India’s Big Military Challenge

India has its work cut out modernizing its Air Force and Navy. It needs to choose its partners carefully.

As India has put tremendous effort into modernizing its armed forces, so the United States, Russia and the European Union have sought to be the principal providers of advanced military equipment. With a growing defense budget, India is being wooed like never before.

India’s defensive needs stretch from the strategic to the conventional. With assertive nuclear armed neighbors and stateless actors propped up covertly under myriad nomenclatures, India faces a daunting task in clearly prioritizing its security requirements for the coming decade.

The task is made even more formidable as each nation selling military goods has its own tactical and technological solutions. India therefore needs to import arms from nations who are principled enough to provide support and sustenance through thick and thin. Ultimately, Indian military planners must feel safe in the knowledge that whoever they procure military equipment from can be counted on for future supplies as well as continued support.

The political and military leadership of India is working to ensure a purchase policy of continued supplies during the lifetime of imported equipment and the transfer of technology for indigenous production. The ongoing process over finalizing the contract for India’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft is a good example.

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Many other nations have looked overseas to upgrade their armed forces, with mixed results. China has imported arms from Russia since the 1950’s – since the end of the Cold War, Russia has provided China with a tremendous array of military equipment, including advanced naval surface units, 4th generation fighter aircraft and diesel submarines.

But over the past few years this relationship has begun to sour. Russia has complained bitterly about Chinese efforts to reproduce Russian military equipment, which it has then attempted to sell to others. There has been an ongoing debate whether such moves by the Chinese were implied as being OK by Russia, or a major misunderstanding. Regardless, Russia has since halted most new sales of military goods over such issues. China, for its part, has now crafted efforts to develop its own research and development capabilities with ongoing efforts to boost its home grown military technology.

Japan, meanwhile, has crafted a strategy of utilizing U.S. arms purchases as well as building up its own indigenous capabilities. The modernization of its air force is continuing with American support, and will likely continue for the coming decades. Japan faces a rising and increasingly aggressive China in the Sea of Japan and in the East Sea. This, coupled by maneuvers by PLAN ships in its home waters, has prompted a review of Japan’s defensive needs.  The centerpiece of Japan’s defensive strategy is knowing it has a steady stream of U.S. military equipment and technology at its disposal.

Against this backdrop, all of the world’s major arms suppliers have witnessed the birth of unmanned drones and radical advances in war fighting. Man- machine interfaces over extended ranges that utilize innovative technology have made it redundant to deploy large armies in troubled parts of the world. Highly capable drones fitted with “eyes and ears” across all spectrums are now relentlessly pursuing hostile, non-state actors day and night. The advanced versions of these machines can now stay aloft for four days. India has the capacity to acquire such equipment from various vendors, but it must ensure such transfers won’t at some point be halted.

While India has an obligation to further modernize its armed forces and acquire various forms of military technology, it must cast a cautious eye over its options. For a start, New Delhi must ensure that whoever provides advanced technologies will likely remain a long-term partner. With the various military challenges India faces from state and non-state actors along multiple sections of its long boarders, India must not be placed in a situation where quickly changing geopolitical fortunes deny it military assets sought in good faith.

Second, and just as importantly, India must work honestly with partners to develop India’s own indigenous arms capabilities through ethical, mutually beneficial and agreed upon technology transfers. As long as all parties are on the same page, with realistic expectations and shared agendas, everyone should be well-served.