S. Amer Latif is a visiting fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The views in this piece are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
India has a long way to go before it becomes the security provider that Washington and the rest of Asia hope India will become. As most knowledgeable analysts and observers are aware, it takes much more than a large defense acquisition budget and occasional military presence to develop a credible and capable defense force. In the case of India, there are key lacunas in its defense modernization which point to a defense establishment that has a long way to go before it becomes a world class military force that can become, in the words of the U.S. Defense Department’s strategic guidance, “a provider of security.”
India’s recent push for defense modernization has received a considerable amount of attention for the magnitude of its defense spending on a variety of weapons systems. These weapons procurements, combined with episodic displays of Indian military presence through counter-piracy patrols, disaster response, high profile naval exercises, and port visits, have led many observers to opine that India will play a pivotal role in promoting security and stability throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
India’s defense modernization challenges can be best captured through four dimensions that either define the Indian defense environment or point to areas that require significant reform or change. Taken together, these four areas can be collectively called the Four P’s of Indian defense modernization.
Public Apathy. Indian politicians do not typically win or lose elections based on their knowledge (or lack thereof) about defense and foreign policy. An Indian electorate that is overwhelmingly focused on issues of access to paani (water), bijli (electricity), and sarak (roads) has little interest in what elected leaders have done for the promotion of the nation’s defense. Their electoral demands are highly personalized and focused on their immediate needs. Partly for that reason, there are few Indian parliamentarians that take a keen interest in Indian defense strategy and modernization.
Even among wealthier voters, the focus is usually on facilitating greater business and trade opportunities rather than a muscular defense policy. The notable exception to this is when defense acquisitions become tainted with corruption. Indian politicians are extremely sensitive to any hint of corruption in defense scandals and Defence Minister Antony, a Gandhi family loyalist, is always on guard against any hint of corruption that might taint the Congress Party and its future hold on power. For that reason, defense deals are slow to materialize as bureaucrats and politicians are both extremely cautious about being caught holding the bag if a defense deal becomes tainted with corruption charges. As India’s global influence grows, one would expect there to be an attendant public debate about India’s role in the world. Yet, beyond a relatively small group of strategic-minded thinkers, the Indian government has not engaged its public in a meaningful way about these issues.
Policy coherence. India is still unsure of the type of power it wants to become. That uncertainty translates to the lack of an effective and coordinated defense strategy that guides defense procurement, force structure, military deployments, and developing relationships. Aside from its doctrine of ‘strategic autonomy’ that allows India the luxury of ‘omni-engagement’ while resisting excessively close partnerships or entangling alliances, India has yet to officially articulate its core interests through a publicly available national security strategy or defense strategy.
The Indian leadership is reluctant to promulgate such a document partly because of the potential political controversy such a document might generate. Crafting a meaningful strategy would require India to make strategic choices and prioritize its interests and partnerships. Doing so would not only put New Delhi at odds with certain foreign capitals (such as Beijing), but also domestic elements such as India’s leftists that oppose closer U.S.-India ties.
Procurement reform. As India modernizes its defense forces, it realizes that it needs to reform its process of procuring defense equipment. Historically, India has had a history of sclerotic defense acquisition which stymies the military’s ability to obtain the needed hardware for its needs in a timely manner. The Ministry of Defence’s inability to more quickly procure defense equipment can be attributed to a number of factors including excessively bureaucratic procedures, insufficient bureaucratic capacity, and concerns about the perception of corruption that can scuttle defense deals if there are charges of irregularities. The slow pace of India’s acquisition process also stymies the MOD from spending all of is allocated budget. Due to India’s inability to produce its own defense equipment (a goal to which it aspires), it has been forced to rely on foreign acquisitions for its defense needs. India has attempted to streamline its procurement process and increase transparency through its Defense Procurement Procedure (DPP), which is regularly updated to reflect reforms in acquisition procedures.
One of the major problems with India’s procurement system is that it is geared towards acquiring equipment that meets established criteria rather than obtaining equipment that provides best value. Until India develops a system that is expeditious, fully transparent, and undergirded by a philosophy of procuring best value systems, it will continue to face challenges in getting the equipment it needs. India has started the road towards this ideal, but has a long way to go to reach it.
Personnel challenges. Any all-volunteer force will face a range of challenges and India is no exception. As India modernizes its armed forces, it will require men (and women) who are well educated and technically competent. That will be challenging given the poor state of India’s primary and secondary education system. Complicating the Indian military’s recruiting challenge is India’s growing economy, which provides young people a range of opportunities in the private sector that pay well, provide upward mobility, and avoid the privations of military life. This competition for talent has manifested itself through significant shortfalls in the numbers of officers for all the services.
By various accounts, the Army is short approximately 10,500 officers, the Air Force 1,100 officers, and the Navy 1,400 officers. The Indian military is also plagued by salaries that frequently do not measure up to their civil service counterparts, let alone the private sector. The high status traditionally associated with an officer’s lifestyle since India’s independence has eroded over the past decade as India’s growing wealth has brought alternative opportunities for generating wealth and acquiring status. The Indian Army has also been recently plagued by corruption scandals at the general officer level. Complicating the picture are instances of enlisted (other ranks) personnel mutinying against their officers at various units. The new Army Chief, General Bikram Singh has put an emphasis on restoring good order and discipline, integrity and morale to the nation’s largest armed service.
Anyone who views India as a key stabilizer in the Indo-Pacific should be concerned about India’s ability to meet these challenges. New Delhi’s ability to effectively modernize its defense is not just an issue for curious policy study, but, instead, has high stakes for Asia’s bet that India will become a democratic force for stability and security in Asia’s coming century.