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India’s defense policy arrives at the crossroads for best buys

by Harsh V. Pant

LONDON — This seems to be the time to woo India as a defense partner. The British defense secretary, Liam Fox, was in New Delhi promoting the European fighter Typhoon as India was looking to buy 126 multi-role combat aircraft for its air force.

Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited India the week before last to push Dassault’s Rafale, which is back as a contender after it was initially knocked out of the race for technical reasons last year.

The Obama administration, too, is eyeing a multibillion-dollar tender for medium multi-role combat aircraft.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also has come to India to firm up an already tight defense partnership. Russia was, and still is, a huge seller of defense equipment to India, even as the Indian government’s outreach to the United States and Europe has led to the diversification of the global defense market.

India has emerged as the world’s second-largest arms buyer over the last five years, importing 7 percent of the world’s arms exports.

With the world’s fourth-largest military and one of the biggest defense budgets, India has been in the midst of a huge defense modernization program for more than a decade now, spending billions of dollars 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 and is changing the scope of the defense market.

Yet, just a few weeks back, Indian Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik bluntly informed the country that half of the equipment used by the air force is either obsolete or nearly so. Although he assured the nation that the air force is quite capable of carrying out its defensive role, he was unequivocal in suggesting that most air force hardware is not in the best operational condition.

At a time when Indian political leaders blithely talk of India’s rise as a military power, such a statement from top military brass 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 undergoing an unprecedented military transformation should make redressing the situation the top priority of the government.

India’s security environment is deteriorating due to the prospect of the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, the possible return of military control in Pakistan, China’s aggressive assertion of its territorial interests, deepening Sino-Pakistani military cooperation, internal turmoil in Kashmir, and the growing threat from Maoists.

As a percentage of the gross domestic product, annual defense spending has declined to one of its lowest levels since 1962. And for the past several years now, the defense ministry has been unable to spend its budgetary allocation. The defense acquisition process remains mired in corruption and bureaucratese.

A series of defense procurement scandals since the late 1980s have made the bureaucracy risk-averse, thereby delaying purchases. A large part of the money is surrendered by the defense forces every year because they are unable to spend their allocations due to the labyrinthine bureaucratic procedures of the procurement process.

India’s indigenous defense production industry has time and again made its inadequacy to meet the demands of the armed forces apparent. The Indian armed forces keep waiting for arms and equipment while the finance ministry is left with unspent budget year after year.

The delay of most large procurement programs escalates costs and results in the fielding of equipment that is technologically or strategically obsolete.

Not surprisingly, while the Indian Army is suggesting that it is 50 percent short of attaining full capability and will need around 20 years to gain full defense preparedness, naval analysts point to the decline of India’s naval power.

During the 1999 Kargil conflict, operations were hampered by a lack of adequate equipment. The army chief at the time famously commented that the armed forces would fight with whatever equipment they had, underscoring the military’s frustration over its inability to procure the arms they needed.

It was only because the conflict remained largely confined to the 150-km front in the Kargil sector that India managed to get the upper hand, ejecting Pakistani forces from its side of the Line of Control.

India lacked the ability to carry out significant surgical strikes during Operation Parakram because of the unavailability of suitable weaponry and night-vision equipment.

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-a-vis Pakistan. But it soon became clear that India no longer had the capability to impose quick and effective retribution on Pakistan, as it no longer enjoyed the kind of conventional superiority of the past five decades.

The higher defense organizational setup in India continues to exhibit serious weaknesses that put the military’s ability to prosecute wars in the contemporary strategic context in serious doubt. Institutional structures, as they stand today, 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 found it necessary to appoint even a chief of defense staff.

The Indian government has yet to demonstrate the political will to overcome the defense policy paralysis that seems to render 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; nor has there been articulation of an overall defense strategy.

The challenge for the Indian government is to delineate clearly what equipment it needs and how to build up India’s industry in the process. This means significant reforms in the domestic defense manufacturing sector.

Without a comprehensive, long-term appraisal of the country’s defense requirements, India’s real acquisition needs will remain hazy, and India’s rise as a major global player will remain no more than a topic of speculation.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London and is a visiting fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.