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Millennium Post

The Big Fat Indian Offence

India is projected to have defence budgets of approximately $40 billion per year for almost two decades.

India is the largest importer of military supplies in the world with $3.3 billion being spent annually, beating even the Saudis who have bankrolled the USA since 1980s.

India’s biggest arms supplier is Russia with close to $20 billion in sales between 2004 and 2010, and that still leaves out two big ticket items in the pipeline – the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) and Medium Transport Aircraft (MTA). Thereby hangs a tale.

Through the decade of the 1990s, Indian armed forces were starved of funds as the country grappled with the task of improving its economy in terms of financial volume and efficiency. Dr Manmohan Singh, though being practicing Sikh, singularly lacked the martial nature of the people from Punjab who have for so long defended the post-colonial Indian state for greater glory.

So as finance minister in the Narasimha Rao Cabinet, he counted each rupee that was spent in the non-productive areas like Indian defence, which was expense account head, without any returns.

Then we had the Kargil conflict, which came under the watch of the newly elected and much bolstered BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. Result: the opening of the floodgates of defence procurement with almost a desperate lunge in the global arms bazaar. Result: the Tehelka-stung defence procurement hatch being battened down.

Enter the 2000s, and the reverie of an India Shining! With the foreign institutional investors playing the open and thinly regulated stock and money markets, the dollars began to be available more readily.

For a long time, ever since Rajiv Gandhi lost power because of the Bofors scandal and cynical little ditty slogan ‘Gali, gali mein shor hain, Rajiv Gandhi chor hain’, no regime really had the courage to take out large armaments contracts.

The NDA, as stated earlier, kind of took a peek and then withdrew. It just was not brave enough to fit the defence expenditure in the India Shining paradigm. In 2004, the Congress-led UPA I government came to office.

The armed forces, huffing and puffing with expiry dated arms and equipments, were at their tethers end. Short of shouting from the roof tops, they were seeking a little bit of leeway in terms of budgetary allocations by which they can buy some of the shiny, new wares on the global arms merchant’s shop windows. They were also creating dire strategic failure scenarios, and adapting the ways of such temples of bottomless pits like the Pentagon. The bottomline was the country’s security would come under threat increasingly unless it developed a conventional strategic deterrent force to underline the nuclear deterrence.

The fact that there was a new threat on the horizon had become clear in bold print after 9/11, which made the security theorists to think of ‘fourth generation warfare’ or ‘non-conventional warfare.’ This necessitated new rules of the game, newer technologies, newest doctrines.

The ministry of defence was also being manned those days by a man with a keen head for numbers and a keener sense of what is needed when. Pranab Mukherjee went to the USA to meet Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary then, to sign what was called rather coyly, ‘Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP).’

While he was undergoing that process at the Pentagon, one doesn’t quite know what mantra was being whispered into his ears. But what we know is that the first major purchase of a US-produced platform was signed, sealed and delivered soon after the trip.

That was the C-130J deal with Lockheed Martin. Six such transport aircrafts came with the price-tag of close to $1 billion. Then air chief marshal, SP Tyagi had stated the planes were needed for transporting special forces to locales still beyond imagination.

This opened the latest gateway for major defence purchases – the USA. And of course, the biggest primates of global defence sector lives there. They were slavering the big pie. According to the estimated numbers, New Delhi was to spend close to $200 billion over 20 years.

After Deng Xiaoping had talked about ‘Four Modernisations’ in the early 1980s and opened the process of modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), India was the next big apple waiting to ripen and fall. The time for it had come.

On the heels of the civil nuclear deal and the so-called ‘strategic partnership’ between the US and India, the possibilities for American arms makers were immense. And the rush to Delhi by the nattily dressed gentlemen with snake leather briefcases, looked like a stampede.

The outcome of that was seen in 2013 when the US became the largest arms exporter to India for the year, displacing Russia. The total arms exported and delivered to the country was of the order of $1.9 billion, according to an IHS Jane’s calculation. Between 2008 when arms purchases by India from the USA was nil in terms of delivered items, and 2013 the buys had reached $8 billion.

However, sweat did not break out on the temples of Russian sellers or the Israelis. For by then the two knew that they were the masters of the byzantine processes of Indian buyers. The US was still to learn the tricks of the trade.

This was even more evident in the US manufacturers’ plaintive cries that India buy American arms only through the process of Foreign Military Sales (FMS). This was a convenient tool by which the Indian authorities identified a need; informed their counterparts in the US government; and they in turn get it cleared by the US Congress and eventually identify the supplier for the sale. In effect, the American government works like the ubiquitous middlemen or arms brokers, who have a habit of spoiling so many deals lately by getting identified easily.

At the end, one can safely aver that the party is still on. Though India’s eight years of nine per cent growth has tapered off, but the learnt-by-rote  line of the finance minister of country, delivered routinely every budget day: ‘There won’t be any shortage of resources if the security of the country so demands’ remains a big rope to hang the wishes on. And the story continues.
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