Serious concerns about the trajectory of Indian Defense Policy stand in sharp contrast to hyperbolic talk of India’s military rise.
When it comes to military defense aspirations, all eyes are on—and wallets open to—India, as big defense players vie for the multi-billion dollar prize of providing multirole combat aircraft to the Indian Air Force (IAF). Just last week French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited India pushing jet fighter aircraft Dassault’s Rafale, which is back as a contender after it was initially knocked out of the race for technical reasons last year. British Defense Secretary Liam Fox was in New Delhi two weeks ago promoting the Eurofighter Typhoon, as India looks to buy 126 new combat aircraft. The Obama administration is also eyeing the lucrative multi-billion dollar tender. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev will also be in Delhi later this month in order to firm up an already tight defense partnership. Russia was and still is a huge seller of defense equipment to India, although the government’s outreach to the US and Europe has allowed for a diversification of the defense market.
India has been the world’s second-largest arms buyer over the past five years, importing seven per cent of the world’s arms exports. With the world’s fourth largest military and one of its biggest defense budgets, India has been in the midst of a huge defense modernization program for more than a decade now; one that has seen billions of dollars spent on the latest high-tech military technology. According to a recent report by KPMG, India will be spending around $100 billion on defense purchases over the next decade. This liberal spending on military equipment has attracted the interest of western industry and governments alike and is changing the scope of the global defense market.
From hyperbole to reality
And yet, just a few weeks ago, India’s Air Chief Marshal PV Naik bluntly informed the country that half of the equipment used by the IAF is either obsolete or obsolescent. Though he assured the nation that the IAF was quite “capable” of carrying out its defensive role, he was unequivocal in his suggestion that most of the hardware used by the IAF was not in the best operational condition. At a time when Indian political brass blithely talk of India’s rise as a military power, such a statement from the top military leadership raises serious concerns about the trajectory of Indian defense policy. That this is happening at a time when the regional security environment in Asia is witnessing an unprecedented military transformation should make redressing the situation the government’s top priority.
India’s security environment is deteriorating rapidly with the prospect of the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, the military taking control in Pakistan, China asserting its territorial interests more aggressively than ever before, deepening Sino-Pakistan military cooperation, internal turmoil in Kashmir and the growing Maoist threat.
As a percentage of GDP, annual defense spending has declined to one of its lowest levels since 1962. More damaging, the defense ministry has not been able to spend its budgetary allocation for the last several years. The defense acquisition process remains mired in corruption and bureaucracy. A series of defense procurement scandals since the late 1980s have also made the bureaucracy risk averse, thereby delaying the acquisition process India’s indigenous defense production industry has time and again made apparent its inability to meet the demands of the armed forces. While the armed forces keep waiting for arms and equipment, the Finance Ministry is left with unspent budget funds year after year. Most large procurement programs get delayed, resulting in cost escalation and technological or strategic obsolescence of the budgeted items.
Coming up short and frustrated
Not surprisingly, while the Indian Army asserts that it is 50 per cent short of attaining full capability and will need around 20 years to gain full defense preparedness, naval analysts are pointing out that India’s naval power is actually declining. During the 1999 Kargil conflict, operations were hampered by a lack of adequate equipment. The then Indian Army Chief famously commented that the forces would fight with whatever they had, underlining the army’s frustrating inability to procure the arms it needs. Only because the conflict remained largely confined to the 150 kilometers front in Kargil sector did India manage to gain an upper hand, ejecting Pakistani forces from its side of the Line-of-Control.
India also lacked the ability to impose significant military costs during Operation Parakram in 2001-2002 because of the unavailability of suitable weaponry and night-vision equipment needed to carry out swift surgical strikes. Similarly, the public outcry after the terror attacks on Mumbai in November 2008 was strong enough for the Indian government to consider using the military option vis-à-vis Pakistan. But it soon turned out that India no longer had the capability of imposing quick and effective retribution on Pakistan and that it did not enjoy the kind of conventional superiority over its regional adversary that it had for the past five decades.
The organizational set-up of India’s higher defense continues to exhibit serious weaknesses, with its strategic ability to prosecute contemporary wars in serious doubt. The current institutional structures are not effective enough to provide single-point military advice to the government or to facilitate the definition of defense objectives. Coordinated and synergized joint operations need integrated theater commands, yet India has not yet found it necessary to appoint even a defense chief-of-staff.
The Indian government is yet to demonstrate the political will to tackle the defense policy paralysis that seems to be rendering all claims of India’s rise as a military power increasingly hollow. There has been no long-term strategic review of India’s security environment, and no overall defense strategy has been articulated. The challenge for the Indian government is to delineate clearly what products they need and how to build up their own industry by significantly reforming their domestic defense manufacturing sector. In the absence of a comprehensive, long-term appraisal of the country’s defense requirements, there will be little clarity about India’s real needs in defense acquisitions. And India’s rise as a major global player will remain merely a matter of potential.
By Harsh V Pant