Russia-Ukraine Conflict: Three steps to break India’s arms-import shackles

[Indian army’s Brahmos missiles]

Whatever else the Russian armed intervention in Ukraine has done, it has hammered home to the Union government the perils of over-dependence on imported armaments. There are two aspects that are of special concern. First, is the danger of a military spares cut-off in case the Russian engagement in Ukraine extends into the future, highly unlikely though that is, because then the Kremlin will prioritise re-supplying its own troops.

Considering eastern Ladakh is a live border with China, as is the Arunachal Pradesh-front, the shutting down of the pipeline for spares owing to US sanctions on Russia, freezing of banking channels, etc., could mean a disaster for India should Beijing decide to renew hostilities. Summer — ideal campaign weather, is just round the corner, and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is apparently itching to hand the Indian Army a drubbing.

Second, is a problem of our creation. Some 90-plus percent of the hardware in the employ of the Indian armed services is of foreign origin, or relies on critical imported components, to upkeep which requires mammoth amounts of spares and servicing support. But capital is mostly expended by the military on new acquisitions under the rubric of ‘force modernisation’, and not in replenishing ‘voids’ — the shortfalls of as much as 60-70 percent with regard to spares which a singularly inefficient public sector defence industry cannot make up.

Hence, the Indian armed forces are restricted both in terms of how long they can fight wars, and with what intensity. India-Pakistan conflicts, for instance, are of short duration because the two similarly-tuned militaries quickly run out of ammo. But China, almost entirely self-sufficient in arms and with a comprehensively capable defence industry, can fight for as long as it takes the PLA to force a decision.

It is all very well in the circumstances for ministers to extol atmanirbharta, and the services’ chiefs to swear by it. But that’s a cover, once the crisis passes, for everybody to get back to doing things the old way because, per received wisdom, it will ‘take decades’ for the government, the military and the industry to get on the same page and up to speed.

There’s a three-pronged alternative, however, that can deliver results in a short time. First, formally terminate all arms imports. Two, ramp up the defence R&D, and production ecosystem by bringing in proven private sector companies as prime contractors in prestigious defence projects. Larsen & Toubro, which already produces the Arihant-class nuclear-powered submarines, for instance, should be given charge of the 75i diesel submarine programme; the DRDO should transfer to Tata Aerospace & Defence and to Mahindra Aerospace the source codes of the Tejas 1A fighter and of its successor, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft; and Bharat Forge should be asked to improve the Arjun main battle tank, and design a light tank for use in Ladakh and Sikkim.

These programmes will establish widening tiers of associated specialist, high-technology MSMEs, with the additional production lines for the Tejas fighter plane, Arjun MBT, and the light tank augmenting the numbers of the same manufactured by the defence public sector units, for induction into the Indian armed forces, and for export.

Streamlined private sector industrial groups, moreover, will minimise waste, cut the fat, and add value. For instance, L&T needs only to buy a submarine design from a foreign vendor and a few select technologies, such as optronic masts, because it has learned to do everything else. This will pare the hard currency costs, estimated at $8-10 billion to just $1 billion!

On a war footing, these initiatives may take, say, five years to come to fruition. In the meantime, with imports halted, India’s conventional military muscle will suffer. But to ensure national security, India should do what China and North Korea did to offset their conventional military inferiority vis-a-vis the United States: They threatened first use of nuclear weapons. It deterred Washington from pushing US’ advantage.

This is the third prong of the alternative policy: India should announce a tweaked Indian nuclear doctrine and strategy permitting first use of nuclear weapons but only against China. Forward-deployed canisterised Agni missiles, capable of launch-on-launch and launch-on-warning, now entering India’s arsenal can act as nuclear tripwire — a short-fuse — to dissuade the PLA from breaching Indian defences.

Holding the wealth-producing coastal belt in China hostage to nuclear weapons is no bad way to check Beijing’s adventurism. It will require New Delhi to show iron will and to hold its nerve. Whether the Indian government can do that is the big question.


