June 25, 2001


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Admiral (retd) J G Nadkarni

Sirs, why not arms control?

As the day for the historic summit between the leaders of India and Pakistan draws near, the rhetoric is getting shriller. Ironically, the expectations of the people of the two countries are also rising. It is clear that a majority on both sides would like nothing better than an end to the mistrust, hatred and acrimony of half a century and a new beginning in relations between the two nations separated by fate.

Yet, statement upon statement being made by top leaders on both sides is hardly designed to bring about a conducive atmosphere for the talks. Indian 'experts' warn about wily Pakistani leaders, their one-point agenda, their rigidity and the influence of the military and the ISI on the general.

Not to be outdone, Pakistani counterparts warn about the wily Indian leaders, their rigidity and the influence of the RSS and the Sangh Parivar on Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Most seem to agree that as far as Kashmir is concerned nothing much can be expected. Even so, all need not be lost at these crucial talks being held after so many years. There are many points on which the two countries have a commonality of interest and a desire to tread new paths. Maritime co-operation, cultural exchanges, easing of visa formalities, resumption of sports events and increasing trade are just a few matters that could be discussed and even resolved. Not one of these is, however, as urgent and important as the matter of arms control between the two countries.

Two news items that appeared in the news columns recently hardly received the attention they deserved. The general inclination was either to ignore them or to take them with a pinch of salt.

An American defence journal predicted that India would be spending a whopping $95 billion on military equipment and weapons over the next 15 years. Out of this, $30 billion will go to the air force, $25 billion to the army and $20 billion to the navy. Another $20 billion will be spent on acquiring nuclear weapons, delivery systems, R&D and nuclear command and control structures.

The American media have, as a rule, their own reasons and agenda for publishing these figures. One can easily pooh-pooh the news report as a figment of a reporter's imagination.

Yet, extrapolating from the steady and exponential increase in arms prices and our purchases during the past, there are no reasons to doubt the report. To put the figures in proper perspective, consider this:

  • The $20 billion on arms which the navy is expected to spend over 15 years resolves into an annual arms expenditure of about Rs 6,000 crore. At present the total capital expenditure of the navy is about Rs 2,000 crore out of which only about Rs 1,000 crore is spent on new weapons, ships and equipment. It is thus a six-fold increase.
  • Between 1965 and 1985 the three services purchased a considerable amount of weaponry, including submarines, surface ships, fighter and strike aircraft, tanks and APVs from the Soviet Union. Yet that entire weaponry cost the Indian side only about Rs 25,000 crore or about $10 billion in 20 years. The new purchases at 2.5 times that amount over a shorter period indicates the direction in which we are headed.
  • To put it another way, the amount earmarked for the purchase of arms is ironically the same as India's external debt of $96 billion.
Over the past 20 years both India and Pakistan have embarked on a self-destructive arms race to the detriment of their economies. This type of never-ending and anything-you-can-buy-I-can-buy-costlier weapons race was bound to harm both countries' economies sooner or later.

Pakistan has been the first to blink. Military regimes are hardly known for cutting arms expenditure. But, apparently browbeaten by their international lenders, Pakistan has decided for the first time to curb and cap its defence expenditure. Obviously the weapons purchases are beginning to hurt.

In the not-too-distant future the Indian economy also will not be able to sustain the massive expenditure on arms purchases.

Both India and Pakistan may do well to ponder over some of the effects of unrestricted weapons races in the past. During the Cold War both the United States and the Soviet Union merrily indulged in excessive defence spending, stockpiling huge caches of nuclear weapons. It resulted in the breakup of the Soviet Union.

President Clinton was able to balance the US budget and preside over an unprecedented eight-year economic boom only after cutting the defence budget from a high of $325 billion to a more pragmatic $260 billion.

For India and Pakistan the time is ripe to think and do something about arms limitation and arms reduction. Many areas and opportunities exist. Like the two superpowers before them, both subcontinental neighbours are running pell-mell towards building their nuclear arsenals. Any suggestion to bring about some limitation on the warheads will only attract derision. It appears that countries like to first build their arsenals to destroy each other a hundred times over and then decide to destroy the same warheads after limitation treaties.

The more likely area where a beginning in arms control could be made is conventional weapons. Many interesting ideas have been put forward in the past to make a beginning in arms control. Both countries today, for example, confront each other with 20-odd divisions each along the western border. It will not make the slightest difference, for example, if each side were to reduce its strength by a couple of divisions, thus saving about Rs 3,000 crore a year.

Again, both sides spend over Rs 3,000 crore each year guarding the icy wastes of Siachen, not to speak of the human lives being sacrificed in the inhospitable area. Ironically, both India and Pakistan did not even think of keeping troops in the area until just 15 years ago. Now both sides revel in being eyeball to eyeball at enormous cost.

Once a beginning is made, there are numerous areas for consideration. Both Pakistan and India have in their fleets a number of aged surface ships and submarines that cannot be considered of any operational use. They only make up numbers and pretty pictures for Jane's Fighting Ships. An equal number can be scrapped either side without affecting the fighting capability of the respective fleets and effecting considerable savings in their naval budgets. The same would be true for a number of outdated aircraft on both sides.

The most important step in any arms capping or limitation talks is to make a beginning. If sufficient statesmanship and courage is shown by the leaders of the two countries to overcome the protests of hard-liners and militants, such talks can be scheduled in the agenda of the meeting.

Once a start is made there is no saying what rewards the results may bestow on the two nations. Given our economies and the projected spending on arms, it is clear that sooner or later both countries will have to buckle down to the unpopular task of arms limitations. We can take the initiative now or wait for the IMF to lay down the terms when our economies go into the doldrums as a result of the arms race.

How far can Vajpayee and Musharraf go?
Here comes President Musharraf
High stakes and low expectations
Why the Indo-Pak summit is doomed
What validity does a Vajpayee-Musharraf deal hold?
This is not Nirvana
Supping with a rogue general
Tackle Mr Hyde, not Mush Musharraf
Internal security slips, but the red carpet is out
That treacherous road to peace

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

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