India arms, with little rationale. Growing affluence has led to advanced weapons purchases, with defence spending tripling over the decade and a slew of contracts in the wake — the MRCA fighter aircraft, C-17 transport planes, attack helicopters, aircraft carriers and leased nuclear submarines.
However, there is little doctrinal and strategic sense behind this purported modernisation. Purchases are conducted, while pursuing a Sisyphean dream of indigenisation. Delays, with ensuing corruption charges, blow a hole in our national security.
A default policy of strategic restraint is pursued, keeping quiet and lying low. Despite border transgressions, this policy keeps us out of regional alliances, branding us as a soft state, enabling ad hoc defence procurement. Insurgencies, whether in Kashmir or the Northeast, remain our primary official threat, with the Naxalites as a close second.
Our increasingly dangerous neighbourhood, with religious radicalism and regional competition, reduces our geopolitical space. Strong institutional reform, promoting integration, joint planning and networked capabilities, is required. An assertive defence policy will help increase freedom of action and enable India’s rise.
India cannot seem to project real power. Our policy making institutions are fragmented, with civilian leadership prioritised over coordination efficiency.
Dysfunctional institutional relationships and inter-service rivalries are stymieing integration. Lacking an integrated national security doctrine, the Army plans for a two-front war and operationalising the Cold Start doctrine. The Air Force plans for an offensive strategic air campaign, with the MRCA contract. The Navy builds carrier task forces and expeditionary warfare capabilities. Ninety per cent of the ministry of defence’s joint secretaries focus mostly on procurement, leaving little for planning.
Misalignment of resources and tactics leads to negligible inter-service cooperation while maintaining civilian control, minimising costs, slowly indigenising and utilising inappropriate forces for domestic security threats. This institutional dysfunction must change, with an empowered chief of defence staff appointed, and lateral recruitment from the IAS, foreign service and ministry of finance encouraged, bolstering in-house expertise. Our defence culture should change, from stressing disengagement, avoiding confrontation and a defensive mindset to one that promotes integration and proactively manages threats and opportunities.
With little planning, our procurement is expensive, distracted by payment/offset issues and corruption scandals. Any defence acquisition goes through three ministries. The DRDO’s privileged role as a bidder and evaluator ensures veto power over imports, delaying procurement until marked research failures. There are few exports, with no credible advanced weapons manufacturing base. Military wages should attain parity with civilians, recognising their hardships.
Our outdated ordnance factories need professionalisation, with joint ventures with private firms encouraged. Defence exports should be promoted, in order to increase scale and foster innovation. Our defence acquisition planning must be cognisant of long term military trends and threat perceptions. The offset process needs definition, with relevant trade-offs offered — ‘a more offset the better’ will not be suffice.
The DRDO has been a muted failure, with few deployed weapon system successes, with significant gains made primarily in the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (Prithvi, Agni et al) and white elephants (the LCA, Arjun) scattered around. Poor planning, over-optimistic timelines and lack of coordination, along with unionisation ensures cost and time overruns. The DRDO should be trimmed to a manageable size, spinning off its numerous laboratories, allowing it to focus on areas of competence, with public audit of major projects, and encouraging private participation in defence R&D.
The Army lies in a bind. With multiple mandates, it focuses on counterinsurgency, while preparing for a two-front war, maintaining peace-keeping and disaster recovery capabilities. Cold Start, with integrated battle groups, rebuilds it as a networked agile force. This increasing armoured mobility needs to be matched by purchases of helicopters, tanks and howitzers, battlespace management systems and networked units (F-INSAS systems). Its emphasis on manoeuvre and initiative will require significant cultural change, cantonment system reforms and a flatter hierarchy.
A meritorious culture has to be promoted, with greater recruitment from the rural masses, along with more officer training academies, to address officer shortage, with promotions linked to both seniority and merit. Lateral recruitment from the National Cadet Corps and ancillaries and opportunities for junior commissioned officers (JCOs) ought to be encouraged. It must break out of this statist posture.
Attrition dwindles India’s Air Force. Confined fundamentally to air defence, the MiG’s growing obsolescence reduces its combative power, increasing dependence on foreign imports and higher variability in its aircraft mix — a logistical nightmare. Offensive air operations should be given equal priority with air defence, with force multipliers like aerial refuelling, electronic warfare and space asset integration.
Close air support integration with the army requires implementation, particularly on a doctrinal and tactical level. Underrated capabilities in airlift and aerial reconnaissance should be bolstered, providing greater expeditionary and humanitarian support and real-time intelligence, particularly through the timely purchase and development of UAVs and military satellites.
India’s navy stagnates, with a rusty underwater fleet. The delayed operationalisation of INS Arihant and with Sagarika, the ballistic missile, still not deployed, the nuclear triad dream is pushed into the medium term. While expeditionary capabilities have been built, particularly with two carrier task forces, underwater deterrence has been neglected, with the Scorpene delays leaving India with few submarines to matter.
The Navy should have a larger budget to meet the growing maritime trade and coastal security requirements. Long-range reconnaissance systems could be purchased, to keep trading lanes open and terrorist threats at bay. In-house submarine building capabilities can be revived with a new line established. It should be built as India’s true strategic force, with nuclear submarines armed with ballistic missiles.
India’s rise requires a build-up of strength. Its professional armed forces have little influence on policy — this must change. Strong institutional reform, promoting joint doctrines, integrated services and better policy-making in line with clearly enunciated strategic national goals, must be enacted. Neglect and dysfunction left us bereft once; the same must not be repeated.