India's Crippled Arms Purchase Spree

Although arms monitors have been raising alarms about the buildup between India and Pakistan in South Asia and the push for strategic dominance in the Indian Ocean between India and China, the fact is that India's defense procurement and modernization plans are infamously slow, mired in red tape, corruption and lack of long-term strategic planning and teeming with backhanding middlemen.

A new Defense Procurement Policy came into effect last November that aims to bring transparency and probity into arms purchases, envisaging an enhanced role for independent monitors to inspect complaints relating to violations of the Integrity Pact. Federal defense minister AK Antony has said a review of the procurement policy "aims at promoting and facilitating Indian industry and transparency and integrity in defense acquisitions.''

Indeed, reluctance for battle by an ill-prepared army may have been the reason India didn't retaliate against Pakistan in the aftermath of devastating attacks in November 2008 by terrorist commandoes in Mumbai that killed 195 people, officials say privately. India chose not to strike Pakistan, they say, because military leaders warned any battle could embarrass Indian forces given the state-of-the-art arsenal supplied to Islamabad by China and the US.

Pakistan, a former Cold War ally of America and now partner in its war against terror, has continued to receive military aid including state-of-the-art F-16 fighters. Pakistan also gets assistance from China, whose military prowess is far ahead of India's and which is beginning to vie for supremacy in the Indian Ocean, through which critically strategic energy shipment routes run from the Arabian Gulf. In 2006 Pakistan signed import deals over US$5 billion compared to India's US$3.5 billion. China's officially declared defense budget this year is nearly two and a half times India's.

Observers in India say the Mumbai attack, plus events such as the Kargil incursion in 1999 during which the country nearly went to war with Pakistan, have only heightened India's quest to stockpile arms, mostly from abroad. Kargill 1999, officials say, was a threshold year in terms of arms acquisitions as the prospect of an all-out conflict with Pakistan nearly became a reality.

The officials say that in the decade that has followed, deal value (from domestic state-owned armament companies and abroad) has exceeded US$50 billion, with every sign of such momentum continuing over the next decade. The purchases include jet fighters, warships, submarines, radars, tanks, missiles, weapon systems and platforms, mostly from France, Russia, Israel and America over the last couple of years.

But a discouraging example of the problems is the country's unsuccessful quest to procure aircraft carriers internationally or build indigenous ones. Delays have meant that India's sole, elderly aircraft carrier INS Viraat, built for the British Royal Navy as HMS Hermes in 1959 and transferred to India in 1987, and which was to have been junked by now, has had to be refitted to operate for five more years, by which time India hopes to get more carriers.

Earlier this month, the government's security committee finally approved a US$2.3 billion outlay after months of delay for another elderly aircraft carrier, the 28-year-old Russian Navy's Admiral Gorshkov, which was launched in 1982. It is being renamed the INS Vikramaditya and being retrofitted to go into Indian service in 2012. The retrofit was originally to cost US$750 million but has ballooned by another US$1.5 billion. The ship was out of commission for more than a year after a boiler room explosion in 1994.

Four to seven of the navy's 16 conventional submarines are to be retired by 2012 while the Indians await delivery of six Scorpene-class subs being built domestically. The first, originally due to be delivered in 2012, has been delayed by a series of problems. In addition, one of two Akula-II class subs on a 10-year lease from the Russians was delayed when India demanded further trials after an accident aboard the first, INS Chakra due last September, killed 20 crewmen.

While these procurement problems continue to delay the country's arms buildup, a never-ending stream of scandals continues to unspool from the military itself, including action taken in December against 41 officers who allegedly sold service weapons on the black market. In January, it was announced that four of the country's highest-ranking generals, including Lt. Gen. Avadesh Prasad, one of the country's eight highest-ranking military advisors, faced an official probe into the sale of a 30-hectare plot of Army-owned land to a builder at what was called a "throwaway price" in the Himalayan resort city of Darjeeling.

The scandal, according to Agence-France Press, "has shaken public faith in the country's massive military at a time when unprecedented sums are being spent on modernizing the armed forces." More than 7,000 courts-martial were initiated against military officials between 2000 and 2006, according to AFP, a number of them relating to what it called financial skullduggery. As Asia Sentinel reported last June, India blacklisted seven military providers from Singapore and Israel in the wake of a bribery scandal. The blacklist stopped the acquisition of more than US$1 billion in modern artillery from the Singapore government-owned Singapore Technologies.

Nonetheless, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), a respected monitor of the annual US$30 billion international arms trade, in all likelihood India will ascend to the top of next year's five-year rolling spending average, as China is building more of its own arms instead of buying overseas. India's defense modernization is mostly import-driven as the domestic armament industry remains in a retarded infancy, as can be seen by the delays in the Scorpene subs.

India is also in the middle of a definitive turn away from Russia as its longtime supplier to other countries such as Israel and the US, although India and Russia continue to maintain about 200 joint projects including the transfer of technology for the licensed assembly of T-90 tanks in India, the production of BrahMos missiles and the purchase of Smerch multiple-launch rocket systems. The US, presently India's sixth-biggest arms supplier, will likely ascend to the top three with Israel and Russia in the next couple of years, officials say.

Indeed, the ground is being set for more big acquisitions. India's defense budget (2009-10) rose by 34 percent in the last year to US$30 billion, while officials say defense modernization expenditure should easily reach over US$100 billion between 2000 and 2020. Over US$10 billion has been set aside by the government for net capital expenditure for this fiscal year (2009-10), clearly indicating the impact of the Mumbai attacks.

Other acquisitions in the offing include the US$12 billion deal to buy 126 multi-role combat aircraft (MRCAs). Six global aerospace companies, Lockheed Martin, Boeing (American), Dassault's Rafale (French), Gripen (Sweden), MiG (Russian) and Eurofighter Typhoon (a consortium of British, German, Italian and Spanish companies), are bidding.

Other future purchases include a US$7 billion project for more new-generation submarines, US$4.5 billion artillery modernization program and US$4.5 billion to acquire 800 military and high utility helicopters. The big question is now much the billions of dollars in acquisitions will actually enhance the country's defense system, and how much money will go into the pockets of top military officials and politicians.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com