Malhotra: India as an arms exporter

IFS Insights 2/2017. Although India has been involved in defence exports for a long time, the volume of its exports remains insignificant. Recently, however, the figures have been rising, thus signifying a new trend.


by Aditi Malhotra

​​​​​​​Take aways

  • India is currently expanding its arms exports. 
  • The push for arms exports falls under the broader multi-sectoral 'Make in India' initiative launched in 2014.
  • India is motivated by its desire to boost indigenous defence production and use arms exports to further the aim of defence diplomacy. 
  • Improvements in arms exports will remain limited in the short to medium term, and India will continue to be one of the largest arms importers. 

India has been the world's largest importer of arms since 2011–12. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India accounted for 13 per cent of the world's arms imports between 2012 and 2016. While it tops the ranking as an arms importer, India ranks 28th (year 2015–16) with regard to arms exports. Al­though India has been involved in defence exports for a long time, the volume of its ex­ports remains insignificant. Recently, how­ever, the figures have been rising, thus signifying a new trend.

Developments in the last few years have show-cased India's growing willingness to expand its domestic defence production ca­pacity and even export military hardware to 'friendly foreign countries'.

First, unlike previous decades, India has begun marketing its defence platforms for sales abroad. Many analysts argue that India is shedding its reluctance towards defence exports.

Second, the Indian government has un­der­taken policy changes that aim to address impediments in India's defence export pro­­cess making it more efficient and less bureaucratic.

These changes mark a new turn in India's arms export trends, which deserves more scho­larly attention than it has received so far.


India's track record as an arms exporter bears witness of its limited success. India's minimal success can be attributed to a number of reasons including its "historical stand of not exporting defence equipment, which can indirectly fuel conflicts." New Delhi is generally known to be cautious a­bout highlighting a 'security' link in its for­eign relations and had largely refrained from promoting the idea of defence exports in the past. Moreover, India has had limited indigenous platforms it could offer for ex­ports. This unenviable situation has been fur­ther compounded by its bureaucratic defence export procedures.

It is worth noting that India's defence ex­ports have been facilitated to a degree by its Soviet/Russia connection. Due to India's decade-long experience in operating, maintaining and upgrading old Soviet-era platforms, it was (and is) able to deliver spares, sensors, avionics, and offer upgrades to countries that rely on Soviet weapon sys­tems. While this connection has proved beneficial, it can do little to transform India's role into an important arms exporter, especially considering that Russia is itself a leading arms supplier. In the competitive glo­bal arms market, Russia and former Soviet states (such as Belarus) have the advantage of providing the same/similar supplies more quickly than India and at lower rates, thus making it more difficult for India to make its own mark or compete efficiently.


A major defence export contract signalling a change in Indian thinking was signed in March 2011 when New Delhi agreed to sell its first indigenously designed and built multi-role offshore patrol vessel (OPV) named Barracuda, to Mauritius. Following this deal, there have been numerous agree­ments with various countries. Since 2012, India has seen a rise in defence exports, as can be seen in the chart below.

India's Defence Export (2012-2016) in INR crores, 1 crore=10 million (source: Ministry of Defence, Government of India)

As military hardware export rises, New Delhi intends to export equipment worth USD 2 billion by 2019, a figure six times the current level of its arms exports.

In March 2017, India finalised a deal with Myanmar for sale of indigenously developed lightweight torpedoes worth USD 37.9 million.

Currently, India is in talks with Vietnam for the sale of Akash, a short- range surface-to-air missile. In the medium term, India's export is set to be dominated by naval pa­trol craft, underwater weapon systems, heli­cop­ters, avionics, and more importantly, mis­siles.

The most headline grabbing arms deal is the (possible) sale of the supersonic missile BrahMos (Indo-Russian joint production) to Vietnam and other countries. BrahMos is a supersonic missile with a flight range of 290 kilometers and a speed of upto Mach 3. Although the possibility of India selling BrahMos to Vietnam has been in the news since 2011, no major progress took place. It was periodically claimed that India was re­luctant to sell the advanced cruise missile sy­stems to Vietnam as this could antagonise China. Recent developments indicate new mo­mentum. The spokesperson of BrahMos Aerospace, Alexander Maksichev confirmed that the first ever contract is likely to be sig­ned by late 2017. Apart from Vietnam, coun­tries such as Chile, UAE, and South Africa have also reached an advanced stage in their negotiations for BrahMos. The sale of the BrahMos or Akash missile (whichever materialises before) would mark India's first ever export of a missile system.

