Modi Govt’s ‘Muscular’ Nationalism Hasn't Translated Into Enhancing India’s Military Capability

Despite the brouhaha over 'atmanirbharta', India still topped the list of defence equipment importers. Defence analysts were amused with the government announcing the domestic production of assorted nuts, bolts, among other such trifling items.

Chandigarh: Even after nine years since Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed power, innumerable materiel shortages in all three services endure. Collectively, these deficits have continued to adversely impact India’s overall military equipment profile. That too, at a juncture, when it faces security threats from neighbouring nuclear rivals and collusive partners, China and Pakistan.

Since 2014, each of the three services have continued to reiterate their individual equipment shortfalls, which were nowhere close to being even partially resolved. Added to this deficiency in recent months has been Russia’s growing inability to provide vital weapon systems, alongside spares and related components for over 60% of its equipment in service with the Indian armed forces, due to US-led sanctions against Moscow for its war in Ukraine.

“Over its nine years in office, the BJP’s muscular and robust nationalism has not translated into enhancing India’s military capability by plugging long-pending equipment gaps,” said military analyst Major General A.P. Singh (retired).

Further, a former armoured corps officer lamented that India’s annual defence outlay has not exceeded 2% of the gross domestic product (GDP) since 2014. He added that its much hyped atmanirbharta initiative, aimed at indigenously fulfilling the military’s requirements, has not helped in upping operational competence.

The Indian Air Force continually bewails the persistent shortage of combat aircraft, as the number of its fighter squadrons had dropped from a sanctioned strength of 42 to around 29 squadrons and were declining fast, alongside the scarcity of other platforms like mid-air refuellers, rotary wing aircraft and additional sundry war-fighting equipment.

The Indian Navy has been concerned by the paucity of its shrinking conventional underwater fleet and lack of credible fighters for INS Vikrant. There are also concerns over the newly commissioned 40,000-tonne aircraft carrier, in addition to a slew of other kit like mine sweepers and utility helicopters. The navy has also been eagerly awaiting the defence ministry’s approval for long for its second indigenously designed aircraft carrier of around 65,000 tonnes, to augment its power projection capability in the strategic Indian Ocean Region.

And lastly, the Indian Army continues to be aggrieved over its abiding dearth of artillery guns, main battle tanks and light tanks, infantry combat vehicles and assorted helicopter types. It is especially peeved over its long-standing demand for assault rifles, carbines and sniper rifles, and the ministry appears to be adopting a casual, almost nonchalant approach, towards acquiring these materiel, said a senior officer, declining to be named. .

“Defence indigenisation has received a policy fillip, but when it comes to major procurement, which directly impact the armed force’s capability, acquisitions and inductions have been tardy,” said Brigadier Rahul Bhonsle of the Security Risks Asia consultancy in New Delhi. Besides, the defence ministry’s much-tom-tommed strategic partnership programme to progress atmanirbharta, he said, had proven “impractical and unworkable” and appeared to have been summarily abandoned in all but name.

The strategic partnership programme entailed a local private or public sector vendor partnering a foreign original equipment manufacturer to domestically develop and manufacture varied platforms via a transfer of technology, while also incorporating a high indigenous content. But Brigadier Bhonsle argues that the demand for technology transfer from foreign original equipment manufacturers was, as anticipated, a ‘non-starter’, since this was a strategic asset for most companies and one they were loath to share.

“Attempting to acquire these technologies by the Indian industry is a futile exercise. It has only wasted precious time, even as the combat configuration of the armed forces continues to rapidly deplete,” he said.

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Meanwhile, to further advance atmanirbharta over the past four years, the Modi government had periodically announced Indigenisation Lists proscribing the import of 411 platforms and equipment and some 2,166 strategically important line replacement units/sub-systems/spares and components, all of which were to be made locally in order to save precious foreign exchange.

However, defence analysts, who have earlier written in The Wire, were, especially, amused by the latter list, which they said was “embarrassing for an industrialised country like India”, to grandly announce the domestic production of assorted nuts, bolts, screws, washers, bushes, clamps and gaskets, among other such trifling items.

But ironically, despite the brouhaha over atmanirbharta, India still topped the list of defence equipment importers, according to a recent report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute or SIPRI. The Swedish think tank revealed that India accounted for 11% of all global weapon imports in the 2018-22 period, followed by Saudi Arabia (9.6%), Qatar (6.4%), Australia (4.7%) and China (4.6%).

The purchases made during UPA’s tenure

Earlier, in March 2022, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had (disingenuously, in my view) informed parliament that after coming to power in 2014, the BJP-led government had had to rapidly buy everything – from a pin to (fighter) aircraft – for the armed forces, as they had been left asset-less by the outgoing Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government.

