Mumbai Massacre Kicks off an Arms Race
In the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks last November, India's defense sector has gone into a frenetic round of acquisitions pegged at US$50 billion over the next five years, to all intents and purposes all of it focused on Pakistan, either for conventional or so-called "asymmetric warfare."
The purchases run the risk of kicking off an already dangerous arms race on the subcontinent, one of the world's most unstable regions, with two nuclear-tipped countries embarking on an equally deadly round of tit-for-tat purchases. Pakistan's suppliers are China and the US, contrasted with India, whose largest defense deals are with Russia, France and Israel, which has moved up sharply as a favorite supplier in the wake of the Mumbai massacre.
Pakistan's status comes from the fact that it is an ally in the war being fought in the northwestern tribal areas and Afghanistan. In the latest move the Obama administration has proposed a five-year, US$2.8 billion military aid package fight militants, arms that can as easily be deployed against India. The military aid is in addition to the US$7.5 billion of civilian assistance Washington will hand over to Pakistan over the next five years.
Pakistan has already in its possession American F-16 fighters, advanced artillery, radars and drones. China has helped the country build its missile program. The country overtook India in military procurement in 2006 for the first time, signing arms deals worth US$5.1 billion, compared to US$3.5 billion by India.
In India, non-state players are regarded as a potent danger, with internal security and preventive intelligence equally important measures in neutralizing potential terror attacks including guerilla tactics as in Mumbai when the militants stormed the luxury hotels.
India's local-level policing, the first bulwark against a sudden terror strike remains corrupt, ill-equipped and badly trained. In a damning self-indictment National Security Advisor M K Narayanan, who reports directly to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has blamed the intelligence agencies that ironically he leads, for not providing "actionable intelligence" on terror attacks and the low-intensity war being waged by Pakistan against India.
However, as far as big ticket defense and armaments are concerned the ball has been set rolling quickly. Israel, with its expertise in radars and missiles, is expected to be a key player with the country emerging as India's biggest defense supplier by overtaking Russia, clocking over US$1 billion in new contracts in 2007 and 2008.
Although Russia has been supplying India with US$875 million of defense equipment every year, it was revealed recently that New Delhi had signed a US$1.4 billion deal with Israel to purchase a 70 km shore-based and sea borne anti-missile air defense system. This is among the bigger defense deals between the two countries and the biggest military joint venture by India with a foreign country.
A senior defense official said the value is over US$2 billion, with one portion valued at US$600 million being hived off to the state-controlled Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO). Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI) officially announced the deal in late March, more than a month after it was inked.
In May this year, India should receive the first of three new Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) developed for the Indian Air Force by IAI. The three "eye-in- the sky" Phalcons, priced at US$1.1 billion, will be mounted on Russia-delivered Ilyushin-76 aircraft. The deal was inked in March 2004 and has been delayed due to problems in technical integration. Talks are underway for purchase of another three AWACS.
India also recently purchased US$600 million in Israeli aerostat radars to also spot surreptitious guerilla attacks such as the one in Mumbai wherein the attackers used rubber dinghies to infiltrate the city. The radars will be stationed at strategic points along the western border to issue advance warning against incoming enemy aircraft and missiles.
In other big developments, after failing the first trial, the new version of the 290 km-range supersonic BrahMos cruise missile, apparently with the ability to deliver nuclear warheads was successfully test fired twice in Rajasthan, this month. BrahMos is an Indo-Russian joint venture. The BrahMos test was followed by the third successful missile intercept test in Orissa, also last month, as part of a plan to build a defense system against incoming ballistic missiles by 2010, which is more powerful than the anti-missile system being procured from Israel. The Indian Air force has already put on fast track the retrofitting of Sukhoi-30MKI combat aircraft with the aerial version of the BrahMos.
An effective ballistic missile defense (BMD) system is considered to be a key weapon in thwarting threats of rogue elements firing stolen nuclear-tipped missiles at India from Pakistan or Bangladesh, a possibility heightened by the Mumbai strikes.
India has also been holding close talks with America to hasten the BMD deployment. The first BMD test was in November 2006 followed by another in December 2007. The above trials follow last month's interim budget for the year 2009-2010, which raised defense expenditures by 34 percent from US$ 211 billion last year to US$283 billion in 2009-2010. The outlay includes nearly US$ 110 billion for capital expenditure.
The Army has been allocated Rs177 billion for new acquisitions that should comprise artillery guns and tanks, two neglected aspects due to red tape, political witch hunts and corruption allegations.
The hike is more than Rs 66 billion over last year's revised estimates.
The Army is expediting purchase of the latest generation Harop loitering weapon system or missile firing drone, Heron long-duration unmanned aerial vehicles, armored vehicles and Tangushka air defense systems. A senior Army officer of the rank of lieutenant general was dispatched by New Delhi to Israel following the Mumbai attacks to explore hardware options.
Bids, valued over US$11 billion have already been invited by India to enhance its fighter jet squadron. New Delhi has also announced that the modernization of India's Navy will be put on fast track. An important component of this process is building warships.
Defense minister A K Antony recently said that India will soon become the fourth country in the world to build its own aircraft carrier or air defense ship (ADS) after the United States, Russia and France. In another critical move, last month India announced that its project to build three nuclear-powered submarines is nearing completion.
"Things are in the final stage now in the ATV (advanced technology vessel) project. There were bottlenecks (mainly technical) earlier...they are over now," Antony said. The project is part of India's US$3 billion plan to build five submarines and complete the triad of nuclear weapon launch capability from air, land and sea platforms.
Concomitantly India is developing submarine launched ballistic missiles which can be nuclear tipped if required.
Apart from enhanced risk perception from Pakistan, New Delhi has been concerned about Beijing beefing up bilateral ties with Islamabad via sea-projects such as the Gwadar port and also with Sri Lanka and Myanmar to deepen control over the inter-linked complex energy-security being aggressively played out in an ongoing tussle between India and China to control the waters of the Indian Ocean.
Yet, no number of big arms can be effective against surreptitious suicide (fidayeen) bombers using dingy boats to attack luxury hotels, as happened in Mumbai, unless India develops a sound internal security and intelligence framework.
The new home minister P Chidambaram has brought about some changes in the security structure in the recent past. India has passed legislation establishing a National Intelligence Agency (NIA), much like America's FBI, to investigate threats or acts of terrorism. An executive order to form a Multi-Agency-Center (MAC), a counterterrorism hub similar to CIA's National Counterterrorism Center has been issued by the federal home ministry. Such a process has to continue over a period of time for effective results.
(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)