Caught up in deadly arms race

By K N Pandita

Never before has the world seen its denizens making a bigger effort of self-destruction than what we are witnessing today. Powerful advanced nations have always sought to manufacture more and more lethal weapons to be used on land or sea or in the air. The smaller nations that are economically far behind the superpowers are also trying to fill their arsenals with as many sophisticated weapons as they can.

Superpowers raise the bogey of threat from their rivals to justify a race for advanced or what is technically called next-generation arms. But in reality, they are doing so to garner markets for new tech war machines and thus boost their economies and sustain the standard of life they have provided to their citizens. Consequently, scientists and technocrats are in great demand to use their innovative potential and manufacture more and more destructive weapons. The arms race has become as acute as to profile nothing less than the angel of death.

The triangular rivalry involving the US, China and Russia is the first circuit of international rivalry seeking arms supremacy, and hence they constitute the first grid of the arms race. All three countries are working tirelessly towards innovation in the manufacturing of warplanes, long-range and supersonic missiles and powerful naval strike forces; weapons of mass destruction apart.

They have also identified the regions of the globe likely to be converted into battlegrounds. For more than a century and a half Central Asian region remained at the centre of the British and the Czarist political rivalry, which resurged in the cold era phase in a new form. Czarism re-surfaced in its new avatar of Marxism-Leninism, and British imperialism gradually surrendered its colonial aspirations to the rising sun of American capitalism.

The rather surprising happening of the contemporary world is the sudden rise of the opium-eater nation of China to the heights of superpower, economically and militarily, so much so that while Russia has sought her friendship, the United States is considering her a serious challenge to its world-dominating status. For some time in the recent past Sino-American economic rivalry has taken the world markets by surprise as China is widening them for its goods globally.

The fallout of the tripartite rivalry has resulted in the second grid of arms race among the satellite nations of the three superpowers. Developed or developing democratic countries in the Asian Continent such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and India, all having a stake in the IOR, Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea have thrown their lot with the United States. The pretension of the Quad-4 that the organization aims at boosting trade and technological partnership is only a cover. Quad-4 is a naval alliance to neutralize the Chinese aggressive posture in the Indo-Pacific and the IOR. Maximum international trade passes through the Strait of Malacca and the Indo-Pacific nations want to ensure that China does not impose its hegemony on the strategic water channel.

Side by side the Quad-4 another military alliance called Aukus has come up. The UK, US and Australia have announced a historic security pact in the Asia-Pacific, in what is seen as an effort to counter China. It will let Australia build nuclear-powered submarines for the first time, using technology provided by the US. The August pact, which will also cover Artificial Intelligence and other technologies, is one of the countries’ biggest defence partnerships in decades, analysts say.

China has condemned the agreement as “extremely irresponsible”. China’s embassy in Washington accused the countries of a “Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice”.

China has sponsored a parallel Quad-4 type of organization led by non-democratic or pseudo-democratic countries like Pakistan, Turkey and Iran under the leadership of China. A closer look at these formulations shows that the Chinese Quad-4 is not necessarily formulated for either lending military strength to China or defending their respective authoritative political dispensation at home. The participating members have their national and political interests. Pakistan does not want Indian naval power to have a say in the control of the waterways of the Indian Ocean. Turkey has been aspiring for replacing Saudi Arabia as the epicentre of the Islamic world, something for which Pakistan, too, nurtures hidden ambition.

Russia does not tolerate the US playing a leading role in the Indian Ocean region because of its interests in the Middle East and the African States. Regarding the Afghan Taliban, Russia has adopted a conciliatory attitude to keep both Iran and Pakistan in a happy mood. Though the Central Asian Republics, especially Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, do not see eye to eye with Moscow for its Taliban policy, nevertheless, it appears Moscow has convinced the Taliban leadership that it should not allow its land to be used for subversive activities against the CARs.

An important factor that comes into play in this multi-faceted political and strategic rivalry is the role of Israel. For a long time, the existence of the State of Israel on what the Arabs call Islamic land has been a source of acrimony between the Arabs and the Israelis as well as the Iranians and the Israelis. With time, and through astute diplomacy of the Jewish lobby in the US Congress, relations between Israel and the Arab world have left behind an era of dire acrimony. Saudi Arabia has not, for a long time, taken any step that would cause damage to her relations with Israel. Only recently relations between the UAE and Israel have been officially endorsed and the two sides are planning to widen the scope of the relationship further. This has upset Iran, a country that wants to tell the world that she is more Islamic than the Arabs by expressing hatred and dislike for the Jews in fulfilment of the Quranic injunctions.

