India seeks to make its own weapons. If the West wants to end India’s dependence on Russian arms, it will have to help New Delhi in these efforts

India has been carrying out major internal reforms of its defence sector over the past several years, with the overall goal of broadening its small and inefficient domestic arms manufacturing base. This process has received a new sense of urgency following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and India’s continuing dependence on Russian weapons.

The reforms are moving slowly in part because their sheer depth and breadth have meant there is considerable resistance from various interest groups. The other constraint is funding, as the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has kept a tight leash on defence spending.

One recent success of the reforms, however, is the signing of a $375 million deal to sell cruise missiles to the Philippines, the first-ever major export of offensive arms by India.
India’s defence issues

With nearly 1.5 million men and women in the armed forces, India has the second-largest military in the world. It is also one of the largest arms importers in the world. India’s share of global arms imports is over 10 percent, double the figure for China, though Beijing has a much larger defence budget. The reason: India has struggled to make the most rudimentary military equipment, such as rifles, let alone tanks and airplanes.

A cluster of state-owned defence firms with powerful unions and links to the defence bureaucracy are quite happy to assemble kits bought from overseas. The armed services are only concerned about the quality of the weapons they get and not where they are made. The political class lacked the bandwidth to focus on the issue and, if repeated arms scandals are an indication, saw rent-seeking opportunities in opaque foreign military contracts.

India has struggled to make the most rudimentary military equipment, such as rifles, let alone tanks and airplanes.

While the Indian establishment recognized both the economic and strategic costs of such a situation, they struggled to find a solution. Mr. Modi is the latest Indian leader to try and fight through this policy thicket. The administration has laid out a clear goal: ram through reforms that would allow for the growth of private-sector, homegrown arms makers. Over the past seven years, New Delhi has constituted half a dozen different committees to come up with ideas. Many withered on the vine. One committee faced so much opposition that it was disbanded without ever meeting.
Reforming path

However, changes are already evident. The most important has been a new, streamlined procurement structure that encourages Indian firms to bid for defence contracts and foreign defence firms to seek Indian partners. One manufacturing category, Buy Global Make in India, allows Indian firms to contract foreign technology but make the systems on Indian soil and is widely seen as a success leading to the growth of new private Indian defence firms like Tonbo Imaging and Solar Industries.

The government also privatized a sprawling but inefficient maker of military supplies, the Ordnance Factory Board. Its most ambitious plan, still to be realized, is a strategic partnerships program under which consortia of Indian and foreign firms are supposed to join hands to build major platforms like submarines and fighter jets.

This has gone hand in hand with major structural reforms of the military, including creating a chief of defence staff, an officer in overall charge of the three services, and more slowly the integration of the forces’ multiple commands. The Modi government, despite its right-wing credentials, has ensured defence spending as a percentage of GDP is now at one of its lowest levels since 1962. The philosophy behind this: the defines establishment must be financially and politically squeezed if it is to carry out the changes that will ensure it gets more bang for its buck. New Delhi says it has cut defence imports by 10 percentage points between 2018 and 2020 and it has scored genuine successes in manufacturing some classes of weapons, notably artillery and missiles.