Defence minister AK Antony (second from right wearing a cap) goes around the stalls at the 8th Defexpo India in New Delhi. File picture
New Delhi, March 9: Of the 30 countries that attended a defence exposition last month to sell weapons to India, the world’s largest arms importer, only the Russians had the chutzpah to dress up their tanks and guns with women in tight-fitting camouflage.
The confident and sexy display reflected Russia’s long-time position as India’s dominant military provider, but decades of effort by India to make its own hardware may finally be bearing fruit. India recently rolled out its own fighter jet, a tank, a mobile howitzer and a host of locally made ships.
If India succeeds, the Russians could be in trouble. Russia has nearly $39 billion worth of military equipment on order by India, representing nearly a third of Russia’s total arms exports.
India’s defence minister, A.K. Antony, said at a news conference during the exposition that the country’s reliance on foreign arms makers must end. “A growing India still depending on foreign companies for a substantial part of our defence needs is not a happy situation,” he said.
Whether India can break its import addiction is anyone’s guess, but many arms analysts are sceptical. India is expected to spend about $11 billion this year buying weapons from abroad, despite decades of effort by the government to create a domestic military manufacturing sector.
“I don’t think there’s another country in the world that has tried as hard as India to make weapons and failed as thoroughly,” said Pieter D. Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which studies global security.
Wezeman said he was sceptical that India’s new products would change that history, saying that its fighters, tanks and guns were “of questionable quality”.
India ranks eighth in the world in military spending. Among the top 10 weapons buyers, only Saudi Arabia has a less productive home-grown military industry. China, by contrast, has been so effective that it is beginning to export higher-technology arms.
India’s main problem as an arms manufacturer is a corrupt and inefficient government sector that has neither the expertise to develop top-notch weapons nor the wherewithal to make them in abundance, said Manoj Joshi, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a policy group based in New Delhi.
In one telling example, India could buy fully assembled Russian Sukhoi fighters for about $55 million each, but instead mostly relies on kits that are sent to the government-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, which assembles them at a cost of about $68 million each — nearly a quarter more.
In another example, government labs spent billions trying to develop an aircraft engine, only to abandon the effort and buy engines from General Electric for the recently introduced fighter, the Tejas.
“While it’s more complicated assembling Sukhois than putting together an Ikea flat-pack, it’s not that hard,” said Samuel Perlo-Freeman, a programme director at the Stockholm institute. “And it’s far from an independent and autonomous development of a new weapons system.”
India has tried to encourage private companies to make arms in India, both in partnerships with the government and independently, but few of these efforts have succeeded. Most of India’s home-grown arms are developed in 50 government labs and built at eight large government manufacturing facilities and 40 government ordnance factories.
Companies have mostly been unwilling to work with the Centre, and the government has not allowed foreign makers to own more than 26 per cent of any Indian factory. It has agreed to raise that limit to 49 per cent, but no company has applied for the exception.
Antony dismissed criticisms of the government’s chokehold on arms production. “Indian scientists and Indian industry are more efficient, and the government will have to support them,” he said.
But Joshi said India’s government needed to get out of manufacturing. “Our defence industrial base is hopelessly out of date,” he said. “It needs to be dismantled and handed over to the private sector.”
That has left the door open for countries like Russia, whose arms deliveries to India reached a record level in 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available, rising 50 per cent from 2011. In the previous five years, India bought 12 per cent of the world’s arms imports, and Russia accounted for 79 per cent of India’s deliveries, according to the Stockholm institute.