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Memorial poster honoring Indians killed in ther Kargil conflict.

Making Waves
Increased military might boosts the aspiration to become a great power

To judge by the wave of international outrage, New Delhi's decision in May 1998 to publicly declare India a nuclear weapons state by setting off underground explosions in the Rajasthan desert was a colossal strategic blunder. The world came down hard with economic sanctions. Foreign dignitaries found it politic to stay away. Even some ordinary Indians questioned the sanity of the newly elected Bharatiya Janata Party government and its untried leaders.

Two years later, sanctions are all but a memory. Foreign leaders, including U.S. President Bill Clinton, have returned — 30 foreign ministers and numerous presidents visiting since the end of 1998. The BJP is more firmly in power than ever. Whether having two nuclear powers (with Pakistan) sharing the subcontinent makes South Asia a more dangerous place is still an open question. But it is hard to deny that having a nuclear capability is propelling India's drive to be counted a superpower. As Jasjit Singh, director of New Delhi's Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, says: "We are now a major world player."

Clinton's March visit may have opened a new era of engagement with the U.S., but New Delhi remains firmly tied to its old ally and main weapons supplier, Russia. An avalanche of Russian weaponry — from submarines and frigates to jet fighters, battle tanks and cruise missiles — continues to provide the sinews on which India's strategic ambitions are being built. The latest additions to the shopping list include more than 300 T-90 main battle tanks, the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov and three more frigates.

But if Russian hardware — cheap, hardy and familiar — provides the bulk of India's military muscle, the critically important high-tech add-ons come from newer friends. Foremost among them is Israel, which established diplomatic relations with India in 1992. Over the past three years it has become India's second-largest provider of military equipment. Israel is also believed to be helping develop India's missiles.

New Delhi now sees its strategic interests stretching from the Arabian Sea to the South China Sea. That puts a premium on sea power. After a ten-year hiatus, shipyards are busy again. India has already produced two new Delhi-class guided missile destroyers, with a third to follow. Longer-term indigenous programs include another aircraft carrier, diesel-electric and nuclear-powered submarines and a new class of frigates.

A key mission is maritime diplomacy. In October a task force of five warships, a tanker and possibly a submarine plan a cruise in the South China Sea. Joint exercises are also planned with the Singaporean, Vietnamese, Japanese and South Korean navies. And the Indians expect to make a port call in China. "Going into the South China Sea is a bold step," says Rahul Bedi, India correspondent for Jane's Defence Weekly. "India is going out of her own sphere, experimenting with something new."

Indeed, for all the attention given to India's perennial rivalry with Pakistan, most in New Delhi's defense establishment view China as the nation's real security challenge — "economically, technologically, politically and militarily," notes Jasjit Singh. "By 2010 a modernized Chinese military will be entirely different from anything we've known before."

New Delhi has watched with growing alarm as Beijing has expanded its influence into Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal to its east. To its west, China continues to supply rival Pakistan with advanced missile and nuclear technology. Recent reports suggesting that today Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and delivery capabilities may be even more advanced than India's caused a flurry of concern.

Nevertheless, last year's war in the Kargil region of disputed Kashmir indicated the extent to which, for all its global ambitions, India remains bogged down by its feud with Pakistan. It also revealed the embarrassingly wide gulf between its aspirations to be counted a superpower and its present capabilities. "There was a failure of intelligence, a deficient arsenal, inadequate air power, poor command and control," notes a foreign military attache. "India gained a lot of brownie points for 'restraint,' but in fact Kargil was a military balls-up."

Indeed, India's armed forces desperately need a complete overhaul. Its 1.2 million-man army is bloated and ill-equipped. The air force loses more planes to crashes due to poor maintenance and training than probably any other air force in the world. While negotiations over the acquisition of a new jet trainer have dragged on interminably, nearly 200 aircraft have crashed since 1991. During Kargil, the navy struggled to launch jump-jets from the decks of civilian container vessels; its sole aircraft carrier was in dry-dock for a refit.

Major questions still surround India's nuclear doctrine — or apparent lack of one. Officially, New Delhi espouses "minimum deterrence" and "no first use." But a policy paper leaked last year indicated a desire to achieve a full triad of sea-, land- and air-delivered launch platforms. And that, as one foreign analyst put it, "went far beyond what anyone had expected." But for the present, there is strikingly little evidence of even an effective command and control structure. "Clearly a lot hasn't been thought through," notes one analyst.

Underlying many of the problems is bureaucratic inertia and jealously guarded vested interests. The Indian army is famous for staying aloof from politics, but some think that civilian control is taken almost to the extreme. Uniforms are scarce at the Ministry of Defense, which is run almost exclusively by civilians. Rather than being integrated into planning, policy and procurement, service personnel are kept at arm's length. "There's been talk of an integrated Ministry of Defense for the last couple of years but nothing has happened," says one Western military official.

Following the shock of Kargil, India is today undertaking a review of its defense infrastructure. This month committees on defense and border management, internal security and intelligence will submit reports to a group of ministers to decide on necessary changes. "A big shake-up is decades overdue," notes one analyst, "but my fear is there are too many vested interests. There's no desire for change."

Maybe. But it would be foolish to doubt the seriousness of India's security concerns or its aspirations to be counted among the great powers. Slowly, tortuously and doubtless with many setbacks, change will come. Those today who scoff at India's delusions of grandeur may find themselves in for a big surprise 20 years from now.

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