Ex-Northern Command Chief DS Hooda
8 mins read

Ex-Northern Command Chief DS Hooda

India was the largest weapons importer in the world during the five-year period of 2019-23. Its arms import rose 4.7% between the 2014-18 five-year period and the 2019-23 spell.

There is, however, a change in the composition of India’s suppliers. New data published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks the global weapons trade, shows that for the first time in 60 years, India imported less than half of its overall foreign weapons from Russia. It still accounted for 34% of all Russian arms exports, which overall shrank by 53% to a dozen countries in 2023 as opposed to 31 in 2019 as US-led sanctions tightened.  

France replaced Russia as the world’s largest arms exporter in 2019-23 and India became the single biggest buyer of French weapons, mainly fighter planes. 

Rising global tensions and conflicts have pushed most large nations to stock up on arms. European nations, scared stiff after Russia invaded Ukraine, are rebuilding their depleted armouries. Their imports nearly doubled and 55% of the weapons came from the US in 2019-23. A new report from the London-based think-tank, International Institute for Strategic Studies says global defence spending increased by 9% to a record $2.2 trillion in 2023 and is expected to go up even more in 2024.

The Signal Daily spoke to army veteran Lt General DS Hooda, who is also the co-founder of the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, a New Delhi-based think-tank to make sense of the global arms race. 

Edited Excerpts:

So far NATO has been the base of the European line of defence. But is that stance changing and why so?

The stances are changing. In fact, after the war in Ukraine, NATO has decided to up its spending. So it was supposed to be spending 2% of its GDP on defence, which it was not doing. But it’s now committed. And you know, as per the latest data, at least 18 countries of NATO have actually reached a target of 2%. So I think with what’s happened in Ukraine and the sort of fears of Russia, you’re going to see NATO, you know, taking its appropriate role in European security. I mean, that was one problem that the Americans, particularly President Trump always had, that the Europeans are not…the NATO is not doing enough. But I think you will see as far as European security is concerned, a greater role for NATO. And we are also seeing a number of other European countries wanting to join NATO. So I see an expanded role for NATO in the US and European security.

If we turn to Asia, rocky China-US relations are underpinning a lot of spending. China alone is spending massively on defence; its defence spending reportedly worth $219.5 billion accounted for nearly 43% of all of Asia’s defence spending last year. On the other hand, Taiwan also boosted its defence budget by nearly 20%. Japan has abandoned its pacifist policy. And as for India, it is the world’s largest arms importer, accounting for 9.8% of the total global imports in the five years up to 2023. How would you read India’s position in this arms race?

Okay, so let’s look at the issue. Its defence spending. So it’s driven by two things. One, as you mentioned, the US China rivalry. And so China has steadily increased its defence budget, because it sort of wants to modernise and become what can be called a peer competitor to the US now. It may not achieve that immediately but the ultimate aim is that they want a sort of fully modernised military force that can stand up to, you know, any American pressure. So as you mentioned, more than 40% of Asian spending is actually by China. So that’s one driver. 

And the second driver is, you know, the increasing Chinese aggressiveness. And that’s leading to countries you mentioned, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, increasing their defence budget. It’s not only the direct threats. Also look at the ASEAN countries. Looking at China’s behaviour, for example, the Philippines and Vietnam are also enhancing their defence budget. So, there is a bit of a sense of insecurity. 

Coming to India, 2020 has been a sort of transformative year in my assessment. Before that, you know, diplomacy and political engagement could keep the Chinese military at bay and (there was a sense) that they won’t use military force. 2020, I think, changed that impression. So, you’re also finding, you know, a greater emphasis of the Indian military on its northern borders, in the maritime space… in the Indian Ocean. So clearly, I’m not even suggesting that there could be war, but definitely India and China are going to remain strategic competitors. That to some extent will drive the Indian defence budget. The need to indigenize (has put in place) the whole atmanirbhar programme. Although, honestly, it will take time to mature. We are still going to remain highly dependent on imports as far as defence equipment is concerned.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies used the phrase “the era of insecurity”. Do you think this really is the era of insecurity? What could it possibly indicate?

Of course, it is. Who would have thought a few years ago that you would see a major war in Europe, a war that would lead to massive internal and external migration? Just six months back, we were all saying that (conflict in) the Middle East has gone down, and that there is growing engagement between the Arab nations and Israel and that will lead to some sort of lasting peace. And then you see what happened in Gaza. 

As I mentioned, the US-China rivalry has intensified. And it’s taking shape in many ways. I mean, look at the trade and technology sanctions that have been applied. So, all this that you are seeing today, rightly you can call it the era of insecurity. And, therefore, you are seeing enhancement of defence capability and enhancement of defence budgets. 

I want to point out one more thing, which is the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war on what were our traditional calculations of how much stocks of equipment you would need. The kind of massive expenditures that have taken place, the material losses that have taken place, are leading to countries in Europe, the US, and China actually revising their estimates of what defence production capability you need. 

You find countries ramping up their defence production, even the number of shells that they will require for a war. And that’s also one thing that is adding to, you know, when you’re looking at expenditures on defence, really looking ahead. Of course, the real blowups could happen in Ukraine, because I mean, you had occasions where, you know, President Putin has been talking about the use of nuclear weapons. You have the French president now talking about NATO boots on the ground in Ukraine. And that’s, that’s something that could flare up. Even if you look at Gaza, it looks like a limited conflict. But if you look at what the Israelis are saying, the real enemy is Iran. And that Iran needs to be sorted out if we want peace in this region. And so again, if this is the kind of thinking that is happening, you’re looking at an escalation, you’re looking at an expansion of conflicts. So things you know, the way they’re happening, could lead to an escalation. I mean, really, you can’t rule it out.

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