Opinion | India's Growing Defence Needs Can Force It To Make A Tough Choice Soon

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The Stockholm Peace Research Institute's (SIPRI) annual report on the international arms market, released last month, compared two periods: 2018-2022 and 2019-2023. While substantial global changes occurred across the world, India, all the while, remained the highest importer of arms, accounting for nearly 10% of global imports in 2019-2023. 

Before talking about India though, it is important to acknowledge the change in Russia's position. International sanctions and domestic re-arming requirements following its invasion of Ukraine in 2022 pushed the country from being the second-largest arms exporter, just behind the United States, to the third-largest today. The second place is now claimed by France, while China retains the fourth position. India, both as an arms importer, and increasingly, an exporter too, will naturally have to adjust to these changed dynamics, primarily because Russia is a leading supplier of arms to the country. 

Russian Imports Waning

Though Russia is still the top supplier for India, the share of imports has decreased to 36%, compared to over 76% between 2009 and 2013. France was a close second, making up 33% of the imports in the 2019-2023 period, while the U.S. accounted for 13% of the imports. The slide in Russian imports, however, is not new and is a product of three well-known factors.

First, increasing threats from China have necessitated the need for more sophisticated weapons, and this has elevated the position of suppliers like the U.S., Israel, and France, which are more capable of supplying advanced systems. Second, the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2014 had already created obstacles in procuring Russian equipment. The subsequent invasion of Ukraine in 2022 exacerbated New Delhi's predicament as the U.S. sanctions regime threatened to hurt companies and countries that continued to import Russian products. Third, India's policy to domestically manufacture arms under the Make in India initiative promotes indigenous production.

Why India Needs More Sophisticated Equipment

India's demand for more sophisticated technology than what Russia can offer arises from the need to offset China's numerical superiority in weapons systems, from aircraft and drones to submarines and aircraft carriers. This is in line with the rationale underlying the US's 'Second Offset Strategy', which focuses on the development of precision weapons to counter Soviet numerical superiority in the European theatre.

Thus, among others, India last year acquired the Scorpene submarine from France and transferred the technology for indigenous production. It also acquired precision capabilities and munitions such as the Apache helicopters (with 12 Longbow radars), the Harpoon anti-ship missiles and the Excalibur guided artillery shells. The US approved the purchase of a contract of roughly $4 billion for the MQ9 Reaper and Hellfire missiles this year, a testament to India's continued reliance on US sophisticated technology and the deepening defence ties between the two countries.

Fallout Of The Russia-Ukraine War

The effects of the Russia-Ukraine war on Indian defence procurement cannot be understated. From 2014 onwards, sanctions imposed by the US and many other NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) states led to problems in financing Russian imports. Most important among them was the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) of 2017, which sought to penalise countries that acquired defence equipment from Russia. Although India has repeatedly managed to win waivers from these measures, they still add an extra set of diplomatic and security-related transaction costs.

Russia's loss of equipment in Ukraine in 2022 also stymied exports to India. Deliveries of pre-existing orders have hindered the Indian Air Force. Less commonly understood is the fact that because of its critical role in the Soviet defence industrial complex, Ukraine was also a defence supplier to India-especially in naval technology, like propulsion systems for Indian frigates-for complementary goods offered by Russia. This relationship is now over because of the war and the subsequent destruction of Ukraine's naval construction capacity.

India's push toward indigenous manufacturing of weapons is not new. Since the 1950s, India has sought to develop a domestic defence manufacturing sector with a combination of licensed production of foreign arms and indigenous development of new arms, through a group of public sector units and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). However, achievements like the Integrated Guided Missile Programme, initiated in the early 1980s, are exceptions. This has been due to both funding hassles for research and development and difficulty fulfilling the requirements issued by the armed forces. There is also criticism from some sections that requirements by the Indian military are allegedly modified and made more stringent for domestic manufacturers, while foreign firms are allowed to circumvent these. 

India's Strategic Reality

India has often used its imports to enhance its indigenisation efforts. Like Israel, this allows for affordable but higher quality products that are suited to Indian needs. For example, it uses indigenous components in combination with systems like radars from Israel and platforms like the Embraer 145 jet from Brazil, and the Airbus A-321 from France. India's Light Combat Aircraft, Tejas Mark 1, also has a GE-404 engine from the US and an ejection seat made by Martin-Baker of Britain. 

In conclusion, India's strategic position and realities today necessitate having a strong, functional military that's capable of patrolling the Indian Ocean and maintaining border deterrence. There is now a complex choice that India has avoided making for years: rely either on Western states led by the US or on an increasingly inconsistent Russia. While the first option draws India further into an alignment with the existing global order, the latter requires dealing with a country that's beset with increased domestic demand, a sanctioned industrial base, and failing exports. 

There is a third option too, though this will require both time and policy commitment-developing a defence industrial base capable of equipping the world's third-largest military in terms of spending

(Benjamin Tkach is an Associate Professor of Political Science, Mississippi State University, and Vasabjit Banerjee is Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Tennessee, Knoxville)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.