Author : Harsh V. Pant

Expert Speak War Fare
Published on Jun 27, 2020
The India-China military matrix and their modernisation trajectories

The recent escalation of Sino-Indian conflict along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at the Galwan Valley has been a watershed moment, marking the nadir of diplomatic relations between the two nations and heralding the ominous possibility of further escalation.  To accurately gauge the functional capabilities of both countries in the times to come, any attempt to contrast their militaries must be done in the context of military modernisation and their conceivable advancement in the near future.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that China’s expenditure on its military has increased from 2.5 times that of India’s in 2010, to 3.7 times India’s in 2019, and reaching over four times India’s military expenditure in 2015 (See Table 1). This monumental difference is partly explained by the fact that while Indian military expenditure has reduced from 2.7 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2010 to 2.4 percent in 2019, China’s expenditure on its military has stayed largely consistent since 2010 at around 1.9 percent of its GDP. Mostly, however, the primary reason for the gap is the sheer size of China’s GDP, which is estimated by the World Bank to have reached US$13.61 trillion in 2018 as compared with India’s US$2.72 trillion (in current US$). China’s GDP growth per annum has also increased rapidly since 2010 (See Table 2).

Table 1: SIPRI Estimates of Military Expenditure (current USD); its Share of the GDP in India and China; and the ratio of Sino-Indian Military Expenditure (2010-2019)

Year China India Ratio of Sino-Indian Military Expenditure (A/B)
A.      Military Expenditure Share of GDP B.      Military Expenditure Share of GDP
2010 $115.772 billion 1.9% $46.090 billion 2.7% 2.5 : 1
2011 $137.967 billion 1.8% $49.634 billion 2.7% 2.8 : 1
2012 $157.390 billion 1.8% $47.217 billion 2.5% 3.3 : 1
2013 $179.881 billion 1.9% $47.404 billion 2.5% 3.8 : 1
2014 $200.772 billion 1.9% $50.914 billion 2.5% 3.9 : 1
2015 $214.472 billion 1.9% $51.296 billion 2.4% 4.2 : 1
2016 $216.404 billion 1.9% $56.638 billion 2.5% 3.8 : 1
2017 $228.466 billion 1.9% $64.559 billion 2.5% 3.5 : 1
2018 $253.492 billion 1.9% $66.258 billion 2.4% 3.8 : 1
2019 $261.082 billion 1.9% $71.125 billion 2.4% 3.7 : 1

Table 2: IMF Estimates of GDP Growth in India and China, 2010-2020

Year 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
China 10.6% 9.5% 7.9% 7.8% 7.3% 6.9% 6.8% 6.9% 6.7% 6.1% 1.2%
India 10.3% 6.6% 5.5% 6.4% 7.4% 8% 8.3% 7% 6.1% 4.2% 1.9%

< style="color: #454545">Sino-Indian military capabilities

The unique tactical and strategic needs of both India and China have governed their respective financial allocations for the capabilities of their services functioning on the land, air, maritime and nuclear spheres. The total military personnel in China are currently estimated to be an active force of 2,183,000 and reserves of 510,000, as compared to India’s active force of 1,444,000 and reserves of 2,100,000.

On land, Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is estimated to have approximately 3,500 tanks, 33,000 armoured vehicles, 3,800 self-propelled artillery, 3,600 towed artillery, and 2,650 rocket projectors. The Indian Army, on the other hand, is estimated to have 4,292 tanks, 8,686 armoured vehicles, 235 self-propelled artillery, 4,060 towed artillery, and 266 rocket projectors.

In the air, China’s PLA Air Force (PLAAF) is considered to have a total strength of around 3,210 which include 1,232 fighters, 371 dedicated attack aircrafts, 224 transport aircrafts, 314 trainers, 281 attack helicopters, 911 helicopters, and 111 maintained for special missions. For its part, the Indian Air Force has a strength of 2,123 which include 538 fighters, 172 dedicated attack aircrafts, 250 transport aircrafts, 359 trainers, 23 attack helicopters, 722 helicopters, and 77 reserved for special missions.

In the maritime sphere, China’s PLA Navy (PLAN) has a total of 777 naval assets which include two aircraft carriers, 36 destroyers, 52 frigates, 50 corvettes, 74 submarines, 220 patrol vessels, and 29 mine warfare crafts. The Indian Navy, meanwhile, has a total of 285 naval assets which include one aircraft carrier, 10 destroyers, 13 frigates, 19 corvettes, 16 submarines, 139 patrol vehicles, and three mine warfare crafts.

