Home Army Technology Here’s Why India Is Banning Imports Of 101 Different Weapon Systems – Forbes

Here’s Why India Is Banning Imports Of 101 Different Weapon Systems – Forbes

33 min read

On August 9, the Indian government released a list of 101 systems that would be progressively banned for importation between December 2020 and December 2025, affecting weapons ranging from sniper rifles to missile destroyers and space satellites.

The bans aren’t the result of a sudden outbreak of pacifism. They’re intended to ensure that India’s military, the second largest on the planet with 1.44 million personnel, exclusively procures those weapons from factories in India.

Since 2015, India has spent more on arms imports than any other country save Saudi Arabia according to the Times of India. The goal, according to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is “Atmanirbhar Bharat”—to make India a self-reliant nation.

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Realistically, many of the bans apply to equipment already available from Indian manufacturers, and in several cases the “import ban” specifies systems like the Tejas jet fighter and Astra missiles only built in India. (Ostensibly, this is to ensure that components continue to be sourced indigenously.)

In other cases, the bans are phrased in a very specific manner (example: 155 millimeter howitzers of a specific barrel length) that would not disqualify slightly different weapons in the same general class.

This means that some may see the bans as a political stunt, reflecting domestic procurement decisions made well in advance. However, in a few cases the bans do seemingly lock out foreign competitors from ongoing procurement decision, and some later-imposed bans relate to domestic projects that may not yet have completed development.

Nonetheless, the bans primarily are arguably most instructive as a roadmap to requirements Indian government believes it can satisfy through domestic manufacturing, or will be able to do so in a few years. They also both reflect and reinforce India’s growing preference to require foreign arms suppliers to establish production lines with India for both economic and security-related reasons.

India has long primarily relied on weapon systems imported from the Soviet Union/Russia, Western Europe and Israel, with U.S. systems gaining in importance in the last two decades.

Several early attempts to domestically design and manufacture weapons like the HF-24 Marut and the Arjun tank resulted in subpar outcomes. However, the terrain has shifted for India’s defense industry in recent years.

The government’s Make in India policy debuted in 2014 has compelled foreign companies in many cases to set up productions lines on Indian soil. India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) has made significant strides in radar and jet and rocket propulsion technology, aided by tech transfers from Israel, Russia and the United States.

The new bans may clarify and expedite Indian defense procurement and help signal to the industry where to focus its efforts. But a potential downside may be that New Delhi could find itself unable to obtain key technologies if domestic development falls behind schedule, as is common in defense programs worldwide.

That said, supposedly the “negative list” of banned technologies will be periodically reviewed, expanded and updated.

It’s also worth noting that many important Make in India projects involve foreign manufacturers opening factories on Indian soil. While this ensures defense dollars make their way Indian factory workers and partner companies, foreign firms are still receiving a cut and may retain key proprietary technologies and design experience.

This may be even more true now the Modi administration raised the cap on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in defense from 49% to 74% in May to encourage more FDI.

In the remainder of this article, we’ll look at how the bans affect and/or reflect different segments of India’s defense sector, highlight domestic Indian technologies and foreign licensures linked to the bans, and also point out a few corners of Indian defense procurement notably unaffected by the import bans.

Note the discussions will be broad but by no means exhaustive. For the complete listing of all 101 banned items, check out this article.


Imports banned by December 2020:

General purpose bombs, Fixed-wing Mini-UAVs, Light combat helicopters, Light transport aircraft, GSAT-6 (international) satellite terminals, Tejas LCA systems, short-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft

Imports banned December 2023:

Astra Mark I air-to-air missiles, basic trainer aircraft, GSAT-7C and GSAT-7R Communications Satellites

Imports banned by 2024:

Expendable aerial target (drones), 264-jet engines, Long-range Land-Attack Cruise Missiles

Despite the advent into service of the domestic Tejas Light Combat Aircraft single-engine jet fighter, produced by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), India will continue to depend on overseas manufacturers for more advanced jet fighters, heavy transport and attack helicopters and large patrol and cargo planes.

However, India’s aeronautical sector can fulfill military requirements for lighter aircraft and helicopters. For example, HAL has developed two types of armed scout chopper entering service: the HAL Rudra and the more advanced Light Combat Helicopter, though both await integration of anti-tank and anti-air missiles.

Meanwhile, India is spending $4 billion to build 140 Russin Kamov Ka-226T helicopters in Tumkuru (with another 60 delivered from Russia). These will be more suitable for high altitude operations in the Himalayas.

The ban to imports of Basic Trainer aircraft by December 2021 seemingly guarantees an order of at least 70 HAL HTT-40 two-seat turboprop trainers. This already appeared likely after the IAF declined to order additional Swiss Pilatus PC-7 trainers.

