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Gentle Giant

Why isn’t India spending more on its military?


India, as FP’s James Traub recently discovered, is comfortable living with contradictions. A country that is the world’s largest, and possibly its most competitive, democracy has seen its national politics dominated by a single party. A rising international player, India often appears less willing than ever to exercise its power globally. And while India’s economy feels like it’s in the doldrums, it has more than doubled in size over the past seven years.

There is perhaps no bigger contradiction than India’s military. In terms of personnel, India, with some 1.3 million active troops, has for many years boasted the world’s third-largest armed forces — after the United States and China. It is a full-spectrum force, possessing nuclear weapons, remaining active in international peacekeeping missions, and confronting a range of domestic insurgencies. India is also the world’s largest importer of conventional weapons systems, sourcing advanced combat aircraft, missile systems, and submarines from Russia, Israel, France, and the United States.

Yet given its enormous size, India’s military has relatively little political or bureaucratic clout — particularly when compared to China’s People’s Liberation Army — and consequently less say in resource allocations. While the army, air force, and navy each enjoy considerable autonomy, the trade-off has been a diminished role for the armed services in influencing national security policy. Since a disastrous intervention in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990, New Delhi has also evinced little interest in undertaking foreign military operations, other than occasional humanitarian or U.N. peacekeeping missions. But what is perhaps most striking given the nature and scale of the threats it faces is the country’s anaemic military spending.

As late as 2000, India’s spending on defense, at $15.9 billion, outstripped China’s official military budget of $14.5 billion, although China’s actual expenditure that year was estimated at three times that amount. The disparity has only increased with the growing resource gap between China and India. In its most recent budget, the Indian government’s spending on defense stands at $37 billion (excluding military pensions), keeping it on track to be the fourth-largest defense spender by 2020, surpassing Britain, France, and Japan. But such expenditure increases have not even kept pace with the overall growth of India’s economy, let alone the military modernization of its competitors. Defense now accounts for just 1.7 percent of India’s GDP, which is less than in many European countries, and down from almost 3 percent in the late 1990s. And while China’s defense budget this year is more than three times larger, its actual spending will undoubtedly be even higher.

It’s not that India’s leaders are unaware of the many security threats facing the country. China’s growing power certainly generates concern and the two countries have a longstanding dispute over territory the size of Pennsylvania. To its west, India also borders Pakistan, a volatile country whose powerful army sees conflict with India as its raison d’être. Its other neighbors — Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives — are all chronically weak states that pose various challenges of their own. Domestic insurgencies in Kashmir, central, and northeast India have all declined in intensity over the past decade, but are far from resolved. And as India’s interests have expanded to include protecting sea lines of communication and preserving the steady flow of energy resources, the demands on India’s security apparatus have multiplied accordingly.

So where’s the urgency? One simple answer is that India’s government has made public welfare spending a priority: voters, it appears, universally prefer butter to guns. Civilian leaders in New Delhi also harbor a deep distrust of the military, stemming largely from unfamiliarity. It is telling that only one senior Indian cabinet minister in the past two decades has served in the armed forces. Budgets, determined largely by civilian financial planners, are determined year-to-year, with little regard for long-term threats. The Indian military doesn’t help its case by becoming embroiled in regular controversy, epitomized by the bizarre rumors about a possible army coup that circulated last year.

The Indian defense industrial sector is also plagued by corruption, a matter that the media is highly attuned to, making key decisions concerning defense acquisitions all the more difficult. Bribery associated with the purchase of Bofors howitzers contributed to the fall of one government in the late 1980s, while corruption revelations by journalists posing as defense contractors led to the resignation of India’s defense minister in 2001. Additionally, India has to contend with strong vested interests, including powerful unions, that have complicated industrial modernization. While China’s military industrial complex has been able to successfully reverse-engineer foreign systems such as Russia’s Sukhoi-27 aircraft and American stealth technology, state monopolies in India’s defense industry mean that it has always been inefficient in absorbing technology. With few exceptions, India’s attempts at producing indigenous military aircraft and battle tanks have resulted in delays, cost overruns, and substandard equipment.

As for the threat environment, the question is not whether India is able to compete man-for-man, dollar-for-dollar, and gun-for-gun with its principal adversaries, but whether it is in a position to deter their adventurism. Nuclear weapons have arguably played a stabilizing role in this regard: The prospect of India becoming embroiled in a conventional war with either China or Pakistan since its 1998 nuclear tests has become ever more remote. It also helps that India enjoys increasing numerical and technological superiority vis-à-vis Pakistan, although that has so far failed to completely deter terrorist attacks emanating from that country.

China is another matter altogether, given its rapid rise and military modernization. Yet the last few years have seen the Indian military steadily rebalance toward its northeastern frontier. This shift has seen India redeploy its frontline combat aircraft to bases in the northeastern state of Assam, increase the range of its strategic missiles, and set up two new army divisions along the Chinese border. In 2010, India’s national security advisor hinted that the country was amending its no-first-use nuclear doctrine, a move widely interpreted as a signal aimed at China. And last month, India’s defense ministry approved the creation of a mountain strike corps, an 89,000-strong force capable of offensive operations against Chinese territory.

While none of this seems to suggest that India is standing idly by in the face of China’s military modernization, the release of the two countries’ military budgets in such quick succession points to a fascinating divergence. If anything, it is New Delhi’s Central Secretariat — rather than Beijing’s Zhongnanhai — that appears to have taken to heart Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum: "Hide your strength, bide your time, and do what you can." Perhaps it is no surprise then that India, unlike the other Asian giant to its north, finds it unnecessary to constantly assuage its smaller neighbors about the veracity of its peaceful rise.

Dhruva Jaishankar is Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings India in New Delhi and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. He is also a Non-Resident Fellow with the Lowy Institute in Australia.