Weapon diplomacy, the spanner in India’s ambition to export arms

Global arms sales have risen again, since 2010, and currently, India is in the top few of the world, with imports at 13% of the world’s arms bazaar. So, what is it that India is missing out on?

While there is still considerable uncertainty about a trade deal that could come out of Mr Donald Trump’s visit to India – with both sides wanting a win-win outcome – one of the certainties of Mr Trump’s visit is a favourable defence deal for the American arms industry, with India slated to buy another batch of about USD 7 billion worth of helicopters and drones from the US. It is the sort of bait that the US establishment has come to accept as a given, as India is the world’s second-largest arms importer after Saudi Arabia. In 2018 the Saudis have splurged on military platforms worth USD 68 billion, and most of it from the US. Even other Gulf countries like the UAE and Qatar are amongst the top buyers of western military equipment. It is an indirect method of buying an American security umbrella since many deals have in-built training and support staff options added to them.

India’s case is, however, different since we are neither flush with funds nor do we need training or military staff, as our armed forces are regarded to be extremely professional and up to ‘NATO standards’. What India needs is value-for-money products with assured hi-end technology transfers, so that we can seriously move towards our goal of ‘make in India’ sooner than later. And as we wouldn’t buy Chinese products – even though China has cheaper ‘çopy-cat’ versions of US aircraft and drones – America’s big weapons’ manufacturers – like Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon – are very keen to sell their products to India, as the Gulf market is being targetted with less expensive but equally effective Russian and Chinese military system. And Russia still has very deep roots within the Indian armed forces, with about 60 per cent of India’s inventory still being Russian.

Arms exporters thus wait every two years for a Def-Expo. Last week there was another big Def- Expo in Lucknow – though that city is hardly suited for hosting such an event – as many visitors learnt to their horror when virtually all half-decent hotels were priced at 10 times their rack rates – and those in the business of selling defence equipment or manufacturing are not based in UP. Announcements were made by the PM and the RM as to how this event will create millions of jobs and bring in thousands of crores of investments to UP.

Similar expectations are aroused every two years when a Def-Expo is held in India. This until the past few years has been held in the state where the Indian defence minister hails from, as was the case with this year’s venue – Lucknow – and has been the case with the past two def-expos in Chennai and Goa. But this is unlikely to please those who travel from across the world to display their products as neither the defence minister give them enough time perhaps for fear of the media inferring a deal in the offing! And worse still the logistical limitations that inconvenience mid-level service officers from attending these Def-Expos outside of Delhi (since the capital has enough facilities to house large bodies of service officers). This is not quite understood by politicians and their mandarins, who do not have to face such problems. Delhi/NCR is clearly a better venue.

On another note, those big companies that eye the Indian market based on the fact that India ranks amongst the top defence buyers in the world, often forget that India’s defence purchases are a long drawn out process where despite endless trials and delays (as the Rafale deal has shown) India spends way below China, which is now the world’s second-highest spender. But then China spends only a third of the US, which at over USD 600 billion is still the world’s pre-eminent military superpower. Even then the Def-Expo still brings in companies from the US, Russia and the EU, in that order, for whom arms are a key export, even though ironically, they claim to be the champions of world peace. No wonder, the former US president Jimmy Carter had said during his Presidential campaign in 1976: “We can’t have it both ways. We can’t be both the world’s leading champion of peace and the world’s leading supplier of arms” he was ridiculed for his soft approach.

Those opposed to the arms industry highlight that there is too much attention focused on nuclear and chemical weapons (as sanctions and talks with Iran have shown), but little is done to curb the sales of conventional weapons. Some of these weapons- like artillery and rockets are supplied in large sums to rebel groups by world powers, depending on whom they support. These too, have a devastating effect on unarmed civilians. It is this moral dilemma that has, until now, prevented India, from resorting to arms exports. The West, Russia and China have no such compunction. No one really cares for the high moral ground India adopts, not the least those countries that shape world opinion.

Global arms sales have risen again, since 2010, and currently, India is in the top few of the world, with imports at 13% of the world’s arms bazaar. Almost all of India’s procurement being ‘vendor’ driven, not need or capability driven, leading commentators to say, India has an ‘ad hoc’ arsenal. In fact, it is said that while most powerful countries – and these are also the biggest manufacturers – often make a strategic doctrine and then manufacture or buy weapons to service that need; India has always bought weapons and created its doctrines around them! This is partly because of the Indian military’s insistence on the best or nothing, has given Indian defence companies little or no windows for growth, and partly due the Ministry of Defence (MoD) insisting on protecting its public sector companies (HAL, BEML, etc.) and thus not allowing our local industry to grow. Thus, India’s defence exports are about 2% of what it produces.

There is, however, a demand for a few unique Indian products, like the Brahmos missile even in developed countries, and also in countries like Vietnam, that has now joined the ranks of the top 10 arms importers. This must be encouraged, to enhance India’s diplomatic clout and to bring in foreign exchange. And there is a lesson that India could learn from China. From being one of the (2nd) largest importers, China is now amongst biggest (and 2nd largest) exporters, as much of its equipment is picked up by the Pakistanis, who in the past at least, have used US grants to buy from the Chinese! And now with Saudi Arabia keen to localise defence spending – from 2% to half its outlay by 2030 – the Chinese are eyeing a part of the Saudi market, having already set up a drone factory there. The question is could India one day do the same as the Chinese, or will it keep buying arms from countries to garner their diplomatic support like we have been doing more recently with the US?

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