Pakistan is caught between two rivals, India, and Iran. India is more dangerous because it has more aircraft; 654 combat aircraft comprising seven models. The most numerous models are 260 Russian Su-30MKI fighters and 160 British Jaguar ground attack aircraft. Other models include 40 Russian MiG-21s and 75 MiG-29s, 50 French Mirage 2000 and 36 Rafale fighters. There are 33 Indian Tejas aircraft so far with plans to acquire over 300 of these lightweight fighter-bombers.
In contrast Pakistan has 467 combat aircraft comprising six models. There are twenty Chinese J-10C fighters and 149 Chinese JF-17s built jointly by China and Pakistan. China also provided 53 F-7PG aircraft which are an upgraded copy of the Russian MiG-21. There are 75 American F-16s, most of them older models. France provided 87 Mirage 3 and 92 Mirage 5 fighters.
Iran has been subject to arms sanctions for since 1979 when an Islamic revolution replaced the monarchy. That meant combat aircraft imports were rare, and Iran had to rebuild older aircraft to keep some of them operational. Currently the Iranian Air force nominally has 222 combat aircraft including 19 MiG-29s and Su-24s from Russia. There are 46 American F-5 fighters, 63 F-4s, 41 F-14s and twelve French Mirage F1 fighters. Many of the Iranian aircraft are not operational unless Iran decides to have its aircraft engineering and maintenance personnel work on them and make them flyable. These aircraft cannot fly as many hours per year as more recent and better maintained Western aircraft can. If the Iranian Air Force went to war, most of their combat aircraft would be grounded after flying a few missions because of the need for more maintenance work, especially spare parts, than the air force can provide.
Because of the Ukraine War, Russia no longer observes the sanctions on Iran and has sold 24 Su-35 fighters to Iran which are still on order.
Then there is the question of why China could develop a world-class weapons development and production capability in the last few decades while India has not? Mainly it’s about socialism, corruption and decades of Indian politics making it difficult for Indians to start and operate profitable firms that could produce consumer goods as well as military equipment. The United States became the largest economy in the world over a century ago by encouraging this entrepreneurship. Many other nations, including those in Europe and East Asia, like Japan, South Korea and even China followed that example.
While making it difficult for Indian entrepreneurs, India tried to use government-owned weapons development efforts and defense manufacturers to locally produce weapons. All were epic failures and continue to develop second-rate weapons or weapons that cost too much, rarely work adequately and most didn’t work at all. Recent examples include assault rifles, helicopters, and jet fighters. The only successes have been with privately owned firms and that is what the government finally wants more of. New rules and laws to reduce restrictions on commercial firms are meant to encourage less dependence on imports.
As with previous efforts in this area, the goals tend to be more aspirational than actual. Indian government bureaucrats and procurement agencies have become quite effective at protecting their own interests at the expense of commercial firms, the needs of the military and India’s national interests. This is a problem in all industrialized nations because that is the nature of government; to use their power to expand. Nations like China and Israel are notably different because China did not begin undergoing the industrial revolution until the 1980s. As usual, that produced spectacular results, which will be eroded over the years as the government expands, often at the expense of successful new firms. That is already happening in China, where the communist government fears the potential political influence of the largest and most successful firms. Israel is a special case because they have been under constant attack by their Moslem neighbors since Israel was founded in 1947. For Israel it has always been a matter of succeeding at developing new weapons or being destroyed.
India is different because it adopted a local form of socialism instead of free enterprise when modern India was formed in 1948. As a result, India has always had to import most of its weapons. Efforts to change this have failed so far, mainly because of corruption and political unwillingness to tolerate competitive and efficient defense industries. That corruption that has been pervasive in India for thousands of years and makes imported weapons from nations willing to pay bribes to Indian government officials more attractive than allowing competitive Indian firms to develop and provide cheaper locally made equipment.
