Whatever else the Russian armed intervention in Ukraine has done, it has hammered home to the Union government the perils of over-dependence on imported armaments. There are two aspects that are of special concern. First, is the danger of a military spares cut-off in case the Russian engagement in Ukraine extends into the future, highly unlikely though that is, because then the Kremlin will prioritise re-supplying its own troops.
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Considering eastern Ladakh is a live border with China, as is the Arunachal Pradesh-front, the shutting down of the pipeline for spares owing to US sanctions on Russia, freezing of banking channels, etc., could mean a disaster for India should Beijing decide to renew hostilities. Summer — ideal campaign weather, is just round the corner, and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is apparently itching to hand the Indian Army a drubbing.
Second, is a problem of our creation. Some 90-plus percent of the hardware in the employ of the Indian armed services is of foreign origin, or relies on critical imported components, to upkeep which requires mammoth amounts of spares and servicing support. But capital is mostly expended by the military on new acquisitions under the rubric of ‘force modernisation’, and not in replenishing ‘voids’ — the shortfalls of as much as 60-70 percent with regard to spares which a singularly inefficient public sector defence industry cannot make up.
Hence, the Indian armed forces are restricted both in terms of how long they can fight wars, and with what intensity. India-Pakistan conflicts, for instance, are of short duration because the two similarly-tuned militaries quickly run out of ammo. But China, almost entirely self-sufficient in arms and with a comprehensively capable defence industry, can fight for as long as it takes the PLA to force a decision.
It is all very well in the circumstances for ministers to extol atmanirbharta, and the services’ chiefs to swear by it. But that’s a cover, once the crisis passes, for everybody to get back to doing things the old way because, per received wisdom, it will ‘take decades’ for the government, the military and the industry to get on the same page and up to speed.
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There’s a three-pronged alternative, however, that can deliver results in a short time. First, formally terminate all arms imports. Two, ramp up the defence R&D, and production ecosystem by bringing in proven private sector companies as prime contractors in prestigious defence projects. Larsen & Toubro, which already produces the Arihant-class nuclear-powered submarines, for instance, should be given charge of the 75i diesel submarine programme; the DRDO should transfer to Tata Aerospace & Defence and to Mahindra Aerospace the source codes of the Tejas 1A fighter and of its successor, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft; and Bharat Forge should be asked to improve the Arjun main battle tank, and design a light tank for use in Ladakh and Sikkim.
These programmes will establish widening tiers of associated specialist, high-technology MSMEs, with the additional production lines for the Tejas fighter plane, Arjun MBT, and the light tank augmenting the numbers of the same manufactured by the defence public sector units, for induction into the Indian armed forces, and for export.
Streamlined private sector industrial groups, moreover, will minimise waste, cut the fat, and add value. For instance, L&T needs only to buy a submarine design from a foreign vendor and a few select technologies, such as optronic masts, because it has learned to do everything else. This will pare the hard currency costs, estimated at $8-10 billion to just $1 billion!
On a war footing, these initiatives may take, say, five years to come to fruition. In the meantime, with imports halted, India’s conventional military muscle will suffer. But to ensure national security, India should do what China and North Korea did to offset their conventional military inferiority vis-a-vis the United States: They threatened first use of nuclear weapons. It deterred Washington from pushing US’ advantage.
This is the third prong of the alternative policy: India should announce a tweaked Indian nuclear doctrine and strategy permitting first use of nuclear weapons but only against China. Forward-deployed canisterised Agni missiles, capable of launch-on-launch and launch-on-warning, now entering India’s arsenal can act as nuclear tripwire — a short-fuse — to dissuade the PLA from breaching Indian defences.
Holding the wealth-producing coastal belt in China hostage to nuclear weapons is no bad way to check Beijing’s adventurism. It will require New Delhi to show iron will and to hold its nerve. Whether the Indian government can do that is the big question.
Bharat Karnad is Distinguished Fellow at the United Service Institution of India, and Emeritus Professor in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research. This article was originally published on Money Control.