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Why Is India the World’s Top Arms Importer?

Why Is India The World’s Top Arms Importer?
India is the largest weapons importer in the world, although the country can and does produce its own sophisticated weapons systems. Why does the country continue to spend vast amounts of money on importing weapons?

Tausif Mukri, an Indian cyber security researcher and a technology analyst joins the program. 

The most often quoted reason why India is not developing its own military-industrial complex is that the country is too busy defending itself against attacks from immediate neighbors; from Pakistan and China, to think about long term strategic interests. Tausif comments: "This argument is valid if you consider the wars that India and Pakistan have fought and the Sino-Indian wars that have happened. Certainly India is in a hostile environment, and the Indian security establishment feels that current development and moves by China and Pakistan might be counter-productive to the security of the Indian State."

However, there is more than one international power wishing to supply India with arms. By importing arms, India can in fact be seen to be promoting regional rivalries  in that the arms suppliers are from different geo-political groupings. Tausif comments: "Indian experts have time and again debated the real motive and reasons of imports of weapons from Russia and the US, and imports of weaponry in general, and this has been a very big issue. For the last 10 years, people have asked: ‘why do we have to import weapons when we have the technology to manufacture them within India.'…India does not import arms form China, there is not the necessary level of trust there, however India does import substantial numbers of Chinese weapon components from third parties, which are essential for manufacturing certain pieces of equipment."

One can understand why India is worried, with China bolstering its fighter jet arsenal (3.5 generation fighter jets or even more advanced planes such as the highly capable Chengdu J-10 Vigorous Dragon multirole fighters and Shenyang J-11 fighters) along its South Western border. But the danger of a major conflict seems to be very remote. In Tausif's words: "In today's world, countries cannot have full blown conflicts. They are counter-productive for the respective countries. China does not want to slow down its growth due to war, nor does India…"

A discussion ensues about how capable India really is of manufacturing high tech weapons systems. Tausif states that India is not as technologically advanced in this area as people might think. "India is far behind China in that front. India lags far behind competitors in terms of finishing a project on time. The light combat aircraft that India does produce and the light combat helicopters ‘Druv' are not fully manufactured in India….India lacks a military industrial complex….This has increased India military expenditure nine-fold over the last 10 years."

Obviously there is a political as well as a technological side to any conversation about arms manufacture. "A lot depends on the government that is working on the imports. Let's say a government will go for weapons from one country, but the moment the government changes, the supplier will change, for example from the US to Russia. Russia is a long term friend of India, they have enjoyed relations since 1971,…the Indian public in general has always had a soft spot for Russia, the public sentiment is for trading in weapons with Russia; they say that the US cannot be trusted with weapons and supplies, as in times of conflict the US cuts the supplies of spare parts, hardware, everything. That's a major concern….India is currently slowly moving towards the US sphere of influence, and, as good as it looks form the outside, public sentiment does not largely support the move….Elections are very close, parties have started campaigning already, it is going to be very interesting how the next elections will unfold, and that will be a very clear indicator of how the relationship between India, the US and Russia is going to unfold."

Tausif says that a main reason why India has not developed her own military industrial complex can be summarised in one words — "Kickback. Corruption is a major issue when it comes to arms imports in India. There was a very famous scandal which unfolded called the Bofors scandal. There was bank that was financed by a specific family and the kickbacks amounted to $1.4 billion, and you are talking about the 1990s, you are not even in the 21st century yet. Then there is the AugustaWestland scandal, there have been many scandals, one after the other and we can go on. The major issue about not having to establish a military industrial complex is that kickbacks will go away the moment we start to manufacture those weapons in India… It's not confidential now, you can read it in the papers, but a lot of top officials have been named and shamed in this kind of scam, political as well as army…."

India is a democracy, so theoretically the country can sort out these problems. But as Tausif says: "We are a lazy democracy; we don't particularly want to hit the street if we hear about billion-dollar scams." Clearly everybody except the poor benefit from the present situation. Other powers benefit from arms sales; India's corrupt elites benefit in terms of kickbacks, only the Indian taxpayer suffers. Tausif comments: "These huge weapons bills are having a major impact on India's infrastructure. Had the money stayed in India, had it been used for health care, for insurance, for building infrastructure, for building roads, for improving the state of India's railways, upgrading human resources in the armed forces, this would have changed the face of India a long time ago. However a common Indian who has skills has to leave India to be able to use his talents. Had these people stayed in India and developed technology with the help of resources provided by the Indian government, it would have changed a lot, and India could have been as powerful a manufacturing country as China. But there wasn't enough support to build a foundation."

All this may come as surprise as we hear all about how advanced India is, however Tausif comments that: "You always have to read between the lines. The moment we see that we are lacking something, that's the moment that we will start to improve ourselves… Very few Indians, relatively speaking, are actually aware of how much India spends on arms, particularly as there is a whole infrastructure set up to paint the imports as something good for India…"

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