Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Can India’s Military Stand Tall In Front Of Towering Peers?

By Girish Linganna

Girish Linganna, Aerospace & Defence analyst & Director ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd

The United States, China, and Russia are frequently brought up when discussing large armed forces and armies. Other contenders are difficult to imagine, perhaps those of the United Kingdom or France, which are hardly present in the struggle for hegemony in the twenty-first century. ​What about India? 

India has a population of 1,360 million people and a surface area of 1.24 million m2, making it the second most populous nation in the world. If it isn’t already the first, it will be very soon. Additionally, it ranks seventh among the ten largest nations in the world in terms of population size. Furthermore, more and more businesses are establishing production facilities here, and many investors believe that the country’s economy is booming in some way. However, when we discuss India, we are also discussing one of the nine nuclear powers that exist today. Although there is no official confirmation, estimates place its arsenal at around 150 nuclear warheads, and this information is frequently ignored.

Geopolitical Struggle 

India is involved in several geopolitical conflicts, including one with the People’s Republic of China, a powerful Asian nation. The two nations with which India currently has the most difficult relations are Pakistan and China. The region of Kashmir, shared by Pakistan and India with a small portion also in the hands of the Chinese juggernaut, is the main focus of the conflict. 

Thus, India maintains two flanks in this region: one against Pakistan, which New Delhi accuses of sending military personnel across the line of control to undermine the Indian portion of Kashmir, and the other against China, with whom it shares the Galwan valley, which occasionally serves as the scene of armed clashes and tensions. In the Himalayas, India and China also share an approx 3500 km hostile mountain border.

Additionally, the two countries have competing interests in the Indian Ocean, where China is attempting to annex the region by constructing naval bases and expanding its influence. India is working to bolster its Navy to secure its trade routes. 

However, India, the world’s leader in bureaucracy, is far from having developed a strong army, despite being a demographic giant or a rising power in the making and having two conflicts with two nuclear powers, as one might expect from an armed force riddled with issues. The country also lacks good overland infrastructure, such as roads and railroads, which significantly hinders supply chains and the potential deployment of troops in a conflict. 

What part, then, does India play in the emerging power struggle in the Asia Pacific region? How does New Delhi intend to rival its neighbour to the north? Perhaps a new Cold War between China and India is underway right now? 

When India became independent from the British Empire in 1947, it lacked a long-standing military tradition, unlike China, Russia, and other significant emerging military superpowers. The British left behind no well-established military culture or adequate internal security or intelligence structures. Even after independence was attained, little changed. Successive Indian governments viewed the lack of social and economic advancement as a greater threat than any posed by the nation’s neighbours. 

And, of course, one can imagine the make-up of armed forces if one is talking about a poor, densely populated nation. The Indian Army has historically prioritised troop strength, placing equipment modernization as a secondary or tertiary concern. 

India has the third-largest military budget in the world, behind China and the US, but its operational capabilities are very constrained. The Indian Army’s organisational structure could be more akin to armies from the first half of the 20th century than contemporary armed forces. Analysts and military planners estimate that 1.5 million soldiers currently comprise India’s armed forces. India must get rid of between 200,000 and 300,000 soldiers and use the extra funds to upgrade the weapons used on the battlefield. 

Additionally, there is a problem with military pensions, overstaffing, and a lack of tools and weapons. To give you an idea, military pension payments account for nearly 30% of the defence budget for 2021. That amounts to almost $18 billion from a $62 billion total budget. Put another way; the Indian Army spends more on military pensions than it does on purchasing new equipment. When military pensions are taken out of the equation, India’s ranking among nations by military expenditure drops from third to ninth, putting it on par with South Korea. However, with nearly 1.5 million soldiers to pay, train, prepare for, and equip, these are by no means the only issues the Indian armed forces must deal with. 

Additionally, the nation has faced significant challenges in building a robust domestic military industry. And the current administration has made achieving this goal one of its goals. A robust military industry significantly reduces a nation’s reliance on the global geopolitical environment when purchasing military hardware. Additionally, if you solely rely on purchases made on the international market, especially if you are overly dependent on one nation, you are less vulnerable because you cannot get involved in a conflict without running the risk of losing military supplies. It’s interesting to note that most of the military hardware used by India today, including submarines, aircraft, and armoured vehicles, is of Soviet or Russian origin. What are we doing about the current state of affairs in India? What are the plans for New Delhi? Are we creating a new military from scratch?

The Indian government has been concentrating on the flaws in its armed forces for a while now. We appear to have realised that we are neither effective nor modern, nor would we be entirely capable of handling the situation if something went wrong with China or Pakistan. That explains why the Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan, or LTIPP, a 15-year modernization and restructuring programme, was introduced in 2012. It must be finished by 2027. It’s a plan that, over the years, has seen cuts and constant delays and anticipates spending $250 billion on modern weapons during the time. However, despite not meeting all of the deadlines and objectives set thus far, India’s military capabilities on land, at sea, and in the air have improved to some extent. Let’s examine these advancements. 

