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Who is mucking up India's defence build-up?

February 28, 2011 20:59 IST
The government and the current defence minister are largely responsible for the sad state of affairs today in the military realm, says Harsh V Pant.

Defence Minister A K Antony recently expressed concern about the modernisation of the armed forces of China and its rapidly growing military spending. Rather intriguingly, he suggested that while this is matter of serious concern, 'we are not unduly worried because we also will have to modernise and strengthen our armed forces.'

He said the review of capabilities of armed forces was an 'ongoing and constant' process and the defence preparedness was being reviewed on a regular basis and 'if there are any gaps, they will be filled up.'

Antony also argued that India was not 'modernising our (its) armed forces by keeping in mind any other country's modernisation.' According to the defence minister, India is modernising its 'forces on the basis of a comprehensive review of the emerging security scenario around us.'

All this is clearly commonsensical, but China's rapid rise is shaking up the strategic milieu around India and the Indian armed forces will have to be made capable of tackling that challenge. This rise is actually now an old story and the Indian government should have been ready long ago.

But the reality is that Indian defence modernisation is lagging behind and the government and the present defence minister is largely responsible for the sad state of affairs today in the military realm. There has been no 'comprehensive review' of India's security scenario as claimed by the minister.

China's largely secretive military modernisation programme is producing results faster than expected. Beijing is gearing up to challenge the US military prowess in the Pacific. It is refitting a Soviet-era Ukrainian aircraft carrier for deployment next year and more carriers are under construction in Shanghai.

China's submarine fleet is the largest in Asia and is undergoing refurbishments involving nuclear powered vessels and ballistic missile equipped subs. Its anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) system, developed specifically to target US carrier strike groups, has reached initial operational capability much earlier than expected. And earlier this month, photographs appeared on Chinese Internet sites of what is apparently China's first stealth fighter during a runway test in Western China.

China has already shown its prowess in anti-satellite warfare and has redeployed its nuclear warheads onto mobile launchers and advanced submarines. In a marked shift in China's no-first-use policy, Chinese leaders have indicated that they would consider launching pre-emptive strikes if they found the country in a 'critical situation,' thereby lowering the threshold of nuclear threats. There is a growing debate in the PLA about whether to discard conditionalities on China's commitments to no-first use.

China is a rising power with the world's second largest economy and a growing global footprint. It would like to have a military ready and willing to defend these interests. But it is the opaqueness surrounding China's military upgradation that is the real sources of concern.

China does not believe in transparency. In fact, the PLA follows Sun Tzu who argues that 'the essence of warfare is creating ambiguity in the perceptions of the enemy.'

China continues to defend its military upgradation by claiming that it needs offensive capability for Taiwan-related emergencies. But clearly its sights are now focused on the US. China wants to limit American ability to project power into the Western Pacific. It wants to prevent a repeat of its humiliation in 1996 when US aircraft carriers could move around unmolested in the Taiwan Strait and deter Chinese provocations.

Not surprisingly, the steady build up of a force with offensive capabilities well beyond Chinese territory is causing consternation in Washington and among China's neighbours. This comes at a time of Chinese assertiveness on territorial disputes with Japan, India and Southeast Asian countries.

China has closed the capabilities gap with the US enough to pose a threat to the US freedom of action in the Western Pacific with the help of a three decade-long build-up and a raft of technological secrets stolen through espionage. The US has been consistently underestimating the PLA for more than a decade now.

US intelligence had estimated that the jet would not be deployed until 2010. Not surprisingly, the Chinese military has advanced faster than the West thought it could.

The US aircraft carrier battle group now stands vulnerable in East Asia. Chinese ships have increasingly challenged the US Navy in the waters of the Pacific in recent months. China might succeed in getting the US out of East Asia without firing a shot by enhancing its deterrence capability in the region, forcing the US to think twice before intervening in the region.

Compare this to India's lackadaisical approach to military matters. As a percentage of the GDP, the annual defence spending has declined to one of its lowest levels since 1962. More damagingly, for the last several years now the defence ministry has been unable to spend its budgetary allocation.

The defence acquisition process remains mired in corruption and bureaucratese. A series of defence procurement scandals since late 1980s have also made the bureaucracy risk averse, thereby delaying the acquisition process. A large part of the money is surrendered by the defence forces every year given their inability to spend due to labyrinthine bureaucratic procedures involved in the procurement process.

India's indigenous defence production industry has time and again made its inadequacy to meet the demands of the armed forces apparent. The Indian armed forces keep waiting for arms and equipment while the finance ministry is left with unspent budget year after year. Most large procurement programmes get delayed resulting in cost escalation and technological or strategic obsolescence of the budgeted items.

The UPA government is yet to demonstrate the political will to tackle the defence policy paralysis that seems to be rendering all the claims of India's rise as a military power increasingly hollow. The capability differential between China and India is rising at an alarming rate.

An effective defence policy is not merely about deterring China. But if not tackled urgently, India will lose the confidence to conduct its foreign policy unhindered from external and internal security challenges.

Dr Harsh V Pant teaches at King's College, London.

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Harsh V Pant