Expenditure, tech to shape future India-China military equations: Army veteran

In their first meeting after the BJP’s return to power, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi agreed at the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) summit in Kazakhstan, that prolonging “the current situation in the border areas is not in the interest of either side”.

Both sides agreed to “re-double efforts” to resolve the border issues at the SCO summit on Thursday. The military standoff along the Line of Actual Control in May 2020, is now in its fifth year with unresolved “issues in border areas” near eastern Ladakh.

Lieutenant General Deependra Singh Hooda (retd.), former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian Army’s Northern Command, believes the competition between the two countries will significantly shape the regional security landscape in future.

In a recent paper for a New Delhi based think tank he outlined some of the key factors impacting the military capabilities of the two neighbours.

Speaking to India Today, he emphasised on the need to reduce expenditure on personnel costs and increase equipment and technology expenditure. “My suggestion is on planning how to do more with the money allocated. For that, you need to reduce personnel costs by cutting down manpower and spending more on technology, adopting smaller and smarter systems,” he said.

India versus China: explaining military strength in numbers. (Source: GFI)


India ranks fourth in the 2024 military strength ranking, just after China, according to the Global Firepower Index, a platform that analyses data based on factors that determine a nation’s war-fighting capability.

China is the largest defence spender in Asia, but its actual defence expenditures are highly opaque. As per the current defence spending trends, Lt. Gen. Hooda assesses that by 2028, China’s military expenditure will be approximately $413 billion, while India’s will be around $138 billion.

The huge gap between India and China can be attributed to the difference in the size of GDPs. India is the fifth-largest economy and spends 2.08 percent of the GDP on defence.

Hooda points out that India’s military spending is heavily weighted towards personnel costs (pay and pensions), which consume over 50% of the budget, while only slightly more than 20% is allocated to modernization. China, on the other hand, spent about 30% of the budget on personnel and over 40% on equipment from 2012 to 2017.

“The ongoing standoff at the LAC with China has resulted in more boots on the ground, and persistent challenges remain on the border with Pakistan and in combating internal conflicts in the Northeast and Kashmir,” he notes.

China’s dependence on foreign countries for arms imports have fallen by 44 per cent in the 2019-23 period. The 2024 SIPRI report (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) highlights China’s growing ability to design and produce its own equipment. “Today there is a mismatch between the capability development plan and the budgetary allocationâ€æ right now, it is only an ad hoc allocation that is not in line with military requirementsâ€æ the mismatch between the plan laid by the military and the funds approved by the government needs to be narrowed down” he further explained.


A comparison of the Indian and Chinese (PLA) Navies. (Source: GFI)

Geographically, India has an advantageous position in maritime domain. For the PLA to enter the Indian Ocean through the narrow chokepoints of the Malacca Strait is a challenge, presenting a geographical obstacle for China for “at least a few years”.

But, China is now the largest shipbuilding nation in the world, with a manufacturing capacity of roughly 23,250,000 million tons. Between 2017 and 2019, the country has reportedly built more naval vessels than India, Japan, Australia, France, and the United Kingdom combined.

Former military official highlights that the “Indian Navy has made progress in shipbuilding, but some critical needs have to be imported.” The Indian Navy currently has a fleet of 132 ships, combined with 143 aircraft and 130 helicopters. The IN had planned to be a 200-ship navy by 2027, which has now been modified to 170 ships by 2035.

“Four Project 15B stealth-guided missile destroyers are on order, of which three have been delivered. Seven Project 17A stealth frigates are on order, with deliveries expected between 2024 and 2027. The Project-75 submarine programme involves the acquisition of six diesel electric attack Scorpene submarines, the last of which will enter service in 2024. An additional three Scorpene submarines are planned to be procured, with deliveries starting in 2031” he adds.

Numerically, China has the largest navy in the world with over 370 ships and submarines, including more than 140 major surface combatants. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is projected to expand its battle force to 395 ships by 2025 and 435 ships by 2030.


A comparison of the Indian and Chinese Air Force.

Hooda observes, “the IAF currently operates a fleet of six Russian-origin Ilyushin-78 tankers that are plagued by maintenance problems,” while the strength is at 32 squadrons with 600 fighter aircraft. In contrast, China has a fleet of 2,400 combat aircraft, with more than 1300 fourth-generation aircraft, combining the PLAAF and the PLAN aviation together. “For ballistic missile defence, China is developing the HQ-19 for medium-range missiles and the Dong Neng missiles for interception at higher altitudes” , he adds.

Although the PLAAF fleet outnumbers the IAF’s inventory by approximately double, military experts believe IAF has been better positioned to counter China due geographical reasons. However, recent infra push by China in the region highlights its attempts to bridge this critical gap. “Through recent advances in building roads and infrastructure and upgrading air bases China has reduced some of the traditional disadvantages.” he observed.

In 2021, then-CDS General Bipin Rawat announced India’s plans to create a ‘rocket force.’ In September 2023, the government approved the procurement of Pralay tactical ballistic missiles for the IAF (Indian Air Force), capable of striking targets at 150–500 km.


Among the recommendations for Indian policymakers include more private sector involvement in Defense-Industrial Base. “We have no option but to involve private players”’ Hooda emphasised. Joint development of the light battle tank Zorawar by the Defence Research and Development Authority (DRDO) and Larsen & Toubro (L&T) Limited is a recent example of one such project. Zorawar is built to meet the Indian Army’s requirements in the eastern Ladakh sector against Chinese deployment across the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Terming emerging tech like Artificial Intelligence (AI) a “game changer” Hooda stressed on the need to formulate an “AI strategy” dedicated to the Indian Army. “The three steps that are required in this field include an AI strategy, data for AI and revamping procurement procedures for AI”, he said.

Published By:

Ashutosh Acharya

Published On:

Jul 9, 2024

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