Published in March 14, 2022, at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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32 Responses to Russia-Ukraine Conflict: Three steps to break India’s arms-import shackles

  1. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    Re. “But to ensure national security, India should do what China and North Korea did to offset their conventional military inferiority vis-a-vis the United States: They threatened first use of nuclear weapons. It deterred Washington from pushing US’ advantage.”

    Only US lead forces had access to nuclear weapons during the Korean war. North Korean nuclear forces are only a very recent addition, when they realized that the Chinese will most likely not take a nuke hit for them. So basically, both before and after the birth of the North Korean nuclear forces, it was the North Korean artillery that kept things under control. North Koreans lost about 10% of their civilian population in the Korean War and almost a like amount in addition, out of the men under arms beside off course being prevented from economically developing their country, since forever. So they used their brains and strength of character, to achieve what was denied to them. All the time war was forced onto them and now they have turned the table.

    Nukes help, a lot, but for indigenization to happen nukes have no relevance. Japan has had all the ingredients for making their own nukes since long, but they are still formally asking for US nukes to be stationed on their lands. That is called a poverty of brains and a weak strength of character. Japs choose to laze around for much of their recent history and today fate of their West Ukrainian brothers horrify them.

  2. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    Indian establishment is full of CIA and MSS moles. They will never let Indian forces develop a high level of indigenous production line.

    Nuclear deterrence is nothing but talking tough without any action. Pakistan’s nuclear bluff is done and dusted.

    Chinese have very high level of penetration in the Indian corridors of power so, they will never take Indian nuclear first strike option (if it ever materialize) seriously.

  3. Amit says:


    Agree that India would HAVE to exercise a nuclear first strike with China to compensate for the short fighting capability. But I too think there will be tremendous internal resistance to doing this (whether it’s moles, or just our ‘peaceful, what would other nations think’ outlook). At the very least India should test a thermo nuclear weapon if Russia does not do too well in Ukraine. But like Prof. Mearsheimer indicates, the stakes are existential for Russia – so it is more likely they will prevail, however messy it ends up being. So maybe, India will escape a nightmare scenario. It’s still pretty bad though.

    But I don’t think that cutting off all imports immediately is the solution either. My take would be to accelerate atmanirbharta so that within 10 years India is mostly self sufficient, diversify imports to reduce Russian dependence, improve security alliances, and test a thermo nuclear weapon apart from a first use policy against China. India should maintain a credible conventional deterrence even if it can fight for a few days, rather than lose it substantially for five years. I would also recommend immediately bolstering a conventional rocket force to blunt China’s conventional advantage.

    Security alliances or partnerships are extremely crucial as India should be under no illusions that it can take on China alone, either now or in the foreseeable future. When a mighty US cannot do that, India should not attempt it either. The question would be how to balance the relationship between Russia and the US in the post war scenario. Somehow India needs to convince the US to have a detente with Russia, but that could take years. However, Indian diplomats have to work on it. It’s in US interests too (maybe not EU’s).

    • Debanjan Banerjee says:

      @Amit History between the West and Russia endures the continuation of their enmity. This hostility is both religious, cultural as well as geopolitical with centuries of bitter memory. Nothing that we do can make these historical memories go away.

      • Amit says:

        @Debanjan, except that that’s not how Realpolitik works. The US has in the past made such decisions without giving in to emotional considerations (e.g., detente with China in 1970 even though they hated communism). Also, the US has no centuries of history with Russia. The US has badly handled Russia in the last 20 years and there are many strategic experts in the US who admit that even now. Anyway, it’s all water under the bridge now.

    • geral says:

      wrong, as Debanjan Banerjee said, the US as the west at large has deep civilizational animostiy with russia, but not with china. The hate of communism was a façade, what they opposed was the russian empire under communist trappings. Moreover the US is emotional and erratic in decision-making and not “reallpolitik” as you said. Btw it was the chinese and not the americans that started the detente.indians are still very naive about anglo-saxon

  4. Ayush says:

    Use this crises for megaton TN testing.That’s what my veteran gramps has told top officers over whom he still commands influence.However,a conventional misadventure by PLA will result in a very good trashing for them .They have given us two odd years to prepare .Besides there’s the possibility of India using bio-chem agent.They have factored this into their calculations.
    So again, highly unlikely they will opt for a misadventure but anything is possible with china.

