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India Gets First Brahmos Order, But It’s a Long Way to Self-Reliance

New Delhi must evolve an astute and viable long-term blueprint about the new technologies that it must invest in.

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India has notched up its first major arms export order with the Philippines government, confirming a long-pending proposal to acquire the supersonic Brahmos cruise missile with a 290 km range that is jointly produced by India and Russia. The order is worth $375 million and will give a much-needed fillip to India’s defence exports.

India is listed among the world’s top arms importers along with Saudi Arabia and has a relatively modest profile when it comes to military exports. While significant strides in relation to self-sufficiency and indigenisation have been made in some areas of critical strategic relevance – such as nuclear weapons, missiles, space satellites and underwater nuclear propulsion – the conventional military inventory spectrum is dependent to a great extent on imports.

It is a matter of concern and embarrassment that even as the nation prepares for its 75th anniversary of independence, India still imports rifles, the basic personal weapon for a soldier.

However, a concerted effort is being made to redress this dependence and many major indigenous and co-production projects are in the pipeline and will hopefully bear fruit over the next decade.

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India Is Yet to Join the 'Top 10' Club

As per global estimates, India currently exports military inventory items worth about $1.5 billion (2018-19), and this is a marked increase from the previous year when arms exports were valued at $660 million. The Modi government is determined to increase this figure to $5 billion over the next few years, and in this context, the $375-million Brahmos order would be encouraging in reaching this objective.

However, certain structural challenges and constraints merit notice. The global arms market is fiercely competitive and opaque, and both governments and state-supported corporations dominate the domain. Post-World War II, the US and the former USSR were the big boys as regards arms supplies with the UK and France at a remove. Germany and Japan were circumscribed by their imperial history and post-war status.

Predictably, after the end of the Cold War in 1991 and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, there has been a reordering of the listing of major arms-exporting nations in the world. The US and Russia are still in the top tier, and in the last decade, the European nations have been joined by China and Israel. India is yet to join the top 10 arms-exporting nations.

To that extent, the Brahmos is a significant punctuation, but it is to be noted that the missile is a joint design and production effort with Russia. Hence, Delhi cannot decide unilaterally on whom to sell to, and a complex geopolitical subtext comes into play.

For now, the Brahmos will be a boost to the coastal defence capability of the Philippines, which is currently seeking to grapple with Beijing’s military intimidation in relation to the South China Sea (SCS) dispute. This modest acquisition of three batteries of the Brahmos will not ‘scare’ the PLA navy, but the signal of Manila’s resolve is potent. It is expected that Indonesia and Vietnam may also opt for the Brahmos, but the China factor in ASEAN geopolitics is a compelling and constraining reality.

Why China, Russia & US Matter

At the global level, there is currently an increasing strategic convergence between China and Russia apropos their discord with the US, reminiscent of the early years of the Cold War. However, Beijing is now the more capable partner by way of comprehensive national power, and Moscow would have its own red lines as far as military exports are concerned where it is a stakeholder – as is the case with the Brahmos.

The other potential constraint as regards the unfettered export of Brahmos is the US and Washington’s geopolitical-cum-strategic compulsions. The US is cognisant of the challenge posed by Russia and China individually, and if the Moscow rumble is a reminder of the Cold War past that the Beltway had to carefully navigate, Beijing represents the cyber-COVID-climate change quagmire of the early 21st century.

After the increase in US-Russia tensions that began with Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the US Congress introduced legislation referred to as the CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions), with Russia as the immediate target. Under this act, major Russian entities are on the sanctions list – particularly in the defence sector – and US engagement with them directly or through a proxy is prohibited.

The Russian partner in the Brahmos Aerospace venture is NPOM (NPO Mashinostroyenia), while the Indian DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organization) is the major stakeholder with a 50.5 per cent holding in this public sector corporation. The US is currently reviewing the Indian decision to acquire the S-400 missile defence systems from Russia against the provisions of CAATSA, and the Brahmos can potentially be brought into the ambit.

However, India has its own strategic relevance in the larger US calculus in relation to the Indo-Pacific and China, and a binary choice may not be a valid option for the Biden administration.

If there is one policy cue for India from the Brahmos deal, it is that military exports are predicated on a nation’s proven credibility and competence in specific niches. Given that national fiscal resources for the military sector will remain depressed due to the COVID-19 challenge, Delhi must evolve an astute and viable long-term blueprint about the new technologies that it must invest in to acquire the profile of an autonomous, credible, dependable and affordable military inventory supplier.

(Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies, has the rare distinction of having headed three think tanks. He was previously Director at the National Maritime Foundation (2009-11) and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (2004-05). He tweets @theUdayB. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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