After several years of neglect, India is spending large sums of money to upgrade its armed forces.
During the Kargil War of May-July 1999, the Bofors artillery guns used their firepower with deadly accuracy and destroyed a large number of enemy bunkers and other fortified positions. But there was a problem: Pakistani cannons accurately targeted and destroyed a number of these guns. It was learnt, only after the war, that
Pakistan’s gunners had “weapon-locating” radars that studied the trajectory of the shells fired by the Bofors guns to determine their position. And then the penny dropped: the Pakistani forces were better equipped than Indians. Alarmed, India, without further ado, bought similar equipment, called the ANQ Firefinder, from the United States.
In 2003, the Indian and French Air Forces held a joint exercise. It was found that the French pilots could hook on to the radar system of Indian fighter jets, though they were beyond visibility, and then bring them in the crosshairs of their missiles. In actual war, Indian pilots would have been sitting ducks. Exposed poorly in the exercise, the Indian Air Force is acquiring the same capabilities for its Mirage aircraft from France. Also in the works is a similar indigenous “Beyond Visual Range” missile called the Astra.
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After a long pause, the rearmament of India has begun. New weapon systems are being acquired — combat jets, ships, tanks, artillery guns, missiles, radars, etc — and existing hardware is getting overhauled. Various think-tanks estimate that India will spend anywhere between $75 billion and $100 billion over the next seven years to bolster its military capabilities. The annual defence budget, at almost $41 billion, or a tad over 2 per cent of the gross domestic product, is at an all-time high. Off-book expenditure would make it at least a quarter higher. India finally has more staying power than Pakistan if there is war, defence analysts on both sides of the border have started to say.
|M-77 howitzers||UK/USA||155mm towed light howitzers||145||Final price negotiations|
|Vikrant class vessel||India||40,000 tonne aircraft carrier||3 (planned)||Expected in 2014|
|Krivak IV frigates||Russia||Guided-missile frigates
with stealth capacity
|3||Expected in 2012-13|
|Scorpene submarines||France||Converted submarines with air-independent propulsion||6||Expected by 2022|
|P-8i Poseidon||USA||Surveillance aircraft||6 (4 more expected)||First delivery by 2013|
|SU 30MKI||Russia||Multi-role fighter||280||Induction in progress|
|Apache/AH 64||US/Russia||Attack helicopter||22||Technical evaluation in progress|
|CH-47 F Chinook/Mi-26||US/Russia||Heavy lift helicopter||15||Technical evaluation in progress|
|C-130J Super Hercules||US||Strategic airlift||6 (6 more planned)||Delivery started, will complete by 2014|
|C-17 Globemaster||US||Strategic heavy lift plane||10 (4 more planned)||Starts in 2014|
And there is a mindset change: no longer is India running after the lowest-cost suppliers; quality is all that matters, price is irrelevant. Thus, the Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon, the two aircraft short-listed for the medium multi-role combat aircraft, happen to be the most expensive of the original six in the fray. True, cheaper hardware from Russia helped India when its finances were precarious, but their long-term maintenance was costlier. The engines of Russian fighter jets, for example, need to be replaced after 500 hours of flying, while those of American and European aircraft need to be changed after 1,200 hours.
In fact, the rearmament has already begun. India has ordered three (two have been delivered) Phalcon early-warning aircraft from Israel, which can spot any aircraft or missile within minutes of its takeoff in Pakistan. Four more have been ordered for deployment in the east. An airborne warning and control system is being developed indigenously on the Embraer platform. Six P-8i Poseidon planes, the most sophisticated naval surveillance and detection aircraft in the world, have been ordered from Boeing. The C-130J Super Hercules from Lockheed Martin, which can carry up to 150 personnel with Jeeps and howitzers and can take off from short strips and land on dirt tracks at night, is another high-tech acquisition. The Samyukta electronic warfare system, developed by the Defence Research & Development Organisation and Bharat Electronics, can jam enemy voice, data and other signals. These are all being seen as force-multipliers.
That’s not all. The road network in the North-East is being spruced up. An all-weather tunnel at the Rohtang pass will improve access to Leh and Kargil. Frontline airfields are getting a facelift so that they can station and fly modern aircraft. The Western Naval Command has moved from Mumbai to a brand new facility at Karwar. And existing equipment is being upgraded. The Air Force, for example, has contacted Dassault of France and Mikoyan of Russia to upgrade the Mirage (for $2 billion) and Mig-29 (for $964 million), respectively.
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Actually, India is catching up after years of neglect which has blunted the fighting capabilities of all three wings of the armed forces. The Air Force, for instance, has only 32 combat-ready squadrons, against the required 45. Many of these squadrons have aircraft well past their “best-use” date. On the other hand, the geo-strategic scenario in the country’s vicinity isn’t getting any simpler. India is the only country which has two nuclear-armed neighbours, and with both it has several disputes running. The situation in the western neighbourhood beyond Pakistan is certain to remain unstable for long. Almost three-fourths of India’s crude oil comes from politically-volatile West Asia. So, the Indian Navy will have to guard the sea routes; it has in fact already been in operations against Somali pirates. As a growing economic powerhouse, India cannot be impervious to developments in its neighbourhood.
