Newspaper Article 21/03/2023
Protection of a nation’s sovereignty, people, and resources from external and internal threats that can jeopardize its stability and well-being is the most critical strategic interest for any state and its survival.
Prioritizing national security as the topmost strategic concern is even more critical for states like Pakistan that have historical baggage of border disputes, wars, and unresolved geopolitical issues like Kashmir with neighboring India. Since 1947, Pakistan was compelled to maintain sizeable armed forces, build infrastructure for them and establish new security institutions to deter external threats. Pakistan craved British India based on an ideology (only ideological state at that time), unlike many modern nation-states in the region which are based on ethnic, linguistic, and racial unity. India always introduced instability in the prevailing stability-instability paradigm in the region. In 1971, India played a key role in the dismemberment of Pakistan and posed an existential threat to Pakistan in 1974 by becoming a nuclear-armed country.
In the conventional defense capability, India keeps introducing new capabilities in its armed forces through procurement and integration of the latest military hardware. Due to this, here exists a growing asymmetrical advantage for India in the military balance of power against Pakistan. This left very little choice for Pakistan to maintain a minimum level of armed forces readiness to maintain a certain balance in this equation.
The Indian threat is not a bogyman as the notion is peddled by some segments in Pakistan. Many Indian leaders including PM Modi have threatened Pakistan for their political goals. Annexing the Pakistani part of Jammu and Kashmir is a declared political promise of BJP/RSS and by looking at the alarming increase in the Indian defense budget every year, Pakistan has no option but to keep revising the external threat matrix and prepare accordingly. Due to Pakistan’s prolonged economic difficulties, the state is faced with an insurmountable challenge of maintaining its declared minimum credible deterrence in the conventional balance of power.
Among some Pakistani circles, there has been increasing criticism of the Pakistan defense budget in recent years. Naysayers argue that since Pakistan is a poor country, it should spend more on health and education rather than building a military might. This argument and subsequent demand both are based on some grave misunderstandings. A common misconception about Pakistan’s defense spending is a highly exaggerated figure of 70-80% of GDP (national annual income). Nothing can be far from reality than this assumption. The fact remains that Pakistan spends less than 3% of GDP on defense needs. In exact numbers, Pakistan is currently spending Rs. 1523 billion on defense which makes 17.5% of total government expenditure and 2.2% of the GDP. Contrary to perception, Pakistan’s defense budget has decreased from 2.8% to 2.2% of GDP in the fiscal year 2022-2023 after adjusting factors such as inflation and rupee depreciation. Thus, in real terms, the defense budget has taken a hit of Rs. 100 billion from the previous year. Pakistan spends much less on defense in comparison to other regional players. Pakistan’s defense budget is approximately $11 billion while India spends more than $70 billion annually on defense. While the defense budgets of other regional countries are as follows: Saudi Arabia is $55 billion; China $293 billion; Iran $24.6 billion; UAE $22.5 billion; and Turkiye $20 billion.
Pakistan’s economic worries are indeed a troublesome reality but the root cause of these lies not in Pakistan’s defense expenditure which, as explained above, is already among the lowest in the region. It’s the lowest in the world when compared in terms of per capita annual spending. Pakistan spends far less on a single soldier every year compared to our traditional foe. Certain structural issues exist within Pakistan’s economic model due to which Pakistan keeps facing a crisis of foreign exchange reserves; resultantly the country’s exports and ability to produce more wealth (attaining higher GDP) sustainably suffer. Details of these issues are beyond the scope of this write-up.
Another objection that critics of Pakistan’s defense budget often level is the lack of resources for the health and education sectors due to defense spending. This is also based on wrong assumptions. Pakistan does not compromise its health and education for defense. For the current fiscal year, the federal and provincial governments have allocated an accumulative Rs 1250.776 billion for education, which is 13% of total government expenditure. Similarly, Pakistan spends 3.4% of its total GDP on health.
Pakistan does not have any expansionist ambition anywhere in the world and the sole purpose of Pakistan’s armed forces is to ensure Pakistan’s national security from external and internal threats in a defensive manner. Pakistan’s offensive capability is very limited compared to our challenges and the sheer size of our adversary.
Post 9/11 geopolitics have introduced more forces of regional instability like TTP, ISKP, and Al-Qaeda. Pakistan has been fighting a prolonged low-intensity hybrid war on terror against these groups. These operations have strained the already limited resources of Pakistan’s armed forces. Pakistan has made solid gains in this war despite thwarting aggressive moves on LoC by India at the same time. 2019’s aerial skirmish between the two air forces vindicated Pakistan’s minimum credible defense strategy. Pakistan guards its sovereignty very jealously. Pakistan’s armed forces have shown exemplary discipline, will, and professionalism in combating multiple kinetic and non-kinetic challenges. Pakistan Army always acts as a first responder in any natural calamity like flood, earthquake, or pandemic.
To conclude, reducing the military’s budget may not hurt Pakistan’s ability to defend its territory, but it will reduce Pakistan’s offensive punch, thus compromising the deterrence component in conventional defense capability. Indeed, Pakistan must spend more on the socio-economic uplift of its people. Health and education must be priorities but the correct way to provide more financial resources to these sectors is to increase the size of the economy so that all sectors can have more resources including defense where multiple forces of instability are staring in the eye with no predictable timeline. Pakistan needs a bigger defense budget without compromising on other statecraft related to governance and administration. Ignoring this strategic imperative will be ominous as it will usher more perils for the state.
Note: This article appeared in Eurasia, dated 21 March 2023.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.