India is in the middle of a multi-billion dollar military spending spree that has quietly seen the country of Mahatma Gandhi and non-violent protest emerge as the world’s largest importer of arms. It is expected to retain that position for at least the next five years.
As the country works to expand its regional strategic influence and to counter what it considers existential threats from Pakistan and China, India now accounts for nine per cent of all global arms purchases. Its current defence budget of $36bn – an increase of around 11 per cent on the previous year – is more than double what it spends on education and health combined.
Speaking last week in Delhi, defence minister AK Anthony, said: “India has always been a votary of peace and advocated peaceful relations with all nations. [But] we need to ensure optimum deterrence to fully safeguard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation. Peace and security go hand in hand with social and economic progress and depend upon one another.”
Delivering the keynote address at a conference on arms acquisition, where officials confirmed India’s position as the world’s biggest importer, Mr Anthony added: “Today, the nature of warfare has shifted and challenges range from asymmetric threats, terrorism, internal disturbances as well as conventional warfare in a nuclear backdrop. On our part we need to develop the latest strategic and conventional capabilities.”
Over the past five years, more than 80 per cent of India’s defence purchases have come from Russia. But the splurge has seen defence contractors from around the world taking up long-term residency in Delhi’s five-star hotels, vying to fulfill demands from all three wings of the armed services. Recent purchases have included 155mm howitzers from the UK for the army, C-17 Globemaster heavy-lift planes from the US for the air force and submarines from France for the navy.
One of the most sought-after contracts concerns a $11bn order for 126 fighter aircraft. The Indian authorities have whittled a short-list down to just two contenders, the Typhoon produced by Eurofighter, a consortium made up of British, German, Italian and Spanish manufacturers, and the Rafale, produced by the French company Dassault.
In an indication of the sharp-elbowed nature of the scrabble for the contract, Indian journalists were briefed over two days last week about the abilities of the Typhoon in presentations organised jointly by the Royal Air Force and BAE systems, the British firm involved in Eurofighter. During the sessions at the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, which also included presentations from the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Richard Dalton, and his German counterpart, Aarne Kreuzinger Janik, the journalists were told that in recent operations in Libya the Typhoo had demonstrated its “exceptional multi-role capability” and had outperformed the Rafale.
Analysts say India’s spending spree is driven by several factors, including – with the exception of shipbuilding - an inadequate domestic defence production capacity. Strategically, it is driven by both defensive concerns, particularly in regard to what is considers Chinese growing ambitions in south Asia, and a desire to project power and influence regionally. Its spending on arms leapt after the Mumbai attacks of November 2008.
Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal, director of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies in Delhi, said: “Pakistan is an immediate threat because of proxy wars. China remains a longer term threat...China is engaged in strategic encirclement of India. It has done this through proxies such as Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Burma. It’s a potential source of conflict.”
India’s top brass, remindful of the embarrassing drubbing it received in 1962 at the hands of the Chinese, is deeply suspicious of China’s relationship with Pakistan. It is also sensitive about Beijing’s ongoing claims over territory in both Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh and its road-building projects in those areas. Belatedly India has begun looking to improve its own infrastructure in these remote areas.
“There are also internal conflicts in India – not just in Kashmir, but in regard to [Maoist rebels],” said Siemon Wezeman, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which first revealed India’s position as the largest arms importer earlier this year. Data collated by the institute showed that China, South Korea, Pakistan and Greece were the other major importers of arms. The top five exporters over the last five years were the US, Russia, Germany, France and Britain.
India’s defence budget only equals two per cent of GDP and in terms of total military spending Delhi is in 10th place, behind not only the US and China, but Britain, Germany and Saudi Arabia. Many within the military establishment believe India should increase its defence spending even more, to around three per cent of GDP.
Yet some analysts and industry insiders detect an uncertainty within the broader Indian establishment about what role it should play. While India might purport to take on a larger regional position, as evidenced by moves such as a recent defence agreement signed with the Maldives, there remains an apparent reluctance to take on greater responsibility. There are also strong voices within India who argue that in a country where hundreds of millions of people are living in poverty, there are more pressing spending priorities.
The representative of one major US weapons manufacturer who spends many months of the year in India, said there was an opportunity for Delhi to do more, for instance, in helping police sea-lanes in the Gulf, and other areas strategists refer to as the global commons.
Over afternoon tea at Delhi’s Taj Palace hotel, the representative, who asked not to be identified, asked: “Is India happy with the idea of exporting security? There is a fundamental dichotomy...The military civilian separation is quite wide. But it’s coming to a head. The security issue is growing. India feels threatened by China and does not know what to do.”
Brig Kanwal was even more blunt. “We have a very passive strategic culture,” he said. “India is not comfortable with power itself, leave alone the use of force. India has the potential to become a key player but as President Barack Obama said, with power comes responsibility.”