Buying a weapon would seem to be a simple enough decision. Arms are destructive. Whichever is more destructive should be better. Would it were that easy. There are probably few things more difficult than purchasing weapons. Because they lie at the core of national security concerns, choosing a major weapon system must factor in more than mere firepower. The surety of spare parts, the issue of life-cycle costs, training and interoperability must also be assessed. What is probably the most important factor, and the most difficult to assess, is the strategic context of the weapon. Though men in uniform complain bitterly about this, strategic context is an inevitable part of an arms purchase. It is a political judgement and highly subjective.
Strategic context matters little in the buying of small arms or helmets. It matters hugely in the purchase of major weapons platforms — fighter aircraft, warships and heavy armour. These are at the heart of battlefield dominance. If
India or any country buys such weapons from overseas, it implies a degree of commitment from both sides that can run into decades. This is especially true for the technologically most advanced platform: the fighter aircraft. An additional concern these days is the issue of offsets. India is the world’s largest arms importer, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Between 2006 and 2010 its imports represented 9% of the world’s total arms transfers. Bringing more of these purchases home is both an economic and a strategic need. It is also important because a wise offset policy lays the seeds, over time, for domestic capacity in high-technology development.
The so-called medium multi-role combat aircraft contract has been a matter of global interest not merely because of its size, but also because it is expected to serve as a signal of where India sees its strategic future. Russia, the source of 80% of India’s purchases in the past, is on a declining technological trajectory and has a new primary client in the form of China. The recent shortlisting of two European-origin fighters and the resignation of the US ambassador to India have weaved an exciting but strategically ambiguous tale around the aircraft contract. But arms procurement in India has tended to be a long and tortuous process so the final word on the matter may not have been said. However, Europe, which runs to the US whenever it has a serious military problem and is unable to project power into Asia, cannot be a long-term strategic partner for India. Thus whatever the plane that is inducted into the air force, what has been postponed and left open is India’s strategic future in a 21st century that has already been marked by remarkable international flux. Weapons can be bought, mothballed and replaced with new ones. Strategic partnerships need to be selected and developed because they are the stuff of national security and the product of years of cultivation.