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India's military shopping spree

Analysis: India plans to spend $100 billion to modernize its military. But how likely is success?

India Military
Indian army band musicians take part in a rehearsal for the Indian Republic Day parade in Kolkata on Dec. 28, 2010. India will celebrate its 62nd Republic Day on Jan. 26, 2011, with a large military parade. (Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI, India — Nearly 30 years after its inception, India's supersonic light combat aircraft was finally cleared for induction into the air force this week — four years behind schedule, $500 million over budget and still propelled by an American-made engine.

Now, New Delhi is getting ready to double-down.

"After the Tejas [aircraft] accomplishes a series of milestones, the country is poised for a major turning point," Defense Minister A.K. Antony said at the test flight ceremony in Bangalore on Monday.

With a whopping $100 billion earmarked for defense purchases this decade, India has its sights set on simultaneously modernizing its moribund military and jumpstarting its own lame duck defense industry.

But there's a long way to go. Shortly before YouTube videos surfaced of a Chinese stealth fighter, India's Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) in all seriousness unveiled a domestically designed and developed... airship.

"There's a gap between their ability and their claims," said Anit Mukherjee, a research fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses. "They may not be able to do a Fiat, but they claim to be able to build a Ferrari."

Meanwhile, the stakes couldn't be higher. A modern military is essential if India is to take a larger role in Asia and the Indian Ocean — where China is swiftly gaining influence. The DRDO is 40 years behind schedule and $1.6 billion over budget, the defense minister said in May. And its most ambitious and vital projects have by and large been failures.

While that might be embarrassing for India, it's a huge opportunity for U.S. suppliers like Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman. But Washington will need to cut some of the red tape associated with U.S. arms deals to leverage American industry's cutting-edge defense prowess to reshape U.S.-India relations. And New Delhi will need to defeat the rearguard resistance to private industry posed by the left to transform its domestic defense industry.

"There are three gods in Hinduism: Brahma, the creator; Shiva, the destroyer, and Vishnu, the preserver. You will need all three to reform our aerospace sector," said former Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak, who now heads a think tank called the Center for Air Power Studies.

The first step will be Shiva's job: destroying — or radically restructuring — the existing system.

India's department of atomic energy has built a nuclear bomb and its space agency has sent a rocket to the Moon. But since 1992, when APJ Abdul Kalam declared that India should aim to make 70 percent of the equipment used by its military by 2005, the DRDO has "invented" radar and sonar systems, combat rifles, an artillery gun and cold weather gear for soldiers posted on the Siachen glacier — all of which it could have bought off the shelf elsewhere (including North Face).

Various ballistic missiles have failed in the testing process. Army personnel say the Arjun tank doesn't shoot straight. And even after it gets a second-generation engine in 2014, again from General Electric, critics say the Tejas — which was jointly produced by the DRDO and state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. — will not be able to compete with state-of-the-art fighters.

"DRDO has not produced anything that would change India's strategic condition in any way," said Sunil Dasgupta, a defense expert with the Brookings Institution. "After all, that's the entire point of military research and development."

As a result, India is preparing for a foreign shopping spree. According to a recent study by the consultancy firm KPMG, India is expected to buy $100 billion in foreign weapons by 2022. In the pipeline already are a $10 billion contract for 126 multi-role combat aircraft, a $7.6 billion tender for 12 stealth frigates, a $3.5 billion deal for seven submarines and a $3 billion contract for 197 light helicopters, among other items.

But Indian industry could benefit, too, if New Delhi plays its cards right. If it succeeds in leveraging its planned big-ticket purchases and its attractiveness as a manufacturing center for global suppliers to encourage technology transfers, KPMG argues, India could become one of the world's key sourcing destinations for defense systems and equipment, fueling technology spinoffs for a host of industries.

"If you look very conservatively, over the next 20 years, India will require about 1,200-1,500 aircraft in the civil sector alone," said Kak. "If you take the military aircraft, the military and civilian infrastructure, and you put it all together I see in the next 20 years a market of between $250 and $300 billion."