India is designated world's biggest arms importer: An unwanted victory - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 16 March 2023

India is designated world's biggest arms importer: An unwanted victory

A changing global environment can increase military risks

Unsigned edit in Business Standard

16th March 2023

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks global arms transfers, has reported that India remains the world’s biggest arms importer over the past five years (2018-2022). With an 11 per cent share of global arms imports, India was ahead of Saudi Arabia (9.6%), Qatar (6.4%), Australia (4.7%) and China (4.6%) in that order. Meanwhile the Ministry of Defence (MoD), in a written reply to Parliament this week, said India’s expenditure on overseas defence procurement had decreased from 46 per cent of our overall expenditure in 2018-19 to 36.7 per cent till December in 2022-23. Unlike China, which balances its large defence equipment imports with large weapons exports to countries such as Pakistan, India’s defence exports have remained largely flat.


According to the MoD’s statement, India exported defence equipment worth Rs 10,746 crore in 2018-19, and that increased only to Rs 13,399 crore this year. India’s defence industry has been looking for one high-value export breakthroughs – whether in Tejas fighters, BrahMos missiles, destroyers, frigates, air defence missiles, artillery guns, rocket launchers or airbase modernisation – but has mostly managed to get only low-value contracts for equipment such as ammunition and offshore patrol vessels. India’s defence production hubs are still learning the multiple dimensions of a weapons production eco-system – whether for aircraft flight control systems and computers; or fuselage and hull design; or a tank gunnery sighting and active armour protection systems – which would allow Indian industry to design, develop and manufacture carefully chosen systems and sub-systems that are essential parts of an overall weapons systems. 


It would also be essential to select the focus areas carefully. For instance, a lone UK-based company has produced aircraft ejection seats since 1946, dominating the international market and, according to company figures, has saved 7,691 lives through successful ejections till date. When a new fighter aircraft is developed, the manufacturer is most likely to approach this company for its ejection seats. Similarly, another UK-based company has been the market leader since 1934 in producing in-flight refuelling systems that allow combat aircraft to draw fuel during flight from a tanker aircraft. Two UK-based companies have been highlighted here because the Indian and British defence budgets are approximately the same.


However, given the advent of technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and quantum computing, Indian high-technology start-ups and medium, small and micro enterprises could establish themselves in dominating positions in these futuristic, game-changing fields. For this, coordination would be needed between ministries such as defence, science & technology and electronics & information technology. Besides, the defence ministry would be well advised to set reasonable targets and approach them in a coordinated fashion. Over the last six years, the goals have included expanding annual defence production to Rs 175,000 crore (Rs 1.75 trillion, and pushing up defence exports from $1.5 billion to $5 billion. However, exports are still at about $1.6 billion. In order to contain import dependence, the government has put in place a rolling ban on shipping in an increasing number of weapons platforms. But it must be recognized that even in the absence of a timely development of domestic capabilities, India’s defence preparedness should not suffer. Reducing dependence on imports needs a realistic strategy. Excessive import dependence could increase military vulnerability in the changing geopolitical environment.

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