The defence ministry’s big-bang announcement on its approval of purchases worth Rs 46,000 crores for guns, missiles and helicopters must please India’s military. Any focused purchase of sophisticated defence systems like missiles and combat-ready helicopters must go towards propping up preparedness, which is a primary task to be handled, besides being the price to pay for securing our freedom and protecting our borders. It’s quite another matter that the timing lends itself easily to this being a sop in military trade and ties with the United States, as the 2+2 India strategic dialogue featuring the US secretary of state and the defence secretary and their Indian counterparts is just over a week away. While Russia remains India’s top military supplier and is also to supply the $5 billion S-400 Triumf air defence missile system, the approvals for the current US purchases will balance India’s strategic ties.
The Rs 46,000-crore deal may be mild compared to what the Rafale deal would potentially do for the Air Force, which is in desperate need of squadrons and fit-to-fly fighters and bombers. The deals, however, also encompass several proposals for the “Make in India” initiative, including 111 utility and surveillance helicopters for the Navy, besides multi-role copters for submarine warfare intent. The initiative itself has not truly taken off, nor paid good dividends over the years despite efforts made by successive governments to indigenise arms production. A large portion of India’s purchases as the fifth biggest defence spender in the world are still to be paid for in foreign exchange. The $6.5 billion deals may be minuscule for US defence manufacturers, but the industry does not scoff at any business coming its way. At a time of some dissent over trade thanks to the declaration of trade wars by Donald Trump against the rest of the world, such arms procurement must help bilateral ties.
The very fact that India is considering arms purchases with greater ease now is a relief. The Indian defence ministry has been tied down by such inhibitions in the wake of the accusations over Bofors bribes that there have been an atmosphere of fear ruling arms purchases for 30 years. A UPA defence minister had taken this to such an extreme that nothing moved in terms of defence preparedness for years. Given the history, the announcement coming well before any of the earmarked funds lapsing at the end of a financial term is to be welcomed. A pitiful paralysis had struck defence deals for a while. But, even at a time when they are being done to take care of defence needs, the poisonous atmosphere of sharp polarisation in our society means that none of this will go unchallenged. The biggest fear is still about the atmosphere of suspicion spoiling the delivery schedules of Rafale fighters in a time-bound manner to enhance Air Force capabilities.