Guns ‘n’ Rotis

India is not really over-spending on arms, say New Delhi analysts. Besides, the neighbours are belligerent.

The obscure district of Purulia in the rural backwaters of West Bengal had its day in the sun as 1995 drew to a close. A creaky Antonov-26 cargo aircraft with a motley crew from the former Soviet Republics flew in over Bihar and dropped a weighty cache of guns and grenades over fields and shrubland, surprising a sleepy village and sending the Indian civil and military establishment into a tizzy over the effortless invasion of national air space.

The incident was readymade for pontification by think tank pundits, and in an ominously worded piece in the Asian Age daily, former Director of the Intelligence Bureau M.K. Narayan warned of "what is possibly a well-planned and internationally-directed transfer of arms to pockets of turbulence in Asia and Africa from countries with surplus weaponry…"

That might or might not be the case, but just about a month later, all hell broke loose on the India-Pakistan border after a rocket landed in a mosque in the Pakistani border village of Kahuta, killing 22 civilians. Islamabad said the Indians had fired the rocket, while New Delhi disowned responsibility and suggested that it was misfired by the Pakistani side while attempting to disrupt the Republic Day celebrations across the frontier.

A day later, even as the guns boomed on both sides, came the news that US President Bill Clinton had given assent to a bill allowing a one-time waiver on the Pressler Amendment, to enable the supply of $368 million worth of arms to the Pakistan military. The Pressler Amendment bans the sale of weaponry to countries with nuclear weapons programmes, and the waiver came on the heels of a CIA report that Beijing had violated US anti-proliferation laws by exporting nuclear weapons technology to Islamabad {in addition to an earlier sale of M-11 missiles).

Justifiably Anxious

When asked to respond to the South Asian doves who clamour for the peace dividend, hawks in the Indian defence establishment are only too glad to point to these recent incidents—arms drops, cross-border shootouts, a superpower looking the other way while Pakistan goes nuclear. They cite these instances as proof of the deteriorating regional security environment, which they say gives enough cause to warrant increased expenditure on India's military machine.

"Make no mistake, the threats to India are very severe," says Maj Gen Dipankar Bannerjee, Deputy Director of New Delhi's prestigious Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA). "Though a major war with China or Pakistan does not seem likely, there is the intensive proxy war launched by Pakistan in Kashmir, and the Northeast is disturbed by ethnic insurgency. And there are other groups active in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere."

Defence analyst C. Rajamohan, too, does not buy the suggestion that the country's military bill is too large. He says: "India's defence expenditure is at below three percent of the GDP. It is one of the lowest in the developing world, and not enough to keep the Indian military at its current level of preparedness."

Mr Rajamohan asserts that India needs to raise its defence spending to at least 3.5 percent of its GDP if it is to replace obsolete equipment, modernise, and develop indigenous capability—especially because the former Soviet Union as India's chief arms supplier was unable to keep its commitments. He adds: "Though relations with China have improved, those with Pakistan have worsened. And now the waiver of the Pressler Amendment has revived the USPakistan strategic and arms relationship."

Mr Rajamohan and other defence expens point to several factors which have increased India's defence vulnerability. The recently sanctioned US arms sale to Pakistan will make India's commercial shipping and long coastline vulnerable to Pakistani strikes. Islamabad's recently-purchased 40 Mirage 2000E aircraft have the ability to jam guidance systems of India's Soviet-supplied surface- to-air missiles.

Besides, there's China. In a recent report, the Parliament's Standing Committee on Defence stated, "Despite warming relations with China, China is and is likely to remain the primary security challenge to India in the medium and long terms… India has no option but to continue to develop and upgrade its missile capability…"

And that, indeed, is what the Indian defence establishment is doing.

Missile Mania

Ignoring loud protests from Washington DC and Islamabad, on 27 January, India went ahead and test-fired the long-range version of Prithvi, its indigenously developed surface-to-surface missile. The new delivery system, which is capable of carrying nuclear warheads, belongs to a family of five missiles produced by India's Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). The other four are the Agni, Trishul, Akash and Nag, of which the 200-km range Agni is also capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Increasingly strident articles in the national dailies have been urging the government to exercise its nuclear option and conduct an atomic test before the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is ratified. In a report from London, Pravin Sawhney, a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence, wrote, "The big challenge for the new government in India in 1996 is not whether it has a nuclear bomb which will work or which may work, but to justify tax-payer's money if the intention is not to produce Agni with a cost-effective and sensible nuclear warhead."

