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A dud in the manger?

The PM?s freeze on Agni 3 testing does a disservice to the Indo-US deal. A test would have sent a clear message that India is going to have a deterrent force.

india Updated: May 23, 2006 00:29 IST

Which state invests the bulk of its defence modernisation resources not on strengthening its own armament base or deterrent capabilities but on subsidising the military industrial complex of others? In which country do scientists confront political obstacles to the maturation of indigenous capabilities? Where have profligate arms imports become the main source of metastasising corruption?

The answer is India. If a three-year national moratorium were declared on the import of any new weapon system, it will help clean up politics and public discourse without compromising the defence of India. A net saving of at least $15 billion will also accrue. Note the oddity that at the very time the government is moving to import 126 medium combat aircraft (MCA), it has put on indefinite hold the maiden flight-test of the Agni 3 intermediate-range missile. Why the awkwardness to test an indigenous ballistic missile but the lack of political embarrassment to import high-priced warplanes? After all, an MCA and Agni 3 can carry out similar missions -- deliver a nuclear or conventional payload against an intended target.

Manned aircraft are militarily no less potent than ballistic missiles. They also rival missiles as pre-emption weapons. Yet the cost of acquiring, manufacturing and maintaining missiles is indubitably far less than that of strike aircraft.

The import of 126 fighters will cost between $ 7 billion and $ 9.2 billion with the full package, including onboard weaponry and advanced radar warning system. With the US expecting to clinch the deal, the cost range reflects the price differential between the obsolescent F-16s at the lower end and the technically troubled F/A-18s at the upper end. (The US is not offering India its latest F-35s, a project involving eight foreign partners.)

It might shock many to know that India’s cumulative investments in its missile capabilities total barely 5.6 per cent of what it will cost to buy the F-16s. The entire investment in the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) from its 1983 inception up to December 2005 aggregated Rs 1771.4 crore, or $ 389 million. Despite lagging behind its regional missile needs, India has, in the recently approved annual budget, earmarked for missile development only $ 20.6 million. The ubiquitous foreign arms dealers in town will turn up their noses at such a trifling amount.

Why the rush to import warplanes despite the diffidence to test an Agni 3? Allegations of kickbacks in the last mega-deal -- the $ 3.4-billion Scorpene submarine contract -- have yet to quieten down. Even if the issue of commissions was set aside, any independent investigations will reveal the dubious value of some of the arms contracts India has signed. Other than the Sukhoi-30 heavy combat aircraft (HCA) and the three early-warning Phalcon radar systems aboard Ilyushin-76 planes, what imported weapons give India the military edge it needs?

India may be poor, but its decision-makers are pretty generous in awarding arms contracts to foreign vendors. Like oil sheikhs, they are now signing import deals worth between $ 4 billion and $ 6 billion every year. This is not, mind you, due to ignorance of world history: no country has become a major military power through reliance on arms imports. Rather, the arms-import mania reflects a spreading rot in the system, as underlined by the Navy War Room leak case.

Ask yourself: will India be stronger with 126 new strike aircraft or, at a fraction of their cost, with 126 Agni 3s? If India were to buy the F/A-18s, the value of that single deal will surpass the country’s aggregate investments in the past decade in defence research and development, including strategic systems — nuclear and missile. By the levels of OECD nations and China, India’s defence R&D spending is abysmally low. China spends 28 per cent of its huge military budget on R&D and an extra 5 per cent just on missiles. India together spends 6.1 per cent of its defence outlays on R&D and missiles.

Is it thus any surprise that the import lobbies in New Delhi are so strong? Or that India has shelved the Agni 3 while it pursues the strike-aircraft purchase? Helping Britain safeguard 5,000 jobs, including 2,200 at Brough, East Yorkshire, India awarded a $ 1.9 billion contract to BAE Systems for the out-of-date Hawk jet trainer. But the total DRDO budget for the current year is just 63 per cent of that — $ 1.19 billion. Out of this, 35 per cent, or a meagre $ 419 million, will go toward developing capabilities at the core of India’s future: nuclear, missile and nuclear-submarine systems.

A country should defend itself largely with the armaments it can produce, not with the pricey imported toys its forces may want. If this tenet were to dictate policy, India could greatly boost its manufacturing capabilities and create tens of thousands of jobs at home through a vibrant military industrial complex. From being the world’s largest arms importer, India would emerge as a worthy exporter. Given that India has not fought a full-fledged war in 35 years and is unlikely to face full-scale aggression in the next decade, it is possible to implement in stages such a principle.

In this light, the Agni 3 test freeze is troubling. India’s primary focus ought to be on preventing aggression through indigenous deterrent assets, not on seeking to defeat aggression with extravagant weapons from abroad. Yet the PM has acted quite the reverse -- from accepting nuclear-capability limits under a misbegotten deal with the US to providing assurances on multibillion-dollar imports of US arms and reactors. The Agni 3 test freeze epitomises the mounting costs of the nuclear deal. In fact, in the period since Rajiv Gandhi conducted the first Agni test exactly 17 years ago, the Agni programme has been significantly crimped by a succession of weak, vacillating PMs.

A solid-fuelled system with an advanced flex nozzle, the Agni 3 has a twice-bigger motor and 50 per cent larger payload capacity than Agni 2. Pranab Mukherjee has cited ‘a self-imposed restraint’ to rationalise the test hold-up. India has not tested a ballistic missile since August 2004. In that period, China has aggressively pushed ahead with its new DF-31 and DF-41 ICBMs and Pakistan has carried out multiple tests of Chinese-origin missiles, including three tests in the past three months -- the Shaheen 2 (an ostensible match to Agni 2), Babur cruise missile and Abdali short-range missile. India’s own assessment shows it has fallen behind even Pakistan on missiles, with Islamabad having assembled and deployed in underground silos almost 100 Shaheen 1s and about 20 to 24 of Shaheen 2s.

Mukherjee claims “we want to keep our international commitments on non-proliferation”. Who will enlighten the illustrious defence minister that there is no missile non-proliferation regime in existence and India thus could not have made ‘international commitments’? The MTCR is neither an international agreement nor a treaty but an informal and voluntary technology-control arrangement among some nations. If he is alluding to some secret commitments to the US, how do they become ‘international’  in nature?

It is easy to figure out why the US wishes to stall the dirt-cheap Agni 3 while it aggressively moves to sell expensive strike aircraft to India. By deciding to sell dozens of F-16s to Pakistan, it is creating and exploiting an Indian need to import fighters. The best CBM India and Pakistan can agree to -- a CBM that will yield a true and lasting peace dividend -- is to forego purchase of new fighters and open a regular dialogue on observing arms-import restraints. This is a CBM the merchants of death will seek to scuttle.

The Agni 3 test freeze, in effect since January when the missile became ready, will last months more. Having missed the May deadline, the next opening to test will come only in September after the monsoons. But the nuclear-deal saga is unlikely to be over by then. The PM’s freeze actually does a disservice to the deal he is obsessed with. A test would have sent a clear message that India is going to have a deterrent force and, like it or not, the US can either accept that reality in partnership with India or counter-productively oppose it. Didn’t the 1998 nuclear tests lead the US to court India?