Arms and the men -- and women

In India there is hardly full closure or for that matter any full disclosure to many of the scams that periodically surface, we go through the mandatory catharsis for a few weeks then go back into hibernation till some later politically motivated or convenient time. The two cases being talked about these days are the Tatra trucks and the resurrected Bofors case. Both relate to arms deals or military matters and there is a great deal of injured innocence or mock horror in India about this.

It would be useful to put this in some global perspective since we all talk of globalisation. The arms trade had gone global much before globalisation became fashionable.

Andrew Feinstein puts it succinctly in his book “The Shadow World— Inside the Global Arms Trade”. He says: “The arms trade operates on collusion between world leaders, intelligence operatives, corporations at the cutting edge of technological development, financiers and bankers, transporters, shady middlemen, money launderers and common criminals.”

Fence-sitTing: Despite nominal embargoes, private buccaneers like the well known arms dealer, Viktor Bout, and nations like the US, Russia, several NATO countries, Israel and China sell weaponry to both sides of the fence

Hardly any one has been left out of this. Not many would want to be left out of this secretive but immensely lucrative market. A year ago global military expenditure was approximately US $ 1.6 trillion or about Rs 11,800 per person on the planet and more than India’s BPL, annually. This represents a more than 50 per cent increase over expenditures in 2000. The US today spends US $ 700 billion on defence and the over all global trade in conventional arms big and small is about US $ 60 billion a year. The main producers are in the West — the (despite nominal embargoes) as do private buccaneers like the well known arms dealer, Viktor Bout.

Feinstein calculates that 40 per cent of the global corruption is because of the furtive and secretive manner in which arms deals are negotiated. Arms are sold in the name of democracy but nothing undermines democracies more than these deals. Inevitably, since there is a combination of the huge sums of money involved, the secrecy of national security, the limited number of decision makers, bribery and corruption is on a much wider scale than any one outside the trade can visualise.

Add to this, conflicts of interest, inept decision making leading to inappropriate choices that then lead to unