When young persons join the military, as recruits or cadets, one of the first skills they learn is drill. Drill has been an integral part of soldiering since unruly bands of marauders gave way to disciplined soldiers. ‘Marking time’ is one of the early skills all military persons learn. It precedes saluting, marching, jogging, running and sprinting. Yet, it continues to be part of soldiering till the person leaves the service. While all forms of drill are active, ‘marking time’ is static, because all one does is stand at one place and lift one’s legs in a synchronized manner, achieving little except the noise of one’s boots hitting the ground in a monotonous manner, achieving nothing. That precisely has been the state of the Indian Military for the last nearly three decades.

Time has stood still as the armed forces of India ‘mark time’, expending physical energy, hurting their lower limbs and wearing out boots, while their weapons and equipment wear out as there are little or no replacements because the governments, past and present, give them just enough in the annual defence budgets to sustain themselves, while no modern weapons, equipment or war like stores are procured as the funds are barely sufficient to maintain the existing manpower and weaponry. In financial jargon it is called ‘revenue expenditure’. Its counterpart, ‘capital expenditure’ continues to be talked about by both the political leadership and their minions, better known as bureaucrats, without any matching funds being released. Mind you, the defence budget increases every year, but barely by about 7 to 10 per cent, which is barely able to sustain the forces.

Therefore, the Indian Military continues to add to its hollowness year after year. The looming danger is that the military will soon collapse, either on account of its inability to sustain the hollowness or on account of the corrosion from within because of carrying for decades obsolete, rusty and corroded equipment.

I am sure the reader must have discerned what the thrust of this piece is. So let us stop with the similes and come to brass tacks.

On the last day of February 2015, our Finance Minister (FM) has again presented the annual budget, of which defence budget is one of the components. Decades back, the defence budget was looked at with a great deal of attention because it used to be a hefty three or more per cent of the GDP, but as mentioned earlier it has been declining every year to what it is at present – barely touching the 1.7 percent mark. As its decline continues, two factors need to be noted. The first is the continuing worsening of the security situation both externally and internally. The second is the increase in the manpower of the three services, rising from about 2.3 lakh in 1960 to about 13 lakh today. The result is that while our potential adversaries are becoming more powerful and high-tech, the Indian Military continues in its ‘marking time’ mode.

So much has already been written, discussed and articulated, both in public and private, about the dire need to modernise that listing out the weapons and equipment that have been obsolete for years again would be an exercise in futility. Suffice is to say that the army needs modern tanks; artillery guns; air defence weaponry; light and medium helicopters; engineer equipment; radars; tele-communications and wireless equipment; to list only a few. The navy needs submarines; naval aircraft; and capital as well as support ships. The Air Force must get fighter aircraft; heavy helicopters; air defence radars and weapons; as well as trainer aircraft. All three services need to replenish their war wastage rate (WWR) reserves, which have reached a precariously low level.

The armed forces have variously been chastised for wanting to only import weapons and equipment, but where is the comparable indigenous weaponry? Our research and development (R&D) department (DRDO); the Ordnance Factories; and the Defence Public Sector Undertakings (PSU’s) have let down the armed forces badly and have generally spent funds and time on only feathering their nests. There are a few exceptions of course, like some shipyards, but the overall scenario has been dismal. Now, everyone talks of ‘Make in India’, but except for talk so far, has anything substantive taken place? Talk is cheap; while the political leadership is good at mouthing such inanities, unless one sees it actually taking shape on the ground, the armed forces cannot continue to ‘mark time’ and reach the nadir of hollowness.

The armed forces are as keen to be equipped with indigenous weaponry and equipment as the government and the nation, but indigenous production is bound to take time, money and support of the government, before it can be inducted. We are still only limbering up and are not even at the start point. In the interim, the armed forces cannot and must not continue to decline. Some imports are needed as a matter of urgency and these must be procured. Otherwise, we may again find ourselves in a state that prevailed in 1999, when the then Army Chief had to say “we will fight with what we have”! Surely, the nation does not want a repetition of that. The state of the military is worse today than what prevailed in 1999. It was the NDA Government then and it is again the NDA Government, but with a powerful majority. Yet, the situation is the same!

Let us look at some statistics so that the state of affairs is crystal clear. The FM had pompously declared while presenting the budget that "defence of every inch of our land is above everything else". However, the defence budget, with a hike of a modest 7.74 per cent is miserably low for such declarations. Even as a percent of GDP, it is 1.74 percent, even less than the allocation of last year that was 1.75 percent and of the previous year that was 1.8 percent. The capital component is a mere Rs.94,588 crore.

While fighting the elections, the BJP had made many big promises relating to the security of the nation, which had swayed the veterans, who voted overwhelmingly for its candidates. The promises included rapid modernisation of the armed forces; acceding to the long standing demand of the veterans for OROP; and building a national war memorial, another long standing demand. While not a word was said by the FM on the latter two demands, the capital outlay is laughable, especially when no modernisation has taken place for over two decades.

On assuming the reins of the government in Apr 2014, with an overwhelming majority, the present FM was made the Defence Minister (DM), so he is fully aware of the needs of the military. He had grandiosely allocated Rs. 100 cores for the war memorial and Rs. 1000 crores for OROP. They remain mere verbal allocations. His successor, the present RM was welcomed warmly by the military fraternity and much was expected of him, as he was touted to be a go-getter; a technocrat; and a person who would bring in the much needed changes. Unfortunately, he has been a disappointment!

There is still time though. Let the defence budget be debated seriously in Parliament, so that the people’s representatives rise above party diktats and discuss what kind of security we want and what we will get by the figures in the budget. It is undoubtedly a tall order as never in the history of our Parliamentary democracy has the defence budget been debated.

We do want to be a powerful nation. That requires economic development side by side with having a powerful military. Let the government learn this elementary fact; the days of the ‘guns versus butter’ debate are no longer valid as we are now part of a real world.