The Trials and Tribulations of India's Armed Forces
Image Credit: Wikicommons

The Trials and Tribulations of India's Armed Forces


The old saying that a developing country is at a crossroads, whether it’s India or Indonesia, is especially tempting when it comes to India’s armed forces. Decades of underinvestment, corruption, bureaucratic ineptitude and hazy strategic thinking have left the country with a decidedly mixed bag of military capabilities.

On one hand it is strengthening its strategic arsenal, with a triad of nuclear options preparing to come online and well-documented successes in ballistic and cruise missiles (the latter with some serious assistance from Russia). It also has a healthy appetite: despite recent budget cuts across the federal government, my IHS Jane’s colleague Craig Caffrey predicts that defense spending will reach USD 64.5 billion by 2020, with annual spending on equipment alone expected to reach USD 17.4 billion.

On the other hand, India has a world of problems: it has obsolete artillery and air defense systems; a rigid attitude to military doctrine and interservice cooperation; a navy whose only aircraft carrier is creaking towards retirement after more than five decades in British and Indian service; and two neighbors – China and Pakistan – which seem to have a much better record of getting a better return on their defense investments.

With all this in mind, the recent Aero India 2013 airshow in Bangalore was a great chance to assess whether, from a military standpoint, India was going in the right direction or continued to suffer from the same issues.

First up, the good news for India: the Indian Air Force (IAF) is one part of the military that is buying its way into being a capable, 21st century force. While local journalists told me that the big story was whether Russia was losing its edge as India’s preeminent military supplier, the other side of the coin is how New Delhi’s diversifying its supply chain to get the best from an increasingly competitive global defense market.

A case in point is the selection of France’s Dassault Rafale for the Medium Multi-Role Aircraft (MMRCA) contest, a multi-billion dollar deal that France won at the expense of the Eurofighter Typhoon (aircraft from the U.S., Sweden and Russia were also in the running but didn’t make the shortlist). Aviation enthusiasts will continue to disagree which aircraft is better, but what’s undeniable is this: the Rafale has more weapons certified for use and has a latest-generation fire control radar that is actually in production.

France has provided fast jets to India before, so this in itself is not a revolutionary change. Russia is also not out of the fast jet game: India recently agreed to take an option on its Sukhoi Su-30MKI that will eventually see the IAF with 272 of the 4.5-gen fighter – ample to defend Indian air space against any threats from noisy neighbors.

Delhi is also preparing to sign a full design contract with Russia for Sukhoi’s T-50 PAK-FA fifth-gen fighter – Indian sources reckon that at least 300 will enter service with the IAF. Throw in upgraded Mirage 2000s, SEPECAT Jaguars, MiG-29s (both land and carrier based) and a few hundred of the indigenously developed Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) and it’s clear that the pointy end of India’s military aviation should be pretty sharp for quite some time.

Ramesh Deshmukh
May 13, 2013 at 10:33

Kim's, you are correct ! China does not learn from history. China uses some scanty references in so called history which are favourale for it. For examlpe , to claim the Arunachal Pradesh area of India , China gives reason that in the history, one Dalai Lama was from Arunachal area. What a funny excuse!. China is bent upon creating many enemies simultaneously . Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, India, Philippines….. the list is long. China is following the foot steps of Nazi Germany The Chinese policy shall lead China to a dead end.

S. Suchindranath Aiyer
April 5, 2013 at 13:54

Primarily, India has remained a navel gazing nation without a clue about what happens elsewhere. India's defence and foreign policy remains frozen, doggedly, in time. If India was to fight in the Second World War (Bangla Desh was a similar theater), India might do very well with brute manpower enhanced with slightly more contemporary field arms. India has not surfaced an effective threat perception from which to derive a lean and mean fighting machine model towards which to move. Instead of re-engineering, it is growing organically with most of its investments, costs, and ballasts in maintaining the ornamental and the absurd of yester years. The teeth to tail ratio has under gone a terrible degradation where India is almost all tail. India created, under the home ministry, further ballast of large numbers of para military forces ostensibly to man the borders, wage war on malcontent Indian citizens and so on. The main motive though was the "Nehruvian" inferiority complex driven suspicion  of the military which was, in his day, led by British educated and trained King's Commissioned Officers who were far superior to his pitiful Civil Servants and politicians like himself. The para military, the Politican-Bureaucrat Nexus hoped, would provide them a bulwark against the Indian Armed Forces. Today, the  Para Military are woefully unfit for purpose and it is the Indian Armed Forces that are called in to perform their duties, whether it be quelling rebellion, protecting the borders or disaster relief, rendering them even more unfit for purpose. India's Armed Forces have been rendered into an unfit for purpose para military equivalent, largely ornamental, and expected to frighten away predatory neighbours like a scarecrow placed to frighten away a swarm of locusts.

