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India’s Operational Options vis a vis Constrained Strategic Autonomy

Another high profile visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 13 and 14 has received much media attention due the ceremonials of the Bastille Day and the possible determination of acquisition by India of 26 Rafale M fighter aircraft – the carrier version of the 36 Rafale which the Indian Air Force (IAF) has smoothly integrated in the fighter profile as a Medium Multi role one.

A follow-on order for three Scorpene submarines is also in the offing with integration of an Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) developed by the DRDO involving India’s defence shipyard Mazagon Docks and French Naval Group.

In the Special Briefing by Foreign Secretary on Prime Minister’s visit to France and UAE on July 12, Shri Vinay Kwatra, Foreign Secretary indicated that, “co-production in the defense sector various areas; there are aspects related to research and design processes in the defense sector;..” as some of the important areas of India France Defence Cooperation.

He also highlighted that, “It is natural that when two leaders meet, there will be discussions on how to take the defense cooperation between the two countries in the direction of co-production, code-signing, co-development, and how to align it with the Aatmanirbhar Bharat initiative” without indicating the specific projects.

India’s inventory of French platforms includes apart from the recently inducted or to be inducted six Scorpene submarines and 36 Rafale fighters and Mirage 2000 the mainstay of the Indian Air Force [IAF] for the strategic role.

The visit to France follows the one to the United States in June where a similar buzz on defence deals was created with an MOU between Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd and GE Aerospace for manufacture of at least 99 F 414 engines for the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mark 2 and determination by India to acquire 31 MQ 9 Reaper series of HALE drones for the three armed forces.

These acquisitions from the United States will supplement the existing C-17 Globemaster III and C-130J transport fleet, P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft, AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, CH-47F (I) Chinook heavy lift helicopters, MH-60R naval helicopters, and M777 ultra-light howitzers for the artillery.

India’s arms acquisition flow from Russia over the years as per a Reuters report includes $ 39 Billion worth of the $ 60 Billion in the last two decades from Russia.

More are in the pipeline which may come through once the shadow of the Russia Ukraine War on Moscow recedes or it is able to reactivate arms exports to key partners as India. This will include two S 400 air and missile defence system and one nuclear powered Akula class submarine on long lease. As there are no alternate sources of supply for these platforms and contracts having been inked, it would be reasonable to estimate that these will materialise albeit with some time gap.

India is also expected to acquire either German manufactured submarines offered by the TKMS- advanced HDW Class 214 submarines or the Spanish Navantia’s S80 submarine.

With dependence on key platforms for war fighting the question arises of autonomy for employment of these by the Indian armed forces in a hot war scenario in the wake of possible constraints imposed by foreign suppliers.

Wither Strategic Autonomy?

Strategic autonomy has been variously defined as the ability of a nation to make decisions based on national interest and devoid of external pressures. In war time this would imply the ability to consummate operations as deemed appropriate using the weapons of choice regardless of the source of supply – foreign and indigenous.

While absolutism in indigenisation is an oxymoron, nevertheless the ability to employ force should not be constrained by restrictions on end use imposed by foreign supplier nations.

In this context given the wide number of nations from which India has sourced major platforms ranging from fighter aircraft to submarines, restrictions from source nations can be anticipated.

In this context France and Israel have been the most liberal - witness the employment of the Mirage 2000 for the cross border strike in Balakote Jaish E Mohammad training hub in Pakistan in February 2019.

What restrictions if any are being applied by Russia on operational use of say Su 30 MKI heavy fighters by the IAF are not clear.

On the other hand, United States has some of the most stringent End User regulations and in fact sharing of technology is controlled by Arms Export Control Act (AECA) of 1976, International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and also dual usage through Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), an agency of the US Department of Commerce.

It may be worthy to note that the two HALE drones leased by India from the US are reportedly operated by General Atomics personnel.

While varying estimates of technology transfer in the recent MOUs ranging from 80 % to 15 % are being bandied about, these appear to be in terms of speculation. In case substantial technology transfer is achieved this would be beneficial for the follow on projects if the DRDO and PSUs as HAL absorb these effectively. These are not a panacea to end user restrictions by the foreign suppliers.

Presuming that the US is inclined to support India’s defence capabilities as a buttress against China – employment in the context of a Sino Indian conflict or a skirmish in the future may receive a green signal.

However inasmuch as Pakistan is concerned there are likely to be multiple riders given the fear of escalation into a nuclear exchange. This is just one such scenario envisaging constraints on freedom for employment of force as deemed operationally appropriate.

Conclusion - Options

The defence deals past and projected are too far out to see any change happening in terms of a review-nevertheless given the impact on strategic autonomy in force employment, operational plans by the armed forces will have to factor in the possible constraints while the foreign office needs to be geared up to seek relaxations in case the balloon of war does go up.

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