The recently released Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2020, a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), sheds light on the state of defence sales and procurement around the world. Looking at the five-year period of 2016-2020, it establishes patterns of defence trade by recording imports and exports of major weapons systems between countries. Incidentally, the report can also act as a means to gauge the strength, and emergence, of bilateral security relations.

Among many interesting trends that the report highlights, those on the changing landscape of India’s defence procurement and manufacturing are noteworthy. Data presented in the report provides us with a clearer picture as to where New Delhi stands in its quest to become Atmanirbhar (self-reliant) in defence production, the progress it has made so far, and its continued — albeit reduced — reliance on imported weaponry. Here is an in-depth look at these aspects, and other takeaways from the report.

The Importers

India emerged as the second-largest importer of arms transferred between 2016-20, with a share of 9.5% of global arms imports. Even so, its imports fell 33% from that between 2011-2015. The SIPRI report has attributed this decline to the country’s complex procurement procedures and efforts to reduce its dependence on Russian weapons. Correspondingly, Russia has been the worst hit by India’s decreased share, although it still ranks as the subcontinent’s largest arms supplier, delivering 49% of its total imports, ahead of France (18%) and Israel (13%).

Top 5 Arms Importers

Interestingly, defence transfers from the US to India declined by 46% as well. India’s goal, thus, seems to have been to cut its dependence on other countries for defence systems across the board rather than to pivot from one supplier to the other. This underlines New Delhi’s resolve to promote indigenous defence manufacturing and export, with the target of increasing the sector’s turnover to US$ 25 billion, including US$ 5 billion from exports, by 2025.

India’s goal seems to have been to cut its dependence on other countries for defence systems across the board rather than to pivot from one supplier to the other.

There is, though, still much to be done. Three countries, namely Russia, France, and Israel, count India as the largest recipient of their defence exports. Such ties are operationally, diplomatically, and politically unviable to sever. Hence, India should find ways of becoming self-reliant that would not adversely affect relations with its partner countries. Engaging them to jointly develop and indigenously manufacture technologies, such as jet engines, missiles, swarm drones, and other AI-driven capabilities, is one such way.

Moving to the Middle East, the region saw a 25% increase in arms imports between 2011-2015 and 2016-2020. This increase was a result of Saudi Arabia’s imports rising 61%, Egypt’s 136%, and Qatar’s staggering 361%.

The Exporters

On the flip side, exports from the US, France, and Germany rose, while those from Russia and China declined. This helped the US cement its position as the world’s largest arms exporter.

The decline in Russian arms exports can almost entirely be attributed to the 53% decline in India’s defence imports from Moscow. The magnitude of this decrease was such that even though Russian arms transfers to Algeria, China, and Egypt increased, it could not be offset. Meanwhile, India increased its share of global arms exports by 228%, from 0.1% between 2011-2015 to 0.2% between 2016-2020. Its top recipients include Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Mauritius.

The decline in Russian arms exports can almost entirely be attributed to the 53% decline in India’s defence imports from Moscow.

Coming to China, it noteworthily finds mention in both, the top importers as well as the top exporters list. Beijing imports missiles, jet engines, helicopters, and air defence systems from suppliers such as Russia, France, and Ukraine, even as it exports fighter jets, missiles, armed UAVs, tanks, submarines, and frigates to recipients such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Algeria.

India’s Path Forward

From creating a new “Buy (Global — Manufacture in India)” procurement category to implementing a negative import list of 101 weapons systems and increasing the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) limit in defence production to 74% through the automatic route, India’s defence establishment has introduced several measures to achieve self-reliance in defence manufacturing. SIPRI’s report shows that these efforts have begun to pay off. Concurrently, India’s export base has widened as well.

More recently, India has reserved ₹70,221 crores, around 63% of the capital outlay for FY 2021-2022, to procure defence systems indigenously produced. A second negative import list is reportedly in the making as well and may feature systems like tanks and aircraft. Export of systems such as the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, Arjun Mk-1A tank, Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) Mk-1A, Astra beyond-visual-range missile, and Pinaka systems is also being pushed.

Atmanirbharta should not become a euphemism for protectionism.

For the time being, though, Indian demand for Russian arms remains. This is highlighted by two deals India and Russia have signed, which incidentally were not included in SIPRI’s report since deliveries of these systems have not yet taken place. First is the acquisition of the S-400 Triumf air defence systems worth US$ 5.43 billion. Signed in October 2018, deliveries are expected to start by the end of this year. Second is the leasing of an Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, slated to be delivered by 2025. Signed in March 2019, this deal is worth US$ 3 billion.

Therefore, for India to continue to keep its defence imports in check, it must invest in domestic capacity building, innovation, and joint collaborations. At the same time, Atmanirbharta should not become a euphemism for protectionism, compelling the Indian armed forces to choose from indigenous alternatives regardless of quality and capability.