, however, with an economy that is expected to grow at 2.4 per cent this year, can hardly sustain Trump's hikes year-on-year.

Meanwhile, by way of perspective, India's defence budget for 2017-18 stands at Rs 3,59,845 crore ($53.5 billion) -- about the raise in US defence spending that Trump wants this year.

With this amounting to 2.14 per cent of our GDP, it is a political question whether the government can spend more and, if so, from where that money could be taken.

More than half India's budget goes on personnel costs, with less than a quarter earmarked for capital expenditure, ie, new weaponry.

With most of India's weapons systems procured from abroad, India's new kit works out significantly more expensive than China's.

As an entrenched superpower faces off against an emerging rival in our extended neighbourhood, New Delhi's meagre resources, its non-implementation of "Make in India" and the lack of strategic clarity places us squarely on the sidelines.

Image: An F-35 Lightning II Carrier Variant attached to the F-35 Pax River Integrated Test Force assigned to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 completes a flyover of the guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000). Photograph: Andy Wolfe/Released/US Navy

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