The immediate priority before the new government at the Centre will be to step up the pace of modernisation of defence forces given the challenges emerging on twin fronts with China and Pakistan. In the long term, the new government needs to work towards restructuring defence forces to make them lean and agile according to the needs of the modern warfare.
The recent anti-terror airstrikes by the Indian Air Force and retaliation by the Pakistan Air Force in February have indicated deficiency in country’s defences. This was somewhat highlighted by the way PAF jets were able to enter Indian territory without any major losses despite expectation of retaliation. The PAF’s F-16 jets armed with AMRAAM missiles seemed to have an edge.
India is expecting to fill the gap with the acquisition of 36 Rafale jets which will be armed with deadly beyond-visual-range Meteor missiles. But the fact is that India’s air strength is depleting.
As has been highlighted earlier, the IAF has a sanctioned fighter squadron strength of 42 but it only has 30. Each squadron consists of 16-20 fighter aircraft. Even addition of Rafale is not going to help filling the gap, as many MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters will be decommissioned in coming years. As per some reports India may be left with just 26 squadrons by 2021.
Experts claim the IAF’s sanctioned strength of 42 squadron is also on the conservative side and inadequate to handle the combined strength of China and Pakistan. With future wars to be decided by air strength and analysts not ruling out the possibility of India facing war at two fronts, India needs to act fast.
The acquisition of five S-400 surface-to-air missile defence systems from Russia, whose delivery will begin from October 2020, is expected to fill gaps in India’s air defence. These systems can detect, track and destroy incoming fighter jets and even missiles at a distance of around 400 kms. But enemy planes can employ low flying or other tactics against these systems and India will need to buy more of them given its large borders. Also, there is a threat of US sanctions on buying weapons from Russia. Despite some attempts to fast-track acquisition of crucial arms and ammunition, there is still a long way to go. This was visible from the way contract for 93,895 lose-quarter-battle carbines (CQB) got struck. However, the good news is that the path has now been cleared for soldiers to get new assault rifles which will replace the INSAS rifles.
Also of concern is the growing difference between the defence budgets of India and China. In 2018, China increased its military expenditure by 5 per cent to $250 billion, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). In contrast, India increased its military spending in 2018 by 3.1 per cent to $66.5 billion. Moreover, a large portion of Indian military spending goes towards salaries and pensions. India needs to restructure its defence forces to make them lean and agile according to the needs of the modern warfare.