The recent article in the New York Times on India’s defense has some eye-popping numbers. The main news event is, India is looking to buy new fighter planes, and may spend as much as $10 billion on them. American arms manufacturers are chomping at the bit, especially as there are probably other big arms purchases in the pipeline. (For reference, last year’s entire defense budget is between $20-25 billion, according to this source; it may be an underestimate, however.)
I was thinking about this with last week’s terrorist attack in Hyderabad in mind, as well as with the ongoing problems with the Naxalites in the east and south. While I’m not by any means suggesting that India cut back on its defense spending, I do wonder whether the investment on hardware such as advanced fighter jets is really addressing India’s current (and likely future) military needs. Especially with a serious terrorism problem as well as ongoing internal uprisings, isn’t it possible that other kinds of military expenditures might be warranted? How do fighter jets help with terrorism or guerilla warfare?
India is developing and moving forward in many ways, but in controlling terrorism in its cities I think it has been relatively unsuccessful. Previous bombings in Mumbai and elsewhere in the past two years have usually followed a similar pattern: 1) intense police activity for a few weeks coinciding with nonstop media coverage, 2) possibly some suspects are detained who may or may not be the right people, and 3) everyone forgets, coinciding with a new media obsession. Security measures to prevent repeat attacks are generally not instituted.
There is a similar failure in suppressing the activities of Maoist rebels, who continue to inflict serious casualties on police as well as civilians; meanwhile police in some districts struggle to get adequate funding.
I’m not saying I have a pat answer to these problems. Rather, I’m wondering if a change in thinking about military spending and technology might be advisable. Admittedly, it could be argued that counterterrorism and Maoist rebels are really police, rather than military, issues, but given the number of deaths involved and the tactics used by rebels and terrorists alike, isn’t it possible the thinking should change? Aren’t there creative ways to use military resources to improve domestic programs to handle Naxalite insurgents in the countryside and terrorists in the cities?
I also wanted to state that I’m not saying India doesn’t need modernized jets. They serve a strong deterrent purpose, and I’m actually not opposed to the current proposed purchase. It’s more the overall budget picture and emphasis on hardware and technology for “the last big war” that concerns me. I do not see any future military conflicts in the nuclear-armed Indian subcontinent playing out along in conventional form. I think there will either be more Kargil-like small wars, proxy fighting via guerilla fighters armed by one or another state, or — and I hope to God it never happens — full-on nuclear annihilation. Finally, here are a couple of facts I came across as I was thinking about these issues this morning:
As I Googled around I was surprised to find that despite some major increases in Defense spending, India’s total military budget is still at or under 3% of its GDP, which is less than Pakistan or China. (It helps that India’s GDP has been growing at robust rates; this keeps the number down).
India’s Defense spending is still more than three times the budget for Education, according to the numbers given here. Not really a surprise there.
I was also surprised to find that upon coming into power in 2004, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram sharply increased military spending. I would have expected the opposite, given that the current UPA government is a left-center coalition, while the previous NDA government was more hawkish in tone.