THe US commitment to rearm Pakistan has triggered a major defense review among Indian military planners convinced that India will be the ultimate target of its neighbor's new weaponry.
With much of the defense review centered on how -- not if -- India will augment its own hardware to counter the perceived Pakistani threat, there appears little doubt that the Indian subcontinent is headed into a costly new arms race. New aircraft will figure prominently in light of the US decision to sell Pakistan high performance F-16 fighter bombers.
A Western military expert flatly predicts "a lot" of new arms deals between India and the Soviet Union, its major defense supplier. The deals, he said, would be well in excess of the $1.6 billion arms credit package concluded between the two countries last year.
Moscow supplied the arms of cut-rate prices and terms; at conventional rates, according to a common Western assessment, India would have had to pay $6 billion to $8 billion for equivalent equipment in the West.
"You're going to see more Soviet equipment in here, that's for sure," said the military observer, who also foresaw more Soviet technical assistance for India's substantial indigenous defense industry.
India also buys arms and licenses for their local manufacture from an array of Westernsuppliers. Its policy, according to defense officials recently quoted in the Indian press, "is not to be tied down to any one source."
The country is midway through a five-year modernization program for its armed forces, the fourth-largest in the world, following those of China, the USSR, and the United States.
India's military is numerically superior to Pakistan's on every score: 944, 000 army personnel compared to Pakistan's 408,000; an Air Force of 113,000 compared to Pakistan's 17,600; 47,000 navy personnel vs. Pakistan's 13,000; and 630 combat planes against Pakistan's 256, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
But it is the prospect of technologically advanced new armaments entering Pakistan's arsenal, courtesy of the United States, that causes concern.
Like other defense establishments around the world, the Indian military wants to stay ahead of its potential enemies. The upshot will be an acceleration of ongoing armed forces modernization drive.
Maintaining Indian air superiority is a key concern. The highly sophisticated F-16s Pakistan plans to buy will be new to the subcontinent and, in the opinion of some Indian defense analysts, will match or beat the strike and defense capabilities of India's British-built Jaguars, Indian-made MIG-21s, and Russian-built MIG-23s.
The United States is to sell Pakistan an unspecified number of F-16s on an "urgent" basis for cash, which Pakistan has said will be supplied by "our Islamic friends," presumably Saudi Arabia.
These initial F-16 cash sales would be in advance of and in addition to the equipment Pakistan would acquire under the Reagan administration's proposed $3 billion package of military credits and economic aid.
The credits and aid package would not be available to Pakistan until fall 1982, and there are some "ifs" involved -- chiefly, getting the US Congress to waive the Symington Amendment, which forbids such aid to countries suspected of having nuclear weaponry ambitions.
But cash sales are not covered by the Symington Amendment, and Pakistan could theoretically put the F-16s in the air as soon as the planes are available for delivery, the pilots are trained, and Pakistan comes up with the cash.
India is already planning to buy MIG-25s from the Soviet Union. The arrangement was firmed up months before the United States agreed to sell F-16s to Pakistan, according to a Western military analyst.
To meet the immediate challenge of the F-16s, according to commentaries published here, India is likely to step up its MIG-23 and MIG-25 purchases and update the electronic systems of its locally manufactured MIG-21s.
As a longer-range step, India is considering the French- built Mirage 2000. It is reported to be in the final stages of negotiating both some straight-out Mirage 2000 purchases, when the plane becomes available for sale in about two years, and arrangements to manufacture the plane locally under license.