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India’s defense evolution targets modernization, reform, global engagement

Mandeep Singh

India’s military is on a trajectory of reform and modernization to adjust to shifting geopolitical realities, including an arms buildup by an increasingly assertive People’s Republic of China (PRC). Initiatives to reorganize the Indian Armed Forces’ command structures and spur greater private sector involvement in defense procurement are fueling much of the progress, analysts say.

Since assuming office in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has aimed to correct an imbalance in defense capabilities with the PRC, a priority that accelerated after a deadly clash between the nations’ forces in the Galwan Valley in the Himalayas in June 2020. Thousands of Indian troops and military assets were rapidly repositioned nearer the disputed border with China, while military modernization and nascent reform efforts moved into higher gear.

“What Galwan has done for India is that it helped New Delhi shed the shibboleths of the past and embrace and prepare for an armed co-existence,” Shruti Pandalai, a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, wrote in a July 2023 report for India’s Observer Research Foundation.

In addition to a new focus on threats emanating from the PRC, New Delhi set out to streamline the military command process, The Economist newspaper reported in late November 2023. Modi established a uniformed command position, chief of defense staff, to lead all military branches and head a new Military Affairs Department within the Defence Ministry. A four-year enlistment for certain service members also was introduced with the goal of lowering the average troop age from 32 to 26.

A sweeping upgrade of defense technology with increased involvement by private sector firms is the third emergent priority, The Economist reported.

“India is aware that for its defense sector to really take off, collaboration with external partners is key,” Pandalai wrote, referring to government incentives to stimulate competition among defense startups and promote investment in defense research and development.

Command structure reform should speed this trend, with India’s Northern Command seeing its budget for technology acquisitions rising to $240 million in 2023. The government has prioritized domestic production with its Make in India initiative, particularly missile systems. For defense imports, meanwhile, New Delhi is transitioning from its historically major supplier, Russia, which has struggled to meet its own weapons needs since its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine nearly two years ago. Instead, India has expanded cooperation with the United States, one of its partners in the Quad, along with Australia and Japan.

Modi’s mid-2023 visit to the U.S., “which led to the signing of a number of defense and technology deals, is considered a vital step towards India realizing its ambitions of defense modernization,” Pandalai noted. The agreements included “a significant initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology which paves the way for a new road map for deeper military and technology cooperation.”

India’s march toward an increasingly advanced military parallels its enhanced engagement with Quad partners.

“India and Japan recently held their maiden air exercise, Veer Guardian 2023, at the Hyakuri Air Base Japan,” Pandalai wrote, adding that India and the U.S. also conducted the high-altitude exercise Yudh Abhyas near the India-China border.

India also has conducted maritime surveillance operations with Australia in the Indian Ocean region, where PRC spy ships have been active, she added.

Mandeep Singh is a FORUM contributor reporting from New Delhi, India.

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