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Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Putting bang in the Bomb

The present defence budgeting system has outlived its utility and is fast becoming a national security liability, among other reasons, becau...

Written by Bharat Karnad |
November 13, 2002

The present defence budgeting system has outlived its utility and is fast becoming a national security liability, among other reasons, because it is hindering the build-up of the nuclear deterrent.

The problem is compounded by the fact that, absent a full-fledged chief of defence staff structure and integration of the force-planning functions, the individual service mindset continues to reign supreme, and immediate conventional military requirements of the army, navy and air force take precedence over purely strategic acquisitions.

Thus, four years after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee declared India a ‘nuclear weapon state’, the country’s nuclear forces are still in embryo stage and the strategic command mooted to control these forces is mostly on paper.

The problem is straightforward. The armed forces, like traditional militaries everywhere, have from the beginning been wary of nuclear weaponisation because of their fear that it would be at the expense of conventional military capability, in which they have a greater stake.

Indeed, their support for New Delhi’s post-1974 policy of ‘keeping the nuclear weapons option open’ was motivated in no small part by the fact that it entailed no financial cost to them even as they basked in the nuclear aura.

And, more significantly, because it saved them the onerous task of balancing the expenditure on developing, testing, producing, inducting, deploying and maintaining strategic nuclear weapons systems (assuming the cost of manufacturing nuclear weapons/warheads would continue to be borne by the Department of Atomic Energy) and infrastructure with the more urgent demands of conventional military modernisation and upkeep. But now they may be compelled into doing that.

The elasticity in the present system permits ‘creative’ budgeting, and certain extremely sensitive technology and weapons development projects can continue to be funded under innocuous heads and subheads spread over budgets of different ministries. But a whole new array of thermonuclear and nuclear capabilities cannot be financed through such means.

Nor is it feasible for the services to carry the burden of building up the strategic forces because that would mean ignoring the equally urgent need to keep the country’s conventional military technologically up-to-date.

This dilemma is best illustrated in the case of the navy. It wants, for example, to at once bolster its ‘sea control’ fleet by purchasing additional surface combatants — missile destroyers and frigates from Russia, and make up the aircraft carrier deficit by acquiring the Gorshkov with its full complement of MiG-29K aircraft.

At the same time, it wants to start on the construction of the long gestating air defence ship in the Cochin shipyard, as well as augment its ‘sea-denial’ arm by buying diesel hunter-killer class

of submarines from different sources — the French Scorpene (a deal sweetened by the promise of critical underwater missile launch technology) and the longer-ranged Russian Amur-class. It further plans to lease a couple of Akula-II class nuclear submersibles from Moscow as also the Tu-22M Backfire bomber by way of expropriating the strategic strike role for itself.

Faced with the perennial dilemma of trying to maximise its all-round capability with a limited purse, it is hardly surprising that the navy is ambiguous about the indigenous nuclear-powered submarine and lacks, what a retired flag rank officer called, an ‘institutional view’ of this submarine in its order of battle.

Consequently, the navy has been hesitating to pour its money into this project in order to meet the sea-trial deadline of 2006. It would mean committing the service to a particularly heavy expenditure scheme that may end up putting at risk other acquisition programmes.

The naval headquarters probably reckon that, in the short to medium term (that is, 10-15 years), the proven Akula-II will be a better fit in its force architecture than the unproven locally-produced boat for the purpose of the most invulnerable leg of the strategic nuclear triad. Just as, eventually, a squadron of Tu-22M laden with nuclear/thermonuclear gravity/glide bombs will do against distant targets pending development and induction of locally-produced long-range nuclear ballistic and cruise missiles.

The difficult choice the navy faces between conventional/tactical-theatre level weaponry and nuclear/strategic armaments is replicated in the case of the air force and the army. The trouble is short-term considerations do not always serve the long-term national security objectives of strategic autonomy and self-reliant strategic defence. But equally, the armed services cannot be expected to be stress prepared for a nuclear contingency, which they understandably deem less likely than a conventional conflict.

The only solution, under the circumstances, is to follow the lead of the other major nuclear powers and rely on a separate financial planning directorate within the defence ministry, as well as a separate budgeting stream exclusively for strategic forces to be used on a multi-year basis to build up sizable and versatile nuclear/thermonuclear arsenal along with the necessary infrastructure, like radiation and impact-hardened C4I (command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence) system and an absolutely secure missile basing mode deep within mountains.

The nuclear infrastructure is a one-time large investment and cannot be avoided. The outlay on nuclear defence of around 0.5 per cent of the gross national product per year (compared to the present defence budget constituting 2.4 per cent of the GNP spent on conventional military needs) will, moreover, help raise the total expenditure on defence to the 3 per cent level of GNP recommended by the (Eleventh) Finance Commission. Even so, India will still be amongst the lowest spenders on defence.

Separate budgeting for strategic nuclear forces is an innovation in the defence budgeting system that is long overdue. It could be supported by the newly formed Defence Acquisitions Council within the ministry of defence, which could be tasked with deciding on the prioritisation of nuclear and thermonuclear weapon programmes and the necessary infrastructure projects, their time frames and the funding choices.

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