Big defence suppliers sell arms to rival countries, so India needs to fast-track indigenisation of military hardware

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently addressed the Naval Innovation and Indigenisation Organisation (NIIO) seminar 'Swavlamban'. While he underlined that India has talent, PM Modi stressed that "it's not smart to let my soldiers go to the field with the same 10 weapons that the world has." He also significantly mentioned about the countries who capitalized on the challenge of the World War to emerge as the big arms exporters, which is indeed a crucial remark in the context of the arms sales.

Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. and the former Soviet Union used arms sales as an essential element of their strategic outreach. Future repair, maintenance services and modernization (path dependency), apart from the supply of spare parts, were used in favour of the suppliers. In a nutshell, recipient countries not only buy security-enhancing tools but also closely bind themselves to the supplier's strategic thought, which is reflected widely through their dealings with the third-party states.

Trend Indicator Value (TIV) from SIPRI indicates that the U.S. and the former Soviet Union dominated the arms market from 1950-1990 with a cumulative share of 70 per cent, worth USD 861 billions. Each power strictly adhered to its clients/ allies for sales of arms. Thus, the world witnessed a condition of strict bipolarity. One of the advantages of the arms trade was that it was an effective mechanism to "wield force and exert influence" without having to undertake risks of sending troops abroad. Consequently, the two Cold War rivals occupied the positions of the topmost exporters of arms.

In the context of geo-economics, the military-industrial complexes are also a source of direct and indirect employment generation. For instance, in 2002, China was not in the top 100 arms-producing and military services companies. It was the U.S. that had previously occupied a predominant position. By the time the year 2020 ended, five Chinese companies had made their way to the top 20. China's recent rise as an arms exporter gives a severe competition to the US. In 2020, a report by the US Department Commerce's Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) expected a rate of 8,215 jobs per billion dollars of exports. Thus, for every billion arms trade lost would mean a sizable number of lost jobs.

Coming back to geopolitics, the role of swing states like Iran and Pakistan and their fear psychosis becomes important for suppliers. For example, from 1965 to 1979, when the U.S. ruled the roost in West Asia, arms transfers to Iran amounted to USD 24.01 billion. The situation, however, changed in the post-1979 Islamic revolution. As the narratives of 'rogue states' set in, U.S. arms imports to Iran vanished, and it started finding new partners like Russia. For the same period, Pakistan received arms supplies worth USD 0.7 billion. Given Pakistan's economic health, the purchases would have been made through the economic grant assistance received from the US as a part of its Cold War Military blocks- CENTO and SEATO, but India's security concerns were brutally side-lined.

By 1990, China and Iran initiated various agreements related to technology transfer. From 2000 to 2021, Iran imported Chinese weapons worth $0.78 billion. In South Asia, Chinese arms transfers are directly correlated to its OBOR policy and its own narratives of multipolarity to establish its hegemony. For instance, SIPRI's TIV for China indicates that from 2000 to 2021, South Asia has been the highest importer of Chinese weapons, with a value of $14.61 billion (61.46 per cent) out of 23.77 billion. Pakistan was the highest importer of Chinese weapons.

The matter takes a dangerous turn with China's reverse engineering of the Russian weapons. This is where India is directly affected due to the collaborative Sino-Pak threat. For instance, in 2018, various news reports emerged that the Chinese J-20 fighter craft is a copy of the U.S. F-35 fighter jets, which Pakistan would induct in the coming few months. Russia had previously sounded an alarm over the Chinese reverse engineering tactics. For example, Shenyang J-11 fighter and HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles had technical similarities with the Russian Su27K and S-300 platforms.

As if this was no less, a new trend has emerged that the security experts need to be alert of. The US has delivered critical hardware such as engines to Pakistan to upgrade its weapons supplies purchased from third countries like China and Turkey. For instance, during 2007-2010, turbofan TFE-371 (27 in number) was delivered for 27 K-8 trainer/combat aircraft previously purchased from China. In 2020, LM-2500 gas turbine engines were delivered for 4 Mil Gem frigates imported from Turkey. Other modernisation efforts include supplying engines- Caterpillar-3516 (2017) and TF-50 (2007-08).

Thus, the proliferation of arms exporters and a loose multipolar world order dilute the sanctity of the technologies with a criss-cross of technical experimentations. Purchases for immediate usage are well understood, but getting out of this vicious trap of arms imports is equally essential. It becomes highly crucial for India to focus on the development of its capacities.

Geopolitically, technical overlapping of the same military equipment reaching the rivals, strengthens the supplier's position at the time of the conflicts. This creates valuable space for the supplier to maintain an upper hand in the mediation, while simultaneously turning the battle space into a second testing ground. For instance, the world understands the rivalry between India and Pakistan. However, a deeper dig into some finer details reveals that the suppliers have also sold some similar missiles to both the rivals. For instance, in 2005, the US sold Harpoon Block-2 anti-ship missile (AGM-84L version) to Pakistan for $63 million. Later, the same version of the missile was purchased by India in 2012 for $200 million. Further, common missiles between India and China that have been purchased from Russia include Kh-31A1, R-77 beyond visual range air to air missile (BVRAAM) for Sukhoi aircrafts; 9M317 surface to air missile for Type-052B (Luyang-1) destroyers as well as Talwar Frigates; 53-65 anti-ship torpedo missile for China's Project 636 (kilo submarines) and India's INS Sindhughosh submarines, and finally, 48N6 missiles for S-400 missile defence system possessed by both China and India.

Finally, critical technology transfers are understandably discouraged. It is also to be recalled that Germany, Russia and France pulled out of the P-751 submarine Project that required technology transfer of the Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system for developing submarines. They could have parted with the technology, given the strategic convergences that India individually has with them.

Thus, arms sales and foreign assistance are closely interrelated and promote a vicious cycle of sales, geopolitical narratives and generation of employment for the supplier country. If an armed conflict in South Asia involves India, who will benefit financially? Will not the kitty of arms suppliers like the U.S., Russia, etc., get heavier? Finally, if most of the weapons are re-engineered or have similarities for reasons explained above, then definitely in PM Modi, India has a leader who has strategic foresight who understands the dynamics of a war-based economy. He is correct in asserting that indigenisation and innovation hold the keys to the success of future warfare. Thus, it is high time for the nation to have a broad vision of geopolitics and support a visionary leader like PM Modi and also promote Swavlamban.