An Indian Army soldier guards the Line of Control. Photograph:( Getty )
The year 2016 was a testing one for the Indian defence forces. The terrorist attacks on the Pathankot, Uri and the Nagrota bases were followed by frequent cross-border firing between India and Pakistan. It was also the year when India crossed the Line of Control and performed the the so-called surgical strikes bringing the country to the brink of conflict with Pakistan and questioning it’s war preparedness.
On the other hand, soldiers posted a string of grievance videos on social media, fuelling a debate on the possible failure to provide them with basic amenities.
2016 was also the year when India joined the military big boys club by becoming the fourth-largest spender on defence, as per a report by the US based research firm IHS inc. After a year that saw army veterans take to the streets to demand One Rank One Pension (OROP), a whopping Rs 82,332 crore ($12 billion approximately) were set aside for OROP and the Seventh Pay Commission.
When taken with defence pensions, the budget increased from 1.71 per cent to 2.26 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.
All this did paint a rosy picture. However, for a country moving towards defence modernisation, the capital outlay was slashed by 8.5 per cent.
A 2015 Controller and Auditor General report revealed that India was facing a severe shortage of ammunition, having only enough to last 20 days of full-scale war.
Some varieties of ammunition with the army, the report added, would barely last ten days of conflict. A shortage of 47 per cent in holding of BMP vehicles, the mainstay of Mechanised Infantry of the 1.8 million strong Indian Army, was also reported.
In addition, there is an acute shortage of protective gear for soldiers. According to media reports, in October 2009 the army authorised over three hundred and fifty three thousand (3,53,765) bullet proof jackets. Under half of those (1,86,168) were to come in 11th plan between 2007 to 2012, with the remaining (1,67,597) to be in during the 12th five-year plan. But the reality is that till March 2016 no new jackets were provided. According to reports, the army needs an additional hundred and eighty thousand (1,86,138) jackets.
The Indian air force and aviation units of the army also have obsolete equipment.
“There is a huge shortage of bullet proof vests. Only recently the defence ministry had put out a statement that 50,000 bullet proof vests are being procured on on a priority basis from abroad. There is possibly a shortage of 150,000-200,000 more,” says Brigadier (Retd) Gurmeet Kanwal, Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
“The vests that are currently held are bulky and do not provide protection all over the body. For example, they cover the front and the back but not the sides, not the neck. There are major challenges over there which need to be rectified. The soldiers equipment has to be appropriate all the way from his rifle, his night-vision goggles, his protective gear like bulletproof jackets, to the clothes and the boots that he wears. Of late, there has been a lot of hue and cry that soldiers are having to buy winter clothing and equipment from the market because it’s lighter and longer-lasting rather than what they get issued from the ordnance core,” Kanwal adds.
The truth is that the capital budget is mainly used for procurement of weapons and equipment. But more than half of that goes towards annual payments due for military equipment already bought.
“A budget is essentially a wish list and a wish list must start from the soldier, after all it’s a man behind the gun fighting the war,” says Colonel (Retd) Anil Kaul, Defence Analyst.
Prime Minister Modi has time and again stressed on defence modernisation. With the new plan he wants come up with what is being dubbed as a “shoot to kill army”.
“1.71 per cent of the GDP is inadequate for the kinds of threats and challenges that India faces. It will be a great day if the Indian armed forces can be transformed from a defensive strategic approach to an offensive strategic approach but it will cost a lot. The funds available for modernisation are too meagre to suffice. If Modi doesn’t nudge his finance minister to shell out some more money for defence budget then I am afraid he’ll have to serve several terms to realise his dream,” says Kanwal.
In November 2016, India began exploring the global market for 185,000 modern assault rifles, along with body armours and helmets. However, as the defence forces continue to grapple with pending orders and the soldiers make do with the shortage of weapons and protective gear, it remains to be seen how the capital expenditure pans out this year.