In 2009, the Indian Army carried out top-secret war games — codenamed Divine Matrix — aimed at analysing China’s threat to the country.
The conclusion: China could attack India by 2017, and there was a possibility of Pakistan stirring the pot by trying to trouble India at the same time.
Three years later, while there are no immediate signs of hostility on either border, a rare visit by China’s defence minister to India last week has thrown into focus the latter’s military capabilities to defend itself in a volatile neighbourhood, where India has fought five wars since Independence.
While Beijing hailed General Liang Guanglie’s visit to India — the first by a Chinese defence minister in eight years — as “successful”, our military experts have cautioned against taking the eyes off the ball on the security implications of China’s rapidly modernising military.Pakistan, they say, is not even seeded in the game. "We have adequate deterrence against Pakistan, but the policy of dissuasion against China needs to be upgraded to credible deterrence so that Beijing can’t spring a surprise. We are not quite there yet," says strategic affairs expert Brig Gurmeet Kanwal (retd).
With its defence outlay for 2012 officially pegged at $106.41 billion (Rs. 5.85 lakh crore), but actual military spending suspected to be twice as much, China is buffing up its war stores with strategic missiles, space-based assets, aircraft carriers, fighter jets and warships.
China’s focus has shifted from land forces to air force and navy to expand its military reach.
India’s defence outlay of $35.09 billion (Rs. 1.93 lakh crore) pales before China’s military spending. Islamabad, meanwhile, will spend $6 billion (Rs. 33,000 crore) on defence this year, not factoring in American aid.
India hasn’t ignored the possibility of a two-front war at a time when Beijing’s strategic intentions remain unclear.
Defence minister AK Antony told Parliament in May that his ministry would seek an additional outlay of $8.18 billion (Rs. 45,000 crore) from the Centre, factoring in “changed threat perception”, a euphemism for the possibility of China and Pakistan coming together.
If such a scenario were to crop up, the Indian strategy would revolve around defeating Pakistan and holding China, experts said.
The proposed increase will take India’s defence expenditure from 1.9% of the GDP to 2.35%. The country’s defence spending averaged 1.59% of the GDP from 1947 to 1962, when our army suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chinese.
Experts have argued India’s defence spending ought to be around 3% of the GDP to keep up with China’s military build-up.
NEED FOR SPEED
New Delhi is pumping billions into fighting machines such as stealth jets, modern fighter, aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, submarine hunter planes, special operations aircraft and attack helicopters. But the pace of induction needs to be sped up.
Former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Fali Major says, “One-party autocracy is the secret behind China’s swift military upgrade. Democracies will have their delays.”
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
China is hard to beat in terms of sheer numbers. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) reportedly operates upwards of 3,500 aircraft, though much of the inventory consists of outdated designs. In comparison, the IAF has a fleet of 600-plus fighters.
But the PLAAF is fast ridding itself of obsolete platforms from the 1960s and inducting fighters such as Sukhoi-30s and JF-17 Thunder light combat aircraft.
“China may be upgrading rapidly but let’s not place it on a huge pedestal. The IAF can hold its own in a head-to-head comparison,” says Major.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), too, is numerically superior to the Indian Navy. Compared to our 135 warships, the Chinese fleet has close to 400 vessels, but the PLAN lacks robust blue-water capabilities to deploy forces far away from its shores.
China is aggressively working on expanding its footprint in the Indian Ocean region, which the Indian Navy regards as its own backyard. The PLAN’s first aircraft carrier Varyag — bought from Russia in 1998 — is currently undergoing sea trials.
China eventually wants to deploy four to five carriers, an ambition that symbolises its growing maritime appetite.
Former navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta says, “We currently have an edge but the equation may change in a decade when the PLAN stabilises its integral air elements. They have also made significant advances in building new destroyers. We can’t afford to fall behind in fleet modernisation.”
There are other flanks that need to be covered as well. The army has not bought a single new artillery gun since the Bofors scandal exploded in the late 1980s. The $4 billion (Rs. 22,000 crore) artillery modernisation plan has failed to take off.
Kanwal warns: “Firepower is a serious handicap. Also, we don’t have a mountain strike corps, limiting our capability to take the war deep into Chinese territory.”