Protecting India’s Air Power
With Bengaluru staging one of Asia’s largest air shows this month, in which international defence and aerospace companies are going to raise the sales pitch, pursuing multi-billion rupees contract opportunities in India, a minority but powerful school of thought is questioning its very relevance. The opposition is not because the mega event will affect the daily lives of the people of Bengaluru and add to the city’s noise and pollution. These are the standard resentments of the local populace against any air show anywhere in the world. But their question is more fundamental. Should a developing country like India think of acquiring the “technological wonders” that will be displayed at the cost of billions of rupees, which could be better spent on healthcare, education or feeding and housing the poor?
This question has added relevance because the country is yet to recover fully from the Corona pandemic and its accompanying deleterious impacts on the economy. With reduced incomes, rising unemployment, shrinking demands and stagnating growth, any government anywhere, particularly when it is a democracy, has to think of spending more money on the social sectors and basic infrastructures rather than on procuring fighter aircraft and other defence items. The Covid- 19 pandemic will, thus, have an impact on government and its military spending and resource allocations.
Fighting the Covid-19 menace and minimizing its adverse fallouts need money. But where the money will come from? The government cannot simply set up factories for printing notes. Obviously, it will go for diverting money meant in other sectors. And here the defence sector, which, despite Modi’s ultra-nationalist image, has got the scantiest allocations in each of his seven five budgets; it is about 1.6 percent of our GDP, though ideally it should have been at least 3 percent, given the nation’s security environment. Therefore, we are now in a situation where the security analysts and vendors are openly asking whether India has money to buy or even manufacture sophisticated platforms and weapons.
At the same time, however, it is a hard fact that no nation has developed economically without the corresponding military strength; that the two are inexorably linked; that peace and tranquility, the two essential prerequisites for sustained economic growth, cannot be assured without adequate military power; and that these days “Air Power” (“Aerospace Power”, to be more accurate) is one of the most critical components of military power.
All told, the pandemic of Covid-19 has not eased the security environment of India. If at all, it has further complicated the environment. There is a military stand-off with China in eastern Ladakh, with no signs of abetment in near future. In fact, the war-like situations now prevail all over the Line of Actual Control, from Ladakh up to Arunachal Pradesh. Line of Control with Pakistan in the Union Territory (UT) of Jammu and Kashmir is like a Live-Wire, with Pakistan not losing any opportunity to violate the ceasefire agreement and to push terrorists into the UT. In the neighboring Afghanistan, the Civil War is now seeing the clear edge of the extremist fundamentalists, thanks to the help from Pakistan. A Taliban-led Afghanistan will have serious repercussions on peace and normalcy not only in Kashmir but also in rest of the country. In Iran, the situation is so volatile that a hot war is always a probability, which, in turn, can jeopardize our maritime security.
Given this security environment that India is in, can we stretch the typical gun vs butter debate beyond a point? Whether there is Covid or not, we cannot compromise on our security. As it is, the Indian Air Force does not have even 30 squadrons that are fully operational, although the sanctioned strength is 42. The strength will further come down when the MiG 21 series is phased out in near future. So if at all, we need, and that too badly, more and fighter aircraft, whatever the economic conditions may be. They are not luxury, but vital to ensure the country’s unity, integrity and development.
India cannot be equated with some other leading importers of arms in the last decade or so. There have been countries, such as those in West Asia and South East Asia, whose import of arms or military expenditure have been dependent on their economic health – buying more when there is surplus of funds and stopping the buying when the economy is problematic (say reduced exports or crash of the oil prices). Their military expenditure is not necessarily proportionate to vital security- needs. This is not the case with India, whose needs are based on its complex security environment.
It may be noted here that the Covid-19 has not stalled the US military industry which caters to the needs of the US forces as well exports the surplus to foreign militaries. The US did not reduce its military expenditure, given its concerns, whether rightly or wrongly, about the global stability. After all, the Covid -19 has not dampened Iran’s morale. It has not put a brake on China’s aggressive designs in the Indo-Pacific. It has not stopped North Korea from resuming missile testing. Looking at all these developments, the US Air Force, it is said, signed 550 research contracts worth about $1 billion with various institutions. Lockheed, arguably the biggest American defense firm, hired thousands of technocrats and workers to meet mounting orders for F-35 fighters, hypersonic and subsonic cruise missiles, and the US Air Force’s new Combat Rescue Helicopter (recently named the Joly Green II), among others.
Of course, the Covid-19 hit badly the Boeing, which, supposedly, is at the apex of the American aerospace ecosystem, shut down some of its facilities making US Navy’s P-8 patrol plane and Air Force KC-46 tanker. But, in order to ease its strain, the US Air Force released $882 million that had been withheld from Boeing because of deficiencies on the KC- 46 tanker. Besides, Pentagon accelerated progress payments, and the massive $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act injected more than $17 billion in cash for defense, plus another $80 billion in loans for the broader aerospace industry.
It needs to be emphasized that there are times when financial crises have medium- and longer-term implications for the military. For instance, in the decade after the 2007–08 global financial crisis, threat perceptions altered and great-power competition re-emerged. And these, in turn, fuelled the recovery of defence spending in many leading countries. The point, therefore, is that the defence budgets need to be protected to a great degree, even if we are in the midst of a pandemic.
So, let us welcome the Aero India Show 2021.