The Indian military finds itself in the midst of a renaissance driven by induction of top-of-the-line weapon systems it had been lusting after for years. At a time when the western world is feeling the sharp edge of cuts in military spending, New Delhi is pumping billions of dollars into fighting machines such as stealth jets, aircraft carriers, nuke-powered submarines, submarine hunters and special operations aircraft.
Last week, one of most closely watched military deals in the world saw India picking French firm Dassault Aviation's Rafale over rival EADS Cassidian's Eurofighter Typhoon in a hotly contested contract worth $18 billion (Rs 90,000 crore) to supply 126 fighter jets to the air force, ending a 10-year excruciating hunt for advanced combat aircraft.
The Rafale will be the air force's leading combat plane for the next four decades. It, however, may be too early to crack open the bubbly. The initial lot of Rafale fighters will join the air force only in 2015-16. It could take up to a decade for the last Rafale to don air force colours. Former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major says: "Inducting a fleet of that size does take time. The Rafale will be a game-changer for the air force."
If the air force is on the cusp of a muscular transition, it's springtime for the Indian Navy too. India joined an exclusive club of five nations that operate nuclear powered submarines, with Russia handing over an Akula-2 class attack submarine to the navy in January. It was part of a 2004 deal worth $ 1 billion (R 5,000 crore). The US, the UK, Russia, France and China have nuclear-enabled submarines.
The navy has acquired the 'roving killer', now christened INS Chakra, on a 10-year lease. "It will allow us to train our men and hone their skills in operating strategic platforms after the Charlie-1 nuclear submarine leased from Russia was returned in 1991," says Vice Admiral Anup Singh (retd).
The induction of the indigenous nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, INS Arihant, towards the end of this year, will be the crowning glory for the navy, completing India's nuclear triad or ability to launch strategic weapons from land, air and sea.
Arihant will be armed with K-15 ballistic missiles (a closely guarded DRDO secret), capable of delivering nuclear warheads up to 700 km, giving it enduring nuclear strike and counter-strike capabilities. Plans are afoot to build two more ballistic missile submarines to make the sea-based leg of India's deterrence more robust.
The navy will get high-end anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare capabilities next year as it begins replacing its ageing fleet of Soviet-era Tu-142s with Boeing P8I planes. India scooped out $2.1-billion (Rs 10,500 crore) from its coffers in January 2009 for eight such planes, which will shape the navy's air power beyond 2050. India will buy four more of these 'submarine hunter' planes.
Among the deals that will change the face of Indian military is a $30 billion (Rs 1,50,000 crore) deal with Russia for the joint development of the fifth generation fighter aircraft, one of the few stealth jet programmes in the world. India plans a fleet of 250-300 such fighters. India's defence spending leads to one unmistakable conclusion -- it wants to build military muscle without necessarily flexing it. New Delhi is expected to spend an estimated $150 billion (Rs 7,50,000 crore) over the next 10 years to keep its war machine well oiled.
The air force has never had it so good. It's modernising its heavy-lift capabilities with 10 Boeing C-17 Globemaster III aircraft worth $ 4.1 billion (Rs 20, 500 crore). Supporting rapid deployment of crack forces for intervening decisively, the C-130J Super Hercules aircraft promises to be a dependable force multiplier for the air force.
Chinks in the armour
India may have gone into an overdrive to multiply the lethality, flexibility and range of its military, but there are flanks that still need to be covered.
The army has not bought a single artillery gun since the Bofors scandal exploded in the late 1980s. The $4 billion (Rs 20,000 crore) artillery modernisation plan has been fraught with difficulties at every step of the process.
There's frustration in the army over delays in inducting almost 3,000 guns including towed artillery guns, ultralight howitzers and self-propelled tracked guns. Army chief Gen VK Singh's take: "India's arms procurement system is like a game of snakes and ladders. The difference being there are only snakes and no ladders… and you get bitten."
Only a handful of foreign vendors manufacture these systems. At least three such suppliers are on the defence ministry's watch-list over kickback allegations, limiting the ministry's buying options and creating a single-vendor situation -- a strict no-no under India's arms purchase policy.
"Other punitive measures need to be thought of. Blacklisting of vendors is proving to be counter-productive," argues Brig Gurmeet Kanwal (retd), who heads the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, a renowned defence think tank.
Mammoth military contracts inked by India in recent years are proof that it's aggressively building competencies for power projection and crisis response. But the basics appear to have been ignored.
A small but crucial deal to equip the air force with trainer aircraft has been mired in delays. Much to the air force's disgust, the Cabinet Committee on Security is yet to okay a $1 billion (Rs 5,000 crore) deal for buying 75 Pilatus trainer aircraft from Switzerland. The Pilatus will replace the HPT-32 trainer aircraft, grounded in 2009 after a fatal crash.
Deals hanging fire include attack helicopters and heavy-lift choppers for $ 2billion (Rs 10,000 crore), six midair refuellers worth $1 billion (Rs 5,000 crore) and the $650 million (Rs 3,250 crore) programme for 197 reconnaissance and surveillance choppers. Kanwal says, "The revolution in military affairs has passed India by. Now we are wrestling with the wake. Quick decision-making is the only answer."
Well, fire, but don't forget.
C130J Super Hercules | P81 Submarine Hunter | FGFA (Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA) | Rafale | T-90 tank | C-17 Globemaster III | INS Vikramaditya | Arms and the men | How we stack up