By Nantoo Banerjee
Is the country’s national security in foreign hands? One would shudder to even imagine such a possibility. Yet, the unpalatable truth is: India’s defence forces are 70 per cent foreign dependent on armament supplies – from Russian nuclear subs, aircraft carriers, US and French fighters, Swedish guns, Israeli interceptors, British Aerospace (BAe) military equipment, German naval equipment, Italian tanker, Czech trucks, sensitive telecommunications equipment to even coffins for dead soldiers. The military’s foreign dependence is growing. Global defence exporters have forecast India’s armament imports in next 15 years to be of the order of $105 billion or $7 billion, annually.
This means the military’s present or future war preparedness to protect the country from external aggression is and will remain substantially foreign supply dependent, making the defence forces highly vulnerable to foreign suppliers’ attitude in the case of a longer engagement in a conventional war, say beyond six to eight weeks. India’s import dependence has grown over the years in terms of sophisticated war machines such as aircraft, radars, fighters, bombars, advance warning systems, warships, submarines, guns, other arms and ammunitions, telecommunications equipment and systems and spares. Since 2010, India has overtaken Saudi Arabia to emerge as the world’s biggest arms importer.
Contrary to the perception, India’s annual defence spend, especially on war equipment, is a miniscule. According to generally accurate global compendia of defence data and analysis, the gross value of India’s defence purchase in 2009-10 was only around US$ 4.8 billion, in which the domestic content was less than $1.5 billion. The import content was $3.34 billion.India, which boasts the world’s third largest defence force after theUSAandChina, is not ranked even among the world’s top 20 countries in terms of expenditure on armament. Indian soldiers are among the most under-equipped in the world. About 85 per cent of India’s annual defence budget is spent on establishment, equipment maintenance, accommodation, movements, salaries, ration, perks, welfare, etc.India’s defence import bill last year was less than 10 per cent of what it spent on gold and jewellery import alone.
India’s geographical area covers approximately 3.287 million sq.kms. It ranks seventh position in the world after Russia(17.08 million sq.kms),Canada(9.98 mln.sq.km),China(9.32 mln.sq.km), the USA(9.07 mln.sq.km.),Brazil(8.51 mln.sq.km) and Australia (7.68 mln.sq.km). India has a coastline of 7,517 kms and land frontier (international border) of 15,200 kms. Until China attacked India in October, 1962, there was no army or para-military force to guard India’s 3,488-km-long border with China, from Karakoram Passat Ladak to Diphu La at Arunachal Pradesh. The disastrous defeat at the hands of the Chinese Red Army prompted India to set up the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) force, almost immediately after the war.
Similarly, India waited for a Pakistani attack in 1965 to take the ultimate decision to set up its Border Security Force (BSF) on 1st December, 1965, which now has nearly 2.5 lakh personnel on its roll, to secure the country’s borders. It required another war (Bangladesh liberation) in 1971, for India to realize the importance of policing its long coastline. At that time, the US Seventh Fleet threatened to intervene by seeking to position itself in the Bay of Bengal waters. Yet, the decision to set up the Indian Coast Guard could not be implemented before February, 1977, almost 30 years after the country’s independence.
India’s proud announcement of “large” defence budget allocations year after year to keep its forces in a battle-ready condition does not find itself a mention even among the top 10 countries in terms of annual defence spends. In 2010-11, the global defence expenditure was estimated at $1.6 trillion. The top 10 spenders were: the USA$698 billion,China$120 billion, the UK$59.6 billion,France$59.3 billion,Russia$58.7 billion, Japan $54.5 billion,Saudi Arabia$45.2 billion,Germany$45 billion,Italy$37 billion and Brazil$34 billion. India’s total defence expenditure that year was only around $33 billion. The country’s annual per capita defence expenditure is only $30 as against the UAE’s $2,653, USA’s $2,141,Singapore’s $1,593 and Saudi Arabia’s $1,554.China’s defence budget never projects the true picture. Smuggled Chinese weapons and ammunitions provide major sources of strength of terrorists, revolutionaries, so-called liberation armies, drug-lords and gangland bosses all over the world. The volume and value of those unreported Chinese arms are regarded to be huge.
Despite the existence of the Ministry of Defence Production for nearly four decades and the Ordnance Factories Board (OFB) since the Raj days, the domestic defence production – especially of the cutting-edge equipment, hardware and spares – was neglected by the successive governments in Delhi. The local defence hardware industry, principally a preserve of the public sector, never received the thrust it deserved from the government despite the country’s near-constant engagement in low-intensity war against some of its belligerent neighbours on boundary and territorial claims.
Although no country – not even the USA and Russia– is totally self-reliant on defence equipment, a strong domestic armament industry is considered an essential element of national security. All major economic powers, including internationally neutral Switzerland, are large defence producers. The erstwhile Soviet Union established its military might well before gaining its economic importance. Communist China, which launched a massive militarization programme since the mid-1960s, practiced the same. Even other Asian democracies such as Japan and South Korea and Israel invest huge sums in defence research and production as part of their national security and economic development agenda.
Apart from its importance in national security, the huge export potential of defence products made countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy, Israel, Ukraine, Spain, Switzerland, Bulgaria, and Czech Republic invest substantially in war equipment production to serve the lucrative global arms market. Today, the top defence exporters are: the USA,Russia,Germany,France, the UK and China. Together, these seven countries exported weaponry worth $21 billion in 2010-11.India, however, enjoys the dubious distinction of being the world’s biggest arms importer.
Every arms exporter lobbies to sell to India. The defence industry is a huge employment generator and economy mover. Almost all arms exporters invariably operate through commission agents and contractors to bag orders. Bribery and corruption are deeply embedded in defence deals. Few governments and chiefs of staff have succeeded to control the practice, India included.
It is a mystery as to why all the successive Indian governments, irrespective of their political colour, failed to work towards self-reliance in defence production and making India a prominent member of the powerful arms exporters’ club. For some unknown reasons, the government had long disallowed domestic private initiative in arms production while it had no problem in buying weapons and systems from outside manufacturers. It is also difficult to understand why India, which has shown its high capability in modern nuclear and space sciences, is so badly import dependent on traditional and sophisticated war equipment.
Why India, which builds satellite launch vehicles, rockets, ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads, nuclear power stations and atom bombs, can’t produce powerful guns, shells, heavy duty trucks, earthmovers, bombers, fighters, interceptors, aircraft carriers, submarines, modern communications equipment, etc? Two great scientists and individuals – Homi Bhabha in atomic energy and Vikram Sarabhai in space sciences – were primarily responsible for India’s tremendous success in building independent capabilities in space and nuclear programmes, including their military application. What prevented India from spotting and encouraging such talents to steer an integrated arms manufacturing programme, involving both public and private sector enterprises?
Given the opportunity, some of India’s highly stubborn and forward looking businessmen in engineering and chemicals such as JRD Tata, GD Birla, Dhirubhai Ambani, Lalchand Hirachand Doshi, Sapoorji Palonji Mistry, SL Kirloskar. Keshub Mahindra, Ramkrishna Bajaj, Denmark-born Henning Holck-Larsen, MV Arunachalam, Brij Munjal, OP Jindal, Jamshyd Godrej, Baba Kalyani and Rohington Aga would have probably made India proud of defence manufacturing. Obviously, it is the lack of political will to build a strong domestic defence industry for reasons best known to our political masters that has forced the fate of our armed forces and national security stay safe in foreign suppliers’ hands. (IPA Service)