Speaking on the supplementary spending for the financial year 2022-23, she had said that the UPA had recorded ‘nil purchases’ for the defence forces during its tenure, and did not acquire guns, carbines, bulletproof jackets or ammunition, but had declined to elaborate.

Another SIPRI report at the time, however, nailed the minister’s untruth by revealing that 142 defence contracts during the UPA’s decade in power from 2004-2014 had included the purchase of combat, transport and trainer aircraft, medium lift and surveillance helicopters, main battle tanks, an aircraft carrier, a troop ship, diesel electric submarines, and frigates. Other procurement comprised a wide range of missiles, rockets, specialised ammunition, radar and engines, in addition to miscellaneous ordnance for all three services worth an estimated $3 billion, all aimed at military capability enhancement.

According to SIPRI, India had acquired over 600 aircraft and helicopters for all three services during this period. For the IAF, it included around 250 Sukhoi Su-30MKI multi-role fighters, all of which were licence-built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), six Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 ‘Hercules’, and 10 Boeing C-17 Globemaster III transporters, and three Israel Aircraft Industries Phalcon Ilyushin-76TD airborne and control (AEW&C) aircraft.

Subsequently, with 11 C-17s and 12 C-130J-30s, the IAF had emerged as one of the largest operators of these aircraft types after the US Air Force. Both transports recently executed critical missions successfully, by rescuing Indian nationals from war-torn Sudan in pitch black darkness and under difficult conditions that included no ground navigational aids.

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Other imports by the IAF under the UPA included 75 Swiss Pilatus PC-7 Mk II tandem-seat basic trainer aircraft, 151 Mil Mi-17V5 ‘Hip’ medium lift helicopters in addition to small numbers of other rotary and fixed wing platforms. The UPA’s MoD also signed contracts for upgrading the IAFs fleet of 51 French Mirage-2000H ‘Vajra’ fighters, which led the Balakot strike against militant camps inside Pakistan in February 2019, and some 60 MiG-29 Fulcrum-A combat platforms, both of which have not yet been fully completed.

The navy, on the other hand, under the former UPA administration, acquired eight P-8I Poseidon multi-mission maritime reconnaissance aircraft with anti-submarine warfare capability – now numbering 12 – and 28 warships, like INS Vikramaditya (ex-Admiral Gorshkov), the 46,000-tonne refurbished Russian Kiev-class carrier and its fighter complement of 16 MiG-29Ks.

The latter buy was followed by the follow-on procurement of another 29 analogous fighters for Vikrant.

Furthermore, the navy procured six hunter-killer French Scorpene diesel-electric submarines (SSKs) to be licence-built at Mazagaon Dock Shipbuilders, of which five had already been commissioned, and INS Jalashwa (ex-USS Trenton), a second-hand US Navy Austin-class troop ship with six embarked UH-3H Sea King helicopters and six Talwar-class Project 11356 frigates from Russia.

Conversely, the army received over 1,000 T90S main battle tanks in completed and kit form – with a large proportion to be licence-built by the Heavy Vehicles Factory at Avadi near Chennai via a technology transfer agreement – and 123 Russian BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles. The UPA also furthered the development of BrahMos, the world’s fastest and virtually un-detectable cruise missile with Russian help that has now been inducted into all three services and is also being exported.

Besides, several tenders that were in the final stages of negotiation by the UPA were thereafter inked by the succeeding BJP-led government. These included the purchase and subsequent induction of 22 AH-64E Apache attack and 15 Chinook CH-47F heavy lift helicopters, 145 BAE Systems M777 145mm/39 calibre light-weight howitzers and 24 Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky MH-60 ‘Romeo’ naval multi-role helicopters (NMRHs).

And, in March 2019, the ministry signed a $3 billion agreement – also negotiated earlier by the UPA – to lease a second Russian Project 971 ‘Akula’ (Schuka-B)-class nuclear powered submarine (SSN) for a decade. This was scheduled to join service in 2025, but its future, like a host of other Russian materiel like the S-400 ‘Triumf’ self-propelled surface-to-air missile systems, four Admiral Grigorovich Project 1135.6M frigates and locally building Kalashnikov AK-203 7.62x39mm assault rifles, at a state-owned factory in Amethi, remains nebulous.

Learning from the past, the BJP’s policy with regard to boosting India’s defence capability needed to focus on indigenising critical platforms by pursuing practical and achievable policies with regard to original equipment manufactorers collaborations and technology transfer by them. “Regrettably, by focusing on making nuts and bolts locally, the Ministry of Defence had dissipated its wider goal of achieving self-sufficiency,” said a retired three-star Naval officer.

He went on to state that atmanirbharta remained a laudable goal, but remained a work in progress, and one that needed massive investment and research to make it work. It is a good refrain, he regretted, but that’s hardly enough to boost military capability.