Indian army steps up historic overhaul to counter China

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India’s long-delayed plans to reform its military are taking a new lease of life as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government draws closer to the United States and its allies, who are stepping up defense cooperation against China.

Modi, who will attend a White House “Quad” leadership meeting on Friday with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Australian Scott Morrison, takes steps to undertake the largest reorganization of the Indian military since independence in 1947 Army, Air Force and Navy – now operating with little coordination – step in as US and UK work with Australia to put more powered submarines nuclear power in Asia-Pacific waters.

Last month, a newly established Ministry of Military Affairs ordered the Indian army unit overseeing the Pakistani border to develop an integration plan with the navy and air force, officials said. current of developments. This model will be replicated across the country so that the entire military will be under a new operational structure by 2024, said officials, who asked not to be identified due to media communication rules. .

A more unified Indian armed forces would make it easier for the country to link up with other armies such as the United States and its allies in the event of conflict. A key aspect of the AUKUS partnership announced last week by the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom concerns interoperability across a range of defense areas, which India currently lacks within its own. strengths.

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“Quad partners have already discovered that they can only practice with one Indian service at a time – for example, the Navy but not the Air Force, or the Air Force but not the Navy, ”said David Brewster, a senior researcher at the National Security College. from Australian National University who wrote the book “India as the Power of Asia-Pacific”. “This seriously hinders cooperation as many, if not most, operations will be joint. “

Over the decades, Indian rulers have divided military command and control to avoid the coups that were once common in the neighborhood. While bureaucrats and military officials have resisted unification proposals that have existed since the 1990s, mainly due to territorial wars, the current structure is proving to be a drawback to countering China, which has shifted to a similar model. compared to the United States and Australia in 2016.

“The modernization of the Indian army is underway to respond to regional challenges and technological changes,” said A. Bharat Bhushan Babu, spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, without providing further details on the plan. The Indian Navy, Army and Air Force did not immediately comment.

The reorganization would create at least four theater commands: one in the west looking at Pakistan, another in the east focused on China, a maritime command for the Indian Ocean region and an air defense command, it said. the responsibles. The choppy northern part of Jammu and Kashmir will remain untouched for now, they added.

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke alongside US Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House in Washington on Thursday. | REUTERS

This move is designed to allow the Indian military to operate seamlessly on land, sea and air. Theater commands would regroup warships, patrol boats, soldiers and fighter jets, while working with other missile and firearms regiments that have a network of ground-based radars to manage the operations. threats along its contested borders with China and Pakistan, officials said.

While China has the largest standing army in the world, with more than 2.1 million troops, India is second with a bloated land force of 1.2 million regular troops and 960,000 reserves including pay and pensions absorb most of the defense budget. The Indian military estimates that the organization along the theaters will allow economies of scale, reducing expenses by about a third while concentrating power in one office: the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“India’s siled approach to training, planning and operations has created dissonance when working with other more ‘modern’ armies,” said Anit Mukherjee, associate professor at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “Over the past five years, the challenges facing the Indian military have increased and the question remains whether it has been able to meet these challenges. “

The Indian Air Force in particular has opposed the concept of multiple theaters, arguing that its scarce resources will be too dispersed if they are unable to respond to threats in different parts of the country, officials said.

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The three services still do not have a common secure communications network, which was evident in 2019 when Indian Air Force planes fired missiles at Pakistan to destroy a suspected terrorist training camp in response to a suicide bombing in Jammu and Kashmir that killed 40 people. . Indian army units have been put on alert but not told why or what to expect, according to a senior officer who asked not to be identified.

As the Indian military responds to elected officials, a tradition of political non-interference has also allowed feuds between the three main services to flourish. It has also bolstered the military, which commands over 60% of total military spending, leading to a greater emphasis on land borders rather than building the capacity to become a force in Indo-waters. peaceful.

“The problem with India’s reorganization so far is the tendency to strengthen the army’s dominance over the defense force and to strengthen a narrow focus on continental defense,” said Brewster of the National University. Australian. “This may mean a reduced ability of the Indian armed forces to project their power around the Indo-Pacific region in cooperation with the Quad partners.”

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