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Reprioritising Defence Acquisitions

Air Cmde (Retd) Ramesh Phadke was Advisor, Research at Institute for Defence Studies and Anaysis, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 30, 2010

    Amid reports of Pakistan pressurising the United States to give it an India-like nuclear deal and fulfil its wish list for modern armaments including the early release of the additional 18 F-16s and unspecified numbers of killer drones (Predator/Reaper) there is palpable disappointment and even anger in India about America’s South Asia policy. Hillary Clinton’s comments, “Pakistan is close to my heart and Pakistan’s struggles are my struggles”, and above all, “US acknowledges Pakistan’s role in promoting security in South Asia,” belie America’s earlier statements of it wanting to help India become a major power. Most Indians, of course, always knew that no country can make another a major power and that India would have to struggle hard if it wants to keep its head up in the world. Having said that it is time India began to take some real steps on the path of self-reliance or at least some autonomy in defence preparedness. It is not as if it can overnight reduce its current 70 per cent dependence on foreign suppliers, but if it gets its priorities right it can certainly do much better than in the past.

    The famous description of the vested interests as the ‘military-industrial complex’ by former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower comes to mind when there is a chorus in the media and strategic community about the ‘urgent’ need of India’s military modernisation, forgetting that such an approach even when it is well meaning would not reduce India’s dependence on others. Twenty years from now we would once again be looking for another round of high-price arms purchases to keep up with the Joneses. In India too it appears to be the case of armed forces driving defence budgets rather than a cold calculation of the country’s desire for ‘adequate’ military capability and this is mainly because the national leadership has not laid down in clear terms the country’s defence strategy. Can anyone then blame the soldier if he prepares for the worst case scenario? A strategic defence review is long overdue. How else can one determine the exact number of tanks, guns, aircraft or ships that the country’s military needs?

    The recent defence budget has allocated a whopping Rs. 60,000 crore (US$ 13.04 billion) for capital expenditure, of which nearly Rs. 25,251crore (US$ 5.48 billion) is for the air force, and about half that, Rs. 12,138 crore (US$ 2.63 billion), for the navy, and nearly two thirds, Rs. 17,255 crore (US$ 3.75 billion), for the army. By any reckoning these are huge sums of money to be spent in one year. Here, I must clarify that a sizeable portion of these amounts would go towards payments for earlier purchases and commitments as well as for other capital projects such as housing, construction of roads and the like.

    Of the big ticket purchases on the anvil, the 126 MMRCA worth US$ 10 billion is decidedly the biggest, followed by the ten C-17 heavy lift transport worth US$ 2.4 billion and eight Boeing P8I LRMP (for the navy) worth US$ 2.1 billion. The Gorshkov worth, US$ 2.3 billion, will be another major purchase. There was also a proposal for the purchase of some six Airbus tanker aircraft, which has been rejected by the Ministry of Finance. The second of the three Phalcon AWACS has also been inducted recently. In addition, some 20 Tejas LCA fighters are on order from the HAL, and more Su-30 MKI continue to be inducted to fill the voids caused by the phasing out of older aircraft like the MiG-21 and MiG-23. The six Lockheed Martin C-130J worth US$ 962 million is not a mean buy either, but since these aircraft were contracted for earlier there is little one can do to change that decision. Further, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has also issued a Request for Proposal (RfP) for 75 basic trainers – the most urgent need of the day. It should be clear to even a lay person that the cost of aircraft and related equipment is astronomical and their life cycle costs are equally high and rising.

    India’s leadership has categorically said that war is not an option to eliminate the ever rising threat of cross-border terrorism. Even punitive and surgical strikes have more or less been ruled out. For some time now, Indian and other strategic analysts have repeatedly been ruling out the possibility of a full scale conventional war in the region. In sum, while a high impact threat of conventional war has receded, that of a low impact threat of catastrophic terror attacks and border skirmishes loom high on the strategic horizon. At this time it is perhaps possible to make some bold suggestions to delay and, if possible, even rethink some of the proposed purchases.

    Let us first take the case of the ten C-17, which the air force and, I suppose, the army too wants for strategic mobility. The IAF already has some 30 IL-76 heavy and 80 odd An-32 medium transports and will soon also have the six C-130J capable of operations from short runways at high altitude airfields in the mountains. In 1984 when these transports (IL-76 & An-32) began entering the service, the air force had only the antiquated An-12, C-119 Fairchild Packet and C-46/47 Dakota and sundry other aircraft. At that time the Indian commercial fleet consisted of a mere 35 or so Boeing and Airbus aircraft. Today that number is nearly 300 and it is possible to requisition most if not all of these to transport troops in an emergency. The emergency evacuation of Indians from Kuwait during the First Gulf War in 1990 is a case in point when the IL-76 and commercial airliners were pressed into service. Why then do we need the additional C-17s in such a hurry?

