India maintains, to date, the best defence system known to man. Sadly, it takes about two centuries to activate. Let me explain. Since 1757, Britain became the dominant power in the subcontinent. They thought they had colonised yet another backward race and would relieve the White Man’s Burden. Two hundred and fifty years since, English contains more and more words from Hindi, Urdu, and other subcontinental languages, curry has become a mainstay of English cuisine, and there are so many South Asians in the UK that some people call the capital city Londonistan, though not necessarily in the same context that Melanie Phillips talked about in her book by the same name. Christianity came to India, first in the second century and then again with cannons and gunpowder at the fag end of the fifteenth century. Islam entered India in the early eighth century and made India a home after the Second Battle of Tarain in 1192. Both these world religions came up against a solid wall when it came to proselytising in India. For a nation so easily conquered in battle, the mettle of the Indian people was such that both these religions are in a significant minority. Not only that, both were over time moulded to Indian needs – the caste system and multiple saints and other intervening deities entered the practices of Christians and Muslims in India. A few millennia ago, tribes from Central Asia migrated to India – not in some crude Aryan invasion theory, but steadily and gradually. Obviously, they had to displace or conquer local inhabitants, and this proved to be a minor hindrance. In what shouldn’t be a surprise by now, the records of these groups reveal a sea change in their lifestyles. People known hitherto for blood rituals, horse sacrifices, and other such behaviour, over a period of two to three centuries, transformed and evidence of such practices is relegated only to the stuff of myths and legends.
Today, India faces another crisis – a militarily and economically superior China in the northeast, and a nuclear-capable yet highly unstable, terrorist-sponsoring Pakistan in the northwest. Indian nationalists will proudly proclaim of their four successes against Pakistan (in 1948, 1965, 1971, and 1999), and try to pass off the China debacle solely on Nehru’s and Menon’s incompetence. However, the fact remains that there were and still are serious flaws in Indian defence planning. The problem is perhaps partially strategic, but it is more a question of materiel. But behind both of these lies the un-strategic Indian mind – for if the strategy were sound, the same people would not hesitate to provide for it either. India’s defence industry, though I am sure it can run circles around Togo’s, is in complete shambles and has been since independence contrary to what analysts have said.
Proof of this lies no further than India’s weapon systems procurement history. The Indian Navy was forced to go in for Israeli-made Barak missiles in 2006 because India’s highly touted Integrated Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) had failed to produce results. The Navy, waiting for the Trishul, eventually chose to purchase missiles from abroad because despite twenty-plus years in the making and declared successful by the manufacturers (Defence Research and Development Organisation – DRDO), it did not evoke confidence among senior Navy officials. First test firing of the Trishul took place in 1991, and the manufacturer declared test firings completed by 1998. The armed forces, however, rejected the missile, as not ready for service. So development continued, until 2003, when the project was cancelled. But the project, which has cost nearly $200 million so far, had political friends. Development was allowed to continue, even though neither the army nor the navy wanted it. Trishul’s range is approximately nine kilometres, and missile has suffered from reliability problems, particularly with its guidance system.
The IGMDP has failed in its other projects as well. Akash, another missile which was supposed to be inducted in the mid 1990s, was only recently purchased by the Indian Air Force (IAF). Agni I and Agni II, the mainstay of India’s rocket forces, have both been inducted into the Armed Forces with barely three tests each while other countries run over a hundred tests of new missile systems. The cost overruns in India’s missile development programme have been around Rs. 1,400 crores, and the promised projects are as of now 14 years behind schedule. Agni III, though test fired in 2008, has had only a 66% success rate so far. And we are yet to hear any news of the Surya Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM).
The Air Force is another story of decline. The sanctioned strength of the IAF is 45 squadrons, each squadron consisting of 18 planes. Due to crashes, hiring issues, and other problems, India has never fielded beyond 39.5 squadrons. Furthermore, other than a few state of the art Su-30 MKIs and MiG-29s, India still has a large number of MiG-21s. Admittedly, these have been refurbished (twice), but the basic capabilities of an air frame only deteriorate over time, not increase. The workhorses of the IAF have had the lion’s share of media attention too, for the plane has been plagued with a series of crashes over the years. In 2008, India was forced to announce a tender for the purchase of up to 240 Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMCRA) because of the delays in the production of India’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), the Tejas. Although an LCA will be no match for an advanced MMCRA (which is already being threatened by the next generation of places such as the Su-35 and the F-22), it can help plug in the gaps and provide reasonable support in the air and to ground troops.
