We continue to import much of our frontline equipment. Even an agreement to produce imported weapons on home turf has become politically controversial

A recent study has shown that China, with 81 points out of 100, has the strongest military force in the world, followed, yes, by the US with 74 points and Russia, 69. India is the fourth largest at 61 points and France is fifth at 58. This, the Military Direct website claimed using its own parameters, was despite the US annual defence-spend standing at $732 billion against China’s woefully low $261 billion and India’s $71 billion.

The study claims that the US would win an air war hands down, with 14,141 aircraft against Russia’s 4,682 and China’s 3,587. Russia has a higher number of land vehicles (54,866), followed by the US (50,326) and China (41,641). Against these figures, China has the highest number of warships, put at 406. Russia comes a distant second with 278, followed by the US and India, 202.

It is fine statistics but they go only up to a point. The superior numbers matter if and only if in adversarial conditions, rival militaries and military groupings fight to the finish—not to win or lose, but towards assured mutual self-destruction. In ‘ideal conditions’ (a misnomer?), the superior numbers and even quality of weapons at hand do not decide who wins and who loses.

We have our own stories of a supposedly lesser-attractive Russian-made MiG taking out the ‘vastly superior’ American fighters in successive wars through the past decades. Even at the height of the surgical strikes and the human drama on the capture of the Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman, our American friends were worried if India had shot down one of their superior fighters in Pakistan Air Force (IAF). India has successfully and successively proved that the men behind those weapons matter just as much, if not more, than the machines at their disposal.

Naming Game: Having said it all, there is a need for us to evaluate ground realities before putting in more money to climb up the military-evaluation ladder. One fallout—positive, negative or neutral—of the recent Galwan Valley episodes involving an adversarial China is that our defence spending went through the roof, that too when the nation could have ill-afforded it.

The military and political leaders took the right decisions, yes, but possibly at the wrong time for the nation’s economy. The question arises as to why the political and bureaucratic leaderships did not get those weapons earlier for our Services if they were of utmost importance to secure our territory and sovereignty, not necessarily in that order.

Yet, there were/are also reports that the government has slowed down on budget allocation for big-ticket acquisitions of the Navy. Given the geostrategic priorities and inherent budget constraints since Independence, the Navy has remained the step-child in our strategic and security thinking. Yet, with the end of the Cold War and the emergence of China especially as a sea power, we too began focusing on expanding our Navy and preparing special documents for guiding our investments and acquisition of assets at sea. But one Galwan and our half-halting attempts at floating a second and then a third aircraft carrier has suffered further delays.

Paying through the nose: Pakistan was game for us when it came to new military acquisitions. Like us, Islamabad too has been importing them, mostly from the US and China up to a point, but now from China and Russia. Its spending too was limited to the Sino-American strategic priorities in South and Central Asia, with Pakistan as the pivot. That’s not the case for India.

We pay through our nose, but for weapons that we cannot do without all the same. Yet, when it came to the ever-so successful Bangladesh War of 1971, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suffered huge political losses beginning months afterwards. It was due to a burnt-out economy, which was also burning at both ends thanks to recurring drought years and poor agriculture production.

It is here that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Atmanirbhar’, or self-reliance, on the military production front acquires greater significance. The original call came from Prime Minister Nehru when, at the height of the 1948 Pakistani incursions, India discovered that the British predecessor-ruler at New Delhi would not provide the much-needed spares for our vehicles and weapons.

Which front to choose from: Unfortunately, we continue to import much of our frontline machines and weapons. Even an agreement to produce imported weapons on home turf has become politically controversial. During the Cold War, it was Soviet-centric, now it’s mostly from the US and the rest of the West, Brazil included.

Here is where it pinches. China designs and manufactures all its weapons from scratch, maybe using stolen blueprints from the West, maybe by developing its own systems. China also spends from its pockets on each of those projects. It does not seemingly owe big money to any nation. That has been the all-American failure since winning the two Great Wars of the last century.

Now that Doklam is forgotten and Galwan has settled down, maybe our military planners and policymakers should go back into the inevitable huddle to make the PM’s Atmanirbhar dream a reality, not stopping at the surrealistic zone where it still is.