India’s air force, army, and navy can no longer import some critical weapons systems to replace aging ones, which risks leaving the country short of helicopters and fighter jets, officials said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push to boost domestic manufacturing of defense systems leaves India vulnerable to ongoing threats from China and Pakistan, according to officials familiar with the matter.
India’s air force, army and navy can no longer import some critical weapon systems to replace obsolete ones, officials said. This puts India at risk of a critical helicopter shortage by 2026 and a deficit of hundreds of fighter jets by 2030, they said.
Shortly after coming to power in 2014, PM Modi unveiled his “Make in India” policy to build everything from mobile phones to fighter jets in India to create jobs and reduce foreign exchange outflow. But eight years later, the world’s largest importer of military equipment is still not making enough weapons locally to meet its needs – and government regulations are blocking imports.
PM Modi’s program mandates between 30% and 60% home-grown components, depending on the type of military purchase or where it is purchased. Previously there were no such caps and India used a system whereby a certain percentage of the purchase cost was repaid to domestic manufacturing.
As things stand, India’s military readiness will continue to deteriorate as it faces greater risks from Pakistan and China, which have turned soldiers toe-to-toe against Indian forces following deadly clashes along their Himalayan border in 2020. The weaker air force, in particular, means India will need twice as many troops on the ground to repel aggression along the Chinese border, one person said.
Bloomberg spoke to several officials for this story across the three services in India. They asked not to be named to discuss sensitive issues.
The Indian Ministry of Defense did not respond to an email asking for comments.
While the Indian military has increased local purchases of some defense equipment, the country is yet to produce complex platforms such as diesel-electric submarines and twin-engine fighters. Plans to buy fighter jets from foreign manufacturers have been put on hold because the Modi government wants the Air Force to opt for domestic single-engine fighter jets, which are in short supply, as well as twin-engine fighter jets, which the country is not yet in production.
The situation in the Air Force is particularly bad. By 2030, the Indian Air Force may have fewer than 30 fighter squadrons, well below the 42 the military says is adequately protecting borders with China and Pakistan, officials said. By then, the Air Force will be forced to ground about half a dozen squadrons of 16 to 18 fighter jets each, which will reach the end of their flying lives, an official said.
According to official figures, the Bengaluru-based state defense manufacturer Hindustan Aeronautics Limited can only produce eight domestic Tejas fighters per year, or about half a squadron. The company plans to double production capacity by 2026, they added, but delays are possible due to supply chain disruptions caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Helicopters are another problem. The Air Force, Army and Navy still rely on light helicopters, which were designed and developed in France more than half a century ago and introduced in the 1970s. Almost 80 percent of India’s helicopter fleet has already exceeded its 30-year service life, a defense ministry official said.
Most of the Army’s single-engine helicopter fleet must remain grounded until 2026, although domestically-made light helicopters are unlikely to be ready until late 2030, a defense official said. A plan to manufacture Russian Kamov-226T helicopters has not yet come to fruition due to disagreements over the cost and quantity of indigenous components to be included.
Last year, the Indian Army advised the defense ministry to ignore Prime Minister Modi’s import bans and buy a few dozen much-needed utility helicopters, an official said. Both the Air Force and Army are also making contingency plans and extending the life of existing aging platforms, officials said.
Flying the old helicopters costs lives. As of last December, military helicopter accidents since 2017 have killed 31 soldiers and injured another 19, according to Parliament records.
The Navy is also struggling with the push to use home-made equipment. India’s submarine fleet depends on a limited number of heavy torpedoes, which it bought four decades ago.
The Defense and Development Research Organization (DRDO) is working on a plan to manufacture submarine-launched heavy torpedoes, but there is no specific timeline for when they will be operational.
PM Modi’s import substitution plans do not take into account the fact that developing world-class weapons systems requires billions of dollars of investment and years of research, said Rahul Bedi, a New Delhi-based independent defense analyst. Moreover, even Indian defense platforms like light fighter planes or tanks have about 50% imported components, he added.
“Make in India for Defense is not properly thought out,” Mr. Bedi said. “It’s a good slogan, there’s not much to show beyond that.”