Tomorrow, India celebrates its 73rd Republic Day. In Delhi, an impressive parade that showcases the nation, especially its armed might, will be its limelight. While the numbers of the marching contingents, military bands, and the tableaux remain the same, airpower is getting a boost with the participation of 75 aircraft and helicopters from the three Services.
In the prevailing strategic context, signalling the importance of the role of airpower is notable. For, in the types of wars envisaged on the western and northern fronts, airpower could play a much larger role than ever before.
Economic downturns, sloppy budget
Air and maritime power are both capital-intensive entities that India has to strengthen amid an economic downturn brought on by the pandemic. India is the world’s sixth-largest economy and consumer market. But within the economy, significant disparities prevail. Only two per cent of the citizens pay income tax. Although per capita income has risen in the long term, millions of Indians live in extreme poverty with inequality, unemployment, and poor-quality education remaining major areas of concern and further worsened by the pandemic.
The financial outlays required for socio-economic development have to be balanced with the growing demands generated by the national security challenges in the context of deepening global and regional geopolitical tensions.
In the last decade, the share of defence expenditure as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has fallen from 2.5 per cent to 2.1 per cent. In 2018, the Standing Committee on Defence had recommended that 3 per cent of the GDP should be allotted to maintain adequate defence preparedness. Ironically, on 1 February 2021, the defence budget did not even figure in Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s speech in Parliament.
The burden of increase in revenue demands, including pension outlay, has also limited the availability of capital procurement. A resort to emergency purchases had to be done due to China’s Ladakh aggression in June 2020. The enlarged threat across the northern border can be expected to remain and continue to draw in greater financial resources from the defence budget.
The operational shift reiterated by the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) General Manoj Mukund Naravane’s Army Day talk on 15 January 2022 could provide relief. For a long time, the larger part of military power had been oriented towards Pakistan. This is despite the indications for several decades that China is the main adversary. The operational shift involves the rebalancing and force restructuring by shifting India’s military weight, especially of its land power, towards the northern front while retaining the capability for punitive retaliation on the western front. Such a shift should, to some extent, improve India’s defence preparedness to face the two-front threat from China and Pakistan.
While the threat from China is territorial, the Pakistan threat is in the essence of terrorism. The shaping of military power to deal with both has to, therefore, be different.
Against China, territorial defence is personnel-heavy and requires to be supported by ground and air-based firepower. Against Pakistan, the primary demand is for firepower-based punitive retaliation capability. Long-range artillery, missiles based on the ground, and aerial platforms are the primary vectors required.
On both fronts, there is an enhanced role for airpower, which is also imbued by the characteristic of flexibility in employment and can be speedily deployed and utilised widely.
But where is India’s airpower?
The Rafale, Jaguar, and MiG variations, along with force multipliers like Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), are expected to represent India’s airpower at the Republic Day parade. The foreign origin of these aircraft and some of the helicopters also reflect strategic dependence on arms import despite several decades of effort at indigenisation with not much progress in sight.
The absence of the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) from the Republic Day flypast is intriguing. Though some weapon platforms for the Navy and several of the Army have been indigenised, important subsystems of necessity have to be imported. It seems that India’s strategic dependence on arms import is likely to endure and complicate its ability to shape its military power. It will also influence its strategic partnerships with other powers.
Interdependence for overall economic and scientific progress is a necessity for the realisation of India’s potential. However, in the domain of military power, such interdependence that is skewed towards dependence for basic weapon platforms like aircraft, ships, tanks, missiles, and artillery can play an adverse role in India’s ability to preserve its strategic autonomy and defend its security interests.
Arms dependency as leverage
Control of technology and prime natural resources are the currencies of international power. Arms supplies are leverage often used in the conduct of international relations. India probably cannot aspire in the foreseeable future to achieve self-sufficiency in arms like the US, Russia, China, and France. A certain degree of strategic dependency on arms will, therefore, have to be part of its political calculus in the conduct of international affairs.
The reduction of arms dependency has to be addressed as a whole for a government that must follow a strategic approach. It requires a National Security Strategy, which is still missing in action, though nearly three years have elapsed since its formulation was first announced. Therefore, it is not surprising that India lacks a holistic and long-term approach to the development and acquisition of military wherewithal.
It is a fact that would be reflected predominantly by the aircraft and the helicopters of multiple foreign origins that will touch the skies with glory during the Republic Day parade. It will steal the hearts of the audience, even as it conceals India’s strategic troubles.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd.) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)