Towards the future: India’s defence modernisation in perspective

Taken as it is from: Invest India

A year has passed since the Balakot airstrikes. Few doubt that the incident of February 26 last year has enabled India to recalibrate its defence power projection and to re-assess its defence capabilities. An increased emphasis on modernisation of the defence equipment, a major restructuring of the armed forces and prioritisation of defence acquisitions reflect this shift of focus towards developing India as a power hub of defence capacity.

The shift in policy is in tune with the changing security conceptions on India’s land and maritime borders. The financial and tactical strength of non-state actors in Pakistan and increasing Chinese economic and military presence in the Indian Ocean Region pose security challenges to India to be addressed by a large-scale mechanisation of the Indian armed forces as well as a restructuring to meet such new challenges.

Furthermore, as the scholar Ashley Tellis observed, “[t]he Indian military also needs to change its mindset from a frontier defence force to an expeditionary one capable of projecting power beyond the subcontinent.” Already, the Indian Air Force has depicted its strength in the successful mission it undertook to Wuhan—the epicentre of COVID-19. The IAF special flight carried around 15 tons of medical assistance comprising masks, gloves and other emergency medical equipment on Wednesday  of this past week and returned Thursday with 76 Indians & 36 nationals from 7 neighbouring countries. Such undertakings add weight to Indian presence and leadership in the region. For such capabilities to manifest, however, these undertakings by the Government of India are necessary.

Modernisation of the Defence Forces

The attacks on the CRPF vehicle in Pulwama in February last year and the Indian government’s response marked an important turning point in the conception of Indian foreign and defence policies. The Indian Air Force found itself at the centre of the face-off that followed the Pulwama attacks when the government decided to respond to the attacks by striking at the terror camp on the other side of the Line-of-Control, responsible for the Pulwama suicide attack. The significant increase in government and public focus on the IAF heightens the urgency of preexisting plans to modernise the forces and adapt them to changing national priorities. As Air Chief Marshal R K S Bhadauria recently stated, “Balakot strike redefined use of air power towards meeting national objectives.”

As such, the defence budget has seen an increase. The total defence budget for 2020-21 stands at Rs. 4.71 lakh crore (including pensions). The capital budget allocation for the armed forces increased by 3 per cent, or Rs. 3,400 crore and will focus on acquisitions for and modernisation of the three services.

In keeping with this objective, the Indian government has permitted FDI upto 49% under the automatic route. It is in agreements with key defence manufacturing and exporting countries like the United States, Israel and Russia. Recently, the Indian and American governments also concluded a deal worth $3 billion under which India would be supplied six AH-64E Apache Helicopters and twenty-four MH-60 Multi-Role Helicopters over a period of five years.

Biggest Restructuring of the Defence Forces

In order to drive the defence acquisition and spearhead the efforts to modernise the armed forces, the newly created position of the Chief of Defence Staff is significant. Former Chief of Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, took over as the first Indian CDS in January this year. In less than 60 days since his assumption of the new office, General Rawat has outlined his objectives for the military, primary among which, are to increase the jointness between the three services at the operational level, prepare the Indian military for the changing security landscapes in the region and also bring them in tune with the country’s changing strategic goals.

The creation of the CDS post with the outlook to bring into place an “integrated system” that increases efficiency and ability to respond to threats and attacks comes at a time when most advanced armies in the world are moving to theatre commands with tri-service capabilities. India, too, will be aspiring to create theatre commands by 2022, as announced by the CDS recently in his military vision for India.  Significantly, he also announced the merging of the Eastern and Western Command of the Indian Navy into a singular Peninsular Command that is capable of meeting challenges like the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

The CDS also stated that the “Indian armed forces are at the cusp of transformation… If we look at the future of warfare, then the military has to grow.” Therefore, the CDS will also head the newly created Department of Military Affairs (DMA) under the Ministry of Defence that shall be responsible, among other things, for administrative and revenue procurement matters.  The CDS and the DMA, in conjunction, will spearhead key decisions on modernisation efforts and organisational matters that are in keeping with the tactical objectives of the Indian military.

The CDS, a four-star General, is the first among equals such that he is at the same ranking as the three service chiefs and the Defence Secretary. He is, however, the primary decision maker on key matters pertaining to military goals, objectives and in wartime, also of strategy. This bold position carries immense power and responsibility focused at bringing India closer to its strategic goals.