In 2018, India has an “effective or real” defence budget of about $44 billion which, at 1.49 per cent of GDP, is the second lowest since 1950. Another $18 billion is spent on pensions under the heads of “MoD Misc” (Rs 16,206 crores) and “defence pensions” (Rs 1,08,853 crores). By comparison, the Russian defence budget for 2018 is $46 billion (2.8 per cent of GDP), while the Americans and Chinese have allocated $750 billion and $175 billion respectively. Can India emulate some aspects of the “Russian model” as today Russia has the capability to deter both the US and China due to its technologically advanced and innovative nuclear arsenal with associated delivery systems.
Few people are aware that India built up a formidable defence capability between 1962 and 1991 despite a low defence budget because we got a large amount of diverse weapons for the armed forces at “friendship prices” with repayment spread over 18 years at two per cent simple interest, courtesy the erstwhile USSR (Pakistan is getting something similar from China now). This, along with a powerful and decisive Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, resulted in India’s greatest-ever military victory in the 1971 war, which led to the creation of Bangladesh. Post-1971, the Indian politico-bureaucratic leadership decided to sideline the military and keep the three service chiefs out of military decision-making while successive Pay Commissions reduced the pay and parity of the military vis-à-vis the civil bureaucracy. The decline really set in with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and matters further deteriorated with nuclear parity between India and Pakistan after the 1998 nuclear tests, and China’s phenomenal economic-cum-military rise, its supply of conventional and nuclear delivery capabilities to Pakistan along with the well-known presence of Chinese Navy warships, submarines and new bases in the Indian Ocean.
India is upset over the growing Chinese influence in the Maldives and is expecting “a hot summer” when the snow melts along the disputed India-China border post the Doklam standoff of 2017. Growing Chinese military infrastructure (roads, 14 airfields in Tibet, military reorganisation, a defence budget of $175 billion, etc) and new missile tests by Pakistan Navy of “Chinese copies” have created some justified unease among the strategic community despite statements that “India is ready to fight a two-front war” while its Army is importing basic infantry weapons like rifles, carbines and light machine-guns and its Air Force is facing drastic shortages in combat jets. Even the Navy, which has prided itself in designing and building ships and submarines for over 50 years, is facing a “funds crunch” with well-known shortages in submarines, mine counter-measure vessels, ship-borne helicopters and amphibious warfare capability.