India’s Quest for Building a Formidable Military-Industrial Complex

Rajnath Singh, the Defence Minister of India and the chief guest at the inaugural session of Firstpost Defence Summit held in New Delhi in Feb 2024, said India had to step out of its comfort zone to join the list of world’s top 25 arms exporters and Prime Minister Narendra Modi was focusing on long-term gains. India has exported Dornier-228s, 155 mm Advanced Towed Artillery Guns, Brahmos Missiles and Akash Missile System, while six countries are in talks to buy HAL’s indigenously manufactured light combat aircraft Tejas. “The aim is to manufacture high-end systems like aero-engines and gas turbines in India in the next five years,” he added. Rajnath Singh further said that the Modi Government is the first to halt the import of weapons to promote self-reliance. “We have made sure that our army uses indigenous resources and we even took a step forward to export these arms and equipment.”


According to Business Today, India’s arms exports touched Rs 16,000 crore in the 2022-23 financial year. Over 100 Indian companies are currently exporting defence equipment to over 85 nations. “Our target is to increase exports to Rs 35,000 crore in the next two years,” T Natarajan, Additional Secretary, Department of Defence Production was quoted as saying during June 2023. However, there are substantial hurdles in the way of India achieving its goal of Rs 35,000 crore worth of arms exports by 2025. For example, there is an over-reliance on exports of parts and components, rather than major defence equipment or the very few indigenously built platforms by India. Besides, some of Indian defence equipment exports, especially local military platforms like Dhruv Advanced Light helicopters (ALH) exported to Ecuador, were afflicted by problems of quality control as per reports.


A news outlet quoted the Indian defence ministry as saying that as of December 2022, expenditure on equipment from other nations was down 46 per cent compared to 2018-2019. CNBC reported that defence production in India during 2022-2023 has crossed Rs 1 lakh crore annually for the first time. Has India’s reliance on defence equipment imported from foreign nations reduced considerably?


Reports about India’s ability as an arms exporter are increasingly being published in the media. India’s entry last year to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) list of the world’s top 25 arms exporters was celebrated by media commentators, strategic analysts and government alike. SIPRI recorded a 119% increase in the total volume of India’s arms exports between 2012–2016 and 2017–2021.

As per SIPRI, the five largest arms exporters in 2017–21 were the United States, Russia, France, China and Germany. The five largest arms importers were India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Australia and China. As per SIPRI’s report titled “Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2021” released in March 2022, India ranked 23rd in the list of top 25 arms exporters with a share of just 0.2% of the total global arms exports between 2017 and 2021. The United States (39%), Russia (19%), and France (11%) were the top exporters during this period.

The next SIPRI report titled “Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2022”, released in March 2023, states that India accounted for 11% of all weapon imports in the 2018-22 period, down from 12% in the 2013-17 period. “India’s tensions with Pakistan and China, largely drive its demand for arms imports,” declares SIPRI’s report. Expectedly, Russia remained India’s largest materiel provider from 2013 to 2022, even though overall purchases from Moscow had dropped from 64% to 45% during this decade. Other main suppliers were France, and the US.

India struggles to make ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ a success in locally designing and manufacturing military platforms and equipment for all three services. As per defence analysts, the ‘Make in India’ initiative was not an ‘instant’ enterprise and would take an extended period of time and large-scale investments to fructify.

Brigadier Rahul Bhonsle (retired) of the Security Risks Consultancy in Delhi told The Wire last year, that for starters, India was poised to acquire 114 combat aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF) and at least 26 more for the Indian Navy (IN) for deployment aboard the newly commissioned aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, which together were worth an estimated $45 billion.

As per SIPRI’s report titled “ARMS-PRODUCTION CAPABILITIES IN THE INDO-PACIFIC REGION” published in October 2022, India has built up a substantial arms industry since the 1950s, supported by successive policy plans to cultivate a domestic arms industry capable of developing its own designs. Of India’s total volume of procurement in 2016–20, 84 per cent was of foreign origin and India continues to remain one of the largest importers of major arms globally.

India’s domestic arms production has long been dominated by Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) and by Indian Ordnance Factories, the production units under the Ministry of Defence (MOD). The Make in India policy further supports an emergent private sector, with over 200 companies licensed to produce military items. The Indian government issued three lists of military products subject to an import ban, totalling over 300 goods. However, it may still take a considerable time for India to become a behemoth of arms exporter.

[Photo by Indian Air Force, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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