One bit of good news is that this form of corruption has been under heavy attack for more than a decade because of the Internet. Political parties could control mass media and much local news, but not the Internet. Fighting corruption has become enormously popular with voters, who learned that most Western countries supplying weapons to India are often very anti-corruption themselves and much more successful at it. When Russia was supplying over 80 percent of weapons imports, you had a supplier that was a dictatorship and quite comfortable with bribes and payoffs. For more than a decade Russia has been losing sales to Western firms. The culture of corruption still exists in Indian defense procurement, but it is under heavy attack. Even if no bribes were involved when buying foreign weapons, that would not fix the inability to create a competitive Indian weapons industry.
The reason for that has to do with why, for most of the last half century, most Indian weapons came from Russia. There were several reasons for that: politics, price, and practicality. The policy was a decision by Indian politicians to be non-aligned during the Cold War. This conflict began just as India became independent from the British Empire. Still resentful towards Britain and the West for two centuries of colonial domination, India officially refused to take sides during the Cold War. Yet its relations with Russia, a communist dictatorship, were much warmer than with the Western democracies. Although India clung to democracy, the educated classes were infatuated with the promise of socialism. For several decades Indians abhorred the Russian government dictatorship but admired their socialist approach to running their economy. It wasn’t until the 1980s that most Indian politicians admitted that the Russian economic model was all a fraud and not working. For India, this set-in motion the sort of free enterprise policies that China had employed since the 1980s. By then it was too late for India. Decades of attempts to impose government regulation and guidance of the economy had created a huge bureaucracy that could not be easily dismantled because many of these jobs were used by politicians to reward supporters and get reelected. This particularly applied to government-run military weapons development and procurement.
Then there was the price of Russian weapons. They were cheaper than Western equivalents. This meant more could be spent on bribes and payoffs. Finally, there was practicality. India’s main foes were Pakistan and China. Pakistan had a much smaller population, economy, and defense budget than India. Russian weapons were adequate for Pakistan. China was also poorly equipped, until quite recently, and separated from India by the Himalaya Mountains. Under those conditions Russian weapons were just fine for Indian needs.
All this changed after the Cold War ended in 1991. Indian politics has also changed, mostly because of the expanding Chinese threat, and now officially wants to build weapons that work, which means reducing the corruption which everyone admits cripples the economy. Price is still important, but it’s been noticed that Russian weapons have slipped in quality and effectiveness since the Soviet Union collapsed. Pakistan is even less of a military threat because Pakistan is even more corrupt and economically crippled than India. China, however, is another matter. China has managed to build a powerful and productive arms industry. All those Russian weapons India has no longer provide any degree of superiority or even parity with China. India needs Western-quality arms to maintain a competitive military for confronting China, but those are more expensive. It’s possible to make them in India under license, but the Indian industry has not been able to master high tech sufficiently to make this practical. In short, it’s no longer practical to tolerate an inefficient domestic defense industry.
Efforts to create domestic defense industries have been crippled by specific portions of the bureaucracy. The worst of these is the Defense Research and Development Organization or DRDO. Alas, DRDO became a monumental example of bureaucratic inefficiency, wasting billions of dollars and decades of effort on weapons systems that never quite became operational or when they did, they really weren't. DRDO was created in 1958 to provide government support and guidance for defense related research. But the network of research and manufacturing facilities DRDO established since then were more about plundering the taxpayers and benefiting politicians through kickbacks and patronage than in actually creating competitive defense industries. Even DRDO efforts to create low-tech weapons like assault rifles and other infantry equipment were failures, with sloppiness and inefficiency resulting in very uncompetitive weapons.
Worse, many major DRDO weapons development projects have failed because bad politics ensured that bad ideas kept getting funded, and those efforts rarely produced anything the military found acceptable. For example, the 5.5-ton Dhruv helicopter was in development for two decades before the first one was delivered in 2002. Since then, domestic and foreign users have expressed dissatisfaction. A series of crashes indicated some basic design flaws, which the manufacturer insisted did not exist. Similar situation with the locally developed Tejas jet fighter. Indian politicians still cite these two aircraft as examples of successful Indian developed tech. The Indian military has been equally quick to cite these two aircraft as unacceptable and has often succeeded in avoiding accepting more than a token number. Export customers do not exist.