Needless to say, India's experience with Russia in terms of co-production (for e.g. BrahMos) has been advantageous not only in strengthening its own defence industrial base but also in enhancing its performance as an arms exporter. In view of the current pace of India's defence relations and joint production agreements with countries such as Israel, it is likely that these links may help beef up India's profile as an exporter in the medium or long term.


A spurt in India's defence exports can be at­tributed to a number of steps taken by the Indian government to ease excessive control over arms exports. Indicating its intent to en­hance defence exports, in 2014, New Delhi introduced a Strategy for Defence Exports (SDE), which falls under the multi-sectoral 'Make In India' initiative launched by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The SDE acted as a corollary to the 2011 Defence Productions Policy (DPP), which highlighted the establishment's aim to achieve 'self-reliance' through indegenisation of the defence production sector and, greater parti­cipation of private Indian firms. As stated in the SDE document, the 2011 DPP cannot be achieved without defence export, as the in­dustry needs to be "assured of access to export markets in addition to domestic market for investing in the sector".

Important steps that boosted India's ex­port potential were changes related to is­suance of an end-user certificate, and al­lowing defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs) to export 10 per cent of their yearly production. Previously, in order to expand fur­ther, Indian firms involved in defence ex­ports were required to "give a certificate on the purpose of the component, get it signed by the importing foreign company, and coun­ter­signed by that country's government" for every piece of equipment or parts that were ex­ported. These steps made the process bu­reau­cratic and time-consuming, thus making Indian companies less competitive in the glo­bal market. The current policy obviates the need to follow this procedure for all e­quip­ment except for specific "critical items, which use sensitive Indian technology." Fur­ther­more, formerly, DPSUs were not allowed to ex­port equipment unless the demands of the Indian defence forces were fully met. Now, DPSUs are allowed to export a maximum of 10 per cent of their annual production, which may enable Indian firms to fare better in comparison with other global firms. Ad­di­tion­al changes include streamlining the procedure for clearance of export per­mis­sions or No Objection Certification (NOC) by making it a time-bound and web-based pro­cess.

2014 SDE specifies the creation of two new institutions— Export Promotion Bo­dy (EPB) and Defence Export Steering Com­mit­tee (DESC)— that advise, coordinate and facilitate defence exports. While the DESC functions as a "senior level functional institution", the EPB acts as an advisory body and is also responsible for coordinating var­i­ous government schemes, and marketing de­fence equipment in specific countries.


India's efforts towards enhancing its mili­ta­ry exports emanate from a number of fac­tors ranging from its desire for greater in­di­geni­sation of the defence sector to employing arms exports as a tool of defence diplomacy. With India's economic, political and military rise, it seeks to expand its influence in Asia and beyond. It also wishes to be accepted as an important regional and global player in the changing world order. However, to be regarded as a pivotal power, Verbruggen argues that "autarky in arms production is essential." As India embarks on its geo-strategic ambitions, it considers it essential to ensure its strategic autonomy and develop its own robust domestic defence industrial base. India has expressed its dissatisfaction with its heavy reliance on arms imports. Successive Indian governments have as­sert­ed the need to have greater indigenisation in defence production, albeit with limited suc­cess on the ground. With a stronger defence production sector, New Delhi will be able to meet its defence needs without relying on foreign powers, enhance technological ad­vance­ment, add to its own economic growth, improve the balance of trade and generate em­ployment.

In addition, India's strategy of defence ex­ports forms part of its broader aim of seeking self-reliance and self-sufficiency in the de­fence sector. In order to sustain a country's defence industry, it is essential to focus on the economic viability of its products. No firm can recover its capital costs by focusing solely on the domestic defence market. There­fore, it becomes almost mandatory to look beyond the domestic market and cater for foreign clients. Funds generated through exports can be invested in defence-related re­search and development, thereby helping to sustain the industry. The Indian defence in­dustry is in dire need for investments in re­search and development, and requires new cus­tomers to ensure that the investments in defence production are financially viable. An amalgamation of these factors motivates the Indian government to prioritise arms ex­ports.

