In many ways, 2020 was a watershed year for Indian armed forces as they displayed boldness in standing up to unprovoked Chinese military aggressions in eastern Ladakh and remodelled the national security doctrine in view of China intensifying the geo-political rivalry with India with an apparent goal to effect a radical realignment of balance of power in South Asia.
The death of 20 Indian soldiers during a fierce hand-to-hand combat on June 15 in Galwan Valley marked the most serious military conflicts between the two sides in decades, triggering large deployment of troops and heavy weaponry by both the armies in the friction points. The Chinese side also suffered casualties but there was no official word from Beijing. According to an American intelligence report, the number of casualties on the Chinese side was 35.
The overall situation further deteriorated following multiple attempts by the Chinese military to ‘intimidate’ Indian troops along the northern and southern bank of Pangong lake area in late August where even shots were fired in the air for the first time at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in 45 years.
In a surprise visit to Ladakh in early July, Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a clear and strong message to China saying the era of expansionism is over and that India’s enemies have seen the ‘fire and fury’ of its armed forces.
Since the faceoff began in early May, both sides held multiple rounds of diplomatic and military talks, but have not yet been able to reach any concrete breakthrough, leaving both the armies to face each other in sub-zero temperatures in the Himalayan region.
‘In these testing times our forces have shown exemplary courage and remarkable fortitude. They fought the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with utmost bravery and forced them to go back. The coming generations of this nation will be proud of what our forces have managed to achieve this year,’ Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said earlier this month without elaborating.
As the situation deteriorated following the Galwan Valley clashes, the Indian Air Force deployed almost all its frontline fighter jets like Sukhoi 30 MKI, Jaguar and Mirage 2000 aircraft in the key frontier air bases in eastern Ladakh and elsewhere along the LAC.
In sync with the national security doctrine, the Indian Navy too significantly increased its deployment of warships, submarines and other assets in the Indian Ocean Region, in an attempt to send across a message to China that the Indian armed forces are fully prepared to deal with any challenge in all the three domains of land, air and water.
The Navy had deployed its Poseidon-8I anti-submarine and surveillance aircraft to carry out surveillance on the movement of Chinese troops in eastern Ladakh.
The Chinese military muscle-flexing forced the top military brass to readjust the national security doctrine that included greater focus on tri-services convergence and boosting the overall combat capabilities of the armed forces to deal with all possible future security challenges.
The government has started work on long-term goals that included procurement of futuristic weapon systems, platforms and extensive use of artificial intelligence.
In a boost to strike capability of the Indian Air Force in the midst of the standoff, the first batch of five Rafale jets arrived in India in July, nearly four years after the government signed an agreement with France to procure 36 of the aircraft at a cost of Rs 59,000 crore. A second batch of three Rafale fighter jets joined the IAF in November.
The Rafale jets, manufactured by French aerospace major Dassault Aviation, are India’s first major acquisition of fighter planes in 23 years after the Sukhoi jets were imported from Russia. The newly- inducted fleet has been carrying out sorties in eastern Ladakh.
The armed forces also confronted cross-border terrorism with a firm hand as Islamabad continued to push terrorists into Jammu and Kashmir. An attempt by Pakistan-based terrorists to carry out a major attack in Nagrota in Jammu and Kashmir was foiled in November.
In 2020, the government also ushered in a raft of military reforms aimed at enhancing the overall combat capability of the armed forces.
On January 1, Gen Bipin Rawat took charge as India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) with a mandate to bring in convergence in functioning of the Army, the Navy and the Indian Air Force and bolster the country’s overall military prowess.
A key mandate of the CDS was to facilitate restructuring of military commands for optimal utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through establishment of theatre commands.
A high-level committee set up to examine the gaps in India’s security system in the wake of the Kargil war in 1999 had recommended appointment of the CDS as a single-point military adviser to the defence minister.
In the last one year, Gen Rawat along with the top brass of the three services carried out ground work to establish an air defence command and a Peninsula command initially. The IAF will helm the air defence command and all-long range missiles as well as air defence assets will come under it.
According to plan, Indian Navy’s Eastern and Western commands will be integrated into the Peninsula command.
The government also majorly focused on boosting the domestic defence production and set a target of Rs 1.75 lakh crore (USD 25 billion) in turnover in defence manufacturing by 2025. According to estimates, the Indian armed forces are projected to spend around USD 130 billion in capital procurement in the next five years.
In May, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman rolled out a number of reform measures for the defence sector including making separate budgetary outlay to procure Indian-made military hardware, increasing FDI limit from 49 per cent to 74 per cent under the automatic route and generating a year-wise negative list of weapons which will not be allowed to import.
In early August, Defence Minister Singh announced that India will stop import of 101 weapons and military platforms like transport aircraft, light combat helicopters, conventional submarines, cruise missiles and sonar systems by 2024.
Subsequently, the defence ministry released the first list of items, with detailed timeline, which will not be allowed to import. The decision was aimed at promoting the domestic defence industry.
In a related development, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) identified 108 military systems and subsystems like navigation radars, tank transporters and missile canisters for the domestic industry to design, develop and manufacture.
India’s defence and security cooperation with the US, Australia, Japan and several other countries also witnessed major expansion in 2020.
In the midst of growing concerns over China’s military muscle-flexing in the Indo-Pacific region, India hosted the Malabar naval exercise. Following India’s invitation, Australia also participated in the exercise effectively making it a drill by all the Quad member nations.
The Quad, comprising India, the US, Australia and Japan, is aimed at ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific. China has been suspicious about the purpose of the Malabar exercise as it feels that the annual war game is an effort to contain its influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
In October, India and the US signed a landmark defence pact called Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) that provides for sharing of high-end military technology, geospatial maps and classified satellite data between their militaries.
The pact was sealed during the third edition of the 2+2 dialogue between the two countries.
In June, India and Australia elevated their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership and signed a landmark deal for reciprocal access to military bases for logistics support.
The Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) allows militaries of the two countries to use each other’s bases for repair and replenishment of supplies, besides facilitating scaling up of overall defence cooperation.
India and Japan signed a similar pact in September.
In the last few months, India carried out test firing of a number of missiles and other weapons.
In a major milestone, India successfully test fired a new generation anti-radiation missile from a Su-30 MKI fighter aircraft of the Indian Air Force in October. The missile can destroy a wide-variety of enemy radars and air defence systems from large stand-off ranges.