There has been considerable outrage in India over Russian arms sales to Pakistan. After Moscow supplied four Mi-35 assault helicopters to Islamabad, most Indians were left scratching their heads why an old and trusted friend was supporting its bitter foe. But despite the media cranking up fears of an India-Russia rift, the chances that the trickle of Russian arms to Pakistan will turn into a torrent are slim.
According to a report by the Washington DC-based Stimson Centre, Pakistan may not have the resources to make significant purchases from Russia. The report, by Shane Mason, titled ‘Military Budgets in India and Pakistan: Trajectories, Priorities, and Risks’ shows that Pakistan’s bloated military is not only unsustainable, but it may not be able to mobilise funds for big-ticket purchases in the future.
India’s economy is nearly eight times larger than Pakistan’s, and may be 15 times larger in 2030. New Delhi outspent Islamabad in defence by a ratio of 7:1.1 in 2009. India’s defence budget topped $51 billion, making it the sixth largest in the world. In short, India’s military profile has never been higher.
In this backdrop, the paper says, “Even if Pakistan spends more under the best economic forecasts, it will not be able to compete with India for much longer. Thus, the conventional military balance will shift inexorably in India’s favour.”
India’s greater economic clout puts Pakistan in a very bad place. “Pakistan’s access to high-end technology could be constrained by India’s purchasing power and growing geopolitical influence. India is a larger and more attractive market for global defence companies, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.”
Rising Indian defence budgets and the country’s robust economic growth can be a source of leverage for New Delhi against Pakistan. “Countries and companies who otherwise would be interested in having a defence relationship with Pakistan may be reluctant to do so out of concerns about falling out of favour in New Delhi. Over the long term, Pakistan may be unable to access the most advanced weapons systems in the global marketplace. Instead, it may have little choice but to continue to rely on Chinese and possibly Russian military systems, which may or may not be the most appropriate for Pakistan’s defence needs.”
The Centre notes that though Russia seeks to export arms to Pakistan, it remains to be seen whether Pakistan will have the resources to make significant purchases, and whether Russian arms sales to India will suffer as a result.
Russia – India’s partner throughout much of the Cold War – still supplies New Delhi with 70 per cent of its arms imports, and is the premier supplier of the Indian Air Force (IAF). More than 80 per cent of IAF aircraft are of Russian origin, including all of its most modern, fourth-generation aircraft.
Pakistan Nuclear backup
Islamabad had long believed that nuclear weapons would serve as a substitute for expensive conventional programmes and force structures. As Charles Glaser argues in ‘Rational Theory of International Politics’, “By shifting the offence-defence balance heavily toward defence, nuclear weapons enable states that are much less powerful than their adversaries to satisfy their defence requirements and increase their security.”
Such a nuclear standoff strategy appealed to Pakistan which could not offset India’s substantial resource advantage. The belief was that India would not be able to wage conventional war because of the danger of the conflict spiralling into a nuclear exchange.
However, the fallacy of such a view was demonstrated during the 1999 Kargil War when India conducted a high intensity conventional war that used – among other weapons – heavy artillery and the full spectrum of air power.
When the rubber hit the road, the Pakistani armed forces – in particular the Pakistan Air Force – couldn’t come to the rescue of their comrades who were being pounded by the IAF and Indian Army in the Kargil area. For instance, PAF F-16 jets typically maintained a distance of 16-32 km from the Line of Control because IAF MiG-29s would buzz them with their Russian beyond visual range missiles.
The report further says Pakistan has many security dilemmas that pose multiple challenges requiring conventional capabilities. “These challenges include the possibility of military clashes with India, a counterterrorism campaign in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, domestic unrest in Balochistan, and uncertain relations with Afghanistan and Iran. In all but one of these challenges, nuclear weapons are of no help. To the contrary, investments in nuclear weapons at the expense of conventional capabilities would weaken Pakistan’s ability to deal with every one of these security challenges.”
Pakistan, therefore, has to allocate cash for conventional weapons. But the catch is the generals are already receiving less military assistance from the US, as American troop strength in Afghanistan has declined. US military aid accounted for 21 per cent of Pakistan’s defence budget between 2002 and 2015, and now accounts for less than 11 per cent.
Pakistan Nuclear escalation
India continues to outspend Pakistan by a ratio of 7:1 on defence, and this ratio will increase in the years ahead. This resource imbalance will likely cause dilemmas for military leaders and planners in Pakistan. They face an increasingly stark choice between spending for conventional forces and internal security on the one hand, and nuclear weapon-related capabilities on the other. If Rawalpindi chooses nuclear capabilities as a cost-effective option, its security concerns are likely to grow.
Unlike Pakistan, which has attached military utility to nuclear weapons, India has a no-first use policy. While Pakistan has kept up the refrain that its threshold is low and it will use nuclear weapons early on in a conflict, India’s response carries a more credible threat. The Indian nuclear doctrine calls for a massive nuclear strike if even one battlefield atomic bomb is exploded on its army. An India nuclear strike will, therefore, turn Pakistan into a parking lot.
The report says: “The dilemma facing Pakistan – increased reliance on short-range nuclear weapons at the expense of conventional and counterterrorism capabilities – will heighten as US military assistance and subsidies diminish. This is already apparent with respect to the proposed purchase in 2016 of F-16s from the United States, which did not materialise when Rawalpindi chose not to pay the full price. More of this can be expected. As Rawalpindi’s support from Washington diminishes, its reliance on China will assuredly deepen. Pakistan has already moved to increase reliance on Russia, as well.”
It is unlikely Chinese military assistance will completely make up for reduction in US support. After the massive Indian backlash, Russian military sales – if at all they take place again – will be in dribbles. On the other hand, India will continue to be an attractive defence market in the region and the world.
The report concludes: “The question for the Pakistan Army is not whether it will compete with India, but how. Nuclear weapons are useful for deterrence, but not war-fighting. As with other countries, Pakistan is likely to find that there is no substitute for military capabilities necessary for conventional defence and internal security.”