The Woes of Asian Nuclear Procurement

Procurement: South Asian Weapons Woes
April 25, 2021: India and Pakistan, two South Asian nations that have been military adversaries since the late 1940s, have both had difficulty developing local defense industries. That is still a problem but in the last five years (2016-20) both nations have made major changes in how they handle imports and local manufacturing. Pakistan has become almost entirely dependent on China for weapons, and is the major customer for Chinese military exports. India, in contrast, has cut military imports by a third, mainly by making major reductions in what it buys from Russia. In response to this, Russia has offered Pakistan weapons similar to what China delivers. Russia points out that having two main suppliers creates competition that great for the customer.

India wants to continue reducing its dependence on imports, even it means accepting clearly inferior (to Western and Chinese alternatives) weapons. During the Cold War India declared itself neutral but became a major importer of Russian weapons because they were cheaper, and Russia more willing to transfer manufacturing technology so India could build many of the Russian weapons under license. Pakistan obtained most of its imported weapons from European and American manufacturers.

After the Cold War both Pakistan and India made major efforts to develop and produce major weapons systems, and both largely failed. Except for nuclear weapons, which both nations developed internally by the late 1990s, and ballistic missile tech based on what they could obtain from China and Russia respectively, Pakistan and India have handled their failures to develop and build their own conventional weapons differently. India believes its nuclear weapons aimed at China will prevent major losses on the border while Pakistan, even with superior Chinese weapons, is not a major threat.

In contrast Pakistan, or at least the Pakistani military, has long considered India a military threat, despite the fact that India does not reciprocate. The only dispute the two nations have is over who should own the border province of Kashmir. Technically it belonged to India according to the 1948 agreement both nations developed to handle the separation of British India into Moslem and non-Moslem portions. Pakistan reneged on that deal at the last minute and grabbed about half of Kashmir. Pakistan has been fighting, unsuccessfully, ever since to obtain the rest of Kashmir. After three failed wars, in the 1980s Pakistan switched to a campaign of supporting Islamic terrorism in Kashmir. That failed as well but the Pakistani military insists on continuing to try.

India considered the Pakistani efforts to regain Kashmir a secondary defense concern as India had more problems with leftist rebels in eastern India and tribal separatists in the northeast. The Pakistani Islamic terrorism policy eventually, over the last two decades, led to an end of American military imports and total dependence on China. During that period China renewed long (since the 1950s) dormant claims on portions of the Indian and Pakistani border territory. Pakistan gave up what China wanted while India refused. Now China and India are confronting each other in disputed border areas, with a growing number of violent clashes. This made it clear that China was militarily superior to India while India maintained its military superiority versus Pakistan. China did not become a military ally of Pakistan because China does not have allies, it has foreign customers for Chinese products, including weapons and will adjust its diplomacy to further that. China has a military defense treaty with North Korea, but that is only to ensure that North Korea remains a compliant neighbor of China and nothing else.

During and after the Cold War (1948-1991) Pakistan and India relied on importing many of their weapons. This was unpopular in both countries, especially since much smaller nations, like Israel and South Korea were becoming developers and manufacturers of world-class defense equipment and weapons while India and Pakistan largely failed to do so. What was particularly embarrassing for India was that China, with the same population as India has, since the 1990s, far surpassed India in economic growth and the ability to manufacture world class weapons. Back in 1948, when India became independent of British colonial rule and China was reunited after two decades dealing with invasion and civil war, India had a larger GDP and more modern military. Pakistan consisted of Moslem majority portions of British India and became an independent state because Moslem leaders in British India insisted and the rest of India was willing to go along with that. Since 1948 India evolved into the world’s largest democracy with the military firmly under government control while Pakistan evolved into an army with a country attached. While both nations are democracies with fair voting and many political parties, the Pakistani military has become a major, if technically illegal power broker in Pakistani politics.

Another major development in the past five years it the Pakistani government budget and economy undergoing a crisis caused by unwillingness to control corruption and military spending. The problem has been building for years but has now created a fiscal disaster as Pakistan ran out of nations willing to provide military aid or loans. As a result, Pakistan has had to cut back on military imports and instead pay more attention to upgrading or refurbishing existing equipment. That was a serious problem because the foe the Pakistani military is preparing to fight has a lot more money, people and creditworthiness. This made Chinese offers to supply cheaper weapons and massive investments in building needed infrastructure projects palatable. The billions in Chinese investments went to build rail, pipeline and road links from China to Pakistan and the Indian Ocean. Many Pakistanis opposed this policy but the military insisted and that was that.

The Pakistani generals still pushed the idea that India might invade with non-nuclear forces. Anyone paying attention to Indian media and politics would realize that isn’t true but the Pakistani military needed to maintain the illusion of an Indian “threat” to justify its relatively large military budget. With that Pakistan maintains an active-duty force of 650,000 troops using a large number of older, but upgraded, tanks and warplanes. India has more modern equipment and a million troops on active duty.

The Indian population is six times larger and the Indian economy (GDP) is ten times that of Pakistan. India spends nearly $66 billion a year on defense, the fifth largest defense budget on the planet, right behind the United States, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan barely makes the top 20 with $12 billion. Indian spending is 3.1 percent of GDP while Pakistan is now at four percent. The usual general financial support for the military did not survive the Pakistani debt crises of 2019, and now the Pakistani military has lost most of its recent budget gains and is likely to lose even more.

