By keeping the Defence outlay virtually unchanged from what it was in the interim Budget, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has poured cold waters on the plans to modernise the armed forces. It is quite disappointing that capital outlay for new weapon systems and overall defence modernisation is just Rs 1.08 lakh crore in the Rs 3.18 lakh crore Defence budget this year. It continues to be dwarfed by the Rs 2.10 lakh crore revenue expenditure for day-to-day running costs and salaries. Moreover, a bulk of the capital expenditure goes towards the committed liabilities or instalments for arms deals signed in the past, leaving little for new projects. The 15 lakh-strong armed forces and strategic experts have been demanding higher allocations to address critical operational shortages in the fields of fighters, submarines, helicopters, missiles and night-fighting capabilities. The Rs 3.18-lakh crore defence Budget works out to just 1.5% of the projected GDP in 2019-20. Experts have suggested that it should be raised to 2.5% of the GDP to implement modernisation plans. At a time when India is facing a perpetual two-front threat from Pakistan and China, equipping the armed forces with modern weaponry is non-negotiable. While the Air Force needs to replace its ageing fleet of fighter jets and is looking for 114 aircraft beyond the 36 Rafale jets, the Navy needs to enhance its capabilities by adding more submarines and aircraft carriers. The Army is struggling to get the most basic requirements of a modern assault rifle.
Unfortunately, military modernisation has not received the priority that it deserves for several decades now. Bureaucratic lethargy, archaic procedures for acquisitions of weaponry and long delays in delivery of promised indigenous weapons have been the key problem areas adversely affecting the combat readiness of the armed forces. Even the procurement of modern bulletproof jackets for the Army’s infantry soldiers took nearly a decade because of a maze of procedures. Bureaucratic delays and political callousness should not be allowed to blunt the edge of the armed forces and cost the soldiers their lives. According to official estimates, the Defence Ministry will need to acquire equipment worth over $250 billion by 2027 to meet the growing modernisation needs of the armed forces. The domestic defence industry will be able to manufacture equipment worth $80 billion while the rest will have to be imported. Absence of adequate domestic defence platforms leaves the armed forces little option but to depend on foreign suppliers. The armed forces, faced with sub-optimal weapon systems, must be able to make their own decisions as per their operational requirements. India has been unable to boost indigenous defence manufacturing due to inordinate procedural delays and reluctance to involve private players.