Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine was again such an unknown
The United States of America incurred 39 per cent of the World’s Military Expenditure in 2022. It was followed by China at 13 per cent. Russia, despite the Ukraine war, was just at 3.9 per cent and India was at 3.6 per cent followed by Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom at 3.3 per cent and 3.1 per cent, respectively.
The department of defence (DOD) of the federal government of the United States has a budgetary allocation of $2.01 trillion for the fiscal 2023. It broadly spends $829.89 billion in committed obligations and $192.23 billion contracts and financial assistance.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) announced an annual defence budget of about $224.79 billion for fiscal year 2023. India, by comparison, has a defence budget of $72.6 billion in fiscal 2023–24. China spends more than the next 17 Indo-Pacific militaries combined. The US, by contrast, spends 10 times more on defence than what China does. There is, therefore, a very strong case for upping India’s defence spending or bringing down the threats and challenges to India’s national security.
China’s defence spending witnessed a 7.2 per cent increase over fiscal-22. It is the eighth consecutive single-digit enhancement in China’s defence spending, with the last double-digit increase of 10.1 per cent recorded in 2015.
Quixotically, the official budget released by the Chinese every year accounts for only a fraction of its actual defence spends. It does nor account for a whole range of military expenditure including and not limited to arms imports, expenses for the People’s Armed Police (PAP) and militia/reserve forces, state subsidies to China’s military-industrial complex, and earnings from PLA- run businesses. The department of defence of the United States has repeatedly underscored that China’s actual military expenditure is at least twice the officially stated figure. Presuming that is correct, it still is eight times less than what the United States spends on its defence needs.
China’s objective behind incessantly enhancing its military spending is threefold — meeting the centenary benchmark of ensuring the PLA is on track with its military modernisation programme. The benchmarks inter alia include that the PLA achieves strategic high-end deterrence by 2027 and fulfils the objective of PLA’s modernisation by 2035 that should finally culminate into the development of a world-class military by mid-century.
The reason for putting some of these numbers in perspective is to underline the fact that there is a huge gap between the defence numbers of the first four countries. This assertion, therefore, that the United States wants a closer defence relationship with India to only “muscle” into the Indian defence market may not entirely be correct.
The US military industrial complex is hardly able to service the needs of the department of defence. In the financial year 2023, it would award contracts and discharge other obligations worth $192.23 billion almost two-and-a-half times the total defence budget of India. Moreover, the US defence industry is now substantively engaged in defence of Europe once again.
Then why does the United States want a closer defence relationship with India. The reasons are purely strategic. As Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defence secretary, had famously remarked, “There are known knowns — there are things we know we know… We also know there are known unknowns — that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
The penultimate decade of the twentieth century and the first two decades of the 21st demonstrated to the United States that the only constant in the geo-strategic calculus is the unknown unknown and that is what it must prepare for.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 that heralded the end of the Cold War was such an unknown. 9/11 that defined the US defence posture for two decades was another. Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine was again such an unknown. It is the unknown that the US is trying to hedge against as it seeks to build alliances like the Quad, AUKUS in the Indo-Pacific and other like acronyms around the world.
Herein lies an opportunity for India to build an entirely new approach that can underpin both its defence frameworks and strategic relationships for the 21st century should it choose to do. That relationship and framework has to take into account the challenges, realities and imperatives of the 21st century and really jettison the shibboleths of a previous century that our “tanks — that supposedly think that they think” still pay lip service to. It comes under an overarching rubric called “strategic autonomy” — a term widely used but little understood by politicians, policymakers, defence planners and even the strategic elite.
How autonomous is India when today, according to data published by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) publication, the Military Balance, more than 90 per cent of the Indian Army’s armored vehicles, 69 per cent of combat aircraft operated by the Air Force and Navy, and 44 per cent of the Navy’s submarines and warships are of Russian origin? Also, 65 per cent of these vessels are armed with Russian missiles.
There might be valid reasons as to why this dependency came to manifest itself but does this rubric really fit the definition of strategic autonomy? In a situation whereby Russia itself is under tremendous stress with its war effort committed to supplying the Ukrainian front, how much would it be able to spare and supply if the push came to a shove for India? It is a question that neither has been seriously asked much less an answer attempted.
India’s defence indigenisation programme is still in infancy. A colleague, during a recent meeting of the parliamentary consultative committee of defence, rightly pointed out that the armed forces demand “state of the art” equipment to meet the two-front situation that we are confronted with. How much ever the push may be towards self-reliance there is a yawning gap between the expectations of the “users” and what the Indian defence manufacturing industry is able to offer.
It is, therefore, imperative that old paradigms need to be discarded and a fresh approach that really guarantees “strategic autonomy” in terms of defence preparedness be crafted with dispatch.