India Beefs Up for Great Game
Image Credit: US Navy

India Beefs Up for Great Game

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Given India’s size and numerous disputed borders, it’s hardly surprising that the country’s army – the third largest in the world – has for decades been central to New Delhi’s military planning. But for the past five years India has also, belatedly, started to focus on strengthening its maritime and aerospace capabilities to counter potential challenges.

The figures speak for themselves. The Indian Defence Ministry spent more than 54,000 crore rupees ($11.6 billion) on capital acquisition for the Navy and the Air Force combined during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 fiscal years. This compared with just 13,539 crore rupees on the Army over the same period, according to figures submitted to the country’s parliament.

The shift in spending shouldn’t, of course, be mistaken as a sign that the Army is diminishing in importance. But it does highlight India’s increasing willingness to broaden its horizons in preparation for a possible future contingency further afield.

The Indian Navy, a seasoned force with a solid track record, is quietly expanding for a larger role in military diplomacy and outreach.  Indeed, its near-term plans suggest ambitions to become a three battle carrier group force by 2020.

While its most prestigious acquisition – the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov, which was renamed the INS Vikramaditya – is likely to be inducted into the fleet by March 2013 at the latest, the country is also readying an indigenously built carrier that will most likely join the service by 2015.

At present, India operates a single aircraft carrier, the INS Viraat – a British-vessel from the 1960s that is seeing an extended lease of life thanks to the Navy’s innovative engineers and planners. The INS Vikramaditya, currently at harbour and conducting sea trials in Russia, will therefore give India a much needed edge in its maritime capabilities, not least because it will come equipped with the latest MiG-29 K series of aircraft. Indian naval aviators are already hard at work training with the planes away from the ship.

Traditionally, the Indian navy has sourced most of its ships from the former Soviet Union, but over the past decade, defence planners have leaned hard on Indian shipbuilding yards to deliver a variety of warships for the Indian Navy. For example, two recently commissioned stealth ships – INS Shivalik and INS Satpura – have been designed and built by public sector firm Mazgaon Docks Limited. The order books of India’s oldest government-owned shipbuilders are chock full with orders from the Navy, which is eyeing four more such guided missile frigates over the next five years.

And there are more acquisitions in the pipeline, including: four anti-submarine corvettes, four guided missile destroyers, three stealth frigates, six Scorpene submarines (being built at Mazgaon Docks with French technology and assistance) and two nuclear-powered submarines.

India’s conventional diesel-powered submarine fleet, meanwhile, is down to single digits, but the country is hoping to have the Russian-built Nerpa class nuclear submarine (leased for a decade) join service later this year. But the biggest force accretion in recent years has come in the form of the Boeing Pi-8 long range maritime reconnaissance (LRMR) plane, which gives the Indian Navy a reach and capability to mount surveillance far beyond its traditional areas of influence.

The Air Force isn’t far behind.

Recently retired Indian Air Force Chief Marshal PV Naik told me last month that the Indian Air Force will be transformed over the next five years, with capability enhancements planned across the entire spectrum of war fighting.

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