In the past several years India has dashed headlong into military acquisitions without thinking through their implications. This is par for the course for the Indian government wedded to ad hoc policies and decisions concerning the most serious aspects of national life and security. But there are costs and consequences of what amounts to a casual approach to foreign and military policies.
That a country’s military supply relationship pre-determines its foreign policy may be a commonsense observation but it has, by and large, escaped the Indian establishment. The Soviet Union understood it early. The United States has come to this realisation lately, and is making up for lost time with a full-court press. Inclined to please Washington, the Congress-led UPA government has implemented a host of acquisition decisions – as much military as political in nature – with minimum thought.
Post-1962 debacle, Moscow offered India the supersonic MiG-21 fighter aircraft at a time when the Lyndon Johnson administration turned down India’s request for the F-104 Starfighter, offering the subsonic F-6 instead. Then when the Russians sweetened the MiG-21 deal with licensed production, Washington hummed and hawed and finally offered a limited number of F-104Gs. From the mid-60s to around 1990 – the apogee of our military hardware dependence on the Soviet Union when it met 90 per cent of the Army’s, 85 per cent of the Air Force’s, and 80 per cent of the Navy’s needs — India followed generally Moscow-friendly policies and was perceived as a Russian client state, our nonalignment protestations fooling nobody. The dependence did not diminish even as the Soviet Union fell apart, with India returning the favor by keeping the defence industry – the smaller, less powerful Russia’s only major surviving asset — afloat with a continuing spate of orders.
Looking at how Russia had worked India, Washington woke up in the Reagan era and sought to replicate the success Moscow had obtained. Defence secretary Caspar Weinberger arrived in India in 1984 offering, according to one of his advisers, Michael Pillsbury, “whatever India wanted”. It took the United States another 30 years to clear its mind and enter the game.
With the Manmohan Singh government accepting the nuclear deal on American terms, the way was cleared for instant rapprochement with the US. For Washington, however, India’s purchasing big-ticket American defence items was the necessary proof of good faith. Except, the IAF rejected the American F-16s and F-18s in the Medium-range Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) sweepstakes because, quite simply, these were late Sixties-early Seventies vintage fighter planes and worse, were outfitted with the less capable Raytheon APG-79 AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar rather than the more modern Northrop-Grumman APG-81 radar. The offer revealed the American tendency to pass obsolescing aviation technology.
With a view to keeping Washington interested, the Manmohan Singh regime approved a rash of “off the shelf” acquisitions of American hardware worth some $10 billion with no offsets requirements – artillery fire locating radars, C-17 and C-130J transport planes, P-8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft, and M-4777 light howitzers. Still Washington bitched about the lost MMRCA deal. All this while Russia looked on as India changed horses mid-stream. The old horse that had pulled the Indian military wagon for nearly 50 years was being sidelined.
India’s relationship with the Soviet Union is a fairly unique one restricted not just to arms sales. Russian scientists and engineers have rendered seminal expert assistance to some of the most sensitive Indian high-technology projects with a minimum of fuss and almost no publicity. Thus, while Indian nuclear scientists are world leaders in pressurised natural uranium reactors, they had little experience of designing and producing small and compact pressurised highly-enriched uranium reactors to power nuclear submarines. The Russians stepped in and, voila! India has the Arihant-class nuclear submarine. A large number of even more secret collaborations can be cited. They have, time and again, helped save the Indian strategic goose from being cooked.
But with the Navy selecting the American Sikorsky SH-60R Seahawk helicopter for seaborne tactical operations and wanting it to be armed with the Indo-Russian Brahmos supersonic cruise missile – the only one of its kind in the world – the situation may reach flashpoint. To integrate this missile into the Seahawk platform will require India, which has developed the flight control and guidance avionics, and Russia the powerful scramjet engine, to share highly classified information about the missile’s innards with Sikorsky. Both DRDO and NPO Machinostroiyenia, the Russian Company in the Brahmos joint venture, will be reluctant to part with secrets-qua-proprietary information, especially because, in the circumstances, there will be no practical way to protect it.
The Indian government believes Russia doesn’t mind the new Indian policy of “diversifying” defence supplies, and if it does, can lump it. But with China, unlike India, having ingested Russian hardware technology and peddling Russian knock-offs at cheap prices to the world, Moscow has no other cash-rich customer to turn to. Whence Moscow has upped the ante with the visiting deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, offering more modern weapons co-development ventures of the Brahmos kind that the US will be disinclined to match. Putin, meanwhile, will soon be in Pakistan tweaking the situation some more. For starters, he is expected to announce a deal in the works since 2007, among other things, for the Klimov RD-93 jet engines for the Pakistan Air Force’s fleet of Chinese-built JF-17s.
Implicit in the diversification policy is the view that the country has reached a technology threshold where it can do without Russian “consultants”. One can only hope that this confidence is borne out because America is unlikely to transfer any critical technology or render help of the sort the Russians routinely have for cutting-edge DRDO projects. Combine this with the hopeless defence PSUs, the Indian government’s reluctance to implement the “buy Indian, make Indian” policy involving the Indian private sector owing to the politicians’ unwillingness to give up the petty benefits of PSU patronage and “commissions” from armament deals — defence minister A.K. Antony’s puerile efforts at stanching corruption notwithstanding, and the country may soon find itself up a creek.
[Published 'July 20, 2012 in the 'Ásian Age' at www.asianage.com/columnists/fork-road-defence-ties-798 and in the Deccan Chronicle at www.deccanchronicle.com/columnists/bharat-karnad/fork-road-defence-ties]