NEW DELHI - India’s decision to go ahead with the purchase of S-400 Air Defence System from Russia is the right way to maintain its strategic autonomy. The country’s military capability development at the moment hinges on acquisition of key technologies from the West, the US, Russia and Israel which it must maintain. It is a forgone conclusion that military capability is the most arbitrary visible power that has the potential to shape international relations and it loses relevance if a nation succumbs to military or diplomatic coercion.
No nation can create a favourable international environment unless it has a strong military and a modern military industrial complex to leverage capabilities to secure its vital national interests. Thus, diversification in acquisition of weapon systems assumes significance and is a leverage to maintain the military and strategic balance.
What are the options available to India at this stage? The choice is either to wait for domestic defence research to develop technology to make within India or have the choice to acquire weapons and systems from the nation that the country wishes to interact with to modernise military to prepare for future challenges.
There are two fundamental issues that need to be examined critically here. First, maintaining strategic autonomy and choice to procure systems that suits India’s operational requirements. Second, there is no scope that India should surrender its choice of acquisition of the most suitable system because hardware modernisation is based on national security strategy and military doctrines.
Import of weapon systems should not be looked at as a foreign policy tool to re-calibrate relations with the US, Russia and other powers. India is facing long-term threats from Pakistan, China and other asymmetric forces and it cannot afford coercion from other nations in building its military capabilities.
What makes one nation militarily more powerful than others? The answer is its economy, modern military industrial complex and a modern army. The ultimate objective of a nation should be to develop its own military industrial complex that is able to develop niche technology to secure a decisive edge during war. Till we are able to develop advance systems domestically, India has no other option but to acquire systems from nations that can bridge the capability gap between India and its adversaries.
There is little choice that India has today considering the requirement of military hardware. On the one side, India needs access to Western technology from the US that could transform the Armed Forces into a modern fighting machine, and on the other it needs continuity to the systems of Soviet origin that has served armed forces well during war and peace. Replacing Soviet/ Russian hardware is economically and strategically near impossible since most of the equipment may be in their last stages of their lives but are still fit for war and capabilities. Some also argue that these lives can be enhanced by upgradation.
India was completely dependent upon the former Soviet Union for development of military capabilities and modernisation of its armed forces. However, post the fragmentation of Soviet Union, the Armed Forces suffered a setback in modernisation due to non-availability of strategic partners that could fill the capability gaps. It was not easy to switch entirely from one system to another because some Soviet origin systems required upgradation and some required supply of spares.
It was at that juncture a decision was taken to diversify the future acquisition of weapon and electronic warfare systems to two to three reliable partners to create alternative avenues so that if one failed, others could step in during a war or crisis.
Today, in addition to Russia, India is importing weapons and systems from US, Europe, and Israel. Diversification has brought in competitiveness and contractual accountability. A major factor in weapons procurement is timelines, in-service cost, transfer of technology and willingness of a nation to sell the technology to build domestic military industrial infrastructure. The dichotomy is that Russia is prepared to transfer technology but in most cases not ready to sell this technology.
In spite of this, Russia still continues to be the ‘Most Favoured Partner’ and has even leased nuclear submarines to India which no other nation was prepared to do so. S-400 Air Defence System with the range of 40 to 400 Km is capable of engaging multiple targets simultaneously and is considered unmatched today. Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) of the US is a very good system but not as versatile as S-400. Similarly, the Spike anti-tank missile of Israel is one of the best in the world that can be fired from multiple platforms at long ranges.
Considering the dynamic nature of international relations where national interests are permanent in nature, putting all our eggs in one basket may be a bad strategy to pursue.
Principle of acquisition should be affordable, reliable, timely delivery and technologically superior system able to serve for long period with or without upgradation. Every acquisition either from the US, Russia or Israel should add to the technological base of domestic military industrial complexes and the ultimate objective of accumulation of a cross section of technology should lead to strong technological foundation for ‘Make in India’ projects. India also needs to develop its holistic military capability by a mix of imports from more than one nation and focus on developing certain niche technology domestically.
For this it could look for partnerships with Japan and Israel in the field of electronic warfare, laser, unmanned aerial systems and radars.
Michael Beckley in his article ‘Economic Development and Military Effectiveness’ concluded that empirical studies have found that military power influences patterns of international cooperation, trade policy, economic development, and, of course, war causation and termination. Keeping this in mind, India should not succumb to the sanctions of the US government for exercising its choice to build military capabilities.
*BY: Narender Kumar, The author is senior fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies. *