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Military Buildup: Is There a Strategic Direction?

India's first C-130J on its maiden flight

India's first C-130J on its maiden flight

India is taking possession this week of the first of six C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft it has ordered from Lockheed Martin, a U.S. defense contractor.  The delivery marks yet another milestone in the energetic military buildup the country has launched, one in which the United States plays an ever more prominent role. 

While much of the world is focused on the expansion of China’s military reach, India’s rapid economic growth has allowed it to undertake its own large rearmament program.  As India’s air force chief remarked last week, “ten years ago, our country did not have money. Now with economic growth, money is not a problem.”  A study released by the Deloitte consulting firm this past summer noted that “India’s defense spending is growing significantly and at an unprecedented rate…. India is becoming one of the largest military spenders in the world, with the third-largest defense procurement budget in Asia.”  The study highlighted that the country is “expected to spend nearly US$100 billion on military procurement during the current five-year plan (2007-2012) and US$120 billion in the following five-year plan period (2012-2017).” 

India also has emerged as one of the world’s most lucrative arms markets.  The respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reports that India was the world’s second-largest importer of weapons in 2005-2009, with China accounting for 9 percent of global defense sales and India responsible for 7 percent.  During this period, India’s arms imports doubled, and SIPRI estimates that India will become the top importer once all the data is complied for 2010.

The United States is emerging as a critical supplier of India’s conventional military arsenal.  In recent years, India acquired a large amphibious warfare ship and six associated helicopters from the U.S., and inked a $2.1 billion deal with Boeing for 8 P8I Poseidon long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft.  One of the highlights of President Obama’s state visit last month was the signing of a $4.1 billion agreement (again with Boeing) for 10 C-17 Globemaster III strategic transport aircraft.  Robert Blake, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, declares that once these aircraft are delivered, “India will have the second largest C-17 fleet in the world behind the U.S. – a highly visible manifestation of the U.S.-India defense partnership.”  Just last week, Washington announced that it had cleared the sale to the Indian air force of 512 CBU-105 cluster bombs, one of the world’s most sophisticated and lethal aerial munitions.  And both Lockheed Martin and Boeing are vying for the jewel in the crown of Indian defense acquisitions – a $10 billion contract to supply 126 multi-role combat aircraft.

Of course, the United States is not the only foreign power aiding India’s military ambitions.  Moscow has been New Delhi’s primary supplier for decades; according to SIPRI statistics, 77 percent of Indian weapons imports in 2005-2009 came from Russia.   Just this past August, Moscow transferred an Akula-II nuclear-powdered attack submarine.  And two months ago, India agreed in principle to buy up to 300 advanced stealth fighters and 45 multi-role transport aircraft that both countries will jointly develop and manufacture; the deal is expected to be finalized during President Dmitry Medvedev’s state visit to India next week.  Nonetheless, with New Delhi’s growing fondness for U.S. weapons technology, the defense trade between the two countries is growing sharply and the United States is well on its way to becoming one of India’s top suppliers – a situation that could not have been imagined until very recently.

From the perspective of Indian military leaders – not to mention U.S. officials hoping to enlist New Delhi in a countervailing coalition against China – the country’s arms spree comes at a critical time.  Two months ago, the air force chief complained that “around 50 percent of our equipment is obsolete and needs to be replaced.”  Earlier this year, the army chief disclosed that most of India’s vast tank fleet lack critical battle systems.  And according to media reports, the army’s lack of combat readiness was an important factor in New Delhi’s decision not to retaliate against Pakistan in the wake of the terrorist strikes in Mumbai two years ago.  In a February 2010 cable that was released by WikiLeaks, Timothy Roemer, the U.S. ambassador in New Delhi, commented unfavorably on the Indian army’s combat posture and concluded that “substantial and serious resource constraints” would limit India’s performance in any war against Pakistan.

But the spate of military acquisitions has also exposed deep problems with India’s strategic planning, resource allocation and defense acquisition processes.  In their insightful new book, Arming without Aiming, Stephen P. Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta argue that India’s military modernization suffers from weak political direction, dysfunctional civil-military relations, a fundamental disunity of purpose, and a highly corrupt and inefficient development and procurement system. 

Political leaders in New Delhi have traditionally shown little interest in defense matters and the civilian bureaucracy lacks the requisite expertise, a situation that allows each individual service to pursue its own priorities uncoordinated with the other branches of the armed forces.  Thus, the army is focused on implementing its “Cold Start” military doctrine that calls for swift but calibrated ground offensives into Pakistan.  But the air force’s resource plans do not place much emphasis on the close air support missions essential for Cold Start’s success, while the navy is more concerned with grand projections of power throughout the Indian Ocean region than on bringing it to bear in a conflict with Pakistan.  Long-standing recommendations for creating a chief of defense staff post capable of reconciling competing priorities and ensuring an integrated military posture have been ignored by politicians fearful of enhancing the role of the armed forces in the policymaking process.

Despite decades of high spending on military R&D, India is still unable to develop advanced weapons technology and thus must import expensive foreign equipment.  Cohen and Dasgupta point out that “with the exception of nuclear weapons, the history of Indian research and development has been an unhappy one.”  The high-profile battle tank and combat aircraft projects launched by the Defense Research and Development Organization have so far failed to produce much.  New Delhi is proud of its indigenous development of ballistic missiles, but the reality is that massive investments in this area have yielded little real return.  For all of the vibrancy of country’s private sector, languid state-owned labs continue to dominate the military R&D sector. 

Like many of India’s policy challenges, the doubts surrounding the modernization effort have less to do with the availability of resources than with whether the country possesses robust institutions to harness them in a purposeful way.  Until this question is addressed straight on in the defense sector, New Delhi’s security partners will be left pondering whether the constituent parts of India’s military add up to a strategic whole.



David J. Karl

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm that has a particular focus on South Asia. He serves on the board of counselors of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and previously on the Executive Committee of the Southern California chapter of TiE (formerly The Indus Entrepreneurs), the world's largest not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship.

David previously served as director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy, in charge of the Council’s think tank focused on foreign policy issues of special resonance to the U.S West Coast, and was project director of the Bi-national Task Force on Enhancing India-U.S. Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy that was jointly organized by the Pacific Council and the Federation of Indian Chambers & Industry. He received his doctorate in international relations at the University of Southern California, writing his dissertation on the India-Pakistan strategic rivalry, and took his masters degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.