The victory by Narendra Modi’s National Democratic Alliance in the Indian elections of May 2014 seemed to herald the start of a new era for India’s defense establishment. The new government came to power vowing to strengthen the Indian armed forces and reform the country’s jumbled and sluggish approach to defense acquisition. Such promises were music to the ears of Indian military planners charged with preparing for various conflict scenarios, including the possibility—however unlikely—of a two-front war versus neighboring rivals China and Pakistan.
Under the new approach laid out by Modi’s government, the military modernization process was supposed to be partially accelerated through the fast-tracking of a backlog of unconsummated procurement projects. This would ostensibly aid in reducing bottlenecks and, in turn, serve the additional purpose of bolstering the country’s struggling defense industrial sector through foreign partnerships and technology transfers. However, just a little over a year later, many of the same issues hindering India’s military modernization remain, from the air force to the navy.
These include a weakened currency that reduces India’s purchasing power on global markets; an emphasis on maximizing the involvement of the country’s struggling defense sector in complex projects; a byzantine bureaucratic approach to military procurement; ever-shifting program requirements; and a Defense Ministry quick to levy corruption charges at foreign vendors over the slightest hint of impropriety. Nowhere have these issues hindered the modernization process more than in the area of airpower.
The Indian air force is mandated by the government to operate a combat aircraft fleet of 750 fighters. The rationale for fielding such a large force is the possibility of a two-front war against both China and Pakistan, whose military ties have deepened as India-U.S. relations have warmed. For its part, China alone has over 830 combat aircraft at its disposal and is working on two stealth aircraft projects reminiscent of the United States’ advanced F-22 and F-35 fighters.
To meet its mandate, the Indian air force says it must field 42 jet fighter squadrons by 2022. But reports indicate that poor serviceability of current fighters, age and attrition of older models and ongoing upgrade programs have combined to leave the air force with just 25-30 operational squadrons on hand at any one time. Adding to those pressures is the fact that 14 of the available squadrons are from India’s aging inventory of Soviet-legacy MiG-21s and MiG-27s, slated for retirement in 2025 and 2020, respectively.
This is where two future fighter projects—the Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) and Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA)—figured prominently in the fleet’s force structure plans. Each would meet a long-term capability requirement while bolstering both Indian air force and local industrial capability, the latter through technology transfers and local offset requirements, in which a percentage of a deal’s value is invested directly in India.
Instead, progress toward finalizing agreements for either project remains elusive. Concerns over unit costs, transfer of sensitive technology, meeting Indian technical requirements and providing sufficient return on investment to local industry all have contributed to holding up contract negotiations with Russia, in the case of the FGFA, and French aerospace giant Dassault, whose Rafale fighter was selected for the MMRCA. For their part, both Russia and France harbor their own worries related to the ability of Indian industry to absorb advanced technologies and meet production standards and delivery timelines required under contract arrangements. Modi intervened in stalled negotiations over the Rafale in April, announcing a purchase of 36 jets, down from the 126 initially foreseen in the tender. However, the deal is not yet done, amid wrangling over price and offsets.
Meanwhile, as negotiations for both purchases drag on, the Indian air force still does not have a modern fighter solution on tap. The timeline for inking a deal, building assembly lines and other necessary infrastructure, producing the aircraft and inducting them into the air force stretches ever further into the future.
Adding to these fighter woes is the ongoing effort to bring India’s own Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) up to full operational capability some 32 years after the program was launched. Its continued delay does little to inspire confidence in India’s long-standing goal to wean itself off importing foreign weaponry to meet high-end defense solutions.
Yet the air force fleet is hardly the only area of India’s defense industry where Modi’s pledge to kick-start modernization is already lagging. An ongoing effort to build six French-designed Scorpene submarines in India through technology transfers—an initiative known as Project 75—is now four years behind schedule and suffering from rising costs related to defense inflation. The accompanying Project 75I, involving localized production of six air-independent propulsion submarines under the “buy and make (Indian)” procurement category, was canceled and then revamped by Modi last year. Constant delays and the latest requirement alterations have placed this program eight years behind schedule. The project timeline now estimates it will be 10 to 13 years before any submarine in this class enters the Indian navy’s service.
But perhaps the most egregious area in which India’s military upgrading has slipped is artillery. The last time the Indian army introduced a new piece of artillery was 1986. Despite a broad plan introduced in 2000 to upgrade and modernize the army’s field artillery inventory, little has been done due to the familiar toxic brew of bureaucratic delays, the issuing and re-issuing of tenders, failed and inconclusive trials and unfeasible qualitative requirements issued by the Artillery Directorate.
What can be done to reverse these long-standing, familiar trends in India’s defense industry? Modernization across India’s armed forces requires a re-examination of past approaches and a more realistic assessment of what local industry can and cannot achieve in the near term. Going forward, New Delhi must take a more reasoned approach to defense procurement policy if it hopes to alter the current dynamic and resuscitate a host of floundering military projects.
For years, rules favoring public over private industry hampered innovation and domestic competition within the local defense sector. That has begun to change under Modi’s administration, but the government still has a heavy hand in favoring one sector over the other where individual programs are concerned. Opening up these programs to real competition between the state-run defense corporations and private companies, while setting realistic requirements for domestic industrial participation in advanced military programs, would be a step in the right direction.
Most importantly, the government should consider lifting the current cap on foreign direct investment in India’s defense industrial sector. Although Modi’s government implemented an increase from 26 to 49 percent shortly after coming to power, the continued inability of foreign vendors to attain majority stakeholder status lessens the attractiveness of investing in India’s defense industry.
Taking these and other steps would go a long way toward meeting India’s longer-term defense self-sufficiency goals and improving the qualitative capabilities of its military. Failing to achieve the latter ensures that the gap between the capacities of the Indian armed forces and those of China’s People’s Liberation Army only widens further.
Daniel Darling is an international military markets analyst at Forecast International Inc., an aerospace and defense market research company located in Newtown, Conn., where he covers the Europe and Asia-Pacific Rim military markets.