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Why India lags behind in the arms race


FLYING HIGH: The latest model of the US's OH-58 D Kiowa Warrior helicopter is primarily operated in an armed reconnaissance role in support of ground troops

The two world wars followed by the Cold War and a decade of ill-judged campaigns in the Middle East have ensured that the US keeps pouring money into its military industrial complex. India, on the other hand, has chosen to buy its way out of trouble.

When America belatedly joined World War I in 1917, its troops were so under-resourced that they often found themselves dressed in British uniforms and firing French artillery guns. Wholly unprepared for war, US factories rushed to start producing weapons, but when they finally came off the assembly line, the shipyards had still not completed the ships needed to get them across the Atlantic. Few American-made weapons ever made it to the frontline.

That war proved a major turning point for America's defence industry. Determined to learn from its failure, the government set up the Army Industrial College in 1924, tasked with studying mobilisation and weapons production. Over the next few years, a raft of measures were introduced that kept weapons production in the efficient hands of the private sector, while ensuring close government supervision and guarantees that it would get what it needed in times of crisis.

World War II became a testing ground for this new set-up. After a rocky start, the US defence industry roared into life and by the end of the war in 1945, it had produced half of all the weapons made worldwide during the conflict. No sooner had the factories started to wind down production than fighting in Korea kick-started the Cold War and a 40-year arms race with the Soviet Union and its allies. Today, the US military-industrial complex dwarfs the rest of the world, and the past decade of ill-judged campaigns in the Middle East have kept money pouring into innovative new ways of killing people.

What lessons can India's cripplingly inefficient defence sector learn from the US and the rest of the world? The question is not straight-forward, since the experiences of other countries are tied up with these kind of major historical and geopolitical events that forced the hand of policy-makers.

India has not faced comparable moments of crisis. The calamitous war with China in 1962 shook India out of its lethargy to some extent, but it was still too poor and focused on domestic priorities to radically reinvent its defence institutions. The threat from Pakistan drove a successful nuclear programme and encouraged the government to spend plenty of money on foreign aircraft and weapons systems, but there have been few serious incentives for the government to unpack the piles of red tape throttling the Ministry of Defence and its domestic procurement programmes.

The Kargil War of 1999 prompted an urgent review of intelligence and decision-making, but there were fewer concerns about equipment: French Mirage fighters, for instance, worked just fine and helped India win the war. "India's strategy has been to buy its way out of trouble, and up to a point, that has worked, " says James Hardy, Asia-Pacific editor for Jane's Defence Weekly.

If India is serious about making itself more self-sufficient in defence production, it will require more than a few policy tweaks;an entirely new mindset is needed. Look at the world's major weapons exporters, countries like Britain or France, and you find defence industries at the very heart of their government's economic and foreign policies. During the Cold War, weapons sales were integral to their status in the world, allowing them a degree of autonomy beyond the dominance of the US and Soviet Union, and providing a way to cement alliances with Arab and Asian countries. Streamlining institutions and pouring billions into defence research and development were major national priorities, in a way they have not been for India. Given some of the despicable moral choices made by Western defence contractors in selling weapons to murderous regimes, this may not be such a bad thing.

As well as a new mindset at top government levels, there would also have to be a dramatic transformation in the way India's cossetted defence manufacturers are run. Having never competed to sell weapons internationally, there is simply no pressure for them to turn into the dynamic, innovative organisations one finds in Europe, or in relatively new entrants in Israel, South Korea or Singapore. This also means that Indian companies are ill-equipped to absorb 'offsets' - the technological know-how and investment that comes as sweeteners in international defence deals - which could encourage more rapid progress.

India is hardly alone in staying out of this game. "The fact is that only a very small number of countries have demonstrated an ability to build high-quality, indigenously-produced weapons systems, " says Shashank Joshi, of the Royal United Services Institute in London. Even China, which has undergone a startling shift from importer to exporter of weapons over the past two decades, is still hugely reliant on foreign suppliers when it comes to top-end equipment. It can now build high-tech fighter aircraft, but the jet engines that propel them still come from Russia.

China clearly has more efficient procurement methods than India, partly because sanctions restrict it from buying most European and American weapons. But China has also upset a lot of people getting to its current level. Its success has been built on a vast network of industrial espionage in order to steal technology from the West, while also reverse-engineering the equipment it buys from places like Russia so that it can make iton the cheapin the future. This may be efficient, but it burns a lot of diplomatic bridges.

None of this is to suggest that India's defence industry should not bother with reform. Its reliance on foreign imports leads to myriad corruption scandals and means billions of dollars are diverted from tackling poverty. It has failed to create efficient defence firms that could employ tens of thousands of people and drive all sorts of innovation.

But the forces that drive a country to become a successful producer of weapons often emerge out of specific historical and geopolitical circumstances, and raise their own difficult ethical questions.

Randolph is a contributing analyst for IHS Jane's.

Reader's opinion (2)

Amit Apr 22nd, 2013 at 19:44 PM

Very sad state of affairs for Indian Defence industries, DRDO, HAL, and other defence industries under MOD has turned white elephant. Defence industries have never been in focus for Indian government and buying has been a sole answer for its defence needs. Still scenerio is same.

Ganesh Babu N RApr 21st, 2013 at 23:03 PM

India produces millions of engineering graduates...but as of today I have not seen one world class knife or scissors or nail cutters indigeneously designed and manufactured. Eric is new to India I guess.

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