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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 34 August 13, 2016 [Independence Day Special 2016]

India’s Quest for Military Power: The LCA Milestone and Beyond

Monday 15 August 2016

by Bhartendu Kumar Singh

Great powers have great strengths! Yet, with almost 70 per cent import of its total weapons’ requirement, India is the world’s largest arms importer since the last few years. This absolute dependency mocks India’s profile as a rising great power, in particular, its military aspect. India remains a laggard and an inconsequential player in the international arms market, being placed at 26 in the list of arms exporting countries. Therefore, the recent induction of two Light Combat Aircrafts (LCAs), nicknamed as Tejas, into the Indian Air Force marks a landmark where the country has not only an ‘almost’ made in India fighter jets but also has something that can boost India’s defence exports and fuel its quest for military power.

Lack of timely military innovation and production has been one of the reasons why India is not considered as a military power yet. The LCA project itself took three decades from concept to completion. It also suffered due to the preference accorded from time to time to imported jets. This dependency prohibited the LCA project to reach the logical milestone within a reasonable project development cycle (PDC). The LCA is also reflective of India’s failure to build on past technological advances and skills. After all, India did have reasonable technological build-up in aircraft technology in the mid-sixties that it failed to capitalise on or proliferate to the civilian sector. Nevertheless, the formal commissioning of the LCA is commendable since it puts the country into a select group of countries that can boast of modern fighter jets and reduces India’s security dilemma against China and Pakistan by enhancing the air deterrence through a combination of fighter jets and missile system.

It is, however, the LCA’s positioning of India into the international relations system that is more important. First, the LCA could emerge as one of the major components defining India’s incremental recognition as a military power. Despite the world’s third largest Army and having a huge arsenal including nuclear weapons and delivery system, India is yet to be counted as one of the paramount military powers capable of competing in the increasingly complex military competition in the Asia-Pacific region and induce a sense of security to small and middle countries around it. It is yet to wield that military clout which could change the military balance of power in the region. Second, it also offers India as a potential tool for defence diplomacy. It is worth noting that despite engaging many countries into a series of military-diplomatic activities in the last two years and raising defence diplomacy to a new level, India has little in military hardware to win friends except for occasional gift or sale of helicopters or small surveillance ships, like the one off sale of an offshore patrol ship to Mauritius recently. China is selling military hardware and weapons to Afro-Asian countries in a big way! The LCA offers an opportunity for India to compete with China and carve out its own market. Third, if international relations are a game of perceptions and image-building, the LCA provides a psychological advantage to India by positioning it with strength in the anarchical set-up. It may take years before India actually starts shipping LCAs to client states but it has already emerged as a power-projection tool for the country. After all, it is the export of high-end military hardware that has sustained the facade of power for hitherto declining great powers like Britain and France!

A major criticism of the LCA is that it is not completely indigenous and has many com-ponents imported from abroad. Yet, the project is reflective of the competence and confidence of the scientific community in India towards innovation which is the sin qua non for any country’s emergence as a great power. The new emphasis on the ‘Make in India’ campaign and policy-reforms on defence production and FDI in defence have collectively engendered a momentum where there is space for LCA to be cent per cent Indian. The good thing about the LCA is that it belongs to the fourth generation plus and, therefore, is sustainable for at least two decades catering to the requirements of not only the domestic market but also many developing countries interested in a technology-relevant and cost-effective fighter jet!

While the Indian skies welcome a fighter aircraft designed, developed and manufactured in India, there is little time to bask in the glory of the LCA. Instead, the focus should be to build on the technological base and infrastructure available to move on to fifth and sixth generation fighter aircrafts and attempt a gradual shift to civilian use of military technology. India needs to study how China has made a turnaround in weapons production and how even middle powers like Germany, Sweden, Italy etc. and small powers like Israel and Switzerland have made a name for themselves in high-end defence technology and weapons production. Probably, there lies the secret of India’s wider recognition as a military power.

Dr Bhartendu Kumar Singh, IDAS, is Additional Controller of Finance and Accounts, Accounts Office, Gun Carriage Factory, Jabalpur. He is in the Defence Accounts Service. But the views he has expressed in the article are strictly personal.

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