India’s defense minister visited the USS Eisenhower off the coast of Virginia last week, and it wasn’t just a courtesy call. Manohar Parrikar was there to watch flight operations and get an insight into how the US Navy runs a carrier at sea, because his own navy is working hard to develop its aviation branch.
Continuing troubles in Afghanistan and the former Soviet East Asia, plus the unstable status of Pakistan and the growing power of China, all combine to make the Indian Armed Forces a potential key player in a pretty large chunk of the world. India is aware of that and has spent a lot of money on building its forces, so how effective has it been?
When India became independent in 1947, it inherited its military, mostly intact, from the British administration. That amounted to the Royal Indian Navy, British Indian Army and Royal Indian Air Force. These had been trained and equipped mostly along British lines, and the majority of their senior officers were British or Anglo-Indian, but they were separate forces and not under direct British command. Officers – even British ones – held Indian Army commissions. This put India in a strong position on independence because it had a ready-made military; most European colonies only had some local policing units and had relied on the colonial power for defense. By contrast, the Indian Army in 1945 had 2.5 million men, making it the largest volunteer army in history.
At independence, the forces were divided with part going to Pakistan and four Gurkha regiments transferring to the British Army, but the bulk remained in India. The new Indian government decided it was probably best not to change much so, apart from replacing British-style officers’ stars and crowns with more localized ones, they kept the same rank structure and military traditions. India has old and rich military traditions anyway, particularly among the Sikhs and Gurkhas.
Since independence, India has fought border skirmishes with China and three major wars with Pakistan, so the country has always put a high priority on developing its capabilities. There’s a large local defense industry; aircraft – mostly British types – have been built there under license for decades and India is now producing the locally designed HAL Tejas light fighter. They’re a partner in the development of Russia’s new T-50 stealth fighter, which both countries plan to buy. There’s also a locally developed main battle tank, the Arjun, although most Army units have Russian models.
Most Indian military equipment is relatively modern – not up to the latest western standards in most cases, but often pretty close. The IAF flies a variety of upgraded Su-30 and MiG-29 fighters as well as MiG-27, Mirage 2000 and Jaguar attack planes. The Tejas will replace the remaining upgraded MiG-21s over the next few years. A locally developed light attack helicopter is entering service over the next few months. India has shown a talent for upgrading basic Soviet-era designs with advanced electronics, often sourced from France and Israel as well as its traditional suppliers in the UK and Russia.
During the Cold War, India was neutral and bought weapons from both sides. The Army used to use British Vickers tanks, which were replaced through the 1980s with T-72s. These are now being upgraded and supplemented with an India-specific version of the T-90. Front-line infantry use the Indian-developed INSAS small arms system but the 1A SLR – an unlicensed copy of the L1A1 rifle – is still common, and some units also use Kalashnikov series weapons. Many militia and reserve units, as well as some specialized mountain troops, even use the ancient but indestructible .303 Lee-Enfield.
And finally, the Navy. Right now, the surface combat fleet is quite small at 10 destroyers and 15 frigates, but this is being expanded and the fleet is increasingly modern. There are a large number of corvettes and patrol vessels, roughly equivalent to the Littoral Combat Ship but with actual weapons. India also operates 13 relatively modern conventional submarines – a mix of Russian KILOs and German Type 209s – plus an advanced AKULA II nuclear attack boat.
The reason defense minister Parrikar was so interested in the Eisenhower is that India is also one of the few carrier-capable nations. One of their carriers, INS Viraat – the former HMS Hermes – is the oldest operational carrier in the world, built in 1943 and now carrying Sea Harriers. The other is INS Vikramaditya, a former Soviet Kiev-class, heavily rebuilt to allow ski-jump takeoffs. The navy plans to replace both these ships with two or three of the locally designed and built Vikrant class, the first of which should commission in 2018. That will make India only the fifth country to build a full-size modern carrier on its own. Adding the carrier force to the large amphibious assault fleet gives India a powerful expeditionary capability, possibly second only to the USA.
Overall, India has professional and relatively modern armed forces; they’re also large – in manpower they’re third, behind China and the USA. Training in regular units is at a high standard and the Indian military is easily capable of defending the country against any of its neighbors in a non-nuclear war. While China has much larger conventional forces, and some elements have advanced weaponry, the average Indian unit is much better trained and equipped; a major war between the two could be a close call. Since independence, India has tried to remain non-aligned but that might be difficult in the future. As the Mumbai terror attacks show, India now shares an islamist enemy with the rest of the world. If we’re going to defeat that enemy, India is going to have a part to play, so western forces could easily end up working alongside them.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.