Starting with the Navy, India wants to rank among the world’s top navies by 2050 with a fleet of 200 warships and 500 combat aircraft. However, it only has over 200 naval aircraft, 17 submarines, and about 170 ships. Thus, with our current tools, we fall far short of their objective. We have two aircraft carriers. A Soviet aircraft carrier named the INS Vikramaditya was bought from Russia in 2004.

 INS Vikrant: A Carrier Built In India

The Indian Navy also has 11 destroyers, 13 frigates, 23 corvettes, seven reconnaissance ships, 15 conventional submarines, one ballistic missile submarine, and other smaller ships, in addition to the two aircraft carriers. The Navy has plans for 24 new submarines, including six nuclear-powered and six diesel-electric submarines with cutting-edge air-independent propulsion systems that will enable us to stay underwater for longer. The Navy will buy five support vessels, seven new frigates, and other minor purchases. 

In addition to the 2000 tanks already in service, 464 Russian T90 tanks will be added to the Indian Army’s modernization. The intention is to replace older tanks, like the Soviet T-72s, that are still in use. There are about 3000 of these Russian tanks. 

The development of long-range artillery guns enables Indian weapons to strike targets along Pakistan’s border from a greater range. For instance, up to 145 M 777A2 howitzers from the United States and 100 K9 self-propelled howitzers from South Korea have been purchased. Native ATAGS howitzers are also being developed. 

Then, in 2016, India and Russia signed a contract to deploy the Russian S400 anti-aircraft defence system, one of the best anti-aircraft systems in the world, to safeguard military and nuclear bases, cities, and strategic infrastructure. With the S400 in place, India may have the upper hand over Pakistan, making it nearly impossible for Pakistani aircraft, drones, helicopters, or missiles to launch attacks on Indian soil. 

A $2 billion deal was made between India and Israel in 2017 to supply the Indian Army with 16 launchers and 560 Israeli Barak 8 missiles. 

Additionally, India is purchasing Light Combat Helicopters made in India and US Apache attack helicopters. 

India’s air force is not exactly the most advanced, despite being the fourth largest in the world after the US, Russia, and China. It currently has 806 fighters, 82 special mission planes, seven refuelling planes, 232 transport planes, 652 helicopters, and 325 training planes. If that wasn’t enough, the Indian Air Force (IAF) plans to increase its fleet by more than 400 aircraft. 

The IAF currently operates 272 Sukhoi SU 30 aircraft after acquiring 53 additional aircraft for its fleet. India has purchased 36 Dassault Rafale fighters costing $9 billion from France. These two models are capable of launching a variety of missiles, including the Indo-Russian BrahMos and missiles. Along with the fighters, India has recently launched new early warning and airborne control systems and a new satellite network. India has a satellite that is dedicated to watching over Pakistan around the clock.

Faltering Modernisation 

It appears that India is beginning serious modernisation efforts for its armed forces. The nation aspires to transform from a paper tiger to a feared and fierce fighter, but it will require money to accomplish its goals. The truth is that India hasn’t invested much money in its defence programmes recently, at least for the time being. And as a result, a lot of these plans are being created piecemeal rather than as part of a comprehensive programme to enhance operational capabilities. In the past ten years, India has not made any plans for newer capital equipment, the effect of which will be visible in the next decade. India is struggling even to purchase what was decided in the last few decades. Some of the done deals, like AK 203, are in limbo.

For instance, India’s defence spending as a percentage of GDP decreased from 2.45 per cent to 1.49 percent between 2000 and 2019. Even though it has slightly increased to about 2.5 per cent, the stark difference between India and China still exists when we contrast it with China’s GDP, which is five times larger than India’s and accounts for about 13.5% of the global defence spending.

Experts say that India’s 15-year plan, which expires in 2027, is lacking in strategic reasoning. This means that some of the weapons purchases might not be properly targeted for actual needs during the conflict. 

Submarine Vs Aircraft Carrier Debate

The debate is nuanced, but India is neither building a new aircraft carrier nor a new submarine in the current period. 

Of course, India’s 150 nuclear warheads may be its greatest asset and best bet on deterrence, but that does not change the fact that the nation can hardly hope to play any sort of regional role despite spending more than $60 billion annually. 

The modernisation plans are still moving forward, albeit slowly. The local weapons production is not as robust as it should be. Through the Make in India programme, the government has signed co-production and co-development agreements with the US, Israel, and Russia, but it seems insufficient. Not to mention how India’s bureaucratic hell impacts the production chains. In any case, the future outlook can only be determined with time. According to recent data and press releases, India will require reforms in every area of the economy if India becomes a centre for global manufacturing. The economy is also not doing well; the prospects appear bleak in the foreseeable future.

Girish Linganna is an Aerospace and Defence Analyst & Director ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Indian Aerospace & Defence


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