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India to display military might at Republic Day parade

India flexes its military muscles on Thursday as it showcases its latest defense arsenal at the 68th Republic Day parade.

January 23, 2017: A full dress rehearsal for the Republic Day parade in New Delhi. On January 26, 2017 India will celebrate its 68th Republic Day with a large military parade.
Raj K Raj / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
January 23, 2017: A full dress rehearsal for the Republic Day parade in New Delhi. On January 26, 2017 India will celebrate its 68th Republic Day with a large military parade.

New Delhi's army, navy and air force are known to pull out all the stops at the annual affair, which historically serves as a platform to commemorate technological defense advancement. Republic Day marks the day the Indian constitution came into effect in 1950; India's independence day, achieved in 1947, is celebrated on Aug. 15.

2017's edition will be no different, especially amid a shaky global geopolitical environment. "This year, expect more of an emphasis on naval power projection capabilities, given ongoing uncertainty in the South China Sea," warned Paul Burton, director of defense industry and budgets at IHS Jane's.

Unlike its Southeast Asian neighbors, India is not a player in the territorial conflict but it closely monitors Chinese assertiveness for implications on Indian interests in the region.

At every Republic Day parade, New Delhi plays host to a new guest of honor, with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan taking the seat this year; previous guests have included former U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande.

Here's a summary of the main highlights on tap, according to Vaibhav Sahgal, consultant at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

  1. On the air side, expect a flypast of 27 aircrafts, a marching contingent led by the official band of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and a tableau. The first phase will begin by four Mi-17 V5 helicopters in an 'ensign' or inverted-Y-shaped formation, followed by three Mi-35 helicopters in a 'chakra' or wheel-shaped formation, and supplanted by three C-130J Super Hercules aircrafts. A C-17 aircraft and two Su-30 MKI aircrafts will then come after in a 'globe' formation.

  2. This year, two entrants will make their parade debut: the domestic Light Combat Aircraft as well as an appearance by the National Security Guard, the national counter-terrorism force.

  3. The Indian Navy meanwhile is set to showcase the Kolkata class destroyer INS Chennai and the Kalvari class attack submarines—models that will soon form the core of the navy's conventional submarine arm.

An expanding defense budget

India made it into the top five list of global military spenders for the first time last year, debuting at no. 4 and overtaking both Saudi Arabia and Russia, according to IHS Jane's. India's pace of expenditure could hit $65 billion by 2020, from $50.7 billion in 2016, which would firmly establish India as the third largest defense market in the world, said Burton of IHS.

"Double digit nominal growth in defense expenditure is expected to be sustained over the next five years barring a major deterioration in the economic or fiscal landscape," he continued, adding that despite a challenging short term budgetary environment, the Bharatiya Janata Party government appears to have generally improved growth prospects.

But fiscal constraints aside, political considerations are also a major factor in defense growth. India's military budget is tied to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's increasingly assertive foreign policy stance, noted the EIU's Sahgal.

"India's competition with China for influence in South Asia will remain a key obstacle to improved Sino-Indian ties in 2017-21. India will also seek to build closer ties with key Asian partners such as Japan and Vietnam, partly with a view to containing China's influence in Asia."

China, the world's no. 2 military spender and New Delhi's chief rival in the region, will undoubtedly be closely watching Thursday's parade; Beijing displays its own military prowess at its annual World War II anniversary march in September.

India's thorny relationship with Pakistan in the disputed Kashmir region could also influence defense spending.

"The risk of cross border military incidents has increased since an attack on an Indian army base in Kashmir in September 2016, and could rise further should the U.S. take a more isolationist stance in South Asia," Sahgal warned.

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