    • Ayush@ — Have been urging the use of the North Korean N-tests, the 2017 PLA incursion in Dok La and again in eastern Ladakh three years later as prompts for open-ended thermonuclear weapons testing. But, hey, show me an Indian government with the guts and gumption to do it.

      • Itanium says:

        250KT warhead should be a settled matter. And with super accurate Agni, the N deterrence is beyond question. No use for MT test in this day and age of super accurate Agnis and perhaps Suryas.

      • Itanium@ — How’s 250KT warhead a “settled matter” when it has never been tested and proven?

      • Itanium says:

        @Prof Karnad. It ain’t necessary to prove them in this day and age. The biggest difficulty in nuclear weaponization is processing the materials which is fait accompli for India.

      • Itanium@- Don’t know what you mean by “in this day and age”. Test of a 2-stage weapon by component and computers cannot inspire confidence if the basic design (S-1) in 1998 fizzled.

    • Itanium says:

      @Prof Karnad. 2 stage TN is not the only way to achieve higher yields. India can easily scale up the miniature fission or perhaps the fusion boosted fission. Beyond 250kt there is literally no use of additional yields.

      • Itanium@ — A fission weapon with yield exceeding 100KT has low efficiency. Large yield weapons in the megaton range, moreover, help achieve psychological parity with adversaries so armed, as I have long argued. Do read my 2002 book and its later 2005 2nd edition — ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’.

      • Itanium says:

        @Prof Karnad. But of course I have your book 🙂 How can I not have that. To be sure conservative voices like yourself are indispensable whether your prescriptions are immediately feasible or not.

        As more and more smart people turn to private employment and turn away from GOI bureaucracy, your clan will remain cautionary voice of reason.

  5. Debanjan Banerjee says:

    Dear Dr Karnad, In the Chinese media they are discussing about Russia and India doing their trade using 😀😀😀 CNY Renminbi. So we will be arming ourselves to teeth against the Chinese while using their currency😀. The Chinese will be laughing all their way towards their banks. What are your thoughts on this one?

    • Actually, Russia has offered a rupee-rouble trade channel as of yore.

    • Itanium says:

      @Prof Karnad. But of course I have your book 🙂 How can I not have that. To be sure conservative voices like yourself are indispensable whether your prescriptions are immediately feasible or not.

      As more and more smart people turn to private employment and turn away from GOI bureaucracy, your clan will remain cautionary voice of reason.

  6. Debanjan Banerjee says:

    Dear Dr Karnad, unfortunately it looks like there will be no serious investigations into the rogue Brahmos missile case. This will further damage our credibility in future. What are your views?

  7. ss108 says:

    Bharat, what do you make of the abysmal performance of the Russian military? You have long advocated that India should , apart from self reliance , rely more on Russian weaponry. The Russians for all their might cannot even control Ukrainian airspace !

    • ss108@- Continued reliance on certain Russian weapons systems/platforms, such as the Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers and Akula-II SSNs on lease as a bridging strategy, not to go to Moscow for workaday weaponry — old conventional hardware — artillery, tanks, etc.

      The current Russian army is nothing like the great Red Army. But, if Putin wanted an all-out war to decimate Ukraine it’d have taken, say, a few days to do so. What he didn’t expect is the refusal of the Zelensky-led regime to be compelled into a compromise.

  8. Amit says:

    I have watched several Indian Military leaders say that any war with China or Pak would be be short and intense. It implies that anything longer will involve nuclear weapons (at least with China). Also, the Defense Minister stated in 2019 that India’s nuclear doctrine can change in the future based on the circumstances. Many analysts have said (including a Prof from MIT) that India’s NFU policy is a little vague. How credible do you think these statements are?

  9. Bhaskar says:

    Dear Sir,
    Some media channels, including across the border, are not ruling out the possibility of the recent ‘accidental misfiring’ of the missile as deliberate, that India was only testing waters about Pak’s interception capabilities and additionally, in a way, showing to potential customers about the lethality of the missile.

    Do you think there is any credibility to it?