An intermediate jet trainer spinoff of the Tejas, the HJT-36 Sitara, is also making a bid for orders but its future is uncertain, and that niche is not “protected” by a ban.

A ban on procuring fixed-wing mini-drones seems to reflect a nudge from the Indian government towards a domestic product over U.S. or Israeli imports, depending on how broadly it is interpreted.

Of course, the big (if unsurprising) news is what’s not on the ban list: jet fighters, large unmanned systems, and other high-end military aircraft. Russia, France and the United States for now remain essential suppliers of these, and are competing (along with the UK and Sweden) to furnish the Indian Air Force with 114 multi-role jet fighters, and the Indian Navy with 57 carrier-based jets.

Long term, the Indian Navy want a separate order of twin-engine naval jets and India’s DRDO is working with HAL on a fifth-generation AMCA stealth fighter, but New Delhi may still be interested in American F-35 or mature Russian Su-57 stealth jets.

Infantry Combat Systems

Imports banned by December 2020:

7.62x51mm sniper rifles, various weapons and vehicle simulators, bullet proof jacket sand ballistic helmets, nuclear/bio/chemical detection and decontamination equipment, military trucks ranging from 4×4 to 12×12 wheels

Imports banned by December 2021:

7.62x39mm assault rifles, light machineguns, all kinds of land mines, multi-purpose grenades

Imports banned December 2022:

lightweight rocket launcers, 40mm under-barrel grenade launchers

The Indian Army remains infantry-heavy with 34 infantry divisions of various types, and those soldiers need lots of guns. New Delhi is planning that by 2021 all of its standard-issue 7.62-millimeter assault and sniper rifles will come from domestic factories.

In fact, India is moving to withdraw its defective domestic INSAS rifles, and has struck a deal to have a Russian Kalashnikov factory built in Uttar Pradesh (a 50.5 to 49.5 India-Russia split) to churn out 750,000 AK-203s assault rifles, a modernized AK-74 variant chambered for 7.62×39 millimeter rounds.

However, the specificity of the ban seemingly allows the Indian Army to continue procuring other small arms using different ammunition, such as 7.62×51-millimeter cartridge-using SiG-716 G2 rifles issued to Indian frontline troops (a situation which has elicited complaints from Kalashnikov).

The Indian government is less specific in banning imports of domestic grenades, body armor, light machineguns, light rocket launchers, under-barrel grenade launchers, automatic 30-millimeter grenade launchers, and land mines of various stripes (as India is not a signatory to the Mine Ban Treaty and still produces them).

These more broadly-worded bans could conceivably complicate small-scale procurements favored by less standardized units such as India’s diverse special operations community. For example, India recently ordered 16,000 Negev NG7 light machineguns from Israel, but future orders may require working out a license-production arrangement.

Stipulated bans of numerous trainer/simulator systems also reflect that India has developed a wide array of land warfare training simulators for everything from infantry tactics to tank driving.

Armored Vehicles

Imports banned by December 2020:

120mn sabot shells (for Arjun tank)

Imports banned by December 2021:

125mm sabot shells (for T-72 & T-90 tanks), wheeled armored fighting vehicles

Imports banned by December 2023:

30mm shells (for BMP-2 main gun)

India’s armored forces are primarily composed of thousands of Russian-origin T-72 and T-90 main battle tanks, and upgraded BMP-2 Sarath infantry fighting vehicles. (There are also around 124 indigenous Arjun main battle tanks, with 118 of an improved model on order). These will remain in service for a while yet, and in 2019 India paid Russia $1.2 billion to license-build 464 more T-90s in India.

However, the new rules do ban imports of 120-, 125-and 30-millimeter shells used by the main guns of Indian Army tanks and fighting vehicles, suggesting confidence in the domestic manufacturing capacity for these munitions.

While a BMP replacement called the Future Infantry Combat Vehicle is many years away, a ban on “wheeled armored fighting vehicle” seems carved out for a more proximate rising star: Tata’s Wheeled Armored Protection (WhAP) vehicle mating the hull of the 8X8 Kestrel APC with the turret of a BMP-2 fighting vehicle.

Initially, the Indian Army was reportedly looking to procure 198 such vehicles outfitted with anti-tank missile launchers for service on the border with Pakistan, though new reports indicate it may also want troop-carrier models for deployment in Ladakh, facing China.

India has also investigated purchases of the Stryker infantry combat vehicle or even Humvees used by the U.S. Army, though the ban implies the Indian Army’s selection process may be simplified.


