India's Defense Evolution: From Top Importer to Exporter

India transitions from being the world's top arms importer to a major exporter, reshaping global dynamics. Analyzing the surge in defence production, export growth, and its implications on strategic influence.

Amir Haque
New Update
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In 2018, Prime Minister Modi lambasted the previous UPA regime, accusing it of policy paralysis on defence preparedness. He specifically pointed out the failure to conclude a deal to procure 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) after a prolonged selection process. Modi's critique sparked a heated exchange with the Congress party, which countered his accusations by accusing him of consistently portraying a negative image of the UPA government's policies.


India's Surge as Global Arms Import Leader

However, fast forward five years, and India finds itself at the forefront of global arms imports. According to the latest Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report covering the period between 2019 and 2023, India has secured the top spot as the world's largest arms importer. This significant shift underscores India's determination to ramp up its defence preparedness, marking a departure from the perceived policy paralysis of the past.


Yes, India’s emergence as the world's foremost arms importer marks a significant shift in global arms dynamics. Between 2014–18 and 2019–23, India's arms imports increased by 4.7 per cent, solidifying its position at the top of the importer list. This surge in imports, SIPRI report says, reflects India's strategic priorities and its quest for modernization in defence capabilities.


India's Diversification Boosts France's Arms Export Dominance


A notable trend accompanying India's rise as the leading arms importer is its diversification of import sources. While historically reliant on Russia for the majority of its arms imports, India has now diversified its procurement, significantly reducing its dependence on Russian arms. This shift has propelled France to the forefront as the world's number one arms exporter. India's quest for diversification has reshaped global arms trade dynamics, elevating France's stature in the industry.


France's ascendancy as the top arms exporter is underscored by its success in securing major contracts with India. Approximately 30 per cent of France's arms exports are directed to India, a significant portion driven by the delivery of combat aircraft to countries like India, Qatar, and Egypt. Katarina Djokic, researcher at SIPRI says this strategic partnership has not only bolstered France's arms industry but has also cemented its position as a key player in the global arms market.


Russia's Arms Export Decline: Shifting Global Dynamics

Meanwhile, the decline in Russia's arms exports, by 53 per cent between 2014–18 and 2019–23, reflects its diminishing role as a major arms supplier. Pieter Wezeman, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme says that Russia, once a dominant force in the arms trade, has seen a rapid decline in its exports, with its share of global arms transfers shrinking significantly after war with Ukraine. This decline underscores the changing dynamics of the global arms market and the emergence of new players and geopolitical realities.


India's Defence Sector: From Importer to Exporter Dominance

India however made global strides not only as the top arms importer but also as the leading exporter of defence equipment. In 2023, India's defence sector experienced a transformative surge, driven by the pursuit of 'Aatmanirbharta' (self-reliance) in defence and the Armed Forces. This momentum was underscored by a significant milestone as defence production crossed 1 lakh crore for the first time in FY 2022-23, representing a notable increase from the previous fiscal year's figure of approximately 95,000 crore. Such achievement reflects the central government's focused efforts on bolstering indigenous manufacturing, supported by policy reforms aimed at enhancing ease of doing business and integrating MSMEs and startups into the defence ecosystem.


Simultaneously, India's defence exports reached an unprecedented high of nearly 16,000 crore in FY 2022-23, a notable increase of approximately 3,000 crore from the preceding fiscal year. Exporting to over 85 countries, 100 Indian firms played a pivotal role in this success story, exporting a diverse range of products including the Dornier-228, 155 mm Advanced Towed Artillery Guns, Brahmos Missiles, Akash Missile System, radars, and simulators.


Noteworthy is the growing global demand for indigenous defence platforms such as the LCA-Tejas, light combat helicopters, aircraft carriers, and MRO activities. India's burgeoning defence exports highlight its emergence as a key player in the global arms market, contributing significantly to both economic growth and strategic security objectives.


Against this backdrop, India's increasing prominence as the top arms importer signals its growing strategic importance on the world stage. As India continues to modernize its military and enhance its defence capabilities, its choices in arms procurement will undoubtedly shape the future of global arms trade and influence geopolitical dynamics in the years to come.

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