The Trials and Tribulations of India's Armed Forces
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The Trials and Tribulations of India's Armed Forces

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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.

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