Today, after being an independent nation for the last Seventy-five years after independence, India stands at a critical juncture to assert its position as an economic and military power, both regionally and globally. But the real question is, whether India has achieved or will be able to achieve that status, as to achieve that it is bunded by internal and external constraints.
To become a global power there are many factors, both external and internal which affect its aim to become a global power. Internally it needs to harness its energies and better manage its prosperity, bringing down the scale of poverty, unemployment, providing basic health, educational and connectivity facilities to a major chunk of its population, in addition to increasing its commercial status. In this context, the “Atmanirbhar” concept of the present Indian government is a laudable plan. But industrial and military growth must not be pursued at the cost of developing social sectors like health and education.
However, today we’ll just focus on the issue whether India is capable of becoming a major global military power or not, examining it from a strategic and security partnership matrix.
Among external constraints, traditional challenges for Indian diplomacy have always been to contain China and Pakistan. In addition to maintaining peaceful and cordial relations with other immediate neighbours like Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Over the years India’s ties with its closest neighbours have gone from good to worse, though it is in the process to maintain ties with all except Pakistan and China which have always remained a headache for its leaders.
We’ll examine India’s military prowess from the perspective of managing these two nations militarily and also its aim to be seen as a global power.
China has always challenged the Indian position in many ways. First, China has been a military threat to India due to unresolved border issues. Second, China has more influenced in the international institutions such as UNO, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and other multilateral forums. Third, China’s deeper strategic partnership with Pakistan and other South Asian nations to contain India’s power. Fourth, China has become economically more powerful than India.
Additionally, we also have to keep in mind the case of the case of the Indo-Pacific, which currently is on top of agenda of both countries. Indo-Pacific is an important geostrategic region for trade, investment, energy supplies, cooperation and competition in the 21st century. As per the latest U.S. strategy for this region QUAD has emerged, with key actors India, Australia and Japan trying to counter China.
The new discourse of ‘Indo-Pacific’ has broadened the scope and contours of the existing Asia-Pacific matrix. That is, Indo-Pacific has become the new way to look at maritime Asia, where the geographical extension covers the Eastern Coast of Africa, through the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific Ocean. What makes Indo-Pacific an active regional construct is the competitive and convergent security interests of actors such as Australia, China, India, Japan and the United States – who are the central actors in the region. Further adding to the primacy of the region is the growing importance of the Indian Ocean as a geopolitical and geo-economic nerve centre.
The Russian Factor
In spite of developing strategic partnership with the U.S., India in parallel has also continued its defence and economic cooperation with Russia as its old reliable partner. On several occasions the U.S. has raised concerns on India’s cooperation with Russia, the latest being the Indian position on Russia-Ukraine war, not blaming Russia.
Indo-Russian defence cooperation has developed since 1950s in many areas. The Cold War era expanded Indo-Russian defence ties on the bases of commonalties of emerging strategic trends.
Russia has provided various arms and armaments to India for its Army, Air Force and Navy besides helping to boost its manufacturing capacity also. Indo-Russian defence ties in many areas reveal India’s strategic benefits while for Russia it is a leverage to sell its most lethal weapons to upset the U.S. arms sale to the former.
Is India a military superpower?
Now let’s have a look at the Indian might through a military lens and examine its military strength and preparedness.
India is the fifth largest military spender in the world, it has the second largest standing army in the world (1.3 million active service personnel) since 2011–12, India’s defence spending has consistently accounted for 16–17 per cent of the budget, which is the highest for any sector.
India plans to spend $250 billion on defence procurement over the next 15 years to modernise its defence arsenal in response to changing geopolitical and regional scenarios.
Unlike most other countries with large defence industries, India’s defence procurement requirements have been traditionally met primarily through imports. After decades of under-investment, India’s military forces have been in decline, but all is not bad news. India’s strategic position has changed dramatically over the past decade. Traditionally fixated on its chief rival, Pakistan, India is now concerned about the striking and rapid modernisation of Chinaese miltary combine in the region.
With a weak air force that is under-strength, an army still bogged down with strategic ideas formed in the last century and a navy that looks good on paper but is being comprehensively outclassed by China’s navy, India is finally coming to terms with its own inadequacies.
After last year’s stand-off between the two countries in Ladakh, India has launched a crash programme designed to address these failings and to play to the several strengths its military does possess.
Indian Air Force
As the lion’s share of defence budgets has traditionally gone to the army, the Indian air force has suffered and is now seriously under-strength. At full strength, it operates with 42 squadrons, but it can currently only field 31.
Aircraft such as the MiG-21, which entered service in 1964, should have been retired years ago, but are still flying and are easy targets for any contemporary aircraft. The latest skirmish with China in 2020 forced the Indian government into a crash procurement programme to shore up its air force.
Thirty-six French multi-role Rafale fighters were already in the works, the first five of which were delivered in July last year. Twelve Sukhoi MKI-30 and 21 MiG-29 fighter jets have also been ordered – the former to be built under licence in India and the latter ordered from Russia with a whole range of other arms, especially ammunition. While some of the equipment is in stock and can be sent within the next few months, the building of dozens of advanced fighter jets will take several years.
