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HomeDEFENCEImporting advanced weapons and equipment alone doesn’t make a nation strong

Importing advanced weapons and equipment alone doesn’t make a nation strong

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Importing advanced weapons and equipment can enhance a country’s military capabilities, but doesn’t necessarily make a nation strong.

A few days back, the Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and seven others were killed when the helicopter in which the were travelling crashed in a mountainous terrain in a sudden, intense fog.

While the exact reasons of the crash would be known only after a detailed investigation, it is officially admitted that it was apparently a 45-years old American Bell 212 helicopter, the civilian version of the originally utility (meaning multipurpose) military helicopter called Bell UH-1 Iroquois (more famous by its nickname Huey).

Huey was produced from 1956 to 1987. The civilian version Bell 212 was produced from 1968 until 1998. It was sold to a dozen or more countries where amusingly, they utilize it for military, paramilitary, law enforcement, medical transport, troop transport, oil/energy industry and fire-fighting, etc. In 1979 itself, the Bell Company (now Bell Textron, a division of Textron Inc.) had moved on to a more advanced model called Bell 412, which they are still producing. 

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It needs no explanation that when production of a model had ceased back in 1998, getting its spare parts would be almost impossible now. Many amongst you might have faced this problem even with something as simple as fridge in your homes because, after a model is discontinued, companies stop supplying spares parts sometime after discontinuation and, if you are not in a position to throw it away and buy a new one, you have to then depend on ‘jugaad’ by unauthorized repair shops. Getting spare parts is doubly difficult for Iran because, following the seizure of the US embassy in 1979 and in view of its nuclear programme, it is facing various economic, trade, scientific and military sanctions which bar Iran from receiving any aircraft or aircraft equipment built with more than 10% American-made/designed parts. Former Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif has also blamed the sanctions for the accident.

The Irony of Making Missiles but Not Helicopters

Pic: The New York Times

Accident and sanctions aside, the harsh reality is that, in spite of all the pretentions and claims of their being able to destroy Israel, they had to suffer the ignominy of making their president travel in a 45-years old helicopter for which they had not been getting spares; essentially because they lack indigenous technical capability.

That fateful night all the hubris of Iran regarding its military prowess was punctured in a moment. Ebrahim Raisi himself was an architect of Iran’s aura of power, only to find it vacuous when he needed it most.

This accident is an eloquent illustration of what happens when a country fails to develop a well-rounded industrial base for its defence. The emphasis is on the word well-rounded as against lopsided development.

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Pic: The Iran Primer/ US Institute of Peace

CNN has pointed out that while they deployed thousands of medics, mountaineers, soldiers, police and even the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps, to scour the steep mountain peaks and deep ravines of East Azerbaijan province, they had not a single surveillance drone to locate the wreckage of the helicopter. Eventually, it was a Turkish high-altitude long-endurance drone AKINCI, flying loops above the clouds, which first located traces of the helicopter. Before that, a helpless Iran had also asked Russia for night vision capable helicopters but they could not reach in time.

The irony is that Iran makes some 35 types of drones. They include kamikaze or suicide drones—a top arms export—which is designed to carry explosives and crash into their targets. Iran has sold more than 2,000 of these Shahed-136 drones to Russia for the Ukraine war. They claim that their latest drone Gaza attempts to match USA’s MQ-9A Reaper and can fly from Iran to Israel loaded with 13 precision-guided bombs. They have also armed their terrorist allies like the Houthis who are currently holding global maritime trade to ransom targeting merchant ships in the Red Sea. But they are not able to make helicopters!

Pic: Al Jazeera

They make a whole lot of missiles with ranges from 300 to 3,000 km. However, if you delve deeper, you would find that most of them are copies or modifications of foreign missiles. As the paper Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program of United States Institute of Peace reveals, the Shadab 1 and 2 (subsequently, the Qiam) were based on Soviet Scud B and C missiles. The Shahab-3 (subsequently the Ghadr) is based on the North Korean Nodong missile. Ghadr was modified into Emad. With the Sajjil family of missiles, they moved into solid-fuel missiles of their own. In the Fateh-100 and subsequent Zolfaghar, Dezful, Haj Qasem Soleimani, and Kheibar Shekan missiles, they have sought to improve accuracy.

Their aircraft industry is in such a state that their fighters Kowsar and Saeqeh are both based on USA’s F-5 light fighter, which was developed back in 1964 and sold to Iran in Shah’s era. The F-5 was a small (just 7.1 tons gross weight compared to 12 tons of F-16) and cheap, low-maintenance aircraft compared to its contemporaries like the F-4 Phantom in that era also. They have just 4 Kowsars and 6 Saeqehs.       

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Also Read: Autonomous weapons and the future wars

In case of tanks too, the mainstay of Iran is the Soviet T-72 tank, which was license produced in Iran. Their indigenously designed tank Karrar is yet to be delivered in spite of having been announced in 2016 and, according to The Washington Institute, is “little more than an upgraded T-72 with some additional indigenous components and aesthetic flourishes modelled after the T-90MS.” In fact, it was announced following failed negotiations to obtain a license and the technology to produce Russian T-90MS tanks.

Their 155 mm howitzer HM-41 is based on the South Korean KH179, which was imported during the Iran-Iraq War.

