As Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed off on a slew of agreements that reinforced defence ties between the two countries that have remained strong in the face of Washington's sustained campaign to pry India away from Moscow's clutches, there was one curious Russian request - Moscow wanted a MiG21, the fighter jet that is still an integral part of India's air force, for a Russian war museum! Russia had stopped producing it more than 30 years ago! If there ever was a testament to how archaic India's defence forces are, this was it. The Tejas that was supposed to replace the MiG21, now no more than a museum piece, is still a work in progress. A damning report by Maj. Gen B. C. Khanduri on the shocking state of the defence preparedness of our armed forces including the low stock of armaments has been quietly shelved after he was removed as the head of the standing committee in September this year. How strong are India's defences in the 21 st century? Will the Russian S-400 Triumf missile system - a variation of which Russia has sold to the Chinese - help shore up our defences? What does India need to do, to stay in contention as the pre-eminent South Asia power, when challenged by China and its proxy Pakistan? Pakistan, the country that cannot allow India to dominate South Asia, surgical strike or no surgical strike, sent out a message on India's Air Force Day, by successfully test-firing a Ghauri missile. As India signs deal after deal, the one question that does come up over and over is whether our pockets are deep enough to build a defence against the enemy, given that 60 per cent of the budget goes towards salaries and pensions, leaving little for modernisation. India's high-cost military deals now has not just the $8b - Rs 60,000 crore for 36 Rafale- whether it goes through or not - but a $5 billion S-400 Triumf missile deal. Where and what is India's Achilles heel? Will the two frigates from Russia, the Russian-built submarines and the Mirage fighter jets armed with Israeli reconnaissance drones deployed all along the border be enough to keep China off balance and Pakistan from continuing to prey on our borders? B.R.Srikanth reports
Inside sources have told Deccan Chronicle that just as Beijing has moved its pawns across the South Asian chessboard to contain India's rising power, India has quietly moved its nuclear knights into place. The nuclear triad, which gives India the capability to strike with nuclear weapons from land, air and sea is finally operational. India's neighbors will think twice before they "get adventurous or attempt a nuclear attack on the country," high level sources have told this newspaper.
While a nuclear warhead can be delivered deep into the enemy territory through surface-to-surface Agni missiles, part of the fleet of Mirage 2000 fighter jets have been modified to launch a nuclear attack from the air. From the sea, 'Dhanush', a naval variant of the Prithvi missile, has the capability to fire a nuclear warhead from a ship or from the INS Arihant, the country's first nuclear-powered submarine. The commander of the Strategic Force Command (SFC) of the defence forces, a three-star general rank officer, holds the key to the nuclear triad. But the chinks in our armour remain.
Resolve india’s airpower crisis
For the IAF, the biggest problem is its fleet strength. The gaps in the IAF are best mirrored in a report of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: "Despite being a world-class combat arm, the IAF's falling end strength and problematic force structure, combined with its troubled acquisition and development programs, threaten India's air superiority over its rapidly modernising rivals, China and Pakistan".
The report "The Manifold Travails of the Indian Air Force" argues that Indian air dominance is vital for deterrence and stability in Southern Asia, and for preserving the strategic balance in the Indo Pacific region. "Resolving India's airpower crisis, therefore, should be a priority for the government" says the report.
The IAF's fighter force, as of early 2016, is weaker than the numbers suggest, the report said, adding that at nominally 36.5 squadrons, it is well short of its sanctioned strength, and many of its frontline aircraft are obsolete. China and Pakistan field about 750 advanced air defence-multirole fighters against the IAF's 450-odd equivalents.
Though, the airfield infrastructure limitations in Tibet prevent China from bringing all of its air capabilities to bear against India, yet after 2025, China may be able to deploy anywhere between 300 and 400 sophisticated aircraft against India, in addition to the 100 to 200 advanced fighters likely to exist in Pakistan by then.
The IAF's requirement for 42-45 squadrons by 2027 -- some 750-800 aircraft -- is compelling, if India is to preserve the airpower superiority it has enjoyed in southern Asia since 1971. The IAF's ability to reach its 2027 goal with a high proportion of advanced forces is poor because it will face budget constraints, the long-drawn acquisition process, and maybe unable to reconcile the need for self sufficiency in defence production.
Amid all the political noise on the Rafale - Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is in France with some speculation that she will secure another 122 fighter jets even as questions are being raised on the Ambani sweethear deal, how India stays in contention as the pre-eminent South Asia power, challenged by China and its proxy Pakistan is a major challenge.
