The Indian Army has Russian-made T-90 tanks. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Indian Army is rewriting its war plans for possible conflict with Pakistan and China. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Does India matter? It seems like a rather silly question. Of course, it does. India is the world’s second most populous country, and it is on track to overtake China as the most populous by 2022. Its economy is either the sixth or third largest, depending on how you measure it. Its economy grew at a rate of 7.1% in 2016 and 8% the year before.

The strength of India’s high-tech industry is well known. In addition to being a major outsourcing business (that is, call centers), India’s IT sector is beginning to engage in real value-added activities, such as telecommunications and cloud computing. Add to this India’s growing capacity in automobiles and pharmaceuticals.

On paper, India is a major military power. With more than 1.4 million men and women in uniform, it has the world’s second largest military. Its defence budget last year (according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) was nearly US$56 billion, making it the world’s fifth largest military spender, outspending France, the United Kingdom, and Japan.

India’s military is impressive: more than 4,000 main battle tanks, 4,500 artillery pieces, 800-plus combat aircraft, 47 destroyers and frigates, 13 attack submarines, and even an aircraft carrier. More equipment purchases are in the pipeline, including at least one more carrier, new stealth, warships, nuclear-powered submarines, fifth-generation fighter jets, and a comprehensive missile-defence system.

And lest we forget, India is also a declared nuclear power, with perhaps 100 nuclear weapons. And it is developing a triad of air-, ground-, and sea-based delivery systems. India has already deployed short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, and it is developing a fleet of nuclear-missile submarines.

Great-power goals don’t add up to global clout

India is, like China or Brazil, an aspiring great power. Yet despite its growing economic, technological, and especially military power — and particularly its nuclear capability — India’s global clout is practically nonexistent. Delhi wields nothing close to the far-flung cultural, economic, or political-military weight that Beijing does. Even within southwest Asia and the Indian Ocean region — India’s backyard — it must share regional authority with other rising states, particularly Iran, nuclear Pakistan, and outside powers like the United States.

India has little sway in most international organizations. Despite its size and relative economic power, it holds no permanent seat on the UN Security Council and therefore wields no veto.

Meanwhile, India’s efforts to turn the BRICS group — the world’s most important emerging economies — into a global alliance of industrializing and developing countries have turned out to be a damp squib. The economies of Brazil and Russia have crashed, while China appears to be more intent on going it alone with its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and One Belt One Road initiatives.

Achilles’ Heel: A weak domestic arms industry

Moreover, India lacks the strong domestic arms industry that is a prerequisite to becoming a great power. No country can aspire to great power status if it must still import most of its weaponry. This is not simply a matter of being less dependent on foreign arms suppliers, which means being vulnerable to embargoes or being cut off from critical military systems. Designing and manufacturing one’s own armaments goes to the very heart of appearing and acting as a great power. In other words, great countries must have great arms industries.

And yet India has failed repeatedly to become self-sufficient in armaments. Few countries have invested more time, effort, and capital in their defence industries and yet achieved so little by way of self-reliance and high-quality weapons. Despite more than a half-century of struggle and reform efforts, the history of India’s arms industry is a nearly unbroken story of ambitious overreach and spectacular failures.

India’s domestic Tejas fighter jet was in development for more than 25 years before it entered service. Most of the country’s missile programs have failed to get out of their R&D phase. Even something as simple as an assault rifle has baffled the Indian arms industry: the country’s homegrown INSAS (Indian new small arms system) rifle cost three times as much as an imported AK-47, and it consistently malfunctioned in extreme cold or rugged conditions (and therefore could not be used by troops in the Siachen glacier region of the Himalayas).

India relies on imported military systems

India does produce most of its own armaments, but the majority of these are still predominantly licensed versions of foreign weapons systems: Russia’s Su-30MKI combat aircraft and T-90 tank, the Franco/Spanish Scorpène submarine, etc. In fact, the Indian military remains as dependent as ever on foreign systems and technologies. Despite several pronouncements made since the mid-1990s that India would greatly increase the “local content” of weaponry in its armed forces, the current level of imported systems remains about 70%.

In short, while the rest of India appears to be racing into the 21st century, powered by a dynamic, free-market-oriented economy, the defence sector seems mired in the country’s Nehruvian socialist and protectionist past. And this, more than anything, is holding back India’s emergence as a regional — and even potentially a global — great power that has a voice worth listening to and which wields subsequent influence.

It used to be said of Brazil that it was “the country of the future and it always will be.” This snide but depressingly true observation could be equally applied to India’s ambitions for its role in the world. Few countries besides India have put more time and effort into their defence efforts and have gotten so little back in return by way of global power and influence. If it truly wants to matter in the world, then it needs to find a better way.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s own.

Richard A. Bitzinger

Richard A Bitzinger is a Visiting Senior Fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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