It is the country with the world's second largest army, fourth largest air force and fifth largest naval force. Already accepted as a regional military power, India can move into the superpower league – but only if we tread carefully, say some retired army chiefs.
Historically, India has been a reactive nation, the only post-Independence, pro-active moment being the 1971 war that ended the two-nation theory. Things are changing now, says former army chief General S. Padmanabhan. His book, The Writing on the Wall: India Checkmates America, 2017, talks about “how India is prepared to meet aggression against her by any developed country, including the US”.
Padmanabhan says India made a strong point with the build-up on the Pakistan border in 2002. But to expect India to become a superpower would mean going against a benign tradition. “Instead of a superpower, we should focus on being a moral power,” he says. “In the present scenario, it is difficult to differentiate between a superpower and a hegemon.” The army’s vision, articulated in the ‘Security Research Review’, says the Indian Army in 2020 “will be an optimally equipped and weaponised force”. This is a key point, as we import much of our hardware. “About 70 per cent of our defence equipment comes from outside. This trend needs to be reversed,” says former army chief General V.P. Malik.
“The willingness to use our military capability by political authority to project power is an other issue to be addressed,” Malik adds. He points out that compared to other armies, ours is old. “In China, 50 per cent of the army is conscripted and therefore, has a much younger age profile.” Military power alone, however, cannot sustain superpower status. “The Soviet Union is a perfect example of this,” says Lieutenant General D.B. Shekatkar, who served as additional Director General of Military Operations. “In the 21st century, combat power supported by adequate industrial power, economic power, technological power and knowledge power will constitute the only safeguard against a threat to India’s independence and well-being,” he says.
India is already well on its way to becoming a knowledge and manpower superpower. A sustained high growth rate will make it an economic superpower. Military supremacy would then be just a natural corollary.