Global Arms Sales Hit Highest Level Since End of Cold War

  • With eye on China, India remains world’s largest arms importer
  • U.S., Russia combined supply 56% of defense exports: report

An Indian Army personnel looks through the barrel of a rocket launcher.

Photographer: Noah Seelam/AFP via Getty Images

Global arms sales over the last five years reached their highest level since 1990, with India continuing to top the charts as the world’s largest defense importer, a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has found.

Between 2012 and 2016, India accounted for 13 percent of global arms imports, followed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, China and Algeria, said SIPRI, which tracks global arms purchases. Between 2007 and 2011, India accounted for 9.7 percent of global imports, still more than any other country, the group’s data shows.

Most Gulf Arab states are involved in armed conflicts in Yemen, Syria or on their own territory and have tense relations with Iran, the report noted. In 2012–16, Saudi Arabia’s arms imports increased by 212 percent compared with the previous five years, accounting for 8.2 percent of global arms imports.

India faces serious geopolitical threats from its nuclear-armed rival Pakistan and China’s rising military strength. As China becomes more assertive across Asia and invests billions of dollars in strategic infrastructure projects in Pakistan -- including in contested territory claimed by India -- New Delhi has tried to deepen defense cooperation with the United States and other countries in the region, such as Vietnam.

Despite rising threats, and a ‘Make in India’ program to encourage local arms production, India’s domestic defense sector is not capable of meeting New Delhi’s growing requirements, said Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher with SIPRI.

"They spend a lot of time and also money trying to develop weapons in India and things just go hopelessly wrong," Wezeman said, adding that leaves them relying on imports.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged $250 billion to modernize the country’s aging military equipment -- from fighter jets to guns and submarines. The government wants to award contracts to companies, such as Lockheed Martin Corp and Saab AB, which have promised to build products in India. But Wezeman said red tape, an historic reliance on state-owned companies and constant delays hinder the country’s ability to supplant imports with domestically-produced weapons. 

This leaves India overwhelmingly reliant on foreign imports, mainly from Russia, the United States and Israel. While India’s share of global weapons imports has risen, China has increasingly been able to domestically produce weapons required by its military, SIPRI said, leading China’s share of global defense imports to fall to 4.5 percent of the global total between 2012 and 2016 from 5.5 percent between 2007 and 2011.

Amit Cowshish, a former financial adviser for acquisitions at India’s Ministry of Defence, said India’s defense sector has traditionally been unable to meet the immediate demands of the country’s armed forces -- which are battling insurgents, patrolling contested borders and doing joint patrols and military exercises with allies in the region.

"It’s a catch-22 situation. Indian industry was not able to meet the requirements because it didn’t have a history of doing defense," Cowshish said, adding that replacing imports with domestically produced weapons will take time. "You can’t really climb up the value chain overnight, and the requirements are imminent."

Both Cowshish and Wezeman said the shift under Modi to rely more on private Indian companies for defense procurement, could lead to success. India signed an $8.7 billion contract to buy 36 Rafale jets from Dassault Aviation SA. But both analysts also warned that structural changes to India’s defense purchasing would take a long time, given the lengthy timelines involved in defense R&D and manufacturing, as well as the necessity of meeting the military’s pressing requirements for combat-ready equipment.

"Since the 1950s, the Indian leadership has continuously maintained that they want to make in India," Wezeman said. Even "if they realign, it’s not something that can be done very fast."

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