India dogfight loss raises questions about its 'vintage' military

Indian paramilitary troops in Srinagar in Kashmir this month. Sixty-eight per cent of the army’s equipment is so old that it is officially considered “vintage.”
Indian paramilitary troops in Srinagar in Kashmir this month. Sixty-eight per cent of the army’s equipment is so old that it is officially considered “vintage.”PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (NYTIMES) - It was an inauspicious moment for a military that the United States 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.

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 the 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".


Said lawmaker Gaurav Gogoi, who is also member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence: "Our troops lack modern equipment, but they have to conduct 21st-century military operations.

Whatever the problems, the United States is determined to make the country a key ally in the coming years to hedge against China's growing regional ambition. Last year, when defence secretary Jim Mattis announced that the Pentagon was renaming its Pacific Command - to Indo-Pacific - he emphasised India's importance in a shifting world order.

"It is our primary combatant command," said Mr Mattis, who left the Pentagon at the end of the year. "It's standing watch and intimately engaged with over half of the earth's surface and its diverse populations, from Hollywood to Bollywood."

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 one of its F-16 fighter jets to down its MiG-21 last week. Islamabad rejected the claim, but on Sunday (March 3), the US Embassy in Islamabad said the United States 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.

"We are aware of these reports and are seeking more information," the embassy said in a statement. "We take all allegations of misuse of defence articles very seriously."

However troubled its military, India holds an obvious strategic appeal to the United States by virtue of both its location and its size.

India will soon become the world's most populous country, on track to surpass China by 2024. It shares a long border with southern and western China and controls important territorial waters that Beijing needs for its maritime trade routes. All that can help the United States try to box in its rival.

"India's sheer demographics, its long-term military potential, its geographic expanse - it makes India worth waiting for," said Mr Jeff Smith, a research fellow for South Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington and the author of "Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the 21st Century".

"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."

For India's military, funding remains the biggest challenge. In 2018, India announced a military budget of some US$45 billion. By comparison, China's military budget that year was US$175 billion. Last month, Delhi announced another US$45 billion budget.


It is not just a question of how much India spends on its military, but how it spends it. The majority of the money goes to salaries for its 1.2 million active duty troops, as well as pensions. Only US$14 billion will be used to buy new hardware.

"At a time when modern armies are investing hugely on upgrading their intelligence and technical capabilities, we need to be doing the same," said Mr Gogoi, the Parliament member.

Unlike China, where an authoritarian government is free to set military policy as it wishes, India is a democracy, with all the messiness that can entail. Cutting troop levels so the military can spend the money on buying modern equipment is not so simple.

India's military has long been a source of jobs for a country struggling with chronic underemployment. That is likely to be a big issue in elections scheduled for later this spring.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi won elections in 2014 promising to reform the economy and provide the one million jobs needed each month to satisfy its growing workforce. But with elections around the corner, Mr Modi has shelved promises of economic reform and embraced the usual populist measures.

"The thrust of this government is to focus more on economic development, which has to precede military strength," said Mr Amit Cowshish, a former Defence Ministry financial adviser for military acquisitions.

"That was what China did - they focused on developing their economy and then focused on acquiring their current military stature. The difference is that China started 20 or 30 years ahead of us in terms of economic liberalisation," he said.

Government officials in New Delhi say they are struggling to improve the lives of their citizens in the most basic of ways - dealing with high illiteracy rates and poor sanitation infrastructure, as just two examples - making it hard to funnel more money towards the military at a time when China is making incursions into India's backyard by land and sea.

China has significantly outpaced its rival, creating a robust and taxable middle class. China's economic boom has allowed it to invest aggressively in buying top military hardware and producing it at home.

As the world's conflicts are increasingly fought with state-of-the-art weaponry rather than the large invading armies of the past, India is falling behind. Despite being the fifth-largest military spender, only about a quarter of its military budget this year will go towards the purchase of new equipment.

Although the purchase of military hardware is a slow-moving process in most countries, in India it moves even more sluggishly amid a swollen bureaucracy.

There are also concerns about corruption. Mr Modi is being grilled by the opposition over a murky US$8.9 billion deal to buy 36 Rafale fighter planes from France. His political opponents have cast the agreement as corrupt in an effort to discredit him before elections.

The purchase will help India replace its ageing fleet of MiG-21s and other jets. And on Saturday, the Prime Minister tried to turn the tables on the opposition, saying that India would have fared better in its skirmish with Pakistan last week if it had had the Rafale jets. "The country has felt the shortage of Rafale," Mr Modi said.