The Trishul and Akash missiles can protect the Indian Army's tanks and armoured columns from Mirage attacks. The former has an effective radius of 9 kilometres. The DRDO is also developing a naval version to counter the AM-39 missiles carried by Pakistan's Agosta submarines, which can destroy both ships and strategic shore installations. The Akash missiles can ward off American-build PC-3 Orion naval surveillance planes that form part of the Pakistani air power.

The development of indigenously built missiles is part of India's effort to attain self-reliance in defence and to stave off threat of sanctions from Western supplier nations only too keen to control the spread of missile and nuclear technologies. India's Ministry of Defence has a ten-year plan by the end of which, i.e. 2005, it hopes to retain 70 percent of its over $3 billion annual arms shopping budget for local purchases.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao unveiled Arjun, the 58.5 tonne, $300 million main battle tank (MBT) meant to replace Russian-built T-72s. The Arjun, which is rated among the top three MBTs in the world, will go into production by 1997. A little before unveiling Arjun, Prime Minister Rao had tried out the cockpit of a 21 million-dollar prototype of a light combat aircraft (LCA) scheduled to be deployed by 2002 to replace ageing Soviet MiG-21s.

Guns 'n' Rotis

Says Rahul Bedi, the New Delhi Correspondent for Jane's Defence Weekly: "India needs to replace at least a third of its naval equipment, one half of its army supplies, and fully two-thirds of its air force hardware, if it is to maintain an optimum level of defence preparedness."

This will not be possible within the 1995-96 national budget, however, which allocated only $7.3 billion for defence, marking an increase of $704 million over the previous year. Against an inflation index of 11.3 percent, defence spending is actually down in real terms.

This miserly treatment of the military will not allow India to go in for arms acquisition of any major consequence, and even medium scale modernisation will require more budgetary allocation_ But if the cash-squeeze continues, India will find it difficult even to supply the urgent requirements of the military, such as advance trainers for the air force, ships, submarines and aircraft carriers for the navy, and self-propelled guns for the army.

There are some scholars, however, who believe that the defence establishment is merely raising the bogey of war in order to divert scarce resources from development to defence. Delhi University economist Dilip Swamy: "We have had no war since 1972, and yet our defence expenditure has steadily increased. It may at times have gone down as a percentage of GNP, but in actual terms it hasn't."

Adds Mr Swamy, "The budget amount may seem relatively small, but the actual amount of military spending is bound to be larger." He is not optimistic about the peace dividend either. The reins of the Indian economy are in the hands of the elite, which is not development-oriented and is easily swayed by the demands of the defence establishment, he adds.

On the other side of the fence, Mr Rajamohan says it is wrong to correlate high defence expenditure with low growth. "Countries can break out of the cycle of poverty only through higher growth rates, and not by changing resource allocation patterns to meet with development expenditure." Look at South Korea, says Mr Rajamohan, which has both impressive growth rates and a high defence expenditure. "Even in the Gulf, there have been remarkable improvements in human development indicators despite high defence spending."

"India has to take necessary steps to safeguard its national interests," says Maj Gen Bannerjee. "Instead of eyeing the defence budget, the government should cut the massive public subsidies, which are a complete waste and which amount to 40 percent of the spending in the military."

Outspoken former Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit, too, pooh poohs the suggestion of diverting money from defence to development. That might be feasible elsewhere, but will not work in South Asia for at least another decade. "The atmosphere of trust and political compromise which has to develop for such an idea to work just is not there at present," Mr Dixit says.

But what of those, like Mahbub ul Haq, who propose a campaign to bring India and Pakistan to their senses, and to reduce their military spending? Mr Dixit replies: "In the profession in which I have been, I look at realities as they exist. I cannot afford to be a dreamer."

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