World's largest arms importer, India now wants to buy local

World's largest arms importer, India now wants to buy local

It recently rolled out its own fighter jet, a tank, a mobile howitzer and a host of ships.

Of the 30 countries that attended a defence exposition last month to sell weapons to India, the world’s largest arms importer, only the Russians had the chutzpah to dress up their tanks and guns with women in tightfitting camouflage. The confident and sexy display reflected Russia’s longtime position as India’s dominant military provider, but decades of effort by India to make its own hardware may finally be bearing fruit. India recently rolled out its own fighter jet, a tank, a mobile howitzer and a host of locally made ships.

If India succeeds, the Russians could be in trouble. Russia has nearly $39 billion worth of military equipment on order by India, representing nearly a third of Russia’s total arms exports. Defence minister A K Antony, said during the exposition that the country’s reliance on foreign arms makers must end. “A growing India still depending on foreign companies for a substantial part of our defence needs is not a happy situation,” he said.

Whether India can break its import addiction is anyone’s guess, but many arms analysts are skeptical. India is expected to spend about $11 billion this year buying weapons from abroad, despite decades of effort by the government to create domestic military manufacturing sector.

“I don’t think there’s another country in the world that has tried as hard as India to make weapons and failed as thoroughly,” said Pieter D Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which studies global security. He said he was skeptical that India’s new products would change that history, saying that its fighters, tanks and guns were “of questionable quality.”

India ranks eighth in the world in military spending. Among the top 10 weapons buyers, only Saudi Arabia has a less productive homegrown military industry. China, by contrast, has been so effective that it is beginning to export higher-technology arms. India’s main problem as an arms manufacturer is a corrupt and inefficient government sector that has neither the expertise to develop top-notch weapons nor the wherewithal to make them in abundance, said Manoj Joshi, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a policy group based in New Delhi.

In one telling example, India could buy fully assembled Russian Sukhoi fighters for about $55 million each, but instead mostly relies on kits that are sent to the government-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, which assembles them at a cost of about $68 million each — nearly a quarter more. In another example, government labs spent billions trying to develop an aircraft engine, only to abandon the effort and buy engines from General Electric for the recently introduced fighter, the Tejas.

“While it’s more complicated assembling Sukhois than putting together an Ikea flat-pack, it’s not that hard,” said Samuel Perlo-Freeman, a programme director at the Stockholm institute. “And it’s far from an independent and autonomous development of a new weapons system.”

India has tried to encourage private companies to make arms in India, both in partnerships to the government and independently, but few of these efforts have succeeded. Most of India’s homegrown arms are developed in 50 government labs and built at eight large government manufacturing facilities and 40 government ordnance factories.

Government’s chokehold

Companies have mostly been unwilling to work with the government, and the government has not allowed foreign makers to own more than 26 percent of any Indian factory. It has agreed to raise that limit to 49 percent, but no company has applied for the exception. Antony dismissed criticisms of the government’s chokehold on arms production. “Indian scientists and Indian industry are more efficient, and the government will have to support them,” he said.

But Joshi said India’s government needed to get out of manufacturing. “Our defence industrial base is hopelessly out of date,” he said. “It needs to be dismantled and handed over to the private sector.”

That has left the door open for countries like Russia, whose arms deliveries to India reached a record level in 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available, rising 50 per cent from 2011. In the previous five years, India bought 12 per cent of the world’s arms imports, and Russia accounted for 79 per cent of India’s deliveries, according to the Stockholm institute. American manufacturers have recently won several orders for transport and maritime patrol aircraft, displacing some Russian equipment, but the Russians are still by far India’s dominant arms supplier. In 2012, Russia delivered to India the second nuclear-powered submarine ever exported by any country.

Alexander Kadakin, Russia’s ambassador to India, dismissed any notion of a slowdown in sales to India. “It is inappropriate in my view and even incorrect to speak about Russia allegedly losing its leading positions in the Indian market,” he said. Because of poor infrastructure, stultifying labor rules and difficulties acquiring real estate, making anything in India is hard. The country’s manufacturing sector is declining and now represents 13 per cent of the total economy — about the same share as in the United States.

But its military and civil aviation markets are so enticing that major manufacturers are opening facilities in the country anyway. In 2010, Sikorsky Aircraft, part of the American conglomerate United Technologies, opened a plant in Hyderabad that it operates jointly with Tata Advanced Systems. The facility assembles the cabin for its midsize helicopter, the S-92. The helicopter’s cabin was previously made at a Mitsubishi facility in Japan.

Production was transferred to India not because costs were lower (surprisingly, they were not), but because having a local facility might encourage sales in India, said Ashish Saraf, program manager for the Tata-Sikorsky joint venture, of which Sikorsky owns 26 percent.

But the challenges have been immense. New roads had to be built to the venture’s 11-acre site, and they came slowly. The company had to build its own facilities to treat water, handle sewage and harvest rainwater. It eventually got power from the state but operated initially from six backup generators, which must be kept operational for occasional power cuts.

Employees needed considerable training in aerospace manufacturing and in the early days often left for higher-paying jobs as soon as their training was complete. “Our talent got poached all the time,” Mr. Saraf said. So in addition to expensive training, the company had to undertake an employee retention program.

Shipping has been a challenge. Some of the Tata-Sikorsky plant’s most important equipment was damaged on the trip from the port in Mumbai by India’s terrible roads, delaying production. The plant sends its helicopter cabins back to the port; from there, they are shipped to Pennsylvania, where the aircraft are fully assembled.

Much of India’s military, in any case, does not want Indian-made equipment. So many Russian fighters assembled by Hindustan Aeronautics have crashed in recent years that the Indian Air Force calls them flying coffins. India’s Russian-made submarines and naval equipment have experienced deadly mishaps in the past year as well, leading the country’s naval chief to resign last week. The distrust between the civilian builders and military users has turned the made-in-India effort into an even tougher sell. If the two sides cannot agree, the Russians are ready to step in.