NEW DELHI • It was an inauspicious moment for a military that the US is banking on to help keep an expanding China in check.
An Indian air force pilot found himself in a dogfight last week with a warplane from the Pakistani air force, and ended up a prisoner behind enemy lines for a brief time.
The pilot made it home in one piece but the plane, an ageing Soviet-era MiG-21, was less lucky.
The aerial clash, the first by the South Asian rivals in nearly five decades, was a rare test for the Indian military - and it left observers a bit dumbfounded. While the challenges faced by India's armed forces are no secret, its loss of a plane last week to a country whose military is about half India's size and receives a quarter of the funding was still telling.
India's armed forces are in alarming shape. If intense warfare broke out tomorrow, India could supply its troops with only 10 days of ammunition, according to government estimates. And 68 per cent of the army's equipment is so old, it is officially considered "vintage".
"Our troops lack modern equipment, but they have to conduct 21st-century military operations," said Mr Gaurav Gogoi, a lawmaker and member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence.
US officials tasked with strengthening the alliance talk about their mission with frustration: a swollen bureaucracy makes arms sales and joint training exercises cumbersome; Indian forces are vastly underfunded; and the country's navy, army and air force tend to compete rather than work together.
AILING ARMED FORCES
Our troops lack modern equipment, but they have to conduct 21st-century military operations.
MR GAURAV GOGOI, Indian lawmaker and member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence.
Whatever the problems, Washington is determined to make India a key ally in the coming years to hedge against China. Last year, when then Defence Secretary James Mattis announced that the Pentagon was renaming its Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific, he emphasised India's importance in a shifting world order.
The US military began prioritising its alliance with India as its close relationship with Pakistan soured over the last two decades. US officials are concerned that Pakistan is not doing enough to fight terrorism, a charge the country denies.
In just a decade, US arms sales to India have gone from nearly zero to US$15 billion (S$20 billion). But Pakistan can still draw on a powerful US-supplied arsenal. Indian officials say Pakistan used an F-16 fighter jet to down its MiG-21 last week. Pakistan rejected the claim but on Sunday, the US Embassy in Islamabad said Washington was looking into the report. The offensive use of an F-16 warplane against its neighbour might have been a violation of the sales agreement.
However troubled its military, India holds an obvious strategic appeal to the US by virtue of both its location and size.
"India's sheer demographics, its long-term military potential, its geographic expanse - it makes India worth waiting for," said Mr Jeff Smith, a South Asia research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
"As China rises and the United States fights to keep its dominance, it will need a swing state to tip the balance of power in the 21st century," Mr Smith said. "And that swing state is India. The United States knows this and is willing to be patient."