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The Trials and Tribulations of India’s Armed Forces

While spending billions of dollars on defense equipment, India’s military faces a number of challenges in its quest to enter the 21st century.

By James Hardy for

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.

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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.

The IAF’s also investing in the support aircraft that keep combat aircraft in the fight: it has two different Airborne early warning and control (AWE&C) programs ongoing – one indigenous and one with Israeli knowhow – and recently selected Airbus’ A330 MRTT for it mid-air refueling tanker/transport program. On the pure transport side, the U.S. has cleaned up at Russia’s expense, selling 12 C-130J Hercules tactical transports and at least 6 C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlifters to the IAF. It’s not all bad news for Moscow, however – the IAF has signed a deal with Russia to co-design and produce a Medium Transport Aircraft and is looking for replacements for its HAL-748 Avro, with Russian, Ukrainian, pan-European and Italian manufacturers ready to take part.

Where the scales start to tip away from Russia and toward the U.S. is on the rotary side: Boeing recently received preferred bidder status on two major helicopter contracts. India’s heavy attack helicopter will be an AH-64E Apache, while its heavy lift helicopter will be the CH-47F Chinook. Both wins were over Russian competition.

But again, that’s not the full story. Vladimir Putin recently signed a follow-on order for the Mil Mi-17 – the workhorse of the Indian Air Force, and while U.S. and Western suppliers are making inroads into the army’s needs – BAE Systems’ M777 light howitzer is on its way to Delhi – the navy remains a Russian-dominated affair (European design support for the indigenous aircraft carrier being built in Cochin notwithstanding).

Of course, all of this horse-trading and point scoring would be moot if India had an indigenous defense industrial base that could provide the military with what it wants. Right now, that’s just not the case. Whether it is the Tejas fighter, the INSAS rifle or the Arjun tank, India’s failure to develop systems that inspire confidence in its soldiers ensures that the subcontinent remains a world of opportunity for foreign defense manufacturers.

Unsurprisingly, the massive sums involved mean that the threat of corruption is never far away. Although local journalists complained at Aero India that it was a little short on news, organizers will feel that they dodged a bullet when – only three days after the show ended – Italian police arrested Finmeccanica CEO and Chairman Giuseppe Orsi and AgustaWestland CEO Bruno Spagnolini on bribery charges relating to a USD 751 million deal for 12 helicopters. The AW101 helicopters in question were to be used to transport India’s prime minister, president and other VVIPs. Finmeccanica and its subsidiaries deny any wrongdoing.

Military corruption scandals have a long and storied place in Indian politics – the Bofors howitzer case ran for over two decades. Still, it is not clear that corruption has more of a negative effect on India’s military capabilities than its tangle of bureaucratic inefficiency and institutional petrifaction.

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James Hardy is Asia-Pacific Editor of IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.