India: The World’s Number One Customer For Weapons

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India overtook China to become the world’s leading arms importer, according to the Stockholm Peace and Research Initiative (SIPRI), a Swedish think tank that monitors international weapons sales. Between 2006-2010, India received 9% of global arms transfers, the most for any nation, with the vast majority of those imports (82%) coming from Russia. The findings confirm what many observers have long been trumpeting: the heating up of a worldwide arms race, led by militaries in Asia that keenly feel the need to modernize in an age where American global supremacy appears to be on the wane.India’s 2011 military budget is forecast at around $35 billion (roughly a third of Beijing’s projected outlay) and it’s clear that planners in New Delhi, along with those in a host of other Asian nations, are warily casting an eye at the rise of China. Unlike China, India has remained largely dependent on foreign suppliers, obtaining 70% of its new weaponry from overseas. Traditionally — and at present — India has procured the bulk of its new armaments from Russia, a legacy borne out in part by old Cold War affinities. But that’s a sliver of the story. The U.S., signatory to a landmark and controversial nuclear deal with India, has also stepped up its weapons transactions with the South Asian giant. Here’s what Mina Kimes, a colleague at FORTUNE, says of an American defense industry eager to do business:

For decades, India had mainly bought Russian-made arms. In 1998 the U.S. banned India from purchasing American weapons after the country held a series of nuclear tests; President Bush lifted the ban on arms sales in 2001. A few years later the weapons notifications started to trickle in. First there was the C-130J, a tactical air-lifter that can take off in rough conditions and fly across continents. Then, in 2009, the Indian air force purchased eight P8 surveillance planes from Boeing, worth an estimated $2.1 billion. When Obama visited India last November, he secured a preliminary agreement to sell 10 Boeing C-17 transport jets, a deal worth about $4.1 billion. Before the year was over, India had put in a request for 22 Boeing helicopters.

Ultimately, as SIPRI notes, the world is veering into an age of heightened competition and rivalry, which means greater opportunities for the world’s weaponsmiths. SIPRI gives this snapshot:

‘There is intense competition between suppliers for big-ticket deals in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America’, states Dr Paul Holtom, Director of the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme. The Eurofighter consortium (comprised of Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK), France, Russia, Sweden and the USA are competing for combat aircraft orders in these regions, with notable competitions in Brazil and India. France, Germany, Italy and the UK are competing for orders for naval equipment from Algeria.

Of course, there’s nothing immediately wrong with armies improving themselves; indeed, contracts from countries like India or Vietnam create or sustain jobs in a slew of recession-hit Western economies. But, as academics and wonks forecast the advent of a “G-Zero future” —  a world absent of a Pax Americana, where power relations are far more delicate and volatile — the growth of national arsenals can only be fuel for a potential fire, and one that no single country or organization may have the means to stamp out.