China’s nuclear capabilities, operated by the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) are estimated to have a total of 104 missiles which include the Dong Feng (DF) – 31A, DF-31 and DF-21 missiles. India on the other hand, is estimated to have around 10 Agni-III launchers and eight Agni-II launchers. Furthermore, it is estimated that India has around 51 aircrafts (Jaguar IS and Mirage 2000H fighters) which are capable of launching nuclear warheads.

< style="color: #454545">What military modernisation means for these capabilities?

These statistics must be understood in the context of the military modernisation that both nations have pursued over the last few years. Xi Jinping, throughout the last five years, has made it evident that one of the central objectives of his presidency is to modernise the PLA to help China become a “global leader”. This has been done by maintaining the Defence Budget’s share of the GDP and, crucially, downsizing the PLAA in order divert its resources to its other associated services like the PLAN, PLAAF and PLARF.

A bulk of these changes were implemented in 2015: five war zones were created, the Second Artillery was converted into the PLARF, and the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) was created to combine the space, electronic and network forces into a single service. More pertinently, the PLA in 2015 announced a cut of 300,000 personnel, and two years later followed it up with another announcement that for the first time the size of the PLAA would be reduced to below 1,000,000. In the 2019 White Paper, further reductions in the size of the PLAA were announced while still maintaining the size of the other forces. The PLA has also focused on procuring new technologies to modernise its support systems and logistics to improve its Teeth-to Tail-Ratio (TTR).

Even as China has taken great leaps in the modernisation of its military, to achieve its “Revolution in Military Affairs” it will be critical for the PLA to complete the “informationization” and “mechanization” of all its services. The PLA, as is widely known, has not been involved in active combat since the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979; indeed, the PLA has been repeatedly criticised not only for its inefficient command system, but also for the rampant corruption in its ranks. Consequently, the amassing of cutting-edge military technology by China and much of its modernisation depends solely on the quality of its recruits, the experience of its commanders, and other such soft skills that have been weighed and found wanting. 

India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, apart from modernising its Armed Forces, has focused on creating greater “jointness” in its functioning. As part of this initiative, Modi established the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) in 2019 to head the Indian Armed Forces and its three associated services. Apart from this, changes in the command structure of the Indian Army have taken place with the addition of a third deputy chief, who unlike the first two will not oversee capital procurement, but instead is responsible for strategy, information warfare and will control the military intelligence of the Army. The Navy has also introduced several changes in its operations, training and organisation with its increased presence in the Indian Ocean Region to protect key strategic communications.

Prior to this, in 2017 a decision was taken to redeploy 57,000 personnel of the Indian Army in order to improve the TTR. Part of this was achieved by the foundational reorganising of the forces with the restructuring of the Engineering and Signals Corps and Ordinance Units, the closing of all military farms and postal establishments in civilian areas. More recently in February 2020, the CDS Gen Bipin Rawat announced that the Indian military plans to focus on the ‘theatreisation’ of its commands which basically aims to unite the tri-services under a common command. This proposal is set to be implemented by converting the Northern and Western Commands into two to five theatres, making Jammu and Kashmir a separate theatre. Further, the Western and Eastern Naval Commands will be incorporated under a single Peninsular Command.

To be sure, much of these changes are yet to be implemented, with the Indian Armed Forces consisting of 19 Commands of which only two are presently tri-services. Another major faultline is the sluggish weapons procurement procedure, which is weighed down by bureaucratic red tape and risks widening the technological gap with China and reducing it with Pakistan. Apart from this, a peculiarity of demographic profile of the Armed Forces are a significant increase in the expenditure on military pensions with projections that in the near future the Indian military will expend more funds on pensions than salaries. It is estimated that in 2017, approximately 67 percent of the Indian Defence Budget was spent on salaries and pensions. 

If this analysis shows anything, it is that the Indian Armed Forces are not underfunded and the expenditure on them is in a healthy proportion to the growing Indian GDP (See Tables 1 and 2). However, India’s strategic interests and security threats require that these funds are utilised efficiently in transforming the armed forces into an effective state instrument of the 21st century. It appears that the only way this will be possible is through the further restructuring of the armed forces to reduce their structural inefficiencies and financial shortages. After all, a leaner force will be a more capable force for India’s current needs. On the other hand, while China appears to have achieved a certain degree of modernisation in its military, it is clear that their insufficiencies of organisation and the quality of personnel have the potential to weaken their technological superiority. Any potential Indian defence strategy towards China should take these factors into account if it is to hit the bull’s eye.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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