American strategists are taken with the idea of India’s strategic potential: a large democracy with a blue-water navy and the world’s third-largest armed forces that happens to be jammed between an imploding Pakistan and an expansionist China. But a deeply dysfunctional Indian defense community has frustrated efforts to turn that potential into reality. Will the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month with the strongest mandate of any Indian leader in 30 years jumpstart much-needed reforms? The answer will help determine whether India begins to fulfill its vaunted potential as a U.S. strategic partner in Asia and beyond.
On the face of it, Modi’s election augurs well for India’s defense preparedness. On the campaign trail, Modi promised a strong India able to stand up to its adversaries. He deplored what he called the then-ruling Congress party’s lack of respect for soldiers, and promised to devote his government to long-overdue military modernization.
But the list of problems he faces is a long one. The Indian defense budget has declined to less than 2 percent of the country’s GDP, the lowest in five decades. This might be tolerable if the country’s security environment had gotten appreciably better in recent years—but it hasn’t. Though India hasn’t witnessed a major terrorist strike since the carnage in Mumbai in 2008, Pakistan remains a threat, and the prospect of terrorist attacks has not gone away. As the United States draws down its troops in the region, Afghan instability is likely to be of increasing concern, and India faces on land and at sea a rapidly rising military power in China, with which the country shares a disputed 2,500-mile border.
The challenges, however, run much deeper than a lack of resources. The procurement system is broken, corruption a constant problem, and tensions between the various military services and the civilian defense bureaucracy are serious and longstanding. Politically appointed defense ministers have had little time for—and, more important, little interest in—straightening out all that ails the Indian defense effort.
The last defense minister, A. K. Antony, was so worried that corruption associated with military procurement would tarnish his image that he brought India’s acquisition process to a virtual halt. At the slightest hint of scandal, purchases would be stalled and companies blacklisted until investigations could be completed. The result: tens of billions of dollars in new equipment not acquired, with existing platforms growing outdated and more expensive to maintain.
Indians themselves point to the history of multiple on-again, off-again attempts to procure aerial refuelers, transport aircraft, and light utility helicopters. For example, even though India’s air force is replete with older (in some cases, relatively ancient) fighter aircraft like the MiG-21, there seems little urgency in replacing them. After a drawn-out bidding process, the government finally opted in 2012 to buy 126 of Dassault’s Rafale aircraft for $11 billion, but it still hasn’t finalized the contract. As a result, the full complement of Rafales probably will not enter the Indian Air Force’s inventory until well into the next decade.
Similarly, before the turn of the century, plans were approved for India to acquire 24 new diesel-electric attack submarines, both to increase the size of the submarine fleet and to replace an aging fleet. Yet it’s possible that over the next year only 9 of the current fleet of 14 attack submarines will be operational, with the rest needing overhauls—a reality reinforced by repeated accidents onboard Indian Navy submarines, including the total loss, with crew, of a Russian-made submarine last August. Yet plans to build the new submarines have been delayed time and again. Inevitably, delays mean higher costs, and, with a budget dominated by personnel expenses, this means even fewer rupees to buy needed equipment.
Already, the army is facing shortages in ammunition, field artillery, night-vision capabilities, specialized counterterrorism equipment, and antitank weapons.