    With a steady if slow induction of the Su-30MKI and now the MiG-29K for the Navy and later the 20 Tejas LCA, the IAF should not be too badly off in the fighter department also. The 66 BAe Hawk AJT also have a limited strike capability and can be gainfully employed once air superiority is established. The proposed 126 MMRCA deal worth US$ 10 billion would translate roughly into each of these modern fighters costing a whopping US$ 80 million or Rs. 365 crore each, compared to around US$ 30 to 35 million for the Su-30MKI and perhaps even less for the Tejas. Some experts would immediately point out to the technology transfer that would accompany the purchase of the MMRCA, but one wonders if simply getting an advance Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar would make a difference between victory and defeat in a local, limited conventional war where numbers might prove more useful. The other and justifiably important reason for buying Western aircraft is that Russian technology is often dated and the maintenance problematic. But surely, after operating hundreds of Russian aircraft for nearly half a century, it should be possible to refine and fine tune their maintenance through even closer cooperation with the Russians for a fraction of the cost of new Western hi-tech equipment. This is not to suggest that India should not modernise its fighter fleet. The Fifth Generation PAK-FA and the gradually improving Tejas should at least meet some of these objectives.

    The monies thus saved could well be invested into a joint venture with one or more Western Aviation Companies to manufacture a fighter, an intermediate and most importantly a basic trainer in India with suitable arrangements for exports. Given the right momentum and bold FDI policies, this type of project should be off the ground and running in less than a decade; the time it would in any case take to get all of the 126 MMRCA into the service. Similar arrangements are reportedly working in the joint development and manufacture project for various UAVs and Drones. We should also accelerate the pace of GTRE cooperation with an aero-engine manufacture to co-develop a series of turbofan engines as also others for use in cruise missiles. A clear signal that India is serious about building its indigenous capabilities and that it would not blindly spend large sums of money on mere imports would also go a long way in leveraging its larger foreign policy goals.

    A recently unveiled project of Tata-Augusta Westland for the manufacture of AW-119 helicopters in India is yet another example of how bold and innovative thinking can put India on the world aviation map. Just as China has begun manufacturing large numbers of basic trainers of an American brand (Cessna), India too can do so. And once the country’s industrial capacity becomes more credible, orders would automatically follow both from home and abroad. As is well known, no defence industry can hope to build its reputation unless it satisfies the basic needs of its own defence services. HAL, DRDO and DPSUs have to go a long way to earn that trust. The defence forces, on the other hand, must also be ready to field equipment that is somewhat less than ‘top-of-the-line’. Perfection, as is said, is often the enemy of the good. Instead of solely depending on the Defence PSUs, India can also easily offer major industrial houses such as L&T, Mahindra, Tata and others that are already in the heavy vehicles field to design, develop and manufacture artillery guns, tanks and armoured vehicles by giving them major incentives.

    It is often said that the nature of warfare is changing with sub-conventional and asymmetric threats coming to the fore. Some Western reports are already talking about utilising small, slow but capable and yet inexpensive turbo-prop powered machines for attacks on terror targets where an advanced and sophisticated fighter is extremely vulnerable and also less effective due to the high speeds at which it operates. The Super Tucano, Beechcraft AT-6B, T-6 Texan II, and the Air Tractor AT-802U all described in the March 3, 2010 issue of JDW are prime examples of this type and carry sizeable weapon loads. Some air power experts would object to sending such slow and vulnerable aircraft into a strong AD environment, but it should be relatively easy to launch a pair or two of SU-30MKI/MiG-29 variety of air superiority fighters to provide protection or ‘top cover’. Such operations would in all probability be confined to areas close to the border and hence the aircraft would be less vulnerable. The cheap turbo-prop can also double as a basic or intermediate trainer, both for civil and military use. The armament needed for such contingencies is Quick Reaction ‘Manpads’ or Man Portable Air Defence missiles like the US Stinger, anti-tank missiles, JDAM and SOW or Stand-off Weapons, small diameter bombs, Aerostat radars, UAV/UCAV which must be ordered in larger numbers so as to prepare our armed forces for instantaneous yet calibrated reaction to a future contingency. Simply focusing on fancy big-ticket items is not always the best way to use our scarce resources. You do not after all use a sledge hammer to swat a fly.

    Coming back to the question of Pakistan military’s enhanced capabilities, the additional 18 F-16 fighters and a few Drones should not overly affect the conventional balance with India. In fact, India should get used to its Western neighbour getting its defence needs from the United States and China at a fraction of the cost of what India spends on its defence. In light of this, it becomes even more important for India to get the best value for money.