Ready, Steady, Go! : Re-visiting the Indo-Pak arms race

In a world of shrinking economies and rising deficits, it is still interesting to see India spike its defense budget by 17%. It is reportedly investing in air, naval and ground facilities like fighter planes, aircraft carriers, missiles, submarines and helicopters.

Indian generals would support this move for various reasons. Indigenous ordnance projects for manufacturing tanks and aircrafts have been unsuccessful causing the armed forces to rely heavily on antiquated Russian artillery and weapons. As a rising Asian power, India has to compete with neighboring powers for a share in the global market and at the same time guard itself from hostile forces.  Its economy has been prospering and with a strong democratic setup, India can afford to boost its defense capabilities.

Domestic defense industries in India are outdated and some even date back to the Colonial era. High cost and obsolete machineries have resulted in poor quality goods which at times have been known to cause accidents during use. The situation is so bad that these industries are even unable to produce good quality gear for army personnel. Burdened by unions, the government has failed to improve production. The private sector is equally ineffectual in the face of strong government restrictions; FDI in private defense manufacturing is limited to a meager 26% which in turn  discourages foreign companies from sharing technology with India. In addition, vague requirements put forth by the armed forces and lack of qualified personnel in the procurement department have unnecessarily prolonged bids by manufacturing companies.

The Ministry of Defense has been reacting slowly to the outdated artillery of the Indian Army, partly  due to bureaucratic interference. Many attempts to diversify local arms production to include advance weapons and machinery have met a sorry fate. It took the MoD two decades to approve a contract for artillery guns. Earlier this year it made headlines for agreeing to allocate Rs 150 billion for the modernization of its ordinance factories.

It is thus no surprise that India was declared the world’s largest arms importer this year. In fact it is said that 75 % of Indian weapon purchases during 2007-2011 were from imports. The ratio of imports to indigenous production is estimated to be over 50%  perhaps even 70%. India has largely relied on Russia to supply defense equipment but over the years, lags in deliveries, repairs and disagreements over deals have forced it to broaden its suppliers to include Britain, France, Israel and United States. Like the recent French Rafale fighter jet deal, Indian forces are actively working to improve their missile delivery system for both cruise and ballistic missiles and acquiring anti-missile defense technology.

New  Defense suppliers are however not the only change taking place in India Defense. Former Vice Chief of Indian Army, Lt Gen (retired) Moti Dar attests to the gradual shift in Indian defense strategy from land to maritime strategy. Understanding India’s reasons for this change are a no-brainer; its geographical position in Asia requires it to hold cordial relations with South Asian, East Asian, Central Asian and Middle Eastern nations. Regional instability therefore has a direct impact on India’s internal security. Furthermore, India conducts heavy trade through the Indian Ocean especially energy imports most of which it acquires from the Gulf countries. Neighboring nations also use this sea route for trade purposes. Maritime security is thus essential to safeguard cargoes from pirates and smugglers.

If Indian Defense is sensitive to global powers dynamics, then so are other regional powers about India’s changing tune. This is especially true for Pakistan which obsesses over the capabilities and strategies of the Indian Armed Forces.  With a painful and violent past, the two countries are known for engaging in an arms race that is not only a threat to the safety of the residents of each nation but also one that jeopardizes regional security.

At the moment, Pakistan is said to possess 90-120 nuclear warheads and a growing supply of plutonium from 2 Chinese-established nuclear reactors as compared to India’s 80-100 warheads. At this rate, experts believe Pakistan may become the world’s third largest nuclear power within a decade. India’s launch of the long range Agni V missile in April 2012 was followed by five missile tests by Pakistan. A report found that not only is Pakistan increasing fissile material production it is also deploying more delivery vehicles. Pakistan has a plutonium production reactor at Khushab and maybe constructing 3 more heavy water reactors and even reprocessing facilities. It is showing great interest in developing tactical nuclear weapons. Just this week the Pakistan Air Force test fired Haft V Ghauri missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads. This was the eighth missile test conducted since the beginning of this year.  So far Pakistan has refused to sign the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty because it does not include verification of existing stocks. The overall picture regarding Pakistan’s intensions hence seems unclear and risky.

The growing multi faceted asymmetry between India and Pakistan creates resource problems for Pakistan. India’s thriving economy gives it the ability to spend much more on defense. The US-India Civil Nuclear Technology Agreement has created further problems by giving India access to nuclear trade. Pakistan’s strategy is to live with an acceptable level of conventional imbalance and focus on a defensive and deterrent strategy. Although nuclear stock piles of India and Pakistan are not at par with those of US and Soviet Union during the Cold War, there may be reasons to believe the new arms race is more dangerous.  Unlike the latter, Pakistan and India are in close proximity and have a history of three wars and some unresolved issues.

Control over the nuclear program in each country is also an important indicator for potential engagement. In India, the civilian government has successfully kept military powers in check. Pakistan too claims its nuclear program to be under the control of the National Command Authority supervised by the Prime Minister. But the military’s transgression of its boundaries, through numerous coups, gives enough reason to doubt the real command and control structure in Pakistan.

The north and north western areas of Pakistan suffer from political instability where the writ of the government is often unrecognized. This delicate state of affairs together with rising number of insurgents puts the safety of nuclear weapons in question. Insurgents residing in these areas have been traced to terrorist attacks in India like the Mumbai attacks of 2008. Pakistani authorities counter this doubt by quoting the improvements in security at civilian and nuclear facilities, export control laws and security personnel.

While this arms race is cited to be the top security concern for Indo-Pak peace, recent trends prove otherwise. A report by Toby Dalton and Jaclyn Tandler shows discrepancies in the arms race between the two nations.  Using indicators like timing of missile tests, range of missiles,  number of nukes and military expenditures, they claim that the “opponents are matched neither in size, ability, nor perceptions of the nature and scope of the competition.”

In other words, the dynamics of an arms race have changed. India does not necessarily react to Pakistan’s attempts to boost its arsenal and cites China as the driver behind the arms race in spite of the growing India-China trade. China does not react while the US looks to India as part of its containment and “Pacific Pivot” strategy. Pakistan, on the other hand, takes every increment on the Indian side as a possible threat escalation and reacts by increasing its capabilities. Although beefing up nuclear capabilities is not too difficult for India, Pakistan is at a great disadvantage. It can only afford to make selective qualitative improvements and rely on China and US to supplement its arms supplies. Unfortunately, conventional capability is insufficient to rely on in case of a war with India. This is why Pakistan needs to use nuclear weapons as a deterrence strategy. Just how much  qualifies as  “minimum credible deterrence” is unknown. Since China has emerged as a new player in this Indo-Pak race, maybe a India-Pakistan-China trilateral  dialogue could alleviate some of the regional tension around a nuclear arms race.

Tacstrat Analysis