Glimpses 2019: A lacklustre year for the armed forces

The world's fourth largest air force still struggles with its combat ability

armed-forces-pulwama Representational image | PTI

Former Air Force chief B.S. Dhanoa had claimed that the February 26 raid on a terror camp in Pakistan’s Balakot demonstrated the IAF's capability to carry out precision strikes from a standoff distance. Despite such claims, the world's fourth largest air force still struggles with its combat ability.

According to an internal estimate of the IAF, the force had a strength of 42 squadrons of fighter jets in 2002, but this will be down to 28 by 2020, and further reduced to 19 by 2042, if the government does not act fast. Though the first Rafale jet was handed over to India in October, the first batch of four Rafale jets from France will only arrive in India by May 2020. The complete delivery of 36 Rafale jet contract worth €7.87 billion (approximately Rs 59,000 crore), will be done by April 2022. The IAF has been maintaining that once Rafale fighter jets are inducted into the fleet, it would be a “game-changer” in the subcontinent as the country would have significantly better air defence capability than its “regional adversaries”.

The process of acquiring 104 fighter jets is still in its early stages. On the indigenous front, finalisation of 83 Light Combat Aircraft Tejas Mk 1A is still underway between IAF and HAL. But with the tardy pace of delivery, IAF does not have too much expectations from HAL.

Defence analysts believe that the IAF has lost the edge it had two decades ago, during the Kargil conflict. Thanks to India's strong air defence then, Pakistan did not muster courage to carry out an airstrike on Indian soil.

However, two months after Balakot, Pakistan received four airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) systems from Sweden, making the total strength of its AEW&C aircraft fleet to 10. On the other side, IAF operates only four such AEW&C systems, including three Beriev A-50EI Phalcon AEW&C systems along with one DRDO-developed Netra AEW&C system. Efforts are on to procure two more Phalcon Netra AEW&C system from Israel.

Besides fighter jets, important defence programmes such as mid-air refueller and IAF's 1960s vintage Avro transport aircraft are still hanging in the balance.

On the positive side, IAF has got deliveries of the first lot of Apache attack helicopters and Chinook heavy lift choppers from the United States. Adding muscle to the IAF firepower, eight Apache attack helicopters were inducted into the force at the Pathankot air force station in September. Dubbed 'flying tanks', Apache attack helicopters will be a major component in tank battles for the Indian Army, especially on the western front with Pakistan. In March, first lot of four Chinook, the advanced heavy-lift helicopters, were inducted into the Indian Air Force. Chinook multi-role helicopters will add significant muscle to Indian Air force's strategic airlift capability along the borders with Pakistan and China.

Owing to budgetary constraints, armed forces are finding it difficult to prioritise its requirement. Chief of naval staff Admiral Karambir Singh has admitted that the Navy’s declining budget has forced him to re-evaluate the long-term plan to field 200 warships by 2027. This target is institutionalised in the Navy’s Maritime Capability Perspective Plan (MCPP) for 2012-2027. However, now the Navy is expected to have 175 warships by 2027. The Navy currently has about 130 warships, and another 50 are under construction in shipyards in and outside the country. The Navy chief has also expressed concern over the Navy’s share of the defence budget, which has declined from 18 per cent in 2012 to approximately 13 per cent in the current financial year (2019-20). Decline in the budget share has come at a time when the strength of Indian Navy's submarine fleet has dwindled from a total of 21 submarines in the 1980s to 15 conventional submarines, besides one homemade Arihant-class submarine and one Russian Akula-class submarine operating on lease. To make matters worse, the Indian Navy is operating with half of its submarine fleet strength as most of the vessels are in the last leg of their active operational life or are on mid-life upgrades. Meanwhile, China has a strength of 65 subs.

On the aircraft carrier front, while China plans to have 10 aircraft carriers by 2049, Indian Navy is finding it difficult to push for India’s third aircraft carrier. The Navy only operates INS Vikramaditya, while indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant is under construction in Cochin shipyard and is expected to join by Navy fleet by 2022. Simultaneously, the Navy is also facing critical requirement of minesweeper vessels, as it only operates two minesweepers to protect its sea lanes and ports.

No progress has been made in the Army's need for light utility helicopters, a lifeline for soldiers posted at the world’s highest battlefield—the inhospitable Siachen Glacier of the Himalayas. The acquisition process went through three cancellations, the last being in 2014. The Navy is also struggling with shortage of its helicopter fleet.

The allocation for ministry of defence budget 2019-20 is 31.97 per cent of the total Central government capital expenditure, which is below two per cent of the GDP. This is when China allocated three per cent and Pakistan spends 3.5 per cent of their GDP for defence. While India has 1.25 soldiers per 1,000 people, China has 2.23 and Pakistan 4.25.

Experts believe that despite the Union government continuing to put the country's defence preparedness on top of their priorities list, budget constraints have always stuck out like a sore thumb. Majority of the budgetary allocation goes into paying salaries and pensions of defence personnel, while major chunk capital budget gets into paying the committed liabilities, leaving hardly any money for new acquisitions.

Now, efforts are being made to cut flab and make Indian armed forces more lean and mean. Integration between the three forces would play an important role in reducing administrative costs. Indian military has 17 single-service command (Army-7, IAF-7 and Navy-3). There has been a lot of discussions on creating theatre commands as some believe that having so many separate commands is a waste of resources and infrastructure. Now, the government has announced creation of chief of defence service (CDS) that will play a major role in bring synergy between the three forces.

Besides modernisation, the Modi government's key project Make in India in defence sector has not yielded the desired results. Despite tall claims, no major contract under the Make in India category has really taken off. The critical defence procurements were met through off-the-shelf category with no element of transfer of technology.

The Draft Defence Production Policy 2018 had set a target of $5 billion in defence exports by 2025. But, the target looks ambitious. In 2016-17, India’s total defence export was Rs 1,495.27 crore. Interestingly, Pakistan, which is primarily dependent on China for defence purchases, has sold more weapon systems to foreign customers than India.