With Aero India 2023 beginning in Bangalore on Feb 12, it’s a good time for India to showcase its technical prowess in making new generation defence systems to visitors from over 50 countries

The Narendra Modi government’s push to make India self-reliant in defence and the agenda to actively promote ‘Make in India’ in the defence sector could not have come at a better time. A country known as the fifth largest economy of the world cannot afford to be largely dependent on big arms producing countries, especially in critical defence systems. With the commencement of Aero India 2023 biennial defence and aerospace show in Bangalore from February 12-17, India would be able to showcase its technical prowess in making new generation defence systems to visitors from over 50 countries. In collaboration with arms companies of friendly nations, India also intends to project the country as a suitable place for making cutting-edge defence systems not only for the Indian armed forces but for the international market also.

The Ukraine war has upended the global arms industry and the fast emerging Indian defence industry cannot afford to lag behind amid this fast-changing geopolitical alignments. In fact, as far as India is concerned, the Ukraine war is a stark reminder of the urgent need to reduce dependence on foreign suppliers for arms.

As the Ukraine war created a dilemma before Indian policy planners to show their loyalty either to the US or Russia, the Indian government maintained neutrality and continued its cordial relationship with Russia. In spite of a violation of international laws by Russia, India could not afford to take an objective view of the indiscriminate destruction of cities, causing widespread deaths and miseries to millions of people. India’s anti-Russia stand would have created strains in the decades-old reliable defence relations, without which Indian forces would not have been able to tackle two strong adversaries in an effective manner.

Had India been self-reliant in defence products, the government would have been able to take a principled stand, unaffected by bilateral relations with other countries. And while Russia was proving to be indispensable for India and hence the Indian government was careful not to antagonise the decades old trusted defence partner, the US side also posed challenges for India’s defence planners by threatening to impose a US domestic legislation called CAATSA (Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), in spite of the fact that it is a strategic partner, and an ally in the quadrilateral alliance called Quad.

Though America has in recent years emerged as a leading defence supplier to Indian armed forces, the US side restrained from applying CAATSA on India only because of India’s economic and diplomatic heft. Respecting a US domestic legislation would have resulted in fractured defence and political relations with Russia, which is in the process of completing the deliveries of highly advanced S-400 anti-missile systems. Remember, the US administration was able to scuttle a similar deal between Russia and Turkey.

Why India Needs To Be Self-Reliant In Defence

Any change in geopolitical dynamics may result in a clash of interests and is likely to encourage the US side to trouble India, especially in the defence sector. The example of the US withdrawing its technical support to Tarapur nuclear power plant in the 1970s had haunted the Indian leadership for long. The US also imposed sanctions on the transfer of dual use technologies to Indian entities. There is no guarantee that the US side will not stop technical or maintenance support to US-supplied weapon systems and platforms to India in future. However, current geopolitical dynamics demand that the US administration does not disturb the emerging US-India defence and strategic partnership.

However, if India puts all its eggs in the Russian basket, it also cannot engage in the same manner with the US. Hence, Indian policy planners are working towards making India a defence production hub for major arms companies of the world. India can no longer sustain the prospect of remaining the world’s top arms importer.

As less than half of the fleet of the Indian Air Force comprises the Sukhoi-30 MKI fighters, and half of India’s submarine fleet is of Russian origin and most of the warships, missile systems etc, though being replaced by Indian-made alternatives, still continue to be of Soviet-Russian origin. India cannot suddenly ignore its strategic interests by bluntly criticising Russia. But the US administration made an unreasonable demand to cancel its defence links with Russia and adhere to CAATSA.

This is the dilemma a country has to face if it is not self-reliant in meeting the essential requirements of its armed forces. Though Indian governments since the 1990s have been rooting for indigenisation of defence products and weapon systems, the current government has given a big push to this ambitious aim of the country to be self-reliant in defence. This empowers the country with strategic autonomy, which becomes relevant in the times of any big international crisis. If India is self-reliant in defence systems, it would not be subject to blackmail by any country.

‘Make In India’ Will Rid Country of Strategic Compulsions

To be self-reliant in defence, India would need an ecosystem and adequate infrastructure for industries to be attracted for investment. To achieve this aim, the defence ministry has embarked upon the dedicated program of Make in India. For this, an extremely liberal policy framework has been presented. The multinational arms companies supplying arms to Indian armed forces are being encouraged to make India their production base and create an export hub.

The efforts made to boost the defence industry during the last few years have turned India into a significant exporter of defence systems also. With the agreement to supply highly advanced BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles to the Philippines, the Indian arms industry has received a big boost. India’s defence exports, which were worth a meagre Rs 900 crores eight years ago, have now touched a record Rs 14,000 crore. Future deals in submarines or fighter aircraft would only be done if the system is made in India with Indian partners.

The US decision to permit 100 percent transfer of GE-414 engine technology to India under the iCET (initiative for critical and emerging technology) agreement is an example of Indian diplomatic efforts to bring high technology to India, which will make India self-reliant in weapon systems and platforms like TEJAS. It will also boost India’s own advanced fifth generation fighter project AMCA.

In the current international scenario, security challenges to India are also mounting. From the Sino-Indian borders to high seas in the Indian Ocean and up to the South China sea, India needs to be well equipped to defend its national economic and strategic interests, which can only be best served by self-reliance in defence, which will make India free from any strategic compulsions.