The month of June saw some hectic activity in India’s arms acquisitions. At least two key Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) were inked for procurement of critical platforms and major assemblies. The first GE Aerospace announced that it has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to produce fighter jet engines for the Indian Air Force including potential joint production of GE Aerospace’s F414 engines in India. India’s lumbering Defence Acquisition Council headed by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was suddenly galvanised into action on June 15, 2023 to accorded Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) for acquisition of 31 MQ-9B (16 Sky Guardian and 15 Sea Guardian) High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) for Tri-Services from the USA through Foreign Military Sale (FMS). These were seen as major markers of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s seminal visit to the United States and found a mention in the Joint Statement as well.
In Mumbai Germany marine major - ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems and Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders Limited signed an MoU in the presence of the German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius expressing their intention to build submarines for and in India – to fulfil the requirement of tendering for the 75 (I) programme due on 01 August. Not to be left behind it is anticipated that France one of India’s most stable military technology partner is expected to lay on the table a few offers for India. As per veteran defence correspondent Rahul Bedi writing in the Tribune these are likely to include 26 Dassault Rafale-Maritime (M) fighters, three Scorpene-class diesel-electric conventional submarines as add on to the six already held by India and finally transfer of technology to build nuclear powered submarines by India. This could be the answer of France to the AUKUS – a US and UK agreement to arm Australia with cutting edge nuclear submarines even as Paris was negotiating with Canberra for construction of conventional boats. All this even as India’s special strategic partner and long time provider of military weapons is watching from the sidelines engrossed in the War in Ukraine and its unintended spinoffs as the Wagner revolt. Indeed, Moscow may pull something out of the hat despite the perception that its defence industry is severely constrained due to sanctions, let us wait and watch.
The sudden flurry of activities in the Indian defence acquisition space is surprising in that India’s procurement process is seen as slower than the lumbering pace of the proverbial elephant. Though these MOUs and intent to procure are likely to take months if not years to fructify, the interest by foreign defence suppliers in India at a time when the Indian Ministry of Defence was tomtoming the Atma Nirbhar Bharat in Defence may have surprised some. Nevertheless, India has been viewed as a major export market by global arms companies for decades – the outcome being the ignominy of figuring in the world’s top importer list published by the SIPRI year after year. With the defence deals in the pipeline, it is unlikely that this ‘crown of thorns,’ will come off for India.
Indeed, one reason for welcoming several global arms companies to India at this juncture would be a realisation by the Government that the indigenous defence R & D and production complex is unlikely to deliver on Make in India. Indeed the DRDO has been struggling with the Kaveri aircraft engine for decades now while its quest for HALE and MALE drones remains a mystery though some success is claimed in the Tapas programme lately. Given rapid modernisation by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) any delay to await Indian programmes to fructify may have been seen as unwarranted by the policy makers. Western defence majors on the other hand are sensing the possibility of a shift in India’s reliance on Russia for provision of weapons and munitions after the experience of operational performance of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine and the ability to deliver in the wake of US and EU sanctions. The street is set to be one way for India – the West – at least this is what they believe.
Meanwhile it should be noted that under the garb of building India’s defence capability to manage China’s mounting challenge – a core plea by some of the US lawmakers, commercial factors are primus inter pares so to say. The size of the Indian armed forces is huge and requirement of tanks, guns, combat aircraft and helicopters is in thousands and of ships and submarines in double figures. Presently no other armed forces in the World are expected to be importing in the numbers that India is, thus even if the wait may be long after signing the MOU, the end of the supply chain oozes millions if not billions of dollars and Euros.
It now remains to be seen how India manages to swing these MoUs to a logical conclusion in a reasonable time frame at life cycle commercial costs.