Sri Lankan parliament green lights high defense expenditure
Posted on November 25th, 2022

By P.K. Balachandran Courtesy NewsIn.Asia

Colombo, November 25 (Counterpoint): Despite criticisms both inside and outside the House, the Sri Lankan parliament on Thursday passed a high defense and national security budget amounting to US$ 1.46 billion for 2023. It was passed by a majority of 81 votes, with 91 MPs voting in favor and 10 voting against.

President Wickremesinghe, who is also Finance and Defense Minister, had allocated 539 billion rupees (US$ 1.46 billion) for both defense and public security while allocating 322 billion rupees (US$ 868 million) for health and 232 billion (US$ 629 million) for education.


Justifying the high allocation for defense and national security (police) he told parliament: We might have to increase our naval force by around 2030. The army numbers may come down, but more requirements might come from the air force. We may need drones by 2030-40.”

He further said that the expenditure on the military cannot be reduced in 24 hours. Military personnel cannot be thrown out at once. Although the number of troops has decreased, promotions have increased, he explained.

On using the personnel, he said: We have now deployed the army in food security programs.  Also, we get a lot of income from military farms. I have told them to use the army as much as necessary for the transportation of those goods.”

We need to look at the future of the army. We are working according to the Security 2030 report for that. We must plan our defenses.”

Reacting to contention that after the end of the separatist war in May 2009, Sri Lanka faces no security threat to necessitate high defense expenditure, Wickremesinghe said: It is impossible to say that there is no threat. Conditions are changing. We may not have the threats of 1971 and those of the 1980s (both insurgencies), or the Easter Sunday incident of 2019 (suicide bombings), but such threats happen in different ways.”

Geopolitics has made us the center with all the big powers getting involved. We need to look at the Indian Ocean. We should see how we should act with all these other powerful forces. I wish we could manufacture a new warship in Sri Lanka. We have that power. Only the money has to be found.”

Those who leave the army should have the opportunity to contribute to society. Today, professionals are leaving this country. That gap can be filled by training our armed forces personnel and sending them to occupy those places. We have to think anew.”

On internal security, Wickremesinghe said that there are many problems like drug trafficking and human trafficking today. We have to move forward in solving all these issues. We are getting a report called Public Security Report to find out how to improve the police in the next 10 years.”

On the increasing violence-prone civil disobedience incidence, the President said: I also want to protect human rights. But human rights cannot be used to create violence and anarchy. Those who cause violence in the name of human rights cannot be protected.” He would have no compunction about using the army to quell violence, the President added.

However, the President admitted that Sri Lanka needs to reduce its defense expenditure to maintain it at 3%-4% of the GDP and for that, Sri Lanka’s economy has to grow at 8%.

Distortions in Defense Expenditure

Daniel Alphonsus in his paper entitled: Sri Lanka’s Post-War Defence Budget: Overspending and Underprotection (South Asia Scan, Issue No. 15 (Singapore: Institute of South Asian Studies, November 2021), said that despite the radically altered strategic environment since the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, defense expenditure rose from US$1.71 billion to US$1.824 billion to make it 2.4% of the GDP by 2021. US$ 1.46 billion has been allocated for 2023.

However, the main reason for the high defense allocation is the high cost of paying personnel in terms of salaries and pensions, Alphonsus pointed out.

The share of government pension expenditure accruing to military personnel has risen from 14.5 per cent to over 17 per cent in just three years,” he says. Sri Lanka spent around US$1 billion on pensions, so military pensions cost the taxpayer approximately US$  170 million per year,” he adds. In the entire Asian continent, only Nepal and Tajikistan spend a greater share of their defense spending on personnel,” Alphonsus points out.

Another reason for the higher expenditure on personnel, according to the scholar, is that Sri Lanka does not have military reservists

The world average for reserves contribution to total (military) manpower is over 60 per cent. In Sri Lanka’s case, reserves are less than four per cent of manpower strength. This may explain why Sri Lanka, the 58th largest country in the world by population, has the 24th largest army in the world.”

Sri Lanka has been spending a lot on the army but not at all enough on the Navy and  Air Force. Sri Lanka had not grasped the fact that it is an island in the strategic Indian Ocean. Terrorists, smugglers of drugs and humans, pirates and illegal fishers are the new threats emanating from the sea around the island. Though there is also a vast Exclusive Economic Zone to safeguard, the navy is ill-equipped to face these threats, Capt. Rohan Joseph SLN, has said in his writings.

Making Defense part of Sustainable Economic Development

President Wickremesinghe is looking into these aspects. All these aspects had been highlighted in the 2019 report on Sustainable Sri Lanka 2030 Vision and Strategic Path edited by Mohan Munasinghe.

Taking a holistic view of security, the report said that Lankans should be safeguarded from physical security threats and also from economic, social and environmental threats.

In its approach to enhancing national security, Sri Lanka should invest in R&D initiatives to forecast the strategic future of the country. This will help to identify short, medium and long-term threats, so that we are better prepared to address the challenges such threats pose,” the Munasinghe report said.

It is essential to curb the radicalization of the youth, the report said. Radicalization is an emerging global threat and therefore, Sri Lanka must mitigate its effects locally, so as to prevent xenophobia. In this regard, dignity and respect for all ethnicities, cultures and religions must be taught on an educational level in Sri Lanka.”

In the 2025-2030 time-frame, the following are the potential threats we could expect Sri Lanka to address in the future: economic information warfare, cyber warfare (biometric authentication and privacy concerns), bio-war, agri-terrorism, radicalization and ethnic identity, and geo-political strategic concerns. A comprehensive Defense and Security Policy should be in place by 2025, drafted through a participatory mechanism with input from think tanks, the Parliament and other relevant stakeholders.”

By 2030, Sri Lanka would have achieved Indian Ocean hub status as a financial, maritime and services transitory point in the geo-political context. On this trajectory, Sri Lanka must navigate its position in the Indian Ocean between China and India and balance all strategic interests in the country. The World Economic Forum has predicted that by 2030 the world will be multi-polar and thus it is crucial that Sri Lanka incorporates this balancing-act into its foreign policy in the long term.”

Attending to all these involves a lot of expenditure for which money will have to be found. But if defense expenditure is so defined that it is part of a long-term program of sustainable national development, a high amount allocated for it may not be in vain.  

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