India Tops Global List in Arms Imports, Belies Govt's Tall Claims of 'Atmanirbharta'

According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's latest report, India accounted for 11% of total global imports in the 2018-22 period. Its exports in the corresponding period declined.

Chandigarh: India continues to top the global list of defence equipment importers, despite grandiose claims by the Union government of having rapidly localised its materiel procurements under its much-touted ‘Atmanirbharta’ initiative to achieve self-sufficiency in this regard.

According to the March 2023 report by Sweden’s Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) entitled Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2022, India accounted for 11% of all weapon imports in the 2018-22 period, down from 12% in the 2013-17 period. Saudi Arabia (9.6%), Qatar (6.4%), Australia (4.7%) and China (4.6%) followed India in terms of procurement of foreign defence equipment in the four-year period till 2022.

Alongside, India’s share of defence equipment exports, also unquestioningly touted by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), which equalled 0.2% in SIPRI’s previous 2022 report, had fallen off its charts in its current analysis. In February, at AeroIndia-2023 in Bangalore, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated that his government’s vaunted intent to enhance five-fold India’s annual defence exports to $5 billion by 2024-25, up from $1.5 billion presently.

Also read: Decoding the Defence Ministry’s Cryptic Claims About Arms Exports

The 12-page report by SIPRI – known for researching conflicts, global armaments trade and related military and security issues and activity – reveals that India’s position as the world’s largest arms importer had endured between 1992-2022, despite an overall reduction of 11% from 2013 onwards.

“India’s tensions with Pakistan and China, largely drive its demand for arms imports,” declares SIPRI’s report. Expectedly, Russia remained India’s largest materiel provider from 2013 to 2022, even though overall purchases from Moscow had dropped from 64% to 45% during this decade. According to SIPRI, it was due to India widening its overseas armaments supply pool, increased local production and more recently – since early 2022 – ‘constraints’ on Russian weapon exports as a consequence of widespread sanctions on Moscow for invading Ukraine.

Military exports by Pakistan, on the other hand, increased by 14% between 2013-17 and 2018-22 and accounted for 3.7% of the global total. China supplied over three quarters (77%) of Pakistan’s arms imports in 2018-22, as per SIPRI.

Furthermore, SIPRI maintains that US arms exports accounted for 40% of all global military commerce between 2018-22, some 14% higher than the preceding four-year period. French defence exports for the analogous period too had increased by 44% between 2013 and 2022, while Russian (by 31%), Chinese (by 23%) and German (by 35%) materiel sales had declined for the corresponding years by 31%, 23% and 35% respectively, declares SIPRI. Interestingly, SIPRI confirms that between them the US and France controlled 51% of the world’s entire arms trade between 2018-22, up from 40.1% over the previous four years, ending 2017.

The SIPRI report says that Ukraine has predictably emerged as the third largest importer of major arms in 2022, after Qatar and India, accounting for 2% of global arms sales. And with 35% of materiel exports to Ukraine, the US topped the list of 29 states which had supplied weaponry and related equipment to Kyiv following the February 2022 Russian invasion; Poland with 17%, Germany with 11%, Britain with 10% and the Czech Republic with 4.4% were some of the others to bolster Ukraine’s military capability.

‘India to remain a net importer in long-term’

Incidentally, parliament was told on Monday, March 13, that expenditure on defence procurement from foreign sources decreased from 46% in 2018-19 to 36.7% as of December 2022. The minister of state for defence, Ajay Bhatt, told the Rajya Sabha this in a written reply.

But a cross-section of military veterans and analysts said India would remain a ‘net materiel importer’ in the medium- to long-term, as it struggled, shorn of official hype, to make ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ a success in locally designing and manufacturing military platforms and equipment for all three services.

Brigadier Rahul Bhonsle (retired) of the Security Risks Consultancy in Delhi told The Wire that, for starters, India was poised to acquire 114 combat aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF) and at least 26 more for the Indian Navy (IN) for deployment aboard the newly commissioned aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, which together were worth an estimated $45 billion.

INS Vikrant. Photo: Arun Prakash/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

All three services, he said, were also primed to acquire 18 armed General Atomics-Aeronautics Systems Incorporated (GA-ASI) MQ-9B Reaper/Sea Guardian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – down for an earlier requirement of 30 units – for around $2-1.5 billion, alongside other sundry purchases that would collectively confirm India’s future pre-eminence as one of the world’s leading weapon importers. “Importing defence equipment will remain a reality for many years to come, despite best efforts at indigenising defence needs,” Brig Bhonsle added.

Attempts by the MoD at sourcing military kit domestically, by embargoing the import of some 410 platforms and associated apparatus from 2020 onwards, were yet to pay dividends, industry and military officials said. But as a three-star retired IAF officer observed, this laudable objective had been ‘side-tracked’ by ‘grandiose’ claims by not only the service chiefs, but also MoD officials, of having already achieved widespread Atmanirbharta. But the reality, he cautioned, was starkly different.

Also read: Why It’s Time for a Reality Check on ‘Atmanirbharta’ in India’s Defence Manufacturing

The former fighter pilot likened the ongoing Atmanirbhar narrative to the literary folktale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, in which all concerned people feared to point out the obvious truth that the ‘Make in India’ initiative was not an ‘instant’ enterprise and would take an extended period and large scale investment to even partially fructify. “It (Atmanirbharta) will also necessitate a more flexible policy approach to implement in order to deliver results,” the officer stated and warned against the MoDs prevailing ‘hidebound and impractical procedures’ which were ‘wholly unsuited’ to this endeavour.

Besides, Indian defence equipment exports, especially of local military platforms, too were afflicted by problems of quality control. The recent grounding of the entire fleet of some 300-odd Dhruv Advanced Light helicopters (ALH) and its variants- flaunted often as a ‘hot’ export possibility- after one of them ditched into the Arabian Sea last week. This is bound to be a setback to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) which designed and manufactured the 5.8 tonne, twin-engine rotary platform.

Officials said over 20-odd ALH and its derivatives had been involved in accidents since HAL began series producing them in 2002. There have been several military personnel and civilian deaths too in those accidents.

Not included in this tally of accidents were four of seven ALHs which had crashed soon after HAL exported them to the Ecuador Air Force (EAF) in 2008-09 for $42.5 million. These crashes led to Ecuador eventually terminating its ALH contract with HAL in October 2015, in a major setback to what was then the first-ever major export of an indigenous military platform.

At the time Ecuadorian defence minister Fernando Cordero had told reporters in the capital Quito, that two of these four crashes were due to ‘mechanical failure’, and that the remaining three Dhruvs had subsequently been grounded by the EAF. HAL, for its part, countered those claims by maintaining that ‘human error’ was responsible for two of the four Dhruv crashes.

The termination of the ALH purchases by the Ecuadorians was, without doubt, a serious stumbling block for HAL in a field where flight safety remains the primary concern, and where competition from established Western helicopter manufacturers in the US and Europe existed. The recent grounding of ALHs – and not for the first time – also comes soon after HAL chief C.B. Anathkrishnan had claimed at DefExpo-2022 in Gandhinagar last October that ALH and its derivatives had ‘immense’ export potential.

“Considering the government’s heightened pitch for exporting Indian defence equipment and platforms, the ALH still remains a work in progress and will have to earn all prospective importers’ trust in its operational efficiency before securing customers,” said a senior industry official.  Its reliability will be the key to its success as a saleable product, he cautioned, declining to be identified.