Hike in defence budget not enough Need for long-term modernisation plan by Maj-Gen Ashok K. Mehta (retd) ON the eve of the 78th anniversary of the Indian Air Force last week, Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik made several strategic pronouncements, including that the Air Force is to acquire 250 to 300 fifth generation fighter aircraft in a joint development and production arrangement with Russia at a cost of $30 billion. Taken together with other military acquisitions over the next 10 to 15 years, India will be spending nearly $100 billion, the largest spurt in defence modernisation ever. But this alone will not alter the strategic environment to Indiaâ€™s advantage. It will also require new thinking and political will. The principal beneficiaries of the drive are to be the Air Force and the Navy which together have traditionally received less than half of the Armyâ€™s share in funding. This belated correction has stemmed not from any rational analysis but classic numerology: maintaining a 1.2 million-strong Army, 39 and a half squadron Air Force and a 100-ship Navy. The new British coalition government is contemplating deep cuts in the defence budget as part of reducing the budget deficit. Being considered is a freeze on aircraft carriers, downsising tanks and aircraft meant for Cold War contingencies and even reviewing the Trident nuclear deterrent. But no increase or decrease in defence capability can be ordered without a strategic defence and security review (SDSR). This warning came from Defence Secretary Liam Fox to Prime Minister David Cameron. No one knows how the military capability exercise is done in India where, leave alone an SDSR, not even a defence review or White Paper has ever been issued. Yet ACM Naik, who is also the current Chairman of the rotating Chief of Staff Committee, said that the new capabilities were â€œin tune with national aspirationsâ€. He explained, â€œeven Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said that Indiaâ€™s area of responsibility extends from the Hormuz Straits to the Malacca Straits and beyond.â€ Each service does its future planning singly and not as an integrated whole to achieve a collective capability. Service Chiefs look out for clues about strategic aspirations from prime ministerial speeches at the combined commandersâ€™ conferences and other heady occasions. The Army is currently engaged in a seminal exercise of transformation which has been â€œuplinkedâ€ with its long-term perspective plans and with those of the other two Services. It is noteworthy that the 11th Defence Plan (2007-12) is in its fourth year and not yet approved by the government. Nor has the 15-year long-term Perspective Plan (2007-2022). Further, the defence acquisition process is so warped that Rs 50,000 crore has gone unspent over the last 10 years for which no one is accountable. The DRDO, at best an unreliable and erratic performer, is one cause for a rise in spending. Still further, there is no integrated defence plan sanctioned by the government and ad-hocism and the Defence Secretary, in the absence of a Chief of Defence Staff, play a key role in shaping the future defence and security landscape. Otherwise what would explain the impossible two-and-a-half-front scenario: fighting conventional wars with Pakistan and China and combating an insurgency? Such a contingency has never emerged from any government directive based on an SDSR coupling defence and diplomacy â€” that is hard and, soft power â€” and, therefore, the concept never ratified by the government. Take the Armyâ€™s much-celebrated Cold Start doctrine which has sent shivers down Pakistanâ€™s spine. According to Army Chief Gen VK Singh, Cold Start is not an official doctrine but part of new thinking. All novel strategic thinking on the part of Service Chiefs seldom attracts government sanction. So, most innovative thinking is done in a political vacuum giving the government the dubious advantage of deniability, whether it is a two-front war or Cold Start. Four years ago, soon after the Chinese shot down a space satellite, the Air Force organised a seminar on the domination of aerospace. Then Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee ruled that Indiaâ€™s policy was benign and only defensive assets would be deployed in higher space. The IAF, however, wants to be a network-centric aerospace power. The Services cannot be faulted for advanced thinking to get out of the strategic static as governments have never and are unlikely in the future to indulge in future thinking and planning, especially on defence and security. Lack of political direction and strategic guidance have led to half-baked organisational structures, systems and procedures. So this year, the government has decided to upgrade and acquire $ 50 billion worth of aircraft, ships and submarines. The Army, which has hogged funds all this while, is to be starved of money for the modernisation of its artillery and air defence. It is entirely a different matter that these big ticket items of conventional deterrence are unlikely to be employed as the wars and conflicts of the future will be low intensity which require different skills and equipment. India has been fighting insurgency and terrorism for the last three decades with inadequate and inappropriate arms and equipment. That is why when Kargil happened and the government rushed to Israel and South Africa with an SOS, then Army Chief Gen V.P. Malik declared: We will fight with what we have and later embarked on a futile exercise of downsising manpower to create funds for modernisation, symbolising acute ad-hocism. In the late 1980s, Air Chief Marshal S.K. Kaul at a conference of industry and the Air Force said that the IAF did not need a deep strike aircraft. His advice was ignored and the government went ahead with a deal with Russia for Su-30 which is now the mainstay of the IAF. Under almost similar conditions earlier, the Jaguar aircraft was acquired at the behest of the government. The acquisition of the haunted Bofors gun was pushed by the government overriding recommendations for guns in the same caliber. What this suggests is that governments take keen interest in the purchase of weapons involving big sums of money. What is evident today is the scramble for making good the horrible deficiencies in aircraft and squadron strength which have declined from 39 and a half squadrons to 28. ACM Naik said that 50 per cent of the Air Force equipment was either obsolete or obsolescent at a time when the neighbourhood was volcanic. This unacceptable decline in operational readiness would not have occurred had there been an integrated long-term modernisation plan approved and sanctioned by the government. As a rising power with a 9 per cent growth rate, India is expected to have considerable military capability with advanced technology to appear to be an assertive power. But converting military power into political and diplomatic gain will not come easily, certainly not from the so-called Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence which is a big lie.