If Foreign Policy magazine is to be believed, India’s military buildup is one of the ten important events in 2011 that did not make it to the headlines.
In a report, the magazine quoted an estimate from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies on India’s military spending in the years ahead: $80 billion by 2015. It also highlights India’s quest for naval might. The country is expected to spend nearly $45 billion over the next 20 years to acquire 103 new warships and nuclear submarines.
In contrast, China will spend $25 billion for 135 naval vessels. The data for both countries was taken from the maritime analysis firm AMI International.
So should the world wake up to India’s military beef? These sums seem impressive and India does spend more on defence than China as a proportion of gross domestic product. The reality is somewhat different. When it comes to buying vital arms stores, India can only be described as a laggard. The last time the army bought a field gun was 24 years ago when the infamous Bofors howitzer was purchased. Incidentally, the gun proved its worth during the Kargil conflict. The army asked for a replacement gun ages ago. There is no sign of a purchase agreement. Similarly, the Indian Air Force (IAF) required a multi-role combat aircraft at least two decades earlier — once the crashes of the 1960’s vintage MiG21 became too frequent. The supply of those jets is still 4-5 years in the future.
If delays in purchasing much-needed equipment is one aspect of India’s military modernization, its haphazard direction is another interesting feature. Two observers of India’s military situation, Stephen Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta have highlighted this problem. There are two good examples on this subject. India recently ordered six C-130J “Super” Hercules transport aircraft from the US. This comes after an earlier purchase of six Hercules planes. The number is intriguing. A squadron can have anywhere from 20 to 40 aircraft depending on various factors such as operational requirements. Why go for just 12 aircraft? No doubt, the C-130J is an expensive aircraft, but India badly needs strong airlift capacity. Equipping an entire squadron with new planes makes much more sense.
A similar story is witnessed in the case of the C-17 Globemaster III heavy-lift planes. India decided to order 10 of these for $4.1 billion. Once again, the price tag is heavy. But again, it makes much more sense to buy more at one time. That way in case of attrition of some aircraft the country’s airlift ability will not be impeded. Given the vast terrain and the hostile external situation that India confronts, military preparedness requires this.
Seen in this light, it’s not surprising that Indians have not missed the “huge military buildup” story. The story journalists chase is that of apathy and misguided priorities in India’s defence purchases.