Ukraine War Shows One Can’t Fight a War With Imported Weapons

PIC: US Department of Defense

According to the Kiel Institute, a German research organisation, between February 2022 and February 2024, the US delivered or committed weapons and equipment worth $46.2 billion to Ukraine. Germany gave Ukraine weapons and equipment worth $10.7 billion, the UK $5.7 billion, Denmark $5.2 billion, and the Netherlands $4.1 billion. The weapons supplied include anti-tank weapons like Javelin and Nlaw; air-defence systems like UK’s short-range anti-aircraft weapon, Starstreak, to the Patriot missile system (costing $3 million each), Nasams of Norway and Iris-T of Germany; artillery like M777 howitzer; missile systems like M142 HIMARS, M270 MLRS, Scalp from France, Storm Shadow from the UK and ATACMS from the US; drones like Turkish Bayraktar TB2 and American Switchblade kamikaze drones; cluster bombs; tanks like the British Challenger 2, American M1 Abrams and German Leopard 2; and even the world-famous F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets. In the next round of $61 billion aid, $8 billion will be used to re-supply Ukraine with missiles and ammunition.

PIC: US Department of Defense

Yet, in spite of all these foreign injections, Ukraine’s much-touted summer offensive of last year failed ingloriously. In a surprise offensive, Moscow has made its biggest territorial gains since late 2022. The New York Times has reported on May 23 that Russian troops in recent weeks have been taking ground from Ukraine all across the front line. In some cases, they are seizing land that Ukrainians had recaptured in hard-fought battles just last year.

The moral of the story is clear. You cannot fight a long war on someone else’s weapons. The Russian army has been firing over 10,000 artillery shells a day because they produce their own whereas the Ukrainians cannot fire more than 2,000. That is why on a one-to-one basis Arab nations will eventually be defeated by Israel because it makes its own weapons. That is why terrorists will remain terrorists and can never fight with national armies.

Economic Power Alone Is Not Enough

Economic power alone does not necessarily make a nation a military power too. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s quadrennial report on international arms transfers released this March, nine of the 10 biggest arms importers in 2019–23, were in Asia and Oceania or the Middle East. Ukraine became the fourth biggest arms importer globally after it received transfers of major arms from over 30 states in 2022–23. Saudi Arabia was the second-largest arms importer in the world from 2019 to 2023, accounting for 8.4% of imports, while Qatar was third with 7.6%. Gulf States and Egypt accounted for more than 25% of global arms import.  However, none of them can take on a small country like Israel, which not only produces weapon systems but exports them too.

If you take per capita GDP as an indicator of economic power, out of the first 10 countries in the world, only the USA is a military power. Its superpower status is based upon its huge industrial base and tremendous intellectual power in terms of original scientific and technological research capability. The remaining nine countries, namely, Luxembourg, Singapore, Ireland, Norway, Qatar, UAE, Switzerland, Denmark, and Netherlands are militarily insignificant.

The ability for research and innovation is critical. A country becomes truly self-reliant in defence production only when it designs something in the country and then goes on to produce it. Joint Venture only makes good economic sense as it is a simple business idea seeking mutual benefits. The technology inflow is a desirable by-product of the venture. However, the extent of technology inflow would vary from case to case. The technical wisdom which you acquire in a joint venture is subject to conditions and still does not enable you to think or innovate independently. Licensed Production and Transfer of Technology essentially amounts to purchasing knowledge, somewhat like a weak student purchasing ‘prepared’ notes instead of working hard in the library, solving problems and making notes himself. You do not acquire the ability to solve a ‘new problem’ by ‘purchased’ notes—similarly, merely because someone has taught you to make something, you cannot innovate something new on your own.

Moreover, the degree to which a technology would be transferred depends on the nature of the technology, whether it has become obsolete for the transferring nation or not, the relations between the two countries, and whether the recipient nation is likely to be perceived as a competitor or not. By common sense, any IPR holding country is reluctant to transfer technology for its state-of-the-art systems. Even within a given technology, they might hold back what they consider to be the most critical technologies in both hardware and software.

Extreme Necessity of a Strong Industrial Base and Manufacturing sector

A nation cannot aspire to become a major military power unless it has a very strong industrial base and manufacturing sector of its own. A simple approach to assessing the defence industrial base is to classify by quality and the degree of self-sufficiency a country’s ability to produce large and small weapon systems; strategic products; and supporting consumables.

Also Read: Machines on the battlefield: drones and robots may replace human troops by 2030

In the absence of own defence production, a nation can reasonably hope to fight only a short, sharp war and would be in deep trouble in a long drawn-out war. Then they will have to run for emergency imports. This has happened with many nations in the past for things as simple as 155 mm howitzer shells. That comes with many ifs and buts. The sellers too might not be able to meet their demands on a short notice. They might exploit your weakness and charge an unreasonable price. Or, the war-torn country might find it difficult to receive the shipment safely by air or sea in view of possible enemy action. Prevailing in lengthy wars of attrition depends not only upon the military forces a state could initially muster but also upon its ability to mobilize the underlying economic and industrial capacity of the state to continue producing combat power during war. The degree of dependence on others for critical technology or on outright imports is a source of vulnerability during a conflict. For example, you may run out of consumables like ammunition or critical spare parts for important weapon systems at a critical stage.

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Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr. N. C. Asthana, IPS (Retd) is a former DGP of Kerala and ADG BSF/CRPF. Of the 51 books that he has authored, 20 are on terrorism, counter-terrorism, defense, strategic studies, military science, and internal security, etc. They have been reviewed at very high levels in the world and are regularly cited for authority in the research works at some of the most prestigious professional institutions of the world such as the US Army Command & General Staff College and Frunze Military Academy, Russia. The views expressed are his own.


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