The math of military modernization
India’s economy can grow at a phenomenal rate, but this will be of limited geopolitical consequence if India’s military capabilities are declining
The Chinese are on track to dominate the security architecture of the Asia-Pacific. This is not to suggest that the People’s Liberation Army will set out to conquer the region. But it is to acknowledge the foreseeable outcome of the growing gap between China’s ability to project military power in Asia and the defence capabilities of other regional militaries. Obscuring this gap, and matching it in some sense, is the growing distance between political rhetoric and reality.
Erudite and experienced diplomats have cheered the rise of India as a great power in the midst of a “multipolar world”. Indian versions of this narrative tended to expound on the arrival of India’s time in the spotlight with the receding of America’s “unipolar moment”. Such speakers point to the 2008 financial crisis, or, alternatively, America’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership as great turning points when its dominant influence in Asia came to an end and gave India space to make its presence felt. American officials tend to speak of the arrival of India’s great power status without linkage to any American withdrawal. They focus on the increasing convergence of US and Indian security interests and the imperative for increased defence cooperation. “The world’s biggest and oldest democracies defending a rules-based international security order in the Indo-Pacific,” or something to this effect.
Such analysis may get the politics right, but, unfortunately, it gets the math wrong. The 2018 Indian defence budget is no more than 1.5% of gross domestic product, which barely keeps pace with inflation, and, when combined with large increases in pay, keeps the capital budget for weapons acquisitions flat. India’s military pensions are now greater than its entire defence capital budget. This in the midst of a military readiness situation that notable Indian observers describe as a “crisis” caused by significant shortfalls in major weapons systems like fighter aircraft, helicopters, tanks, rifles and submarines. India’s economy can grow at a phenomenal rate, Indian diplomats can play a larger role on the global stage, and India’s military officers can be top notch, but all this will be of limited geopolitical consequence if India’s military capabilities are declining—possibly in absolute, but certainly in relative, terms.
This inconsistency is far from unique to India. The Pentagon’s bookshelves are filled with strategy documents that commit the US military to missions that are impossible with available resources. “No enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of the US military than the combined impact of the Budget Control Act, defence spending cuts, and operating in nine of the last 10 years under continuing resolutions,” defense secretary James Mattis acknowledged.
The self-inflicted wounds imposed on the Indian and American militaries are in sharp contrast to China’s consistent military modernization. Direct comparisons between military spending totals are misleading for a variety of reasons, including mismatches between resources and military requirements (e.g., it takes far fewer resources to deny an adversary access to a local geography than to project power from one side of the globe to the other). Yet, the spending numbers put forward by the US defense department are telling. China has increased military spending at an average of 8.5% per year in inflation-adjusted terms over the last decade.
This math poses a problem for the prevailing American and Indian visions of the Indo-Pacific. Some in Delhi question the necessity of a defence partnership with the US, believing that India will thrive in multipolarity by hedging its partnerships among many countries. But the math of military modernization suggests Asia is in the midst of a “multipolar moment” that will eventually be superseded by a Sino-centric security order.
The political, economic, and sociological foundations of a robust US-India defence partnership are extraordinarily deep. Common security interests are matched by common political systems that are complemented by common demographic, cultural and trade links. No country has the demographic and economic weight to play the stabilizing role India can in Asia, which is why Republicans and Democrats are united in treating India as a “Major Defence Partner”—a unique designation created by the Barack Obama administration and sustained by both the US Congress and the Donald Trump team.
Important steps can be taken to bolster Indian military power that are unrelated to budgets , but that requires New Delhi to embrace Washington more closely than ever before. A choice can be made to partner—in some areas exclusively—with the US because this is the only realistic hedge against Chinese hegemony. This includes increasing information sharing and interoperability in maritime domain awareness, expanding cooperation in anti-submarine warfare, and partnering on maritime patrols. The US can also offer India advanced technologies like the US Aegis combat systems for India’s next generation of destroyers, F-16 Block 70 and F-18 fighter aircraft, armed long-distance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, along with a number of other systems that are only provided to America’s closest allies.
But if defence spending does not match political rhetoric, we will continue to speak of the “Indo-Pacific” even as the region’s security structure is built in Beijing.
Benjamin Schwartz has served in a variety of roles in the US government, including as India director in the office of the secretary of defense.
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