Then there is the effort to develop and build a tank. Many of the problems with the Arjun tank project had to do with nothing more than government ineptitude. The Ministry of Defense was more interested in putting out press releases about how India was becoming self-sufficient in tanks than in attending to the technical details needed to make this happen. The Ministry of Defense has done this sort of thing many times. Moreover, if it isn't incompetence screwing things up, then it's corruption.
Efforts to develop missile systems have also been a long running failure. Work on indigenous missile designs, under the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program 0r IGMDP, managed by DRDO has gone on for decades, with no useful weapons to show for it. The most common problems were apparently caused by inept software development. While India has a lot of local talent in this department, creating this kind of specialized military software is very difficult and the best programmers tend to join the growing number of new companies that sell their services or software products to foreigners. Many other Indian engineers and scientists migrate to countries where it is easier to put their skills to good and more lucrative use.
The one exception has been ballistic missiles. Curiously this was seen as a really, really important project and the politicians eventually backed off and let the engineers get on with it. India has world class engineers and scientists, but too many of them have to go overseas to do what they do best because the government does not tolerate being told what works and what doesn’t by people who know what they are talking about.
India is determined to develop the capability of designing and building high-tech weapons, something few countries can do. India is following in the footsteps of China and Russia, two nations that still have most of their population living in poverty while the state concentrated resources to create the technological base needed to build modern weapons. Russia and China have gone farther than India in developing and manufacturing modern weapons. Not as far as Western firms, if only because of the corruption and lawlessness in both those nations. But Russia and China had an advantage of having authoritarian governments. Decisions could get made quickly and decisively. India is a democracy and democracies are messy. Important decisions tend to get kicked down the road rather than taken care of. Chinese leaders openly boast of this as a major reason China has succeeded while India fails.
There have been some new ideas and opportunities. One of the most alluring is the growing number of private firms in India that can handle defense work. Currently non-government Indian firms get about a quarter of the contracts. Foreign defense firms can make deals with these private firms who can then go after Indian defense contracts, but Indian defense officials and their legislative allies stand in the way. Indian bureaucrats have a well-deserved reputation of gumming up the works and preventing needful things from getting done. This makes it difficult for private companies, especially when the main customer is the government.
Getting rid of DRDO and its 30,000 employees is difficult, though that is pretty much the only way to cut this Gordian Knot. Over 20 percent of them are scientists and engineers unable to compete in a free market economy with many of the rest being obstructionist bureaucrats whose jobs depend on crippling the efforts of commercial firms competing with DRDO. Eliminating DRDO is extremely unpopular with most politicians because they like the bribes DRDO pays them. Yet in the last few years senior elected officials have made some decisive moves to end the bureaucratic deadlock. This involved something as simple as ending the ban on former military personnel taking key jobs in the Defense Ministry and shutting down state-owned arms factories with long records of failure.
This situation is tragic, and a growing number of Indians realize it. India, a regional superpower, and the world’s largest democracy, with a population of over a billion, now finds itself in a very rough neighborhood with military effectiveness becoming a necessity, not just a worthy goal. To deal with that, India has always maintained large armed forces and one of the largest armies, with a million troops, on the planet. But keeping these troops equipped for what they have to do has proved to be very difficult. The army keeps falling behind in replacing aging weapons like artillery and obtaining new technology such as missiles, smart munitions, and night vision equipment. Getting the money from the government has been the least of their problems. The biggest hassles are with corruption and failed efforts to develop local weapons production.
The latest government moves to change all that are not revolutionary, but evolutionary. As has long been observed, democracies always do the right thing, but often only after trying everything else. India still has not reached the end of the everything else list.