India’s armed forces have a lot to cheer about in the new year for three good reasons. One, the indigenously-built Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas’ naval variant successfully carried out its maiden landing and take-off from the flight deck of aircraft carrier Vikramaditya. The lightweight, multi-role, supersonic Tejas Mk 2 is a fourth-generation aircraft designed for tactical strike, air reconnaissance, air defence and maritime roles.

Second, the government’s decision to buy 200 aircraft desperately needed for the Indian Air Force (IAF) could not have come sooner. The IAF — operating at its lowest level in decades — is at an important crossroads with aircraft such as the MiG-21s on their way out and with just 33 squadrons, although strategically it should be having at least 10 more squadrons. Much effort and money was spent on buying 36 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), but by the time they enter service, even more fighter jets would have been decommissioned.

The third reason is Army Chief MM Naravane’s call for India to fight future wars on its own terms, which is a shot in the arm for the world’s second-largest army in its march towards modernisation. “We need to become more efficient,” Naravane told media-persons in New Delhi on January 3. “We need to synergise the requirements within the three services, pool our resources and make our money work for us better."

This echoes what his predecessor and India’s first chief of defence staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat recently said about having “an indigenous industry” to win “future wars using Indian systems”.

Taken together, these statements from the two senior-most generals of the Indian Army suggests the government has given a carte blanche to the military leadership to remove traditional hurdles such as lack of funds and red-tape in the way of acquiring such capability. The appointment of a CDS itself is seen as an important part of the defence reforms set in motion recently. This gives the services a direct hotline to the highest decision-making body, making it easier to put the armed forces in a future-ready mode. The CDS could, for instance, advise swapping the army’s unwieldy infantry divisions with lighter mechanised brigades, or recommend the creation of fewer theatre commands to replace the existing configuration of several separate commands.

Strategic myopia has been the bane of India’s defence industrial base which took years to mature before emerging as the second-biggest industrial sector (after the railways). Today, it comprises scores of ordnance factories and several defence-focused public sector undertakings, along with the high-profile Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) tasked with developing new weapons systems.

However, the DRDO’s success stories, which include ballistic missiles such as the Prithvi and Agni, surface-to-air missiles such as the Akash and Trishul, and anti-tank missiles such as the Nag, also carry depressing footnotes with many projects taking unacceptably long gestation periods. It is because of key technologies such as the Arjun main battle tank (MBT) and the LCA remaining interminably on the drawing board that India was forced to remain dependent on foreign arms exporters.

Military science is a closely guarded secret and countries are loathe to share high technology even with their closest allies. Weapons control regimes such as the Missile Technology Control Regime, Australia Group, and Wassenaar Arrangement keep a tight rein on access to modern innovations, lending only limited use to battle platforms available on the market. It is therefore imperative for India to become a designer of indigenous defence systems if the country is to “remain at the forefront of technological embrace,” as Rawat says. “The military no longer operates in a closed system. Our front lines are open to academia, to research and development organisations to see how the soldier on the ground needs technology to be imbibed for him to operate in a better manner."

India today boasts of many frontier technologies developed indigenously. These include the intercontinental ballistic missile, Agni 6, with a range touching 12,000 km and capable of launching several nuclear warheads, and the BrahMos-II hypersonic cruise missile, which, at Mach 7 is the fastest in the world and capable of hitting even targets hidden behind mountain ranges. This gives India a strategic advantage in mountain warfare. Also on the horizon are nuclear attack submarines and super carriers to increase the navy’s reach and an electronic intelligence (ELINT) ship that can identify hostile missiles fired from very long ranges: a crucial part of India’s ballistic missile defence shield program.

That said, however, tomorrow’s warfare is all about non-contact conflict and modern armies tweak their battle philosophies with this important game-changer in mind.

India must prepare a blueprint for a whole new range of battle scenarios involving computers and digital weapons. Many technologies once considered science fiction have already been realised. For instance, United States and Russian defence scientists have created Exo-skeletons (that transform soldiers into ruthless killing machines), self-steering bullets, sniper detection devices and indestructible tanks made of composite metal foams.

Such drastic changes in military technologies engender what is known as a revolution in military affairs (RMA), as a country pools its scientific and economic resources to embrace sweeping military reforms and revolutionary martial philosophies. It is not implausible for India to usher in an RMA if it adopts a robust strategic vision in its military procurement and long-term defence planning.