Facing a strategic void

India has been one of the world's major defence spenders, making more than US $35 billion of arms purchases over the past two to three years.

Inaugurating Defexpo India 2014 defence minister,A K Antony underlined the commitment of his government “to modernise the armed forces so that they are well-equipped with the best equipment, weapon systems and technology.” Addressing the 8th Land, Naval and Internal, Homeland Security Systems Exhibition in Delhi, he suggested that “efforts are being made to accelerate the pace of indigenisation in defence sector” and that “the government is encouraging joint public-private participation in defence sector, while thrust is also being given to the private sector to make a far more meaningful and substantive contribution.”

Defexpo India 2014, the eighth in the series and the largest ever defence exposition in Asia, was held in Delhi a few days ago underscoring India’s emergence as an attractive destination for investment in the defence sector and providing a platform for collaborations and joint ventures in the defence industry.

India has been one of the world’s major defence spenders over the last few years, making more than US $35 billion of arms purchases over the past two to three years. Accordingly, India has asserted its military profile in the past decade, setting up bases abroad and patrolling the Indian Ocean to counter piracy and protect lines of communication. As its strategic horizons become broader, military acquisition is shifting from land-based systems to airborne refuelling systems, long-range missiles and other means of power projection. When it comes to military defence aspirations, all eyes are on – and wallets open to – India, as big defence players vie for the Indian defence market.

 India is the world’s second-largest arms buyer over the past five years, importing 7 per cent of the world’s arms exports. With the world’s fourth largest military and one of its biggest defence budgets, India has been in the midst of a huge defence modernisation programme for more than a decade now; one that has seen billions of dollars spent on the latest high-tech military technology. According to various estimates, India will be spending around $100 billion on defence 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 market.

Yet fundamental vulnerabilities continue to ail Indian defence policy. So while the Indian army has been suggesting that it is 50 per cent short of attaining full capability and will need 20 years to gain full defence 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. Only because the conflict remained largely confined to the 150-km front in the Kargil sector did India manage to get an upper hand, ejecting Pakistani forces from its side of the line-of-control (LoC). India lacked the ability to impose significant military costs during Operation Parakram because of the non-availability of suitable weaponry and night vision equipment needed to carry out swift surgical strikes.

Recipe for disaster

Few states face the kind of security challenges that confront India. Yet since Independence, the military has never been seen as central to achieving Indian national priorities. India ignored the defence sector after Independence and paid inadequate attention to its security needs. Indeed, it was not until the Sino-Indian War of 1962 that the Indian military was given a role in the formulation of defence policy. Divorcing foreign policy from military power was a recipe for disaster as India realised in 1962 when even Nehru was forced to concede that India’s military weakness had indeed been a temptation for the Chinese. 

This trend continues even today as was exemplified by the policy paralysis in New Delhi after the Mumbai terror attacks when Indians found out that due to the blatant politicisation of military acquisitions India no longer enjoyed conventional military superiority vis-à-vis Pakistan, throwing India’s military posture into complete disarray and resulting in a serious loss of credibility.

When the UPA government came to power in 2004, it ordered investigations into several of the arms acquisition deals of the NDA. A series of defence procurement scandals since the late 1980s have also made the bureaucracy risk-averse, thereby delaying the acquisition process. Meanwhile, India’s defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP has been declining and a large part of the money is surrendered by the defence forces every year given their inability to spend due to labyrinthine bureaucratic procedures involved in the procurement process. Pakistan has rapidly acquired US technology under the garb of fighting the ‘war on terror’ while the modernisation of the Indian army has slipped behind by a decade.

In recent years the government has decided to fast-track the acquisition process by compressing the timeline necessary to finalise a defence contract. It is hoped that this will allow the services to spend their unutilised budgets quickly. The focus of recent Defence Procurement Procedures (DPPs) has been to promote private sector participation in the defence sector, giving them incentives to establish joint ventures and production arrangements with any foreign manufacturer. In the latest Defence Procurement Procedures approved in 2013, stress has been on to the Indian defence industry, both in the public and private sector by according preference to the ‘Buy’ (Indian), Buy and Make (Indian) categories of acquisitions. 

Delhi is accelerating its programme of arms purchases, but has yet to broach the reforms necessary for these to translate into improved strategic options. There is no substitute for strategic planning in defence. Without it, India will never acquire the military muscle that would enhance its leverage, regionally as well as globally.

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