    • Sure, there’s that possibility. But what if Pakistan had detected and promptly fired off a loaded missile India-ward BEFORE the Indian missile hit ground?

      • Ayush says:

        For that you need advanced AESA early warning radars and canistered missiles, which Even pak’s papa china doesn’t have that,especially the former.Thanks to our purchase of israeli green pine radar,we have managed to scale it up into swordfish mk1/mk2 and ins dhruva.
        Also,Russian weapons have been proved absolute junk.Their so called “world class” su-35 has so incompetent an EW suite that it cannot even jam very,very rudimentary Ukrainian air defenses.21st century SEAD ops require special ELINt gathering satellites locating mobile enemy radars and sharing of this coordinates to Harop drones in real time.That’s how an IAF SEAD op at LAC will look like.Otherwise,you need Israeli jamming pods.Fortunately for the Ukrainians,Soviet minded Russian generals don’t know and don’t even understand these high tech solutions/5th gen informationized warfare.These idiots will get a repeat of op desert storm if pick up a fight with NATO or even papa China.I m sure Xi must be looking at the Far East with a watering tongue.

      • Bhaskar says:

        Thanks! For that possibility I guess the Indian side would have been prepared to take that risk. Considering the drones with ammunition which have been turning up in Punjab & Kashmir in recent months this may have been a subtle message across the border.

  10. Rajiv says:

    Ukraine war has demonstrated that oft repeated arguments in India about challenges of managing a democracy would not hold water when facing the brute force of adversary’s military and weapons. Indian political leadership needs to find a way to bring all stakeholders including military, bureaucracy, R&D organisations and DPSUs on one platform, involve private industry in capability building and find a way to adopt whole of the nation approach.

    All stakeholders should put their heart and soul in making India Atmanirbhar. This is the only way forward for success and there is no other way.

  11. Amit says:


    In my readings of political science and international relations over the last 6-7 years, I’ve come across three people whose towering intellect and deep understanding of political order have thoroughly impressed – Sam Huntington, Francis Fukuyama and John Mearsheimer. However, it’s interesting to see how Profs. Fukuyama and Mearsheimer fall on different sides of the debate on the current Ukraine crisis.

    Prof. Fukuyama argues that Russian defeat is imminent and it will have global implications for liberal democracies. He talks about a ‘new birth of freedom’ and the ‘spirit of 1989’ living on.

    On the other hand, Prof. Mearsheimer, has argued Russia will likely prevail, as this crisis is an existential threat for Russia, and that Ukraine would suffer in the process. He felt vindicated about the unfolding of events as this is precisely what he had predicted for 20 years, if the US pursued its current policies.

    I’ve watched both speak and debate in lectures and seminars and it is hard to take fault with either. Professor Mearsheimer’s argument that Nationalism is a very powerful motivator and argues against What he calls liberal hegemony of US policies and even calls the US a ‘crusader’ state. He faults these policies for the rise of nationalistic push back which is more powerful than liberalism. He concedes that in the long term liberal democracies could prevail, but he also cautions that does not mean the end of conflict as Prof. Fukuyama says. After all, the US as the sole super power has fought a war every 2-3 years in its unipolar moment.

    I’m leaning towards Prof. Mearsheimer on this one. He even predicted that as the war continues, Russian support for Putin will rise, which is what is happening. But I’m not sure what the peaceful state would look like and how Russia, Ukraine and the rest of the world emerge from all this. The Ukrainian response is certainly different from what Russia factored in.

    But this shows how difficult it is to predict what will happen in the end, and the challenge for policy makers to appropriately adapt.

  12. Ayush says:

    I can’t wait for the Russian body bags to start returning home.A top Russian test pilot ,a ‘hero of the Russia’ resigned from his prestigious post as chairman of the club of the heroes of Russia, citing “incomprehensible” war.He said clearly once the casualty figures come out in public,they will “horrify” society.Putin’s personal praetorian guard(alpha group) was virtually wiped when ukraine shot down an Il76 carrying them

  13. Bharat kumar says:

    India buying russian oil and holding its ground despite international pressure… Could we see modi course correct and buy su57 and source codes in the future.

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