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, thanks to decades of collaboration, India’s major weapons are overwhelmingly — about 85% — of Russian origin. Moreover, 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 defense establishment is willing to make some hard choices.
The fact is that, like all developing nations, India confronts an impossible trinity when it comes to weapons programs: It cannot simultaneously achieve autonomy, affordability and quality.
Shifting toward buying more Western weapons systems and lessening its dependence on Russia, for instance, would bolster India’s autonomy. But the country would have to sacrifice affordability, meaning it wouldn’t be able to buy as much. India is spending $5.5 billion on the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile platform. The U.S.-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 to China, and benefit from the protection of their allies.
But India — with one prickly, giant neighbor to its north and one slightly smaller but still nuclear-armed neighbor to its west, and continents away from friends who could help in a conflict — is highly unlikely to want to rely on anyone else for essential defense requirements. In its last full-scale war with Pakistan, in 1971, India found itself constantly short of artillery shells and had to secretly import mortars from an Israel it didn’t even recognize at the time.
Defense 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 defense industry, building its own battle tank and jet. 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 tons and would collapse most bridges in the Punjab. (By contrast, Russia’s T-90 tank weighs less than 50 tons.) Meanwhile, the Indian Air Force has a long list of reasons why the Tejas 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 defense 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 defense industry?
Oddly, it’s probably politically safer for literal boatloads of cash to go to Russian or Western defense 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 defense companies, convince voters of the need for big military budgets, suffer through failures and scandals, and field less powerful weapons until they can develop better ones.
The task will be messy and politically difficult. They should probably get started.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, he is author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.”
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