Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the second and last Shah of Iran from the Pahlavi dynasty, was the son of an Iranian gunnery sergeant, who seized control of that country in 1925 and crowned himself king. Like Rajput kings, who gave themselves extravagant genealogies of being descended from the sun or moon, Mohammed Reza gave himself a 2,500-year-old lineage descending from Cyrus the Great.
To him, the surest and simplest way to greatness was to use Iran’s new petro-dollar millions to buy the latest weapons. In 1974, Iran became the first country to operate the then state of the art F-14 Tomcat fighter armed with the even now formidable Phoenix air-to-air missile. The Iranian Air Force bristled with formidable weapons like F-4 Phantom jets which the United States was using to pulverise Vietnam and with which Israel devastated the Egyptian Air Force and tank columns in 1973.
It was said that the Shah was an avid reader of the US weekly magazine, Aviation Week & Space Technology, which was fetched each week fresh off the press by diplomatic courier. Like a manic, who scours mail order catalogues, the Shah used to pick his toys from the weapons showcased in the magazine. Iran, then was a low-income country, but the Shah’s vision was soaring. The Americans encouraged him. The USAF and Navy loved him for he helped in defraying the cost of development of new weapons.
Flush with weapons, he imagined Iran as a great power and encouraged by the US, he appointed himself as the keeper of order in the near region. Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s megalomania blinded him to the reality of Iran and to a Shia theologian called Ayatollah Ruhollah Nasrollah Khomeini. We know what happened next.
This should be a lesson in history for all those strategists who think weapons confer status. India’s diplomatic and military establishment seems gripped by grandiose visions of an India sitting on global high tables such as the UN Security Council. India’s new middle classes talk easily about India becoming a superpower and against this rising tide few are willing to question why.
Recent studies reveal that as much as 70 per cent of Indian households lived below the UN Development Programme’s minimum standards. India’s own poverty line is a starvation line that prescribes a minimum caloric norm. Even by that self-serving standard, a quarter of India is excruciatingly poor. Also, it is economically backward with a relatively small manufacturing base supporting a disproportionately large service sector, giving it the economic profile of a post-industrial society like the US or Europe.
India’s pursuit of iron-clad national security and global status makes it the world’s leading arms importer spending as much as $20 billion a year. Our military leaders want even more and to this extent they now have a vested interest in weapons acquisitions. Unlike our other engineering imports, which contribute to domestic production and to overall value addition, our military hardware imports are a one-way street that only benefits the exporting economies.
In the next decade alone, India will import over $200 billion of weapons. If we factor the military’s wish list, then we are really looking at infinity. And much of what is being planned for acquisition is not required. For example, the French built Rafale fighter-bomber that the IAF is desperately seeking. Each of these aircraft will cost at least Rs 1,100 crore and the IAF wants 126 of them. This will be in addition to the 272 Su-30 MKI the IAF is in the process of inducting. Those knowledgeable will argue that the Su-30MKI confers far greater lethality than the Rafale and costs about Rs 650 crore each. So why should we buy Rafale? This is the exact question the defence minister recently posed. Besides Su-30 MKIs are already being assembled by HAL at Nasik and its AL-31FP turbofan engines at Koraput.
Then let’s consider what is Rafale suppose to replace? It’s the now outdated MiG-21 series. The MiG-21 is as comparable to the Rafale as cheese is to chalk. It is described as a frontal aviation aircraft designed mainly to intercept enemy aircraft and on occasion to drop small bombs and conduct ground attacks. The logical replacement for the MiG-21 is another light single engine interceptor such as the Tejas LCA or even the more expensive Saab Gripfen, but not an expensive heavy twin-engine long-range fighter-bomber like the Rafale.
Lower unit and maintenance costs means the IAF can buy these light fighters in greater numbers. If we add 126 Rafales to our Su-30 MKIs, upgraded MiG-29s and Mirage 2000s, it will mean that the IAF will be operating over 500 four-plus generation heavy fighter aircrafts, possibly more than even the USAF does! Then let’s not forget the 200-plus Sukhoi-HAL FGFA in the works that will enter the fleet around 2020. This number might set off an arm’s race with China.
This is the time for defence minister Manohar Parrikar to put his foot down and order the IAF to forget the MMRCA and prepare to induct the Tejas. Also, he should order the ADA and HAL to get their act together and ramp up production of the Tejas LCA. The Indian Navy has cut its coat according to the cloth it has been given and has quickly moved with the development of the naval variant of the Tejas. Then why can’t the IAF?
More than numbers India needs a strategy to keep the Chinese deterred. This strategy must threaten to disrupt China’s economic interests and inflict huge costs on any Himalayan adventure, not just in the Himalayas, but also at other theatres of our choice. The People’s Liberation Army might have the advantage of interior lines in Tibet and Xinjiang, but the IAF and Indian Army maintain bases and formations close to the border on the plains giving them tactical advantages. Increasing troops and calling strike formations make little sense, as high altitude battlefields require acclimatisation and the conflicts in all probability will be long over before they can be deployed into battle.
The dependence of helicopter gunships for ground attack again is an iffy thing. There is much literature available now about how they may not be all that cost effective against well-armed ground forces. Let’s not forget how Afghan Mujahideen exacted a heavy toll of Soviet attack helicopters. Unfor-tunately, our commanders seem to have embarked on a number’s game, with the potential adversaries and between our services. If the strategy is to deter wars, accretion to numbers is definitely not the answer. India’s means are limited and we must think of defending India more intelligently.
The writer held senior positions in government and industry, and is a policy analyst studying economic and security issues. He also specialises in the Chinese economy.