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Army cash to raise air force

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By SUJAN DUTTA
  • Published 1.03.11
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New Delhi, Feb. 28: The army has been given funds to raise a mini air force and the air force has been given cash for at least two multi-billion-dollar contracts in the defence allocation that finance minister Pranab Mukherjee has hiked by 11 per cent over last year’s budgetary estimates.

The total allocation for defence, at Rs 1,64,415 crore is more than twice the allocation for education and health put together.

Mukherjee rewarded the defence ministry for the first time in five years for better housekeeping after it exhausted the capital expenditure allocated for new acquisitions. He has hiked the capital allocation by nearly Rs 9,200 crore for 2011-2012 to Rs 69,199 crore.

“We welcome the budget. Our concerns have by and large been addressed. The finance minister has said that should there be any fresh requests, it would be met without any difficulties,” defence minister A.K. Antony said, raising the possibility that there could be a supplementary demand for grants.

A stand-out figure in the budget for the armed forces is in the allocation under the head “aircraft and aero-engines” for the army. The allocation has been hiked by more than three times over the budget estimates — from Rs 636.80 crore to Rs 2,291.60 crore.

This could lead to inter-service rivalry between the army and the air force. The army argues that it is building an air component that is integral to its operational plans. The air force argues that it already has dedicated aircraft for the army’s battle plans.

“I don’t quite understand why the army should get a full-spectrum air force,” says Air Commodore (retired) Jagjit Singh, who heads the think-tank Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS).

Defence analyst Commodore Uday Bhaskar says that these funds could scarcely be used to build a mini-air force, that would involve the acquisition of fixed-wing aircraft.

The army is in the process of acquiring attack and utility helicopters. The US-made Apache Longbow and the Russian-origin Mil are competing to sell attack helicopters to the army that is also preparing to expand its airlift capability. Part of the reason for this is the requirement projected for internal security duties.

The air force’s allocation under the same head has been hiked by about Rs 7,000 crore to Rs 22,055.61 crore. This is estimated to be providing for the initial payments for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft, the order for which could top $12 billion, and 10 C-17 Globemaster III aircraft that could cost $ 4.1 billion.

“This is not really a big deal,” says Air Commodore Singh. “If you account for the fact that a single fighter aircraft today can cost more than Rs 350 crore, this really isn’t enough for a modern air force. But it is still better that what it used to be.”

A slightly more cynical view came from another air force officer who said the army was being too acquisitive. “If you have too many generals, you will want to buy more helicopters, since generals like to fly,” he commented wryly.

Bhaskar said the good-housekeeping of 2010-2011, that has resulted in the defence ministry overshooting the capital allocations, should mark the beginning of a sustained process. “We are dealing with block obsolescence of a decade-plus, right from the time of the NDA government through to UPA I and UPA II.” He reckons that in the past decade the defence ministry has returned unspent funds of over Rs 25,000 crore.

He says that the defence allocations have to be developed to enhance cross-border military capabilities because there is a potential for an adversarial relationship with Pakistan and China.

“It is only when we have a positive TBMI (Trans-border Military Index) that an independent foreign policy can be pursued,” Bhaskar says.

Of the total Rs 1.64,415 crore for defence, Rs 95,216 crore is meant for revenue expenditure — salaries, pensions and maintenance.