India’s military power suffers from serious flaws

First came news of Russia’s decision to ground a substantial number of its MiG-29 fighters owing to structural defects. The news sparked off immediate concern for both the Indian Air Force (IAF), which flies three squadrons of this ‘air superiority’ aircraft that played a role during the Kargil war, and for also the Indian Navy which will begin taking delivery of the first four of a total 45 of this aircraft’s naval variant, the MiG-29K, later this year.

Almost simultaneously came news of the Obama Administration’s directive to General Electric to stop all work on the US-supplied gas turbine engines powering the Shivalik-class frigates just when the Navy was all set to launch sea trials of the first of these three stealth warships. This freeze will stay until the US government finishes reviewing its military ties with different countries. India is now reportedly turning to an Italian company to help operationalise the engines of the 4,900 tonne warships so that sea trials begin within the next two months.

Ironically, this decision coincides with Washington clearing the sale of eight P-8I Poseidon maritime reconnaissance aircraft priced at $2.1 billion making it the largest arms transfer to India so far in the history of bilateral relations. But then all purchases from the US come with the rider that India sign the End-Use Verification Agreement (EUVA) that entails ‘on-site inspection’ and ‘physical verification’ which New Delhi has been resisting. And now comes news that the IAF is looking for advance jet trainers (AJT) other than the British-supplied Hawk aircraft to train its pilots. This is because the IAF is facing considerable problems relating to product-support for the 66 Hawks bought only a few years ago. The AJT plays a vital role in training rookie pilots to transition from subsonic trainer aircraft to ‘high-performance’ supersonic fighters.

These three events in quick succession are only a few of the many such incidents that have been occurring with monotonous regularity. It is repeatedly exposing the Indian armed forces’ vulnerability to the whims and vagaries of foreign suppliers that range from sudden foreign policy shifts, price hikes to glitches in technology. This adversely affects every aspect of India’s war-fighting capabilities, as was witnessed during the Kargil war when the Army chief commented on India’s lack of preparedness famously saying that “if a war was thrust on us, we will fight with whatever we have”. The Ministry of Defence is still grappling with the Russians who have almost tripled the original cost of refitting the 44,500 tonne aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov (since renamed INS Vikramaditya). The arrival of this aircraft carrier, which is vital to India’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean because of its role in sea control, has been delayed further by four years to end-2012.

In 2008, the Russian company Rosoboroexport had suddenly hiked the price of 80 Mi-17-IV transport helicopters from $650 million to $ 1 billion after the deal had been finalised. In 2007, the Indian Navy refused to take delivery of an upgraded Kilo-class submarine from the Russians after they noticed deficiencies in the accuracy of the freshly fitted cruise missiles. That same year, India also expressed reservations over the upgraded Russian-made IL-38 maritime reconnaissance aircraft after the Navy complained that its Sea Dragon multi-mission electronic warfare suites were not working to parameters. Then in the mid-1990s, many of the British-supplied Sea Eagle anti-ship missiles turned out to be duds. The French refused an Indian request for the ‘proven’ Exocet anti-ship missiles that had been successfully used by Argentina against the British naval fleet during the Falklands war. After continued refusals, the US only recently agreed to sell to India the ‘war proven’ Harpoon anti-ship missiles, which, incidentally, it supplied to Pakistan two decades ago. India may boast of the world’s third largest Army, fourth largest Air Force and seventh largest Navy, but even 61 years after Independence the Indian military continues to be almost entirely dependent on foreign countries for its weapon systems.

From rifles and machine guns for its Infantry to tanks, artillery guns, fighter aircraft and submarines, the list of imports reads endless and runs into billions of dollars. The Indian armed forces are currently in the midst of their most expensive modernisation and upgrading programme. But India’s military is almost entirely foreign dependent. India is slated to spend a whopping $50 billion on defence purchases in the next five years. This does not include the $32 billion worth agreements signed between 2000-2007. But the time lines, cost escalation, rapid advances in military technology and continued depletions in force-levels continue to take their toll on the armed forces which can only hope to attain their complete modernisation by 2025, which is still a decade-and-a-half away.

The order for big-ticket items all of them replacements for an ageing fleet is indeed daunting. It includes 126 multi-role combat aircraft valued at $10.4 billion; six more submarines; six more maritime reconnaissance aircraft to replace the ageing Soviet-origin IL-38s; six C-130J ‘Super Hercules’ transport aircraft from the US for the Special Forces valued at $962.45 million; a range of artillery ranging from 1,500 pieces of 155 mm towed artillery guns, 180 wheeled Self Propelled Guns and 140 ultra light howitzers; 347 more T-90 tanks from Russia; a range of helicopters ranging from Mi-17-IVs, 384 light helicopters including 259 for the Army and 125 for the IAF priced at a total of about $1.6 billion to replace the vintage French-origin Chetaks and Cheetahs, and 22 attack helicopters to replace the ageing Soviet-origin Mi-25/35s; 16 anti-submarine warfare helicopters for the Navy to replace the British-made Sea King fleet, and 15 heavy-lift utility helicopters to replace the four Soviet-origin Mi-25 helicopters.

Unfortunately, India’s quest for self-reliance and indigenisation of defence hardware that began in the late 1950s is far from fruitition. Of particular dismay is the performance of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, which has failed to develop a single major weapon system. Even 37 years after its development, the Arjun tank continues to suffer from performance deficiencies, forcing India to buy T-90s from Russia, which has since been creating hurdles in technology transfer. Indigenous efforts to make the Kaveri engine for the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, developed with the help of the US and still a few years from induction into the IAF, have failed, forcing India to look for a foreign collaborator. The Akash and Trishul surface-air-missiles have remained a non-starter even after 26 years forcing India to buy Barak and Spyder missiles from Israel. Both the Agni and Prithvi surface-to-surface missiles have only achieved limited success. In contrast to military powers of reckoning, India’s defence exports were a dismal $105 million in 2006-2007 allowing it little leverage in contrast to our long-term competitor and adversary, China, which signed export agreements worth $3.8 billion in 2007 alone. Even the most expensive Indian defence exports comprise second-hand defence equipment of foreign origin. This over-dependence on foreign vendors coupled with a failure to become self-dependent in defence hardware does not auger well for a country that is seeking to be a global player in a world that is dictated by realpolitik and where military power is still key in a multi-polar world along with the other two major forms of power Economic and Soft.


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