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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Indigenous weapons will have to wean India off Russian arms

Indigenous weapons will have to wean India off Russian arms

American aid cannot resolve India’s impossible trinity on defence

India’s $5.5 billion bill for Russia’s S-400 missile platform counts as a bargain  (Photo: Reuters)Premium
India’s $5.5 billion bill for Russia’s S-400 missile platform counts as a bargain  (Photo: Reuters)

The Indian government’s unwillingness to condemn Russia forcefully for its invasion of Ukraine seems to have woken up leaders in Washington an old problem: How to wean India’s military off its dependence on Russian arms. According to Bloomberg News, the US is considering a $500 million defence package for India to finance the purchase of US weapon systems.

While half a billion dollars may seem like a lot of money, it really isn’t when compared to the scale of the problem. Until recently, India bought almost all its frontline weaponry from Russia. Researchers at the Stimson Center calculate that India’s major weapons are still overwhelmingly—about 85%—of Russian origin. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says that “new orders [from India] for a variety of Russian arms in 2019–20 … will probably lead to an increase in Russian arms exports in the coming five years."

Fixing the problem is going to take time. And it won’t happen unless the Indian defence establishment is willing to make some hard choices. Like all developing nations, New Delhi confronts an impossible trinity: It cannot simultaneously achieve autonomy, affordability and quality.

Shifting toward buying more Western weaponry and lessening its dependence on Russia, for instance, would bolster India’s autonomy. But the country would have to sacrifice affordability, so it wouldn’t be able to buy as much. India is spending $5.5 billion on Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile platform. The US-made Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system costs about six times that much and isn’t even as versatile.

Suppose India wants both affordability and quality? Well, some countries have historically gotten by with fewer but more potent weapons, often because they’re closely tied to the West or China and benefit from the protective shields of their allies.

But India—with one prickly neighbour to its north and a smaller but still nuclear-armed neighbour to its west, and continents away from friends who could help in a conflict—is unlikely to want to rely on anyone else for essential defence requirements. In its last full-scale war with Pakistan, in 1971, India found itself short of artillery shells and had to secretly import mortars from an Israel it didn’t even recognize at the time.

Defence planners’ memories are long. Insufficient weapons on hand represent a loss of autonomy that no Indian government could possibly countenance.

For decades, India has tried to establish a local defence industry, building its own battle tanks and jets. Unfortunately, our military hates the results—the Arjun tank and the Tejas fighter. The Arjun, the Indian Army complains, can’t be part of any battle plans on the canal-heavy, militarized border with Pakistan: It weighs almost 70 tonnes and would collapse most bridges in Punjab. By contrast, Russia’s T-90 tank weighs less than 50 tonnes. Meanwhile, the Indian Air Force has a long list of reasons why the Tejas fighter jet is not good enough: Its payload is smaller than the F-16’s, the plane takes too long to service, and so on.

In the short run, indigenization offers affordability and autonomy at the cost of quality. The question is whether India has the patience and political will to fight through early stumbles. China’s government invested for decades in the Shenyang J-8 fighter jet, which was significantly less-sophisticated than other interceptors of its time. Indian defence analysts might point out that it’s only through buying large numbers of subpar equipment, for decades, that China finally built the Chengdu J-20 stealth jet, which may well be a “near peer" of US fifth-generation fighters.

Of course, Chinese leaders didn’t have to deal with constant leaks to a free press from an incensed air force. And then there’s the fact that, in India at least, you are going to have to produce many, if not most, of these new jets and tanks and ships in the private sector. Are Indian politicians—and, more importantly, voters—willing to accept the delays and opacities associated with a bigger defence industry?

Oddly, it’s probably politically safer for literal boatloads of cash to go to Russian or Western defence companies than for a much smaller sum be paid to some Indian oligarch. The Indian state’s toxic relationship with the private sector is one of the biggest obstacles to indigenizing weapons production.

Nevertheless, that’s what needs to be done. If Indian leaders want a reliable and affordable pipeline of weapons of decent quality that arrive quickly enough to deter an aggressive China, they are going to have to fund homegrown defence companies, convince voters of the need for big military budgets, suffer failures and scandals, and field less powerful weapons until they can develop better ones. The task will be messy and politically difficult. India should probably get started.

Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, and author of ‘Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy

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Updated: 22 May 2022, 10:24 PM IST
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