India, the world’s largest arms buyer, is lowering its dependence on foreign vendors through a mix of policy initiatives that tap into design and manufacturing capabilities of public enterprises, large business
conglomerates and even startups. Foreign armaments purchases declined 11% between 2013-17 and 2018-22 as the government widened the list of items for indigenous procurement
while setting ambitious targets for defence exports that are on course to be met. Core weapons systems still need to be imported – the global weapons industry is happy to sell pell-mell
to ‘all sides’ – a big chunk of them from Russia
. But India
is seeking greater self-reliance in peripheral military production that can also feed export
markets.The push to indigenising hardware production is being led by the public sector that is supplying the export market with light attack helicopters and cruise missiles. The navy has placed a repeat order for a home-built aircraft carrier. This apart, the private sector has been roped into defence production with, for instance, the Tatas tying up with Airbus
to make transport aircraft. Yet, the most radical transformation in defence procurement is the seeding of startups for technology solutions to tomorrow’s warfare. The military technology incubator, Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX), has already delivered a host of solutions, from drones to communications, at a fraction of the normal cost.
India will continue to remain one of the world’s largest arms buyers, a dubious distinction it has enjoyed for decades. An accelerated indigenisation drive for hardware and increased focus on exports, however, should bring the domestic capability horizon closer. This is dependent on a deepening of Indian manufacturing capabilities overall through a big infrastructure build-up. An equally ambitious drive on R&D is needed. GoI is creating room for domestic industry by raising the threshold for homegrown defence procurement. A bigger role for the private sector in armaments production has positive spillovers for industry.