Following the Balakot surgical strike by the Indian Air Force on a Jaish-e-Muhammed terror training camp, there has been talk of a new proactive Indian defence doctrine. I have alluded to this in my previous articles as India possibly shifting from ‘defensive defence’ to ‘active defence’ as its fundamental military approach. While I do question the shift – pursuing active defence in India’s specific regional situation would mean we are seen as the aggressors and lose the moral high ground; plus we don’t face an existential crisis like Israel on account of Pakistan-based terrorism – the Balakot episode has put the spotlight on India’s military preparedness.

And one thing that has become clear is that we do face a problem in procuring and inducting cutting-edge weapons platforms in a timely fashion. In the post-Balakot air skirmishes, our ageing MiG-21 Bisons had to go up against Pakistan Air Force’s F-16s. This gap in hardware quality is unacceptable for a country of India’s size and aspirations. Today the Indian military is looking to operate in informationalised theatres where modern technology and real-time data processing in the battlefield will be key to victory. Yet, we are hamstrung by outdated military hardware and slow pace of indigenous development.

For example, in a few years’ time the number of fighter squadrons of the IAF will be down to 26 from a sanctioned strength of 42. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s fighter squadrons will be up to 25 by 2021. In other words, the 36 Rafale fighter jets being purchased by India will make little difference to the IAF’s acute shortage of aircraft. In any case, the Rafale deal effectively took almost two decades to materialise. And in the end of it we will get a fourth-generation fighter when China already has an indigenous fifth-generation fighter and is looking to move on to the sixth-generation.

Essentially, India is playing catch up. This not only compromises our defence preparedness but also puts a strain on our defence budget. And India is not Saudi Arabia that it has billions of petro-dollars to buy state-of-the-art military hardware off the shelf. However, our defence PSUs too have been extremely tardy in churning our quality weapons platforms. The development trajectory of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft is a case in point where it took more than three decades to produce a plane that met standards and has only now reached induction phase.

Things have come to this pass only because India has lacked a coherent defence procurement strategy. We are literally falling between the two stools of indigenisation and defence imports. As a result, there is no continuous development trajectory in our defence PSUs. What we need is a military-industrial complex that includes private players working alongside defence PSUs. This will keep the latter on their toes and simultaneously enable exchange of ideas and experiences between the defence PSUs and their private counterparts.

And clearly, one area where we need to get cracking is modern fighter development. It is unfortunate that India’s Fifth Generation Fighter Project with Russia has stalled. The project envisaged joint development of a fifth-generation fighter with equal rights to the parties in terms of intellectual property over the technology. This was a unique model of defence cooperation. But inability to seal the deal for a variety of reasons – including design demands and cost overruns – has put India at a disadvantage. Russia, meanwhile, proceeded with its own independent development of the fifth-generation fighter Su-57.

Thus, perhaps it is time to jump-start things and have a relook at the fifth-generation fighter deal with Russia. India has already shown boldness in defying the threat of US’s CAATSA sanctions in inking a deal for the Russian S-400 Triumf air defence system. It has further now inked a deal for the lease of a Russian nuclear-powered attack submarine. And with China’s fifth-generation fighter J-20 already in service, India can’t lag behind in the aerial theatre. The Indo-Russian joint fighter project could provide the right tonic for India’s own indigenous modern fighter development.