For more than a decade, India shopped around the world in search of a deal for more than $1bn-worth of helicopters to replace 200 of its military’s ageing light-utility aircraft.
But in August, the new nationalist government surprised many when it abruptly scrapped the request for global bids to buy the helicopters in favour of manufacturing them in India instead.
In recent months, India has reversed two more proposals for buying transport aircraft and submarines and decided to make them at home. It’s part of an ambitious push by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to foster a domestic arms industry, within a greater nationwide initiative Mr Modi has called “Make in India”.
India is the world’s largest buyer of weapons, accounting for 14 per cent of global arms imports, almost three times as many as China.
Over the next seven years, India is likely to spend more than $130bn (£80bn) importing arms, officials say, to upgrade its understocked, Soviet-era arsenal with modern weapon systems. India’s military modernisation can generate billions of dollars worth of business for American companies, but it also helps strengthen the nation’s strategic role in the region – at a time when the Indian and US militaries are conducting more joint exercises.
The massive buying spree coincides with India’s growing border tensions with China and Pakistan, and the approaching drawdown of international forces from Afghanistan this year.
Analysts say that closer defence ties between India and the US are a key part of what both countries hope will be an improved relationship, and what President Barack Obama has called “the defining partnership of the 21st century”.
India’s fiercely independent foreign policy stance and its reluctance to fully embrace the United States as an ally often have hindered a full strategic alliance.
Now, Mr Modi wants to upend India’s arms-importer tag and turn the country into not only a defence manufacturer, but also a major weapons exporter – much like China in the past several years.
“We dream of making India strong enough to export defence equipment to the world,” Mr Modi said in August after christening India’s largest home-built warship.
Despite the push, many defence experts say India is not ready to make a giant leap like China’s – from being the largest arms importer to the world’s sixth-largest defence exporter in just five years.
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