Indigenous Indian armour is yet to make an appearance. The Army relies heavily upon Russian supplies of T-72s and T-90s. India’s main battle tanks had one been relatively advanced by world standards, but long delays in fielding the indigenous Arjun Main Battle Tank (MBT), combined with a successful Pakistani/Ukrainian program for its T-80UD Al-Khalid tanks, eroded India’s local advantage. The poor performance of T-72s in combat against modern main battle tanks could not have been comforting, either. In early October 2006, Indian announced that the Indian Army intended to produce nearly 1,000 T-90S ‘Bhishma’ main battle tanks in India by 2020. These would be bought in addition to the 310 T-90 MBTs already under contract from Russia. Later that month, news reports noted a follow-on contract for another 330 T-90S tank kits from Russia that would assembled in India. The modernized T-72 now known as the T-90 has reportedly encountered serious problems in Indian service, from issues with its Thales thermal imaging systems, to difficulties in hot weather, to low readiness rates. Meanwhile, negotiations with Russia over technology transfer issues had shelved the 1,000 tank indigenous production goal. The Arjun project has continued to fade, however, with the Indian Army announcing in July 2008 that production would be capped at just 124 tanks. As the final act in the battle for the core of India’s
future tank force, recent reports indicate that the Russians have removed their technology transfer roadblocks, clearing the way for fully indigenous T-90S production in India.
As of December 2006, the 310 T-90S tanks imported from Russia under a February 2001 Rs. 3,625 crore contract are divided between the first lot of 124 T-90S tanks bought off-the-shelf, and 186 imported in knocked-down condition for assembly at the Heavy Vehicles Factory at Avadi. The goal was to begin progressive manufacture of the follow-on batch of 1,000 from 2007-2008 onward, working under the license production agreement associated with India’s 2001 order. The idea was to build upon and broaden India’s indigenous capabilities as the process moved forward. The purchase of 330 more ready-for-assembly T-90 kits later in October 2006 would appear to be a deviation from this strategy, but as of August 2008, production of the fully localized Indian tanks has not even begun yet at the Avadi Heavy Vehicles Factory. Jane’s believed that the order for the 330 sets of T-90S components was driven by chronic delays in the production schedule of the domestic Arjun MBT, and multi-year delays in T-72 modernization due to bureaucratic vacillation. Confirmation of the T-90’s status as India’s future tank has also faced operational difficulties, including the in-service difficulties. These include repeated heat-related malfunctions of the fire-control system’s key Thales Catherine thermal imaging (TI) camera, lack of cooling systems leading to uninhabitable temperatures over 60C degrees inside the tank, and reports that at least one armored regiment had an in-service rate of just 25% for its T-90s. The T-72s’ “Project Rhino” may eventually get started as well under the Army’s 2020 plans, adding reactive armor, electronics, sights, et. al. in collaboration with Israel, Poland and Russia. Persistent reports that many Indian T-72s lack effective IR-imagine equipment would appear to make such upgrades a priority item, but progress has been very slow.
Eventually, there is always the question of exports. Undoubtedly, the arms business is the most lucrative in the world. And given the true, savage instincts of hominids, the industry will be around for along time to come. The strongest argument critics of higher defence spending level against siphoning off money from development projects such as family planning and infrastructure is that an arms manufacturing capability is prohibitively expensive. That is most certainly true, for an arms industry requires, besides basic manufacturing plants, the ability to attract the best scientists and engineers and keeping them. It requires repeated testing and perfection to ensure the creation of a brand name. It requires highly sophisticated facilities for development and testing. This is subsidised usually subsidised by large orders from the Armed Forces, foreign as well as national. To aspire to an indigenous capability to provide weapons only for one’s own country in this day and age is utter nonsense.
Thus far, even India’s home-grown technology has not been entirely home-grown. In 1963, A.P.J Abdul Kalam, the man who would later go on to develop India’s Agni Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) system, spent four months in training in the United States. He visited NASA’s Langley Research Centre in Virginia, where the U.S. Scout rocket was conceived, and the Wallops Island Flight Centre on the Virginia coast, where it was being tested. The United States also helped India build the Thumba Range, training Indian engineers in rocket launching and range operations. In November 1963, the United States launched a sounding rocket from the range, and since then until 1975, more than 350 U.S., French, Soviet, and British sounding rockets were fired from Thumba. In 1965, the United States sold to India the technical reports on the Scout’s design although it was technically considered classified under Munitions Control. The French had India build some of their rockets under license, allowing Indian engineers access to rocket design and liquid fuel propulsion technology. Similarly, West German aid flowed to India in the form of vital guidance systems in the mid-1970s. Even allowing for new technology being built on older systems, modern Indian weapons development programmes are hardly fully indigenous. Engines for the Tejas are not manufactured in India, and there is a long list of items that India imports from Western markets for its missile programmes.
What is quite amusing is the hubris India seems to have over the achievement of its Armed Forces. The only unqualified victory the Indians had in war was in 1971. Kargil was also a success, but the wars of 1948 and 1965 against Pakistan were more a matter of Pakistani ineptitude than Indian strategic brilliance. Besides, for a service that would need to be world-class if it is serious about defending India’s interests n the 21st century, should the Indian military really have such low standards as Pakistan for comparison? India will need o exert its might in the Indian Ocean from Somalia to Indonesia to protect its trade routes. Perhaps India may partake in a UN mission in the region substantially. India needs to balance China and awe Pakistan into inaction if it is to have a free hand in going about its other interests. For all this, we need more than the misty-eyed dreams of nationalists substituted for reality.
So in what form will Indian resistance manifest itself to Chinese occupation in 2250? Or dare we dream that it might just do so now?