When the first of the Israeli Phalcon Awacs (airborne warning and control systems) landed in India in May 2009, it was hailed as a game-changing addition to the country’s security infrastructure. The Awacs’ ability to detect missiles, aircraft and ground troops long before on-the-ground radars, and their usefulness in directing air combat manoeuvres, made them a strategic treasure. This was valuable for India, with its sensitive borders and hostile neighbourhood. As a measure of Awacs’ effectiveness, Pakistan immediately promised to obtain similar systems, and its air chief warned of a supposed “arms race” in the region.
The hunt for Awacs had started in 2004, when the $1.1 billion Phalcon deal had been struck. Such was the perceived importance of the systems that in the same year, the government had embarked on a Rs1,800 crore programme to build indigenous Awacs.
That programme is yet to take off—its completion date, originally 2011, has been pushed to 2014. The Phalcon deal itself has been delayed— since 2009, only one other Phalcon Awacs has been delivered.
The impasse is in some ways symptomatic of India’s larger problems with high-end defence equipment. The logic of self-reliance—so popular in the insular Cold War world—still drives some, such as minister A.K. Antony, to call for indigenization of defence technologies. It’s an attractive argument. India is probably the only country of its size and stature to depend on copious defence imports, and self-reliance can be a valuable asset in times of war. Nonetheless, India’s capacity to come up with cutting-edge defence technology is questionable. Even the expensive and delayed Tejas project has yielded doubtful benefits.
This is unlikely to change in the short run. A domestic defence market that stifles competition and an equally torpid education and research scenario can hardly have valuable outcomes.
Hence, as indigenous growth stagnates and foreign procurements get delayed (sometimes to the point that the procured systems lose relevance), what suffers is India’s operational readiness, and with it its conventional deterrence. A quick completion of the Awacs project could have proved redemptive. Unfortunately, India’s eyes in the sky are nowhere to be seen.
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