Year in review: Arms race escalates in South Asia region

Rapid militarism across South Asia is likely to continue in the New Year and beyond as simmering tension between its two larger member states – nuclear rivals India and Pakistan – persists.

The neighbours have been to war three times since independence in 1947 and fought an 11-week-long border skirmish in 1999 in the disputed northern Kashmir province – divided between the two, but claimed by both – in which 1200 soldiers died.

They have been competing fiercely in upgrading their respective militaries at great cost.

Not only have they imported advanced fighter jets, airborne early warning and control aircraft, helicopter gunships, drones, aircraft carriers, warships, submarines, tanks, varied missiles and advanced infantry weaponry for vast sums of money, but they have also been locked in an equally disastrous, pricey and worrying nuclear arms race.

India is projected to spend US$100 to US$120 billion by 2022 on modernising its conventional military capability as it strives to evolve from a regional to a continental power.

Analysts and financial think-tanks estimate that India, the world’s largest materiel procurer, will remain so over the next decade as it strives to replace its predominantly Soviet and Russian military equipment that had reached collective obsolescence.

Corresponding figures for Pakistan were not quantifiable as Islamabad primarily acquires its defence hardware from the US, and from China at “friendly” undisclosed rates.

Pakistan’s enhanced militarism was also tied in with its war on Islamists which in recent weeks had shown signs of flagging following disputes with the US, but its major conventional and atomic weapon capability remain India-centric.

Pakistan had also shifted the sub-continent’s strategic goalposts by developing tactical nuclear weapons to counter India’s conventional military superiority and to pre-empt its evolving war-fighting doctrine predicated to executing swift, surgical strikes.

India, too, is stockpiling its cache of strategic weapons, developing long-range missiles – it plans on testing an intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of over 5000km early next year – and by deploying its locally designed nuclear-powered ballistic submarine in the New Year to complete the sea-leg of its nuclear deterrence.

This deterrence is based on a mix of nuclear weapons deliverable by air, mobile land-based platforms and sea-based assets.

Defence planners in New Delhi are arming the country for a two-front conflict with not only Pakistan but also nuclear-armed China, with whom it has an unresolved border dispute over which the two fought a disastrous war in 1962 in which India came off worse.

Simmering tensions between the world’s two most populous states persist despite continuing negotiations and the recent upswing in bilateral diplomatic, political, commercial and even military ties.

Frequent forays by the People’s Liberation Army into Indian territory along the 5045km undemarcated line of control continue as do its aggressive statements with regard to one of the world’s longest running frontier disputes.

India is augmenting its military preparedness and infrastructural development along this frontier in response to similarly heightened Chinese activity on the other side.

India is also preparing to deploy its 2000-2200km range strategic Agni II intermediate-range ballistic missiles and Prithvi III surface-to-surface ballistic missiles with a 350km range to the Chinese border.

An unspecified number of missile units under the Strategic Forces Command, which controls India’s nuclear arsenal, have recently been placed under the army’s eastern command that has responsibility for managing the Chinese threat.

The Indian Air Force plans in the New Year to increase the number of Su-30 MkI multi-role fighters at bases bordering Tibet.

This was in response to the PLA Air Force establishing at least four airbases in Tibet and three in southern China capable of mounting operations against India.

The Indian Army is raising two mountain divisions for deployment along the Chinese border while the Government is concentrating on strengthening and building roads and bridges along the frontier.

This would enable India’s military to swiftly bring forces into the region and sustain them logistically in the event of any “trouble”, army officers said.

To counter China’s “string of pearls” strategy of clinching regional defence and security agreements to secure its mounting fuel requirements, enhance its military profile from the Gulf to the South China Sea and expand its presence in the Indian Ocean region, the Indian Navy is growing “longer sea legs” by acquiring aircraft carriers, tankers and troop ships.

China is developing Gwadar Port on Pakistan’s western Makran coast: a move that could seriously endanger vital Indian and US shipping routes in the Gulf in addition to firming up defence-related ties with Bangladesh, Cambodia, Burma and Thailand.

Beijing also has shadowy security ties with the Maldives, Sri Lanka and the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.

And though the Sri Lankan Army defeated the Tamil Tiger guerrillas in May 2009 after a 26-year civil war, it has opted to retain its 300,000 strong defence forces.

Bangladesh, too, is modernising its military hardware with Chinese help while the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, having reached an accord with the Maoists, is grappling with inducting their cadres into the army.

By Rahul Bedi


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