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India: arms import

The foreign defence of India


Will India ever be able to indigenise its arms production in the future?
AMIR HOSSAIN | Issue Dated: February 2, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : Defence Minister of India | AK Antony | DRDO |

Several prophecies and predictions estimated that India will become a superpower by 2050. While being a superpower may have no effect on reducing on-ground poverty (and may in fact exacerbate the issue), the ground reality is that India’s march towards that peculiar superpower status has halted for a while. And one clear and present reason for the same is the lack of domestic competence in arms manufacturing – technology, skill, manufacturing base, all included – and even in related parts production. In consequence, the Indian defence industry has been much criticized for being too much dependant on arm imports rather than on domestic innovation; and such criticism has only increased recently, with our atypical neighbour China regularly showcasing benchmark advancements in indigenous defence production.

Of course, one could tom tom India's recent maiden mission to Mars (the Mars Orbiter Mission, launched on November 30, 2013) as being the stamp on India's technical brilliance. Even if one were to begrudgingly accept the hypothesis, the paradox would still remain on why Indian hasn't been able to replicate such skill at the defence manufacturing level. Take for example the Tejas light combat aircraft and Arjun main battle tank – hyped up as domestically made, these two exemplars over the decades have added glorious feathers to Indian defence. But shockingly, more than thirty years post its induciton, the Tejas is still only 60 per cent indigenous. It has an American engine, British ejection seat, Canadian canopy sheath, Israeli radar and more. The Arjun, which was first inducted in 1974, is worse, having around 55 per cent of imported parts. This is the sorry state of India's so called domestic defence production. This fact also clearly indicates the failure of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), which, despite being well connected with 50 laboratories as well as five defence PSUs, four shipyards and 50 ordnance factories, has not been able to master advanced defence equipment manufacturing.

On another front, unlike what happens in other countries, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has broadly failed to encourage the domestic private sector to participate actively in defence production. In the same lines, the sector has also drastically failed to attract foreign direct investment. For instance, the defence production sector has managed to attract merely $5 million in the last 14 years. If that was the design of the government, then it seems to have backfired. The current Defence Minister of India, AK Antony, has promoted the concept of indigenisation (apparently to also curb corruption significantly). However, no radical improvement has been witnessed during the last seven years that he has been at the helm in the Ministry of Defence. A Swedish research group, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) recently highlighted that India has taken the top spot replacing China as the world’s largest arms importer. India accounted for almost 10 per cent of all global arms buying. The report further added that “India purchased some $12.7 billion in arms, 80 percent of that from Russia, during 2007-2011. China’s arms purchases during that time were $6.3 billion, 78 percent of which came from Russia.” Thus India acquires around 65 per cent of military hardware and software from countries across the globe.

An article published in The Times of India recently classified the import content in several Indian military systems being developed by DRDO. As per the article, Airbone Early Warning & Control System, BrahMos Cruise Missile (a joint project with Russia) and Long Range Surface-to-Air Missile (joint project with Israel) contain import content of 67 per cent, 65 per cent and 60 per cent respectively. In the same light, the Combat Free Fall System contains 35 per cent, Nag Anti-Tank Missile contains 30 per cent and Electronic Warfare Systems contain 5-30 per cent import content. The list does not end here. Agni and Prithvi Missiles, and Pinaka also contain import content of 15 per cent and 10 per cent respectively. Uday Bhaskar, a retired commodore and leading strategic analyst, said in an Economic Times article recently, “More than 60 years after becoming a republic and 50 years after the debacle with China, the opaque Indian defense production establishment does not [even] produce high quality clothing and personal inventory items like boots, let alone a suitable rifle for a one million army, or tanks and aircraft.”

If high import content in some prestigious indigenous projects was not enough, then consider the much-touted transfer of technology (ToT) contracts with foreign manufacturers to build large defence projects. A senior Army official pointed out in media that “Indian PSUs focus more on just assembling knocked-down kits from foreign vendors instead of properly absorbing technologies... As per plans, HAL should have begun making Sukhois completely from raw material two-three years ago. But there has been a big delay. Moreover, the cost of each HAL-manufactured Sukhoi is almost Rs 100 crore more than if the same fighter was directly imported from Russia (the last 42 Sukhois ordered cost over Rs 450 crore each).” These are shocking figures.

India can take a cue from China which has significantly focussed on defence production rather than imports. Consequently, it has become the fastest growing arms exporter worldwide. China is now extensively selling fighter jets, warships, missiles and smaller arms to countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bolivia and Zambia. DRDO may defend itself by saying that funds allocated for defence R&D are not adequate. As a scientist pointed out recently in media, “We just get slightly over 5% of the total defence budget. The US defence R&D budget is around 12%, while China has 20%." This is a credible point. The Indian government has to take care of the issue. For domestic defence can never be left at the mercy of foreign part.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017