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Problems with Arms Imports

N. Neihsial was on deputation from the Indian Defence Accounts Service to the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • June 03, 2008

    Recent announcements of major arms acquisition programmes by the Indian government must have given a sense of elation to the armed forces, which have been waiting for long for some of this equipment. These announcements also give greater confidence to the nation about the military’s capability to tackle national security challenges. But there are other long term implications of arms procurement largely through import.

    India faces the dilemma of choosing to depend entirely on indigenous military production or resorting to import to meet its security challenges. The country has vast land borders, extended sea lanes and neighbours who are not so friendly. Given its size and location, it is expected to play a crucial role in the region. On the other hand, the domestic defence industry, though sufficiently large, is relatively weak and inefficient particularly in the context of fast changing defence technology. The resultant gap needs to be filled essentially by import of hi-tech defence equipment. But there are inherent problems with import of weapons and equipment.

    The first and immediate problem associated with the import of arms is that it does not readily address the country’s long-term security needs. It is agreed that these procurements are expected to be futuristic in nature. However, even security calculations cannot accurately predict the future. Potential adversaries are unlikely to stick to the script and may acquire a new technology or weapon system. The factors pushing such decisions are beyond anybody’s control. This is further complicated by the constant evolution in technology. Under such circumstances, the defence system of a country largely built on imported arms and equipment becomes inflexible to meet new challenges.

    Moreover, experience has shown that importing arms and equipment does not contribute to strengthening the domestic defence industrial base. This is so in spite of much hyped transfers of technology, license production, etc. as a part of import agreements. Ideally, a country’s defence industry should be dynamic enough to meet the peacetime requirements of the armed forces while at the same time being expandable to meet wartime needs or emergencies. But a defence system that purely relies on imported arms and equipment will not be dynamic in meeting such eventualities, but would instead be more of an impediment in handling unforeseen and unpredictable situations, which is the hallmark of security management. India has sufficient experience in this regard.

    At the conceptual level, imported weapon systems skew the process of determining and conceptualising future equipment needs. Decision making of this kind is quite complex and even advanced countries like the United States finds it difficult to fine tune their policy in this regard. Defence requirements are determined by the interplay of the ‘user’s perception or interest,’ the interest and capabilities of defence companies or contractors and the interest of procuring authorities represented at the apex level by the concerned ministry or the political leadership. When these players throw their cards in the selection of technology and equipment for the armed forces in situations where imports predominate, the reference points and unseen actors are often the foreign suppliers. Instinctively, the sophisticated nature of imported arms plays a crucial role in the ultimate decision making. This is particularly so in India where there is a penchant for anything ‘foreign’. Consequently, the stranglehold of foreign suppliers proves to be more widespread though invisible. This adversely impacts upon the germination and growth of technology within the domestic defence industry, thus perpetuating underdevelopment.

    The cost of importing arms and equipment is high. India spent over US $10.5 billion in arms imports during the last three years and is expected to spend another $30 billion in the next five years. In addition are the costs associated with installations, training manpower, and operating and integrating new acquisitions with existing weapons systems. This is why the concept of life cycle cost of equipment has become an important factor in decision making on arms procurement. It has been the general experience that for an aircraft with a lifespan of 15 years one has to add a further 30 per cent to its production cost for maintenance alone during this period, apart from other associated costs. The trajectory of maintenance cost is equally high if not more in the case of defence equipment. The longer one keeps equipment the greater its maintenance cost, whereas its effectiveness will remain constant or reduce vis a vis potential adversaries. This is often further compounded by the non-availability of spares and components, a situation which gets particularly worse when the supplier happens to be an integrator of various systems of different companies. Maintenance, substitution or upgradation, all become almost impossible. Under such circumstances, the equipment itself becomes the problem. India has encountered many problems of this nature.

    The most crucial aspect, however, is that the import of arms and equipment ‘supplies technology’ but does not transfer technology. Even in cases of a contractual obligation for transfer of technology, the seller does not does transfer the ability to upgrade the technology when the need arises. The problem gets further complicated particularly when the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) happens to be only an ‘integrator’ as highlighted above, which is a growing phenomenon in defence technology. This again is amply proved by the Indian experience. It is true that the country does gain some technological skills through import, is able to build up its defence capability and gains a certain respectability in its international dealings. But the fact remains that in spite of the avowed policy of ‘self reliance’ and ‘indigenisation’ over fifty years, the periodically massive import of sophisticated defence equipment is a clear testimony to the fact that this policy has not helped the country to build up its domestic defence industrial base. Almost all major equipment used by the armed forces are of foreign origin, and as when even upgradation is considered the original suppliers have to be involved.

    While it may be necessary to resort to arms imports to bridge the gap between perceived security threats and the immediate capabilities of the domestic defence industry, a serious review of the current policy is a must to overcome import dependence.