Despite these stop-gap improvements, India’s air force remains seriously depleted. However, it is not the only service going through strategic convulsions.
Upgrading a neglected army
The army is the senior service in India’s military and has, traditionally, been armour-heavy with over 3,500 main battle tanks in its arsenal. By contrast, Pakistan fields 2,400. Most of the tanks in India’s inventory are Russian-built with over 1,000 of the modern T-90s in operation.
Still mired in an older strategic style that relies heavily on armoured thrusts by mass formations of tanks, India’s defence planners have not adapted quickly to the warfare, which is changing dramatically, along with its enemies. Only recently has there been deeper cooperation between the armed services and joint operations are now run using cyber and space assets, along with a greater emphasis on special forces and long-range precision strike weapons.
India still focuses on shock tactics using the Cold Start Doctrine, which proposes a short, sharp, armoured assault, this can work in the case of Pakistan, but any conflict with China would be a very different matter in the savagely cold, mountainous terrain of the Himalayas, where concentrations of tanks cannot move with the same freedom. Such a war would be fought with troops specialised in high-altitude warfare, precision strike weapons and mobile artillery. Airpower would be key as would the ability to operate in bad weather at high altitude.
The army has some extremely well-trained units, namely the 89,500 strong Indo-Tibetan Border Police and other units who are locally recruited and specialise in high-altitude warfare and guerilla operations. This is in addition to the 12 mountain divisions already deployed. Furthermore, India’s army is combat-proven, having fought several wars, whereas China’s is not. The last war China fought was in 1979 when it invaded Vietnam, withdrawing after three weeks, having suffered tens of thousands of casualties.
India has sought to improve its air defences – also vital, considering its air force would be outnumbered significantly by the Chinese air force, the PLAAF.
A $5.5bn deal was signed with Russia in 2018 for five S-400 squadrons of air defence missile batteries. India is also in discussions to buy more air defence units from Israel. Reaching out diplomatically to the United States has also reaped dividends as the two countries recently signed defence agreements allowing India to use US geospatial intelligence, encrypted communications and to purchase high-end items India sorely lacks.
The country is also boosting its drone inventory, buying more from Israel, its chief supplier. It is also arming 90 Israeli Heron drones already in its possession and petitioning to buy at least 20 American MQ-9 Reaper Armed drones, which are able to scan large areas of terrain, send back valuable intelligence and engage potential targets on the spot if needed.
All this will help the Indian military maintain its position in Ladakh but serious challenges remain in feeding and supplying a large army in a remote region.
The Indian navy is in the middle of restructuring itself with a focus on projecting its combat power beyond its coastal waters, centring around the creation of three aircraft carrier groups and the 150 aircraft they would carry.
While this sounds impressive, it is unlikely to happen any time soon. The service has seen its share of the defence budget shrink from 18 percent in 2012 to 13 percent in 2020. It currently has just two aircraft carriers, the ex-Soviet INS Vikramaditya, and INS Vikrant.
Costs for both have spiralled out of control and a third carrier – the INS Vishal – remains in the conceptual stage. There is also a growing debate in India, echoed around the world, that aircraft carriers are costly white elephants with limited use in any future conflict, in which smaller, swarmed, networked ships, drones and hypersonic missiles would be used.
India’s military has been eroded by a lack of focus and changing priorities.
Clashes with China and the looming spectre of possible large-scale conflict between the two countries, with the possible involvement of Pakistan, have focused India’s attention on what it needs to fight a future war with a chance of prevailing.
The country has finally started to address the failings it has identified and begun a crash re-armament programme to redress this strategic imbalance.
It has several strengths it is playing to. Its military has extensive combat experience, it has some excellent units and the advent of new high-tech weapons, combined with information from the U.S.’s extensive network of military satellites.
Indo-Pacific is a deal breaker at some critical time with the US in the security domain for India. India is quite willing as part of an Indo-Pacific strategy which serves its strategic interests in the region of Greater Middle Eastern Region (GMR) and the Western part of the Indian Ocean. Besides the energy needs, Indo-Pacific strategy helps India in some conflict with its two rivals China and Pakistan in the areas of Ladakh in case of China and Kashmir in case of Pakistan. Indo-Pacific strategy also covers India’s and the U.S. security perception vis-à-vis China.
New Delhi wants cooperation in the Western portion of the Asian region spanning Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Gulf, the island nations of Indian Ocean and the Eastern coast of Africa. To achieve this it will have to pursue a crash programme of modernising its three forces. The current dispensation seems is wisely tuned to this and through, the two flagship programmes of the PM Modi i.e. ‘Make in India’ and ‘Atmanirbhar’, India might be able to achieve its coveted place in the global power chess.
India must also boost its defence preparations with more allocation in defence budgets. Alongside making partnerships and alliances in global relations, India must be self-reliant when defending national boundaries.
-The writer is a Delhi based political commentator. The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda