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Military Modernization

Written by Rizwan Zeb  •  Region  •  March 2011 PDF Print E-mail
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Recently, the C-130 J Super Hercules was inducted in the Indian Air Force. This is one of the many steps taken by New Delhi to modernize its armed forces.

Hardly anyone would disagree today that India is emerging as a major player on the global scene. New Delhi is further strengthening its position to establish itself as a major player on the world scene and an ambitious plan of military modernization is one of the steps in this direction.

This is also why New Delhi is focusing on the Indian Ocean. Although the fixation is not new but the country is taking a number of steps to establish the Indian Ocean as ‘India’s ocean.’ As India’s energy needs swell, its reliance on energy imports will increase and to ensure a steady and secure supply, it has to make sure that its sea lanes are secure. To achieve this, India plans to ensure the security of strategic points in the Indian Ocean, such as the Strait of Hormuz, Bab-el-Mandeb, Cape of Good Hope, Mozambique Channel and the Malacca Straits.
Although, for most of its history, the Indian Navy has been the most neglected arm of the Indian armed force, but since the mid-1990s, New Delhi has focused on the navy’s modernization. The process has been accelerated since India increased its focus on projecting its position and strengthen its presence in the Indian Ocean. Today the Indian Navy is taking every possible measure to establish itself as a blue water navy. A classical definition of a blue water navy is a maritime force which can operate 320 km away from its shores.

A number of reports and official documents reflect this thinking in the naval and policy circles in New Delhi, such as the Strategic Defense Review: The Maritime Dimension-A Naval Vision (May 1998), The Indian Maritime Doctrine (April 2004), the Indian Navy’s Vision Statement (May 2006), Roadmap to Transformation (October 2006), and Freedom to Use the Seas: India’s Maritime Military Strategy (IMMS) (September 2007
Apart from its role in the defense of India, Indian Navy also views itself as the defender of Indian economic and energy interests. It believes that it is the vital force for the security of Indian energy supplies and to guard its trade routes. It wants further to be the vehicle of Indian naval diplomacy and sees a role in the anti-piracy efforts in the Malacca Straits and the Horn of Africa.

In 2005, a Far Eastern Naval Command (FENC) was established at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. This command is vital for IN’s blue water navy status as it is placed at a very strategic location. IN plans to establish three bases and a fleet of submarines and patrol vessels under the FENC by 2012. A few navy experts are of the view that once this is done, it will be bigger than the American Naval base in Subic Bay in the Philippines. In any future conflict, the facility is likely to play a strategic role.

The Indian Army which still manages to get the lion’s share in the country’s defense budget has an ambitious modernization plan of its own. After a strategic rethink in the wake of India’s unsuccessful mobilization during the 2002 standoff with Pakistan, the army worked out a new war fighting doctrine - the cold start. Cold start is not owned by New Delhi as its official war fighting doctrine, just like the nuclear doctrine which was prepared by a select committee. The cold start doctrine indicates the Indian army’s strategic thinking and how it wants to remodel itself. In effect, it wants to change its war fighting doctrine which is famously called the Sundarji Doctrine, by recreating itself as a lean and mean war machine which can mobilize and execute plans quickly and efficiently.

Another important dimension of the cold start doctrine, which is Pakistan-specific, is to take the battle into the Pakistani territory and open several fronts under the Pakistani nuclear threshold level so that two objectives are achieved, one, Islamabad cannot use its nuclear weapons; two, to confuse the Pakistani defense planners. For this, the Indian army plans to establish eight Integrated Battle Groups (IBG), each consisting of armor, mechanized infantry and artillery, with integrated close air support.

To implement the doctrine, the Indian army needs to acquire modern equipment and weapons. Another important element would be coordination with the Indian Air Force. The army is currently in the process of placing orders and acquiring the necessary funds for transport helicopters, T-90 tanks and 155 mm self-propelled howitzers. It is also lobbying for an ambitious Future Infantry Soldier as a System (F-INSAS) program. In addition, the Indian army is in the process of improving and modernizing its command and control system. Tata Consultancy Services has designed a new digital communication system which is in the final stages.

It was only after the debacle of 1962, that any serious thought was given to the modernization of the Indian Air force despite the fact that in 1948, it was the IAF which had transported the Indian soldiers to Kashmir to take over, a move which proved decisive for the future of the state. Despite tall claims, the fact is that the IAF is now struggling and in the absence of any local support is largely dependent on international suppliers.
According to an in-depth study conducted by an American think-tank, “in 2009 the IAF was reduced to thirty-two squadrons (576 aircraft). By the time the first planes are delivered, theoretically in 2012 but probably much later, the IAF will have shed three more squadrons to an all-time low of twenty-nine. Without a formal decision to reduce the size of the air force, it will decline in numbers because of block obsolescence of its MiG fleet and the aging of other aircraft.”

IAF hopes to buy a number of new planes such as the Su-30; however, it will take quite a few years before they actually arrive. It is aptly put by a major American scholar that “India’s remarkable economic growth and new-found access to arms from abroad has raised the prospect of a major rearmament of the country.”  However it seems that there is clear lack of coordination between those involved in the modernization process. All three forces have their wish lists. How all of this will blend into the defense policy of India seems to be nobody’s concern. For instance, the Indian Navy’s modernization plan has little relevance to any future conflict with Pakistan. And the biggest challenger to its ambitious blue water dream is China and New Delhi’s current ally and guardian U.S.A. How long they will tolerate Indian advances is not clear. The IAF is under pressure the Indian Army is struggling to hold on to its position of strength as compared to the two other arms. The lack of coordination and no clear plan of action is the most serious problem with Indian military modernization. Corruption is also an issue which continues to affect modernization efforts, be it Bofors guns, HDW submarines in the 1980s or the Tehelka expose of acceptance of bribes in 2001.

However, the biggest hurdles in Indian military modernization are the mindset of the Indian political leadership; throughout Indian history, the political leadership has taken every step to ensure that the Indian armed forces especially the Army remains under civilian control. The Indian Army’s acceptance of the due status and role of the Indian Air force and Indian Navy is also an important factor. Till this is not changed, the whole exercise of military modernization would remain meaningless. After all, the Indian government does not intend to go on an expensive shopping spree with no other purpose than window dressing. 


Rizwan Zeb is based at the University of Western Australia. He is a former visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution, USA and a former Benjamin Meaker Professor of Politics, University of Bristol, UK.

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