Keep navy afloat
In 1971, India's blockade of the eastern Indian Ocean, with its then aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, effectively sealed off East Pakistan with the subsequent sinking of Pakistan's ageing submarine PNS Ghazi with 99 sailors on board, off the coast of Vishakapatnam, becoming a major turning point of the war for the Indian Navy. Forty years later, India's edge over Pakistan has been greatly eroded with the Indian navy's Scorpenes ranged against Pakistan's six Agustas, a parity of 3:1, reduced to !.5:1.
The delay in commissioning the second homegrown aircraft carrier (IAC-2 original timeframe of 2030-32) will be the biggest drawback for the Indian navy. Reasons for the delay include a shrinking budget, technological challenges and delay on the part of MoD to approve the programme. The first indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant is scheduled to roll out of the Kochi shipyard only by 2021-23, almost eight years late.
Since March 2017, when it decommissioned its second 23,900-ton Centaur-class carrier, the Indian Navy has only had one carrier, the 44,000-ton Kiev-class carrier INS Vikramaditya , a refurbished Soviet-era carrier. INS Vikramaditya was supposed to be supplemented this year or next by India's first indigenously built aircraft carrier. Not surprisingly, this has been pushed back considerably.
Part of the problem is that there have been disagreements about how ambitious of an aircraft carrier to build. For instance, the Indian Navy had long advocated for the vessel to be nuclear-powered. These plans have faltered and now the carrier is set to be powered by an integrated electric propulsion system. This is similar to the type of system China's next carrier is expected to use.
The Indian Navy has also wanted the second homegrown carrier to have a CATOBAR (catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery) configuration. All of India's previous carriers, as well as its first homegrown one, have had a STOBAR (short take-off but arrested recovery) configuration. Besides allowing for a greater variety of aircraft, planes operating from a CATOBAR carrier can carry more weapons and extra fuel for longer trips. They can also use much larger airborne early warning aircraft to protect the ship.
IAC-2 is also expected to be extremely large, at least compared to India's first homegrown carrier. It is expected to displace 65,000-70,000 tons, and carry 50-60 planes and helicopters. But this comes with an equally large price tag of more than $11.65-13 billion (it's unclear if this estimate includes maintenance and operation costs, although it likely does). The question is whether India is willing to foot this bill and, if so, when?
ARM the army better
India's biggest Achilles heel however may be its standing army, the second largest in the world. The biggest issue before the Indian Army is the delayed progress of its modernisation programme. The soldiers are in desperate need of state-of-the-art machinery, combat uniforms, and equipment. While the world is moving towards latest technologies, our armed forces are grappling with the shortage of necessities. It is only now that the Army has initiated the process of replacing canvas shoes from the World War II era when the proposal for change came up in 2009. The army has been struggling to meet its ammunition targets , and a string of reports have exposed chinks in the armoury. A July 2017 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) revealed that almost 40 per cent of the ammunition stockpile in September 2016 would not even last for 10 days.
Only 20 per cent of WWR (War Wastage Reserve) or the stockpile of ammunition required for 20 days of intense battle was sufficient for 40 days, the CAG said after an audit that covered 152 types of ammunition, ranging from that for smalls arms, artillery guns and tanks to infantry combat vehicles.
Rigid archaic rules, including lengthy trail processes, had put paid to the Union government's $250-billion plan for modernisation. Though this year, the government has hiked its defence budget by 7.81 per cent to Rs 2,95,511 crore, a marginal improvement from Rs 2,74,114 crore last year, the additional cash infusion is too little in the face of rising threats from China and Pakistan. Most of the defence budget is spent on salaries and day-to-day running costs of the military. Pensions also eat up a sizeable portion of the budget.
Hence, despite India spending more than the UK on the military, the impact on the ground is minimal. For those in the know, the overwhelming difference between India and China's defence establishments is a matter of serious concern. China will spend $175 billion on its military this year, which is the second-biggest defence budget in the world, superceded only by the US military budget. In 2017, the Army Design Bureau had come up with a 119-page report, listing some 50 problems faced by the military. Though India is a world leader in soft power, its armed forces can be reduced to being sitting ducks if there is a war with China.
The emerging alliance between India and the U.S. cannot replace India's older relationship with Russia and its dependence on oil for Iran - both of whom face U.S. sanctions. India's stated intent to procure what it needs from all arms providers is a signal it may continue to look for the best deal, from wherever it can. That has to be India' best defense....