At the moment, India’s numbers compare favourably with Pakistan. Thus, India has 1.3 million men and women in olive green against Pakistan’s 617,000, 4,700 main battle tanks (Pakistan has 2,500), 11,300 artillery guns (4,300), 45 warships (10) and 16 conventional submarines (8). But the numbers look puny when compared to China (2.25 million soldiers, 7,500 main battle tanks, over 15,000 artillery guns, over 100 warships and 50 conventional submarines). Defence experts say that India needs to get over its Pakistan fixation and benchmark itself against China. “The rearmament, when complete, will enable us to compete with China today. But by then, China will have progressed and we will still be chasing,” says Lt General B S Malik (retd), former chief of the Western Command. “The Chinese have used the 20 years of peace signed in the mid-1980s to develop infrastructure in Tibet, which enhances their strike capabilities.” India’s urgency begins to make sense.
The armed forces, as a result, will look very different in 2020 from today. The numerical strength could be 20 per cent below the 1.3 million now, but the capabilities will be far superior. Artillery guns — towed guns, ultra-light howitzers, track-mounted howitzers and self-propelled guns — worth $4 billion will have been purchased, there will be 15 stealth frigates as compared to six now, 12 guided missile destroyers (three today), three nuclear submarines (none now), three aircraft carriers (none now) and 35 combat-ready air-force squadrons (32 now). The number of T-90 (Bhishma) tanks is being upped from 320 to 1,100. Larsen & Toubro and Raytheon have been mandated to give a facelift to the T-72 tanks.
No less ambitious is the missile programme. The Agni I (700 km range) and Agni II (2,200 km) missiles, both capable of carrying nuclear warheads, have been inducted. The Agni III (3,500 km) has undergone multiple tests and user trials, and is learnt to have been deployed; the Agni V (5,500 km range) will be tested later this year. This missile will be canister-based, which means it can be dismantled and taken to any place for deployment — this will help it evade satellite surveillance. By 2017, Indian could even have inter-continental ballistic missiles which have a range of over 8,000 km. This may face international opposition, and will therefore have to be a political decision.
In addition, the K4 (3,500 km) and K15 (750 km) land-attack and submarine-launched cruise missiles, respectively, are expected to join service by 2017. The Akash air-defence missile, which had at one time spluttered and was nearly abandoned, now has the armed forces thrilled. Eight units have been ordered to defend the frontier air bases and other strategic stations. Drone capabilities are also being developed, indigenously as well as with import from Israel.
Little is known about the infantry modernisation programme except that most soldiers are being trained to operate in a net-centric environment, and will be supported by sophisticated communication systems. Individually, soldiers are being equipped with a superior rifle (the INSAS 5.56 mm was not very successful). The army may go back to the tried and tested AK47 imported from Bulgaria and countries of the former Soviet Union. Night-fighting capabilities are being progressively inducted. The earlier equipment was imported from Israel but is now made under licence by Bharat Electronics. The Russian infantry combat vehicles currently in use will be replaced with modern vehicles at a cost of $12 billion.
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With such ambitious acquisition plans and large budgets, the biggest gainer ought to be the Indian defence industry. Indeed, in the last few years business groups like Tata, Godrej, Mahindra and Larsen & Toubro have entered the defence industry. But the gains are far from satisfactory. The Defence Purchase Policy has thrown open the market for domestic private companies, but hardly any order has been placed with them. As a result, most of them have to make do with sub-contracts for parts, etc — crumbs. Mahindra & Mahindra let the licence it obtained in 2003 for small firearms lapse because the government couldn’t decide one way or the other. “No decision came for five to six years; so we exited,” says Brig (retd) Khutub A Hai, the chief executive of Mahindra Defence Systems. That decision, for the record, has still not been made. Hai no longer wants to be in that business.
The public sector suffers from quality issues, which has caused serious problems of induction. For example, India had bought the Sukhoi30MKI aircraft from Russia on the condition that only 40 would be imported in “fly-away” condition, while the rest would be produced under licence by Hindustan Aeronautics. Tardy delivery made the Air Force import more jets directly from Russia, which pushed up the costs. The delays in the Scorpene submarine programme too have been caused by the inability to absorb modern technology. “The public sector has failed. In spite of its monopoly, Bharat Electronics is just a $1-billion company,” says an observer who doesn’t wish to be named.
As a matter of record, the defence ministry returned $5.5 billion between 2002 and 2009 to the treasury because it couldn’t spend the money. And Defence Minister A K Antony’s dream of importing only 30 per cent of the requirements is likely to remain a dream for quite some time. Most of the purchases have been made outside India through government-to-government contracts.
In the Gurkha war of 1815, the highlanders attacked the East India Company troops with few weapons and lots of courage, accompanied by the beats of kettledrums and strains of bagpipes. That is when the expression band baj gaya (we are done) was born. Finally, the Indian soldier will have more than just raw courage and band power to go to the battlefield.