Imports banned by December 2020:

tracked 152mm/52cal self-propelled guns, 155mm/52cal towed guns, 155mm/39 lightweight howitzers, 6×6 artillery tractors, Pinaka multiple-rocket launcher systems

Imports banned by December 2022:

155mm artillery ammunitions, 122mm Grad rockets

Imports banned by December 2024:

electronic artillery fuses and bi-modular charge systems

Towed 130- and 155-millimeter field artillery systems still predominate in the Indian Army. The new law bans import of 39 and 52 caliber 155-millimeter towed pieces, the 6×6 tractors used to tow them, and (between 2022-2024) the shells and component electronic fuses and bi-modular charges.

In fact, -39 caliber howitzers refer to BAE M777 ultralight howitzers being license-built by Mahindra Systems Ltd. in India. The 52-caliber gun appears to be a reference to the advanced 20-ton ATAG field gun developed by the DRDO with a range of 30 miles.

The Indian Army is lacking in modern self-propelled artillery, ie. artillery vehicles with basic armor protection against small arms and shrapnel. That only changed when it arranged for licensed production of South Korea’s advanced K9 Thunder self-propelled howitzer, known as the Vajra-T in India.

Later bans indicates India plans to rely on domestic manufacturers to build Russian 122-millimeter Grad artillery rockets and light 23-millieter anti-aircraft shells by December 2022 and 2024 respectively.

Air Defense, Sensors, Electronic Warfare Etc.

Imports banned December 2020:

Ground-based mobile ELINT, Low-level transportable radars, High Power Radars, Short-Range Surface-to-Air Missiles

Imports banned December 2022:

“electronic warfare systems”

Imports banned December 2024:

Land-based close-in-weapon systems (CIWS), 23-millimeter anti-aircraft shells, light lowl-level terrain radar

India can boast to having developed its own indigenous missile defense system including several types of domestic missile interceptors. These are supported by imported radars and powerful indigenously developed HPRSs now protected by an import ban.

However, its non-strategic air defense units rely on a variety of Soviet-era air defense systems, plus a few more modern imports from Israel (Barak-8) and Russia (S-400 and man-portable SA-18s).

India plans to field a surface-launched variant of its Astra air-to-air missile to serve as a truck-mobile Short Range SAM (SR-SAM) for service with the Army and Navy. Thus a ban on mobile Short-Range SAM systems may be aimed at carving a niche for the surface-launched Astra, which may have a range of up 30 miles initially, and eventually out to 50 miles with the Astra Mark II model. This seemingly dovetails with the Indian Air Force’s expressed disinterest in the US/Norwegian NASAM-IIs air defense systems.

The Indian government appears confident it can produce its own software-defined radios and ground-based mobile electronic snooping capabilities (ELINT), given a ban due on December 2020. A seemingly far-reaching ban on all “Electronic Warfare systems” is set to kick in December 2022.

Naval Systems

Imports banned December 2020:

Naval cruise missiles, naval close-in weapon systems (CIWS) for self-defense, missile destroyers and “next-generation” missile vessels, shallow-water anti-submarine craft, water jet fast attack craft, 50-ton tugs, ammunition barges, floating docks, Next-Generation Maritime Coastal Battery (Brahmos), anti-submarine rockets and launchers, depth charges, medium-range naval guns, lightweight torpedo launcers, chaff decoy rockets and launchers, integrated ship’s bridge system, large ship and submarine sonars

Imports banned December 2021:

Conventional submarines, naval inertial navigation systems

Imports banned December 2022:

electronic artillery fuses and bi-modular charge systems

Imports banned December 2025:

long-range land-attack cruise missiles (could be naval-, air- or land-based)

Many Indian Navy warships are locally designed and built, and right off the bat the Indian government is banning imports of missile destroyers, non-nuclear powered submarines (by 2021), and various smaller littoral patrol craft.

India also co-developed with Russia a supersonic cruise missile with Russia with Brahmos, which undoubtedly explains New Delhi’s willingness to ban naval cruise missile imports. As importing  long-range cruise missiles was already politically quite difficult, the ban likely reflects India’s intent to continue evolving the Brahmos or other long-range cruise missiles for anti-ship and land-attack roles on its own. Indeed, a coastal defense Brahmos platform—the Next-Generation maritime Mobile Coastal Battery—is protected with its own “ban.”

A diverse array of naval weapon systems are also banned (see above).

The restriction on conventional submarines may inform India’s Project 75(I) competition, involving two domestic and five foreign designs for a new class of six conventional submarines for construction in India.

Russia is seeking to lease Kilo-class submarines to India due to the delays in the Project 75(i) program, and its unclear whether the ban could affect that.

However there are also important omissions, such as carrier-based technologies or frigates. Russia is furnishing India with Talwar-class missile frigates, though Indian shipyards will eventually build at least a few domestically.

Nuclear-powered submarines, which India has historically leased from Russia, also remained unbanned. India is building its own fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines and planning to follow up with nuclear-powered attack submarines, but likely appreciates the experience it gains from operating the Russian boats.

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