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    South Asia
     Jun 4, 2009
Indian arms spree on the fast track
By Siddharth Srivastava

NEW DELHI - The unexpected landslide victory of the Congress party in the general elections will unshackle the new Indian government from the tricky task of managing the earlier coalition for survival, especially the anti-American left parties.

There is no doubt that the team of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, all-powerful Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi, who led the election campaign, will look to firm up some of their earlier aims, given the near majority and stability that the party and its allies enjoy.

One important aspect is defense modernization, with India expected to spend over US$50 billion in the period of 2007-2012, 

aimed at building an immediate strike force against Pakistan and longer-term deterrence against China.

In a report last year, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India said the country over three years (2004-2007) spent $10.5 billion on military imports, putting it among the largest arms importers in the developing world. India's military imports are expected to reach $30 billion by 2012.

In the fray are deals for 126 multi-role fighter planes valued over $11 billion, 155-mm howitzers, a variety of helicopters and long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft.

The interim budget for the year 2009-2010 raised defense expenditures by 34% from $211 billion last year to $283 billion in 2009-2010. The outlay includes nearly $110 billion for capital expenditure.

With the exit of the left, the role of Indian private firms in defense production should get a fillip, while American defense supplies and contracts will go up to add to the competition from countries such as Israel, Russia, Britain, Sweden and France.

In a buyer's market, India will be able to negotiate deals from a position of strength.

Offset investment requirements in local defense companies and the easing of foreign direct investment requirements should boost domestic private players.

A K Antony, who continues as defense minister, said: "India needs to push for modernization of the armed forces. This does not mean only procuring of equipment. Along with that, training of the armed forces is also important."

Modernization plans in the pipeline include developing the Agni-V inter-continental nuclear capable ballistic missile that can hit targets 5,000 kilometers away and torpedoes and planes for the navy.

According to observers, while much of the Congress-led government's energies last term were utilized in tying up the India-US civilian nuclear deal and dealing with recalcitrant communist allies that had problems with such growing strategic ties, security and defense will be a key focus.

This is especially so in the wake of the brazen November terror attacks in Mumbai and the near conflict situation with Pakistan, including fears of nuclear missiles fired by rogue elements and other such attacks.

The situation shows no sign of abating.

India has been alarmed by the release this week of Hafiz Sayeed, the founder and mastermind of terrorist organization Lashker-e-Toiba responsible for some of the worst attacks in India, including the Mumbai strikes.

Referring to instability in the region, Antony highlighted the importance of vigilance and said, "Infrastructure development in the northeast and other border areas and modern equipment in coastal areas is more important and will require fast-track procurement."

India has also been particularly concerned by the US's proposed five-year $2.8 billion military aid package to Pakistan to fight militants, arms that could as easily be deployed against India. This is in addition to the $7.5 billion civilian assistance Washington will hand over to Pakistan over the next five years

Though the Pakistan economy lags India's by quite a margin and the country is seen as a failed state, it is no military weakling. Pakistan already has in its possession American F-16 fighters, advanced artillery, radars and drones. China helped the country build its missile program.

According to a US non-partisan Congressional study, "Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations", India was the biggest arms shopper over the period of 1999-2006, with agreements valued at $22.40 billion, compared to second-ranked China, while Pakistan placed seventh with $10.90 billion.

Arms in process
A former senior Indian Air Force (IAF) officer has been quoted as saying, "The modernization of armed forces has become a global trend. We must also assume a new approach, taking into account a variety of threats to our national security."

India is soon to conduct field trials for the fighter jets, one of the world's biggest ongoing arms deals.

Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin F-16, Russia's MiG, Sweden's Saab Gripen, French Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon (a consortium of British, German, Italian and Spanish companies), are in the race for the much sought after contract.

A Defense Ministry spokesperson has said: "All the paperwork is over and a technical evaluation report on the fighters has been placed with the ministry. Security concerns are a top priority of the government and things should start rolling once the defense minister takes charge."

A defense team from India is to visit Russia next month to speed up delivery of the aircraft carrier Gorshkov for induction into the navy by 2012.

India's Defense Research and Development Organization declared it was necessary to fast-track a nearly $1 billion domestic weapons development program due to the renewed tensions with Pakistan.

The plans include the induction of 124 main battle tanks for the army and the first of a batch of locally made combat aircraft for the navy.

Last month, the Indian Air Force (IAF) inducted the first of three Israeli Phalcon AWACS, India's most potent force multiplier, capable of tracking incoming missiles while keeping an "eye" on neighboring nations without infringing on airspace. India is paying $1.1 billion for the three AWACS.

Another purchase India recently made from Israel was for aerostat radars, at a cost of $600 million, which are also used spot surreptitious guerilla attacks such as the one in Mumbai where the attackers used dingy boats to infiltrate the city.

New Delhi has also signed a $1.4 billion deal with Israel to purchase a 70km shore-based and sea borne anti-missile air defense system.

This is among the bigger defense deal between the two countries and the biggest military joint venture by India with a foreign country. Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd inked the arrangement in March this year.

India has also announced that its project to build three nuclear-powered submarines is nearing completion.

The IAF has already fast-tracked the retrofitting of Sukhoi-30MKI combat fighters with the aerial version of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile jointly developed by India and Russia, post the Mumbai strikes.

The army is expediting the purchase of the latest generation Harop loitering weapon system, or missile firing drone, as well as the Heron long-duration unmanned aerial vehicles, armored vehicles and Tangushka air defense systems.

It is, however, also true that internal security and preventive intelligence are equally important to neutralize potential terror attacks.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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