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Chidambaram cuts Rs 14,000 cr from defence budget, plans hit

By R S Chauhan
Last updated on: February 11, 2013 11:35 IST
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Defence ministry officials say  that many plans across the three armed forces will witness a definite setback because of this austerity measure, reports R S Chauhan

The Indian military is back to its old days of scrounging for funds, after the finance ministry under P Chidambaram has told South Block that it will have to live with a cutback of nearly Rs 14,000 crore in the ongoing financial year (2012-13).

At the start of the year, the defence budget was pegged at Rs 193,000 crore. The bulk of it -- Rs 126,000 crore, called revenue expenditure -- was earmarked for salary, pension, recurring expenditure, maintenance of arms and equipment. Only Rs 67,000 was given for what capital acquisition, that is new purchases. 

While the revenue budget is likely to see a reduction by about Rs 6,000 crore, it is the capital budget that will be cut back drastically by approximately Rs 8,000 crore. Defence ministry officials concede that many plans across the three armed forces will witness a definite setback because of this austerity measure.

The hardest hit will be the Indian Navy, considered to be the service getting the most attention of late. Its plans to purchase new conventional submarines this year to augment its fast depleting fleet (down to single digit) is now put on hold. Similarly, its plan to equip many new ships with the new generation Barack missiles is also pushed back to later years.

The Indian Army, the largest of the three services and the one that takes up the bulk of the defence ministry's revenue budget, will continue to face a shortage of ammunition for its fleet of tanks (a fact highlighted by the previous Army Chief Gen VK Singh in his letter to Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh exactly a year ago. The letter found its way into the public domain, setting off a furore). The Army's plan to acquire anti-tank guided missiles, either from the United States or Russia, is now delayed. With just 40 per cent of the tanks fitted with night vision devices, the Indian Army's tank fleet will operate below par.

Although the defence ministry has tried to put up a brave front and went out of its way to paint a very rosy picture about the future of the Indian armed forces at the recently concluded Aero India show in Bengaluru, the reality is the three services are currently operating in what is called a "holding" mode -- no new acquisitions, no new raising of additional forces and no accretion in its fire power.

Most foreign firms participating in the Aero India show also tried to project a very optimistic picture of India's defence sector by giving rosy projections through friendly media, but most of them are aware that India's stated plans to spend over 100 billion dollars in new weapons and platforms' purchases over the next five years, is no longer on track.

One of the biggest casualties of the budget cutback is likely to be the planned mountain strike corps, recently cleared by the defence ministry but yet to be approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security. Aimed at countering the potential Chinese challenge across the Himalayas, the proposed MSC is estimated to cost Rs 65,000 crore, the kind of money India's finance ministry is unlikely to spare over the next few years.

Over and above all this, the Indian Air Force, which is looking at inducting 350-400 new aircraft by 2020, is rightfully miffed at the funds crunch. Its mega deal of Rs 17-18 billion dollars to purchase 126 Rafale combat jets from the French Dassault company is now pushed to the next financial year and is likely to be staggered over the next two years. 

As an air force officer lamented: "When the exchequer had the money, our decision-makers hesitated. Now there is no money, so they are telling us to go slow. When will our planners and leaders understand that defence preparedness is not an overnight affair? They continue to pour in colossal amounts of money into non-productive social schemes just to appease and woo a section of the electorate." 

Most hold Defence Minister AK Antony, now in the chair for over six years, for this state of affairs. "His sole aim so far has been to avoid any taint of corruption on him personally. So he has delayed, scrapped and hesitated in concluding contracts meant to meet the Indian military's basic needs," one of the senior most officers said in disgust.

The effects of Antony's indecisiveness will be disastrous in the long run, many of the key officers warn. 

The frustration among the military top brass is palpable. But then their voice is never heard in the corridors of power.

And so the Indian military will continue to suffer in silence.

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R S Chauhan in New Delhi
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