The BJP government of Narendra Modi seems well set on the course of mindless military procurement. With so many strategic military areas to cover and a host of choices to strengthen national security available, trust Modi, Parrikar and Co. to splurge scarce resources on the wrongest buys imaginable. After committing US$30 billion for 36 — too few to make a difference but too costly to disregard the downstream costs — of the by and large useless Rafale “MMRCA” from France, naturally another equally flawed acquisition for the Russian S-400 supposedly anti-everything in the air from drones, aircraft to missiles, was approved in a move mainly to placate Moscow. Whether to make or firm up friendly relations, Modi apparently thinks armament purchases are the prime instrument. India will be paying through its nose for the Rafales and the S-400 long after the Modi dispensation is history. True the US$ 10.5 billion plus will mainly cover the cost of some five batteries of the advanced Russian air defence system, but also involve buying four of a new class of frigate, and to produce some 200 Kamov utility helicopters under license in the country. So, there’s a variety of armaments which buffers the S-400 purchase (rather than a single combat aircraft — Rafale) for like vast sums of money.
But why S-400, comparable to the US THAAD (Theatre High Altitude Area Defence)? May be because it is versatile able, owing to the Russian design philosophy of having a single tube fire different interceptors, such as the 400 km range 40N6, the 250 km range 48N6, the 120 km range 9M96E2, or the 48 km range 9M96E, to pull different missions. So this is an all-in-one air defence solution. Except, like all AD systems, it is optimized to take out ECM-laden, high-flying, combat aircraft, not incoming missiles. And it is very expensive. Given the conniptions when ever GOI contemplates nuclear missiles, India is buying this system as BMD (ballistic missile defence), with the Indian S-400 likely equipped with the 40N6 interceptor.
So, why is this bad? For one thing — what happens to the Indian BMD programme that VK Saraswat (now member of the Niti Ayog) during his time as DRDO head had protected and nursed so carefully? This BMD system operates on the principle of the twin Prithvi missile interceptors, one trying to take out an incoming missile in direct hit mode in exo-atmosphere, failing which the second interceptor destroys it in the endo-atmospheric milieu. As Saraswat himself admitted to me — and it is so revealed in my book — ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’, the Prithvi BMD may be effective, if at all, in killing single missiles, but simply will not be able to handle missile salvos — which is exactly how Pakistan and China will fire their missiles. So, what good is it, considering no BMD system anywhere in the world has done better than the Indian system in real-live firing, and none has fared at all well? If BMD is such a concern, the Rs 39,000 crores would have been better invested in increasing the production rate of strategic missiles, and in the indigenous development of a genuinely effective system to take on massed attacks? And, some of the monies could have been expended in strategically firming up an area in which India has zero capability, namely, manned long range high altitude bomber?
Because of the demand from the Strategic Forces Command, and perhaps my fevered advocacy from my time in NSAB (and since in my books and writings), the Indian Air Force finally and reluctantly agreed to buy/lease the Tu-22M3 ‘Backfire’ bomber from Russia. But, and extraordinarily, it asked for just FOUR of this bomber. This is consistent with IAF’s conviction that the country’s strategically capable air arm remain marginal if not nonexistent. A plainly bemused Moscow advised Delhi that an indent for 20 Tu-22M3s (i.e., a squadron plus reserve) would make better sense as it will ensure that, at any given time, at least ten of the aircraft will be ready to takeoff (and a single Tu-22 would be operational if only four of the bombers are inducted into IAF service)! That the Russians had to proffer this practical advice speaks volumes of IAF’s strategic sensibility.
The more one examines the Indian military’s procurement priorities, the more dismayed one gets. When our armed services falter at so basic a level, what hope for national security?