Dassault Plane Deal Does Little to Make India Secure

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Indian soldiers carry coffins of their colleagues killed after gunmen attacked an Indian army base in Kashmir's Uri, Srinagar, on September 19. John Elliott writes that the focus this week has been on how India should fight back against Pakistan after the Uri attack, which the prime minister has said “will not let go unpunished.” Possibilities aired in the media include selected strikes across the border, cyberwarfare, cutting off river waters that flow from India to Pakistan and canceling trade pacts. Indian Army/reuters

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant site.

At the end of a week when India had been agonizing about how to deal with the aftermath of a deadly attack on an army camp near the Pakistan border in Kashmir, one that should never have been allowed to happen, the government on September 23 signed a $8.66bn deal with Dassault of France for 36 fighter jets that will have only a limited effect on the under-equipped Indian Air Force's lack of readiness.

The link between the two events is that they both underline the deplorable state of India's military defenses, and demonstrate how inadequately it tries to improve them, despite tough talk by successive governments and especially by Prime Minister Narendra Modi before he was elected, and despite his promise to make the country work more efficiently.

Eighteen Indian soldiers were killed in the army camp attack that was carried out at Uri on September 18 by four men—dubbed "militants" by the international media but "terrorists" in Indian reports.

It has led to outrage in India against Pakistan, whose army or ISI secret service is blamed for instigating the attack allegedly by Jaish-e-Muhammad, a Pakistan-based group named by the U.S. as a terrorist organization.

Yet the real horror of the event is not that Pakistan dare do such a thing, but that India is so lackadaisical and inefficient at maintaining security that the four men were able to cut a boundary fence, move 150 yards inside the base and set fire to tents before they were detected. Unprotected soldiers were having early morning showers in a camp whose operational troops were patrolling on the disputed "line of control" (LoC) border with Pakistan just 6 miles away.

If no Indian soldiers had been killed, the outrage against Pakistan would have been far less and Delhi could have congratulated itself on the excellence of its defenses. Yet there is scarcely any public outcry against the government and defense ministry for failing to secure its bases and protect the lives of its soldiers.

More Horrifying

Even more horrifying is that the camp was so unprotected despite a similar incident last January at an air base, near the Pakistan border at Pathankot in the Punjab, that had no defenses against a terror attack.

Border patrols and thermal imaging were inadequate, and the initial police responses were confused and slow. Floodlights were not working in some areas and buildings were located against perimeter walls, making access easy.

Shyam Saran, a former Indian foreign secretary, has said this week that "India will remain vulnerable unless it does a better job of managing and securing its long land and maritime borders." He lists numerous defense failings and warns, "Unless we turn the searchlight on our own failings….we will remain at the receiving end of terrorism."

And as Omar Abdullah, a former Kashmir chief minister, has tweeted, "While we work out who is to blame for Uri, and what an appropriate response will be, do we not owe our troops flame retardant tents & huts?"

Manohar Parrikar, India's defense minister, admitted this week that "something must have gone wrong" at Uri, adding that "we will definitely find out what went wrong and take steps to ensure it doesn't happen again". He was speaking at a management conference and said he believed in "zero errors," a term his audience would use in their own companies but must have heard with incredulity in this context.

"Air defense units field antiquated Soviet-era guns and missiles that should have been retired long ago," said an editorial in the Business Standard the next day. Talking about "serious deficiencies " in India's radar network, fighters squadrons and ground defense units, it continued:

The mechanized forces, too, rely on Soviet-era air defense systems from the 1980s, which are ineffective, given the advanced electronic warfare equipment in modern fighters….Obsolescent radars with inadequate coverage ranges leave gaps along the border that enemy aircraft can exploit.

None of this is new. Senior armed forces officers have been complaining about the lack of readiness for combat for years—which makes today's signing of the Rafale order inadequate.

In 2012, India decided to order 126 Rafale jets from Dassault of France, but negotiations became deadlocked, and Modi suddenly substituted an order for just 36 of the planes in "fly-away condition" when he was on an official visit to Paris in April 2014.

Red Tape

That was seen at the time as an astute move by Modi, cutting through the red tape and ordering the urgently-needed jets for quick delivery, even though this would undermine his "Make in India" manufacturing campaign. The decision was taken by the prime minister's office without Parrikar being privy to the discussions, as Ajai Shukla, a leading defense journalist, explained in the Business Standard.

Parrikar was instructed by Modi to speak in favor of the new deal, which he did, saying that the planes would be in service within two years of April 2014, yet they will not now begin to arrive till 2018 or 2019.

The negotiations became bogged down in detail, partly because India insisted that Dassault agree "offsets" for 50 percent of the Rs 58,000 crore ($8.66bn) deal. That will be done by Dassault spending in India 30 percent of the total on aero research programs and 20 percent on components, though it is not yet known how that will be done.

The main point here however is that the jets will do little to solve the air force's overall shortage of fighters, despite their superior capability and advanced missiles, because they will add only two squadrons to the current total of 32 when 42 are needed.

The Rafales will also complicate maintenance and support services because there will be seven different types of aircraft from various countries. The air force's concerns have been spelt out today in the Shukla article, including worries that the Rafales cost twice as much as Russian Sukhoi jets that are already in service.

Now India must decide what to do about the 90 aircraft that are needed following the unexplained reduction from 126 to 36. Two more aircraft types—the U.S.'s F16 and the Swedish Gripen – are reportedly being considered.

India's defense orders are awash with corruption allegations and, significantly, Shukla notes that Indian MoD officials, fearing graft allegations over deals, draw some "comfort" in U.S. deals because of the country's foreign corrupt practices legislation.

Such is the muddle with which India runs its defenses, both in terms of its internal security and its ability to strike at its neighboring and hostile nuclear neighbors, China and its client state, Pakistan.

The focus this week has been on how India should fight back against Pakistan following the Uri attack, which the prime minister has said "will not let go unpunished."

Diplomacy has so far been the main weapon, at the United Nations and elsewhere. Other possibilities aired in the media have included selected strikes across the border, cyberwarfare, cutting off river waters that flow from India to Pakistan and cancelling trade pacts.

It would however be much more effective to strengthen India's domestic security because, as Shyam Saran says, India will otherwise "remain at the receiving end of terrorism."

John Elliott writes from New Delhi. His latest book is Implosion: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins, India).