by Bhartendu Kumar Singh

Emphasis on domestic production could usher in a real game change in India's quest for military power. Foreign imports of weapons do not make good economics. They are certainly bad from the philosophical and public policy perspectives. We ought to evaluate these imports through the prism of ethical assumptions or simply nationalism.

EVERY time defence weapons are imported, they are dubbed as gamechangers. The so-called quantum edge enjoyed by new weapons over similar category weapons in the environment facilitates import decisions. However, 'weapons as gamechangers' is a subjective and speculative statement since there are many variables affecting the so-called advantage of weapons. Also, imported weapons come at a financial and technological cost and take the wind out of the game-changing hypothesis in the long term. 

The history of warfare has seen many gamechanging weapons such as tanks (WWI) or submarines and nuclear weapons (WWII). However, superior weapons have not always won the day. The battle of Longewala (1971) ended with an Indian triumph due to better leadership. Similarly, the surrender of Pakistani forces at Dhaka in 1971 was made possible due to better mobilisation of troops, superior strategic planning and politico-military leadership. Making casual predictions about game-changing imported weapons and technologies, therefore, could be flawed propositions since they create, at best, 'strategic dependency' through perpetuation of imports. 

Weapons Not always Game-Changers

Empirical experiences reveal many constraints for imported weapons being projected as game-changers:

1 The defence industry is a dynamic field, like the IT industry, where generational changes take place very fast. The 'logic of military necessity' warrants high level of innovation leading to quick technological obsolescence. Warfare tools change drastically over the years. Military industrial technology that was the fashion 10 years ago (like drones) is fast metamorphosing towards obsolescence. Every now and then, the edge enjoyed by some countries in select areas of military industry is challenged by 'disruptive technology' getting innovated in some other countries. 

2 The international arms market is dominated by seller countries due to lack of competition in the market. Superior and futuristic weapons from these countries often come at prohibitive costs since, oligopoly apart, there is substantial investment by seller countries in R&D, testing, design and prototype costs. Fluid security situation and stasis in domestic military industrial complexes (MIC) in many Asian counties compel them to pay heavy costs.

3 The game-changing advantage of any weapon will be there till others don't have it. For example, no sooner had India and Russia announced the agreement on the S-400 air defence system, that China announced the sale of advanced drones to Pakistan. At the end of the day, it only leads to an arms race and the consequential security dilemma for these buyer countries remains in situ.

India has been the numero uno weapons importer for quite some years. Between 2007 and 2017, it spent a whopping $34.92 billion on imports, way ahead of Saudi Arabia's figure of $19.59 billion, placed at number two. The 'Make in India' emphasis notwithstanding, import figures have remained in situ. Thus, it is debatable if the intended game-changing capabilities were developed since the ephemeral leads were, and are, being challenged through concurrent weapons procurement and development in the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and China. Perpetual dependency on imports has stymied our capabilities for innovation, scientific thinking and capabilities to produce cutting-edge weapons technology. 

Our defence PSUs are, at best, assembly garages for licensed production of archival weapons or simply producing off-the-shelves weapons available in the global market. Above all, these imports, even if gamechangers, are causing uncertain losses through dependency of spare parts-integration-and-familiarisation, loss of domestic jobs, stagnation in science and technological skills, and irreparable loss to national reputation. We are buying weapons from declining great powers, middle powers and even small powers while aspiring ourselves as a rising great power. Politically and psychologically, therefore, we are at the receiving end of power transition debates due to poor scores in military power indexing. 

Role Models For India

India has ready made role models for making its own inferences:

  1. The US Department of Defence, for example, has the NexTech project to identify game-changing military technology, both in the short and long terms. The objective is to maintain the US lead in all futuristic technology and retain America's dominance as the lead military superpower. 
  2. China, adopting the technical nationalism approach, is fast emerging as another military superpower through reverse engineering, technological thefts, innovations and consolidation and expansion of its domestic MIC.
  3. Israel, a small nation of 80 lakh people, is another example to emulate since it is at the forefront of military technology deployed on the modern battlefield and is producing satellites, missiles, drones and sophisticated offence-defence technology and has survived against all odds in its vicinity. All these countries are military producers in their own right.

It, therefore, emerges that emphasis on domestic production could usher in a real gamechange in India's quest for military power. Foreign imports of weapons do not make good economics. They are certainly bad from the philosophical and public policy perspectives. We ought to evaluate these imports through the prism of ethical assumptions or simply nationalism. 

The 'Make in India' campaign, therefore, needs fresh impetus through immediate import substitution strategies. Ideally speaking, discouragement of foreign imports, as a policy imperative, would certainly push the domestic MIC towards expansion and sophistication. If that is not possible, a re-crafting of the draft defence production policy (2018), providing preferential treatment for domestic players, would not be a bad deal. Probably, there lies some hope for churning India into a military power.