The push for military sales is also driven by geo-strategic factors in the region. India is witnessing the rise of its neighbour China with which it shares a complex equation of conflict and cooperation. At the same time, India is also struggling with its other nuclear-armed neighbour, Pakistan. Given the neighbourhood in which India is situated along with its threat perceptions, New Delhi continually seeks to forge relations with like-minded regional and global countries. There­fore, India, like many countries, leverages mi­li­tary diplomacy in its foreign relations. It is in this context that defence exports play a pi­votal role.

Defence exports are set to become a cru­cial part of India's active defence diplo­ma­cy, especially in case of the Indian Ocean Region and Southeast Asia. These trends are evident in India's dealings with Vietnam, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Mauritius, Seychelles etc. New Delhi's enthusiasm to sell equipment to these countries conveys its desire to shape the regional dynamics (especially vis-à-vis China) in a manner that suits its strategic aims and interests in the broader Indo-Pacific region. In order to boost defence pro­cure­ments from potential clients, India has introduced the practice of offering Lines of Credit (LoC) facility to 'friendly for­eign countries'. The most recent credit line include USD 5 billion to Bangladesh, and USD 500 million to Vietnam. India's focus on military diplomacy through arms exports is also corroborated by the fact that its Export Promotion Body (defence exports advisory body) coordinates and consults with personnel from The Ministry of External Affairs, and armed forces.


Despite India's intent to carve out a niche for its arms exports, there are a number of com­plicating factors, many of which are due to India's relatively stagnant defence in­dus­tri­al base. Apart from its ability to export mis­siles, naval equipment, and select parts for de­fence products, there are limited Indian (completely indigenous) military plat­forms that can be offered on the export mar­ket. Even in the case of Indian-built e­quip­ment (T90 tank, Su-30 fighter aircraft), the Intellectual Property Rights belong to for­eign firms, thus making it difficult for New Delhi to export without due approval from the supplier firm and country. The same is true for platforms (case in point, BrahMos mis­sile) which are co-produced by India with other countries. Consequently, the chal­lenge for India is to produce completely indigenous defence equipment with a high sales value abroad. Even as the current Indi­an government is working to streamline its defence production and push for exports, re­sulting in some visible successes lately, there is a limit to what can be achieved in the short to medium term. India's defence industry con­tin­ues to struggle with projects that have run for decades past their deadlines. The pro­blem is compounded by India's inability to fully localise and modernise the defence tech­nology it receives from foreign firms.


As stated above, India's arms exports have expanded recently. In view of the policy chan­ges and push for exports, the trend is likely to continue incrementally. Any im­prove­ment in India's performance as an arms ex­porter will contribute to the success of the 'Make in India' campaign, an important initiative helmed personally by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Arms exports will also bolster India's image as a credible de­fen­ce partner in the Indian Ocean Region and Southeast Asia, wherein China's military rise is resulting in changing geo-strategic con­figurations. Although recent policy chan­ges reflect India's seriousness to revamp its defence industry, it will take time and ad­di­tion­al policy reforms before the country e­mer­ges as a prominent arms exporter. New Delhi will continue to remain dependent on arms import for its own defence needs, even taking into account that its indigenous de­fence production sector is gradually im­proving.


About the author

Aditi Malhotra is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Politics (GraSP), University of Muenster, Germany. Her areas of interest include security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, nuclear proliferation, and nuclear security. In 2016, Malhotra received a scholarship from the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies.

Centre for ASian Security Studies

Responding to the increased importance of Asia and Asian security issues in international affairs, the IFS formally established the Centre for Asian Security Studies in 2012.
The Centre has identified global power shift, geopolitical developments, military developments in Asia, naval power, and energy security as the priority fields of research, and the Centre also analyses what these developments could mean for Norway and Europe.

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Publisert 6. september 2017 16:00.. Sist oppdatert 5. september 2019 08:47.