The discussions at the Aero India
2021 show in Bengaluru last week underscored the complexity of India’s regional security matrix and the need to urgently modernise and upgrade its arsenal. Complicating India’s security calculus further is China’s aggressive new posture on the Ladakh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh borders and concern that Pakistan is taking advantage of the opportunity to fish in troubled waters. With violence likely to spike in Kashmir when winter ends, India is confronting a two-front situation that seemed unlikely as recently as a year ago. Yet there is little urgency in New Delhi’s approach to equipment modernisation. Instead of raising the military’s modernisation budget for developing capabilities, the allocation for capital spending next year is lower than this year’s revised estimates.
Major modernisation projects to buy artillery and air defence guns, fighter aircraft, helicopters, and naval warships and submarines from the global market have languished for years on the grounds that indigenous alternatives will emerge through the “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (self-sufficient India) initiative. True, the defence ministry has finalised several indigenous procurement projects, including contracts with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) to build 83 Tejas Mark 1A fighters and 70 HTT-40 trainer aircraft; Pinaka rocket launchers and Akash missile batteries for the army; and warships for the navy. However, there remain worrisome shortfalls in areas such as fighter aircraft, where squadron numbers have fallen to less than 75 per cent of the 42 the Indian Air Force is authorised. The remaining MiG-21 fighters are also retiring soon. Over the next five years, that gap will be only partially filled by five squadrons of Tejas fighters, two squadrons of Rafales, one last Sukhoi-30MKI squadron, and a MiG-29 squadron that is being bought from Russia in fully-built condition.
The next indigenous induction would only come in the late 2020s or early 2030s, when the Tejas Mark II and Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft are operationalised. Until then, a substantial capability shortfall would still remain, which must be filled on priority through the purchase of 114 medium, multi-role fighters from the global market — an ongoing MoD procurement that is being stonewalled for want of funds. Meanwhile, with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and drones emerging as a major feature of futuristic aerial combat, HAL has unveiled at Aero India
2021 its futuristic Combat Air Teaming System — a combination of manned and unmanned flying assets that sends UAVs into enemy territory, controlling them from conventional manned fighters that remain safely in our own airspace. This imaginative project must be adequately funded and overseen.
The navy too suffers from declining assets, with obsolescent warships retiring faster than new ones can be built. This has forced the navy chief to scale down the Maritime Capability Perspective Plan from 200 warships to just 175 vessels, even though at least two private sector shipyards have buttressed the capacities of the defence shipyards. Meanwhile, it must be remembered that a live, two-front threat represents a failure of Indian diplomacy and strategy. The government must engage both China and Pakistan to defuse, or at least mitigate, tensions. It is unwise for an army, already committed round the year on a 900-km disputed border with Pakistan, to also start manning a 3,500-km border with China.