India’s pursuit of iron-clad national security and global status ambitions makes it annually import as much as $20 billion of weapons
Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, the second and last Shah of Iran from the Pahlavi dynasty, was the son of an Iranian gunnery sergeant who managed to seize control of that country in 1925 and crown himself king. Like Rajput kings who gave themselves extravagant genealogies of being descended from the sun or the moon, Mohammed Reza gave himself a 2,500-year-old lineage descending from Cyrus the Great. To him the surest and simplest way to greatness was to use Iran’s new petro-dollar millions to buy the latest weapons that money can buy.
Iran then was a low-income country, but the Shah’s vision was soaring. The Americans encouraged him. The US Air Force and the Navy loved him for he helped to defray the cost of development of new weapons. Flushed with his weapons. he grandiosely announced that after the two superpowers, Iran was the greatest military power and, encouraged by the United States, he appointed himself as the keeper of peace and order in the near region. Reza Pahlavi’s megalomania blinded him to the reality of Iran and a man called Ayatollah Ruhollah Nasrollah Khomeini, a Shia theologian who was banished to a Paris suburb. We know what happened next.
This should be a lesson in history for all those strategists who think that weapons confer status. India’s diplomatic and military establishment seems gripped by grandiose visions of an India sitting on global high tables like the UN Security Council. India’s new middle classes blithely talk about India becoming a superpower, and against this rising tide few are willing to question why? Recent studies reveal that as much as 70 per cent of Indian households make do without the minimum standards evolved by international bodies like the UNDP to be considered above the poverty standard. India’s own poverty line is indeed a starvation line that prescribes a minimum caloric norm. Even by that self-serving standard, a quarter of India is excruciatingly poor. And not only is India poor, it is also economically backward, with a relatively small manufacturing base supporting a disproportionately large service sector, giving it the economic profile of a post-industrial society like the US or Europe. We mostly miss the irony of looking post-industrial without having industrialised!
India’s pursuit of iron-clad national security and global status ambitions makes it annually import as much as $20 billion, or Rs 120,000 crores, of weapons, putting us in a league of our own. Our military leaders want even more and to this extent they now have a vested interest in weapons acquisitions. Most of our other engineering imports are to facilitate domestic production, either as plant and machinery or as components. Thus, they contribute to overall value addition. Military hardware imports are a one-way street and the only ones who benefit by it are the exporting economies.
In the next decade alone, India will import over $200 billion of weapons. Consider this. This is the kind of money that can gives us a brand-new high-speed rail quadrilateral or 10 new world-class cities of 10 million people each. If we factor in the military’s wishlist, then we are really looking at infinity. And much of what is being planned for acquisition is not even required. Take, for instance, the French Dassault Rafale fighter-bomber. Each of these aircraft will cost at least Rs 1,600 crores and the IAF wants 126 of them. It just got 36 of them for now. Not being satisfied with this, the IAF is thinking ahead and is said to be contemplating large numbers of an even more costly fighter -- the American F-35. This will be in addition to the 272 SU30MKI fighter-bombers the IAF is in the process of inducting. Those who are knowledgeable will argue that the SU30MKI confers far greater lethality than the Rafale and costs about Rs 650 crores. Hence, why even buy Rafales? This is the exact question then defence minister Manohar Parrikar had posed. Besides, the SU30MKIs are already being assembled by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd at Nashik and its AI-31FP turbofan engines at Koraput.
Then let’s consider what is the aircraft the IAF needs to urgently replace. It’s the now outdated MiG-21 series. The MiG-21 is described as a frontal aviation aircraft designed mainly to intercept enemy aircraft and on occasion to drop small bombs and conduct ground attacks. It has a very limited range and endurance. The logical replacement for the MiG-21 is another light single-engine interceptor such as the Tejas LCA or even the more expensive Saab Gripfen, but not an expensive heavy twin-engine long-range fighter-bomber.
Empirical evidence suggests that the survival ability of a twin-engine fighter is not better than a single engine fighter in a conflict. It gives it a bigger load carrying capacity and more range. But single engine fighters like the Gripen also have good range now. As the Pakistan Air Force showed in the post-Balakot engagement, good radar and better missiles even on an old platform like the F-16 can be more than a match for heavy fighters without them.
More than numbers, India needs a strategy to keep the Chinese deterred. This strategy must threaten to disrupt China’s economic interests and inflict huge costs on any Himalayan adventure, not just in the Himalayas but also in other theatres of our choosing. China’s People’s Liberation Army might have the advantage of interior lines in Tibet and Xinjiang, but the IAF and the Indian Army maintain bases and formations close to the border on the plains, giving them several tactical advantages. Just adding more troops and calling them strike formations makes little sense, as high-altitude battlefields require acclimatisation and the conflicts in all probability will be long over before they can be deployed in battle. India can never match China in the numbers game alone. To deter China, it has to show the willingness and ability to impose disproportionate costs. We must consider scenarios like this. China operates almost 20 airfields in Xinjiang, Tibet and Yunnan, from which the PLAAF can target IAF airbases in the Ganga and Brahmaputra basins. Each of these airbases is alongside a major population centre. China’s home areas are deep in its hinterland. Do we have a plan to counter target them?
It’s very easy to become a Shah with poor people’s money. Clearly, India doesn’t need to be inspired by a Shah. However, it does need to be inspired by Chanakya or even Sun Tzu.