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Why Has India Become the World’s Top Arms Buyer?

India has replaced China as the world’s largest arms buyer, accounting for 10 percent of all arms purchases during the past five years, a Swedish research group said.

Civilian visitors sit on top of a T-72 tank during an Indian Army weaponry exhibition in Kolkata, India.
Dibyangshu Sarkar | AFP | Getty Images
Civilian visitors sit on top of a T-72 tank during an Indian Army weaponry exhibition in Kolkata, India.

India purchased some $12.7 billion in arms, 80 percent of that from Russia, during 2007-2011, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). China’s arms purchases during that time were $6.3 billion, 78 percent of which came from Russia.

India has tried, but failed, to create a sizable domestic manufacturing industry for weapons or even basic military goods, while China has increased production of defense supplies. About 75 percent of India’s weapons purchases came from imports during 2007-11, said Laxman Kumar Behra of the Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis, a government-funded research organization.

Some analysts in India attribute the failure to create a domestic defense industry to government involvement. “India’s public sector is very inefficient and the private sector is by and large kept out of arms production,” Mr. Behra said.

“We lack long-term vision,” and a culture of research and development, Mr. Behra said. “The government keeps on forming one committee after the other but there is hardly any implementation” of the committee’s recommendations, he said.

In a recent article in The Economic Times, Uday Bhaskar, a retired commodore and leading strategic analyst, also criticized India’s weapons procurement policy.

“More than 60 years after becoming a republic and 50 years after the debacle with China, the opaque Indian defense production establishment does not produce high quality clothing and personal inventory items like boots, let alone a suitable rifle for a one million army, or tanks and aircraft.”

Russia, the world’s No. 2 weapons supplier in recent years after the United States, sold $7.8 billion in defense supplies in 2011, and $40.8 billion from 2005 to 2011. India bought about one-third of the supplies.

India’s dependence on Russia is a holdover from the Cold War era, when the two were close allies.

South Korea was the second-largest arms importer from 2007 to 2011, with $7 billion in purchases. Pakistan and China followed, each accounting for about 5 percent of the world’s total arms import during the five-year period, SIPRI said.

India’s import of major weapons increased by 38 percent from the 2002-2006 period to the 2007-2011 period. India’s main acquisitions over the past five years were 120 Sukhoi and 16 MiG-29 jet fighter aircraft from Russia and 20 Anglo-French Jaguar fighters.

India recently finalized a deal for 126 multi-role fighter aircraft with French defense contractor Rafael, in a deal worth $10 billion.