It was an inauspicious moment for a military the United States is banking on to help keep an expanding China in check.
An Indian air force pilot found himself in a dogfight last week with a warplane from the Pakistani air force, and ended up a prisoner behind enemy lines for a brief time.
The pilot made it home in one piece, however bruised and shaken, but the plane, an ageing Soviet-era MiG-21, was less lucky.
The aerial clash, the first by the South Asian rivals in nearly five decades, was a rare test for the Indian military — and it left observers a bit dumbfounded.
While the challenges faced by India’s armed forces are no secret, its loss of a plane last week to a country whose military is about half the size and receives a quarter of the funding was still telling.
India’s armed forces are in alarming shape.
If intense warfare broke out tomorrow, India could supply its troops with only 10 days of ammunition, according to government estimates. And 68 per cent of the army’s equipment is so old, it is officially considered “vintage”.
“Our troops lack modern equipment, but they have to conduct 21st century military operations,” said Gaurav Gogoi, a lawmaker and member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence.
US officials tasked with strengthening the alliance talk about their mission with frustration — a swollen bureaucracy makes arms sales and joint training exercises cumbersome, Indian forces are vastly underfunded, and the country’s navy, army and air force tend to compete rather than work together.
Whatever the problems, the United States is determined to make the country a key ally in the coming years to hedge against China’s growing regional ambition.
Last year, when Defence Secretary Jim Mattis announced that the Pentagon was renaming its Pacific Command — to Indo-Pacific — he emphasized India’s importance in a shifting world order.
“It is our primary combatant command,” said Mattis, who left the Pentagon at the end of the year. “It’s standing watch and intimately engaged with over half of the earth’s surface and its diverse populations, from Hollywood to Bollywood.”
The US military began prioritising its alliance with India as its close relationship with Pakistan soured over the last two decades. US officials are concerned that Pakistan is not doing enough to fight terrorism, a charge the country denies.
In just a decade, US arms sales to India have gone from nearly zero to $15 billion. But Pakistan can still draw on a powerful US-supplied arsenal.
Indian officials say Pakistan used one of its F-16 fighter jets to down its MiG-21 last week.
Islamabad rejected the claim, but on Sunday the US Embassy in Islamabad said the United States was looking into the report. The offensive use of an F-16 warplane against its neighbour might have been a violation of the sales agreement.
“We are aware of these reports and are seeking more information,” the embassy said in a statement. “We take all allegations of misuse of defence articles very seriously.”
However troubled its military, India holds an obvious strategic appeal to the United States by virtue of both its location and its size.
India will soon become the world’s most populous country, on track to surpass China by 2024. It shares a long border with southern and western China and controls important territorial waters Beijing needs for its maritime trade routes.
All that can help the United States try to box in its rival.
“India’s sheer demographics, its long-term military potential, its geographic expanse — it makes India worth waiting for,” said Jeff Smith, a research fellow for South Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington and the author of Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the 21st Century.
“As China rises and the United States fights to keep its dominance, it will need a swing state to tip the balance of power in the 21st century,” Smith said. “And that swing state is India. The United States knows this and is willing to be patient.”
For India’s military, funding remains the biggest challenge.
In 2018, India announced a military budget of some $45 billion. By comparison, China’s military budget that year was $175 billion. Last month, Delhi announced another $45 billion budget.
It is not just a question of how much India spends on its military, but how it spends it.
The majority of the money goes to salaries for its 1.2 million active duty troops, as well as pensions. Only $14 billion will be used to buy new hardware.
“At a time when modern armies are investing hugely on upgrading their intelligence and technical capabilities, we need to be doing the same,” said Gogoi, the Parliament member.
Unlike China, where an authoritarian government is free to set military policy as it wishes, India is a democracy, with all the messiness that can entail.
Cutting troop levels so the military can spend the money on buying modern equipment is not so simple. India’s military has long been a source of jobs for a country struggling with chronic underemployment. That is likely to be a big issue in elections scheduled for later this spring.