On Monday, Indian Air Force (IAF) chief P.V. Naik said that half of its equipment and systems are obsolete. This is perhaps unique: No other country close to India in terms of size and economic development shows such callous disregard for external security.

The air force is not the only branch of the Armed Forces that is confronting outdated equipment. Even the army faces the same issues. The latter’s quest for an artillery mainstay continues, as it has for the past 10 years.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

A look at the spending numbers shows the problem. Nominally, India’s defence expenditure, anywhere from 2% to 2.6% of gross domestic product (GDP), is higher than China’s (around 2% of its GDP). In contrast, Pakistan routinely spends more than what India does. But these measures say little because “defence expenditure" is a catch-all figure that includes salaries of soldiers, government agencies involved in defence projects, paramilitary forces and other expenditure. Seen purely in terms of capital expenditure, that is, on acquisition of new equipment, India is a laggard, and China, which in GDP terms spends less than India, is actually a bigger spender on this count.

This is the nub of the problem. India’s perspective planning for equipping itself and then implementing those plans is, to put it mildly, dysfunctional. China, in contrast, not only plans well, but also ensures that there are few gaps between such plans and their execution. Today, defence procurement is an area where honest civil servants and ministers fear to tread. By definition, this space then gets filled by crooks of all kinds. Defence minister A.K. Antony’s recipe of “going slow" may, for the time being, ensure that “sweet" deals are not executed, but it is also haemorrhaging security.

One can always say that over the long run, all these wrinkles will be ironed out, as the air chief said with respect to obsolescence coming down by 2014-15. The problem, however, is to remain ready in the short run, that is, here and now. That is where India’s condition raises serious concerns.

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