Every two years a Def-Expo is held in India, which until the current one to be held in Chennai and the last one that was held in Goa — both apparently to address the political/personal leanings of successive Defence Ministers — was regularly held in New Delhi. And perhaps rightly so, as it is in Delhi where all the decisions are made — specially for defence purchases — and hence it made ample sense to hold the Def-Expo in Delhi. Moreover, the logistical inconvenience for mid-level service officers to attend these Def-Expos outside of Delhi (since the capital has enough facilities to house large bodies of service officers) is not quite understood by politicians and their mandarins, who do not have to face such problems.
Even as India ranks fifth amongst the top defence spenders in the world—and though being the largest importer of weapons systems — its defence spending is way below that of China, which is now the second highest spender. But then China spends only a third of the US, which at $611 billion is still the world’s pre-eminent military super power. The Def-Expo in Chennai, aimed essentially at India’s armed forces, is expected to be, as in the past, amongst the largest in the world. Leading the pack in arms sales, just as they were in the past, would be companies from the US, Russia and the EU, in that order, for whom arms are a key export, even though ironically, they claim to be the champions of world peace. No wonder, the former US President Jimmy Carter had said during his Presidential campaign in 1976: “We can’t have it both ways. We can’t be both the world’s leading champion of peace and the world’s leading supplier of arms.” But he was often ridiculed for his soft approach.
Those opposed to the arms industry highlight that there is too much attention focused on nuclear and chemical weapons (as sanctions and talks with Iran have shown), but little is done to curb the sales of conventional weapons. Some of these weapons, like artillery and rockets, are supplied in large numbers to rebel groups by world powers, depending on whom they support. These too, have devastating effect on unarmed civilians. It is this moral dilemma that has, until now, prevented India, from resorting to arms exports. But the counter to the moralists could be that no one really cares for the high moral ground India adopts, not the least those countries that shape world opinion.
Global arms sales have risen again, since 2010, and currently, India leads the world, with imports at 13 percent of world’s arm bazaar, with almost all of India’s procurement being ‘vendor’ driven, not need or capability driven. In fact, it is said that while most powerful countries — and these are also the biggest manufacturers — often make a strategic doctrine and then manufacture or buy weapons to service that need, India has always bought weapons and created its doctrines around them! This is partly because of the Indian military’s insistence on the best or nothing, has given Indian defence companies little or no windows for growth, and partly due the Ministry of Defence (MoD) insisting on protecting its public sector companies (HAL, BEML, etc.) and thus not allowing our local industry to grow. Thus, India’s defence exports are about 2 percent of what it produces.
There is however a demand for a few unique Indian products, like the BrahMos missile even in developed countries, and also in countries like Vietnam, that has now joined the ranks of the top ten arms importers. This must be encouraged, to enhance India’s diplomatic clout and to bring in foreign exchange. And there is a lesson that India could learn from China. From being one of the (2nd) largest importers, China is now amongst biggest (and 2nd largest) exporters. Can India one day do the same?
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