Pakistan has fought several wars with India since 1948 and lost all of them. What Pakistan does have going for it is Chinese claims on a lot of Indian territory. India and China fought a brief border war in 1967 which India lost, along with some territory high in the mountains where most of the India-China border is. Both China and India have nuclear-armed ballistic missiles aimed at each other so if there are going to be any wars, they will be small scale and brief ones on this high-altitude mountain border. Unlike Pakistan, China is a real threat to India.

At the same time, India and Pakistan share a border that contains lots of flat, lowland terrain that has been the scene of tank battles in the past. As a result, Pakistan tries to maintain a force of tanks equal, at least in numbers, to the more modern Indian tank fleet.

All this leaves Pakistan on its own to maintain a credible force of armored vehicles to face the “Indian threat.” The Pakistani air force is largely dependent on F-16s bought from the United States over the last few decades and upgraded somewhat since then. But now with American aid gone along with cash for additional (and often much needed) refurbishment for the 78 remaining F-16s, Pakistan is more dependent on a hundred or more of the Chinese JF-17s. This is a Chinese design that is similar to the F-16 but only Pakistan uses it. China prefers other aircraft it has designed and only got the JF-17 into production so Pakistan could assemble most of them in Pakistan and call them “Pakistani built” fighters. Most Pakistani fighters are about 600 older French and Chinese models.

There was a similar situation with tanks but early in 2019, Pakistan decided to get out of the tank design/development/manufacturing business, at least for now. Because of that, the army placed an order for a hundred Chinese made 52-ton VT4/MBT-3000 tanks. This order is now on hold because of the budget cuts. The VT4 is an updated version of the 330 46 ton VT1/MBT-2000/Al Khalid tanks Pakistan already has. The Al Khalid was a joint China-Pakistan project to create a Pakistani tank that built in Pakistan. Basically, Al Khalid was a variant of the Chinese VT1 (also known as the MBT2000). The VT1 was the export version of the Chinese Type 90 tank. Actually, the Type 90 (an improved T-72) was not accepted by the Chinese army which preferred the 54-ton Type 99, a superior T-72 variant that entered service in 2001 and underwent a major upgrade (the 58-ton Type 99A) in 2011 and is still in production.

The rest of the 2,000 Pakistani tanks are based on much older (1950s) Russian models, with some upgrades. Pakistan also looked at the latest Ukraine had to offer but decided to go with China, which has access to more advanced tech than Ukraine and is willing to be competitive when it comes to price. This confidence in China was based on how the 2012 agreement worked out. For that deal, Pakistan and China also agreed to jointly market the Al Khalid tank but had limited success. That was because there were a lot of improved T-72s on the market, including the Chinese MBT-2000. Al Khalid was more expensive to develop as Pakistan began the project in 1991 and made a lot of mistakes. The Al Khalid ended up costing ten percent more than the MBT-2000, and Pakistan was unable to keep its costs under control when it came time to develop and a major upgrade for Al Khalid. It was pointed out that China already had what Pakistan wanted in the VT4. In the end the Al Khalid demonstrated why Pakistan has never been a major player in the arms export business and this deal with China was more for show than anything else.

Because of the current budget crisis, the military released a long list of alternate procurement plans that rely on items that can be produced locally. The air force plans to increase JF-17 production from 16 a year to 24. Work will also continue on developing UAVs and building them in Pakistan. Design and development will also continue on the AZM fifth generation (stealth) fighter. This is largely a propaganda effort because Pakistan expressed interest in buying one of the two new Chinese stealth fighter designs but could not afford it, and China has reduced its own construction plans because of performance issues. Most of the local procurement will be rebuilding or refurbishing older armored vehicles with local electronic or mechanical items. This does not improve the Pakistani arsenal as much as it tries to maintain what it has. In this respect, Pakistan has something of an edge over India. The military procurement bureaucracy India is burdened with is spectacularly inefficient and a major reason why India does not have much better weapons than Pakistan. The Indian military knows this but Indian politicians refuse to recognize the problem, which is a tremendous benefit for the Pakistani military. Even with that, and the Chinese threat to India, Pakistan is still not a major conventional military threat to India.

With China the major threat, India has to obtain the best weapons possible to deal with that. As a result, the remaining imports, which are still substantial, concentrate on systems India cannot produce at all. This includes first-line jet fighters like the Russian Su-30, and French Rafale. India still buys air defense and electronic items from Israel and specialized UAVs from the United States. Russia has a more modern and recent fleet of the latest Russian tank models. In fact, India has more of these T-90 tanks than Russia. India is trying to eliminate its dependence on Russia for modern warships but continues to encounter problems with Indian built nuclear submarines. Indian ballistic missiles appear to be competitive, as are their nuclear weapons. New restrictions on military imports are forcing the armed forces and Indian manufacturers to catch up in the areas of developing and manufacturing competitive modern weapons. This isn’t easy because India has a long, and growing, list of locally developed systems that failed, even after several generations of “improved” models.

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