Vietnamese Not So Great
February 25, 2013 at 17:46

Absolutely correct, Be Way.  The Vietnamese almost threw in the towel and surrendered after the massive bombings by US B-24s.  They were in fact ready to give in at the Paris Meeting.

Free toilet access
February 25, 2013 at 07:16

A "good thing"  for India would be having the ability to cater to the sanitary needs of the masses. Remember, people were hollering in Tahrir Square becuz in the big Egyptian cities 70 people on average share one single toilet. You don't want the people of Nagaland to realise what they could achieve with some non-stop hollering in New Delhi. Toilet Spring.

February 23, 2013 at 23:42

@ Mitch,

Your opinion is not entirely true …… Indians may be corrupt, but they are not idiots ….. your view that India only considers brief conflicts is not true either ….. India in next 30 odd years would likely emerge as a significant power, with serious capacity for force projection around the world.

India is a big country with huge human resources. It can take care of its own end of the logistical issues …. only if the suppliers would maintain their end of the bargain, of providing spare parts in time ……

February 23, 2013 at 16:47

Although it is interesting to see the level of investment, it seems as though these are all politically motivated as a means to avoid influence from any particular supplier… Which, in my opinion, means those considerations are at the direct expense of military sustainability… It seems the scattershot mix of sources sets up an unlikely ability to maintain smooth logistical abilities for repair, replacement, etc. in the light of any sustained conflict… Which, in the most charitable view, means they intend to only fight extremely brief conflicts which are probably more purely tactical and/or symbolic than anything… More likely, it just reflects a parochially influenced buying pattern which is ultimately corrupt and focused more on sparkling displays to people who don't know any better…


February 23, 2013 at 05:18

Mr Aidian,

                50 Million Americans do not have heathcare coverage, and yet US spends 600 billion on defence, and also provides aid to lot of countries, would it be prudent for US cover their citizens with health care rather than spending on defence, it is the same logic applies to India when it comes to poverty. 


February 23, 2013 at 03:46

Why do we need the American presence in every corner of the world?

USA is not the boss of the world! We do not need Americans. We are capable of looking after ourselves.

Trade With China : A Good Business Deal
February 22, 2013 at 21:34

@Anjaan :  Simple economics, my friend – Comparative advantage.  Chinese companies makes goods at very low costs.  Partly due to efficiency, and partly due to low margins initially to secur markets. Thus, you can get just about any product at whatever level of quality – depending on your budget – at a lower price than anywhere in the world.  Aspiring entrepreneurs all over the world are buying from China and selling them locally, and getting rich in the process.  Meantime, on  government to government basis, Beijing's quid pro quo in building infrastructure for the host countries while buying their natural resources at market prices is a win-win situation for the capital scarce developing countries for example.  India thus, is in a position to blossom economially if and when it realizes it has much to gain economically by trading with China in a big way.  You basically get three for one when you trade with China.  But it is, India's decision.

Be Way
February 22, 2013 at 19:05

……for the benefits of those who favored their mutual cooperation.

Be Way
February 22, 2013 at 19:03

You didn't elaborate why India joining Russia and China will not make matters any better.   Maybe we will like understand more so that all these obstacles or constraits can be avoided or minimised for the benefits of everyone.

February 22, 2013 at 16:04



Can you name a country in Chinese backyard which is establishing defence and naval ties with China? (ofcourse except NK)

Well this is how small countires balance their relationship with outsider when they live with a power and huge neighbours. 

Good relationship with China for South Asian counties doesnt mean they want a hostile relationship with India. Infact they are only engaging more with China but not at the cost of India.

Srilanka has offered India to built second seaport which India is eager to built. Not to forget India is builsing seaports in Bangladesh and Myanmar as well (though less published news).

This is diplomacy.

February 22, 2013 at 13:50

Much is definitely needed to make India's military strong enough to ward a superpower's attack. They really should strengthen thmselves if they don't want their sovereignty disregarded or disrespected by neighboring bully or bullies. Even to India which seem far enough to China, the China threat is still very much felt especially in the northeastern province of Assam.

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