The UAE as well as the Saudi kingdom are apprehensive of Iran going nuclear. They have had a role in getting the anti-nuclear deal of 2015 scuttled during the Trump administration. Assuming that Iran has its way in manufacturing the dirty bomb the UAE, understandably, has mended fences with Israel in the hope of obtaining an anti-nuclear shield through the good offices of Israel.

Although Iran nuclear deal was scuttled by President Trump and sanctions re-imposed on Iran, the decision has not gone well with the European Union because Iran is a major supplier of oil. The imposition of sanctions on Iran has caused difficulties to oil-importing countries including India and this has been an irritant in the US-Iran-India triangular relations. Iran has been unhappy with India going slow with the Chabahar port project and this became the catalyst for China to jump into the fray and carve a foothold for herself in Iran. China is now eyeing Afghanistan’s untouched mineral wealth especially her copper ore reserves.

In this messy situation where misunderstanding and suspicion abound, big powers find it unavoidable to depend on their military power to resolve issues and security interests. China has supplied the newly built world’s largest and strongest warship to Pakistan. India has begun to receive an S-400 anti-missile shield from Russia which has annoyed the US. It may be that the US takes some punitive measures.

But the crucial aspect of the arms race is not as significant between the smaller or developing countries as between the superpowers. The race for superior air power means manufacturing much more lethal combat planes. This may be understood from the neck to neck race between the US and Russia in reinforcing their air arsenal with the fifth-generation combat aircraft.

Russia showcased fifth-generation combat aircraft at the Dubai Airshow earlier last month. Besides the Middle East, Moscow is looking to market the Sukhoi-built warplane to India, Vietnam, and African countries.

The UAE has a $ 23 billion agreement with the US to procure Lockheed Martin stealth fighters and other weaponry. The promise of 50 F-35 Lightning II aircraft is a major chunk of this deal. But the US has put a condition that the finalization of the contract is dependent on Abu Dhabi’s involvement in the Yemen conflict. The US is evaluating the impact of this deal on Israel, a key customer of F-35 jets. According to US legislation of 2008, Washington is to assist Israel in maintaining its Qualitative Military Edge (QME). Israel desires superior military systems capable of defeating any credible existential threat to her.

Biden administration has reflected concerns about the UAE’s military dealings with China. It wants the Gulf state to terminate its 5G contract with controversial Chinese technology firm Huawei, which has been accused of corporate espionage by the US and seen as a security threat.

In this confusing situation, reports are that Abu Dhabi is interested in Russia’s Su-75. This was confirmed by a senior Russian technocrat at the Dubai Airshow 2021 adding that UAE’s representative would go in for a single-engine Su-75 Checkmate light tactical fighter of Sukhoi make. At the 2017 UAE defence show IDEX, Moscow had declared that the Russian company Rostec would co-develop a fifth-generation light combat fighter with Abu Dhabi. The Russian technocrat added, “We foresee that maybe in five years, we have the unmanned version of Checkmate controlled by artificial intelligence,”

India has been looking for Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) for nearly two decades. PAK FA, the project that developed the Su-57 fighter, was originally supposed to involve India and Russia. This was to be called the Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA). However, in 2018, India decided to pull out of the project owing to the Indian Air Force’s reported concerns regarding the stealth features and engines of the Su-57. Perhaps the IAF also factored in India’s indigenous projects currently in development, including the single-engine HAL Tejas Mark-2, also called Medium Weight Fighter (MWF). In an interview with the Hindustan Times, the former Indian Air Force Chief Bhadauria had said that IAF was keen on the integration of sixth-generation technologies into the AMCA. Currently, the Checkmate does not seem to have enough time to be ready to compete for the IAF’s requirement to buy 114 combat aircraft.

Thus we find that in an atmosphere of cutthroat competition based on advanced technology and consequent costs involved, there is a race among the superpowers to manufacture more and more lethal weapons and also find markets for them. India, still in need to arm her with highly sophisticated weaponry, must perforce make a choice and strike a deal. She may think of three choices before her regarding stealth combat aircraft which are Su-75 of Russia (an advanced version of Su-57), F-35 of the US make or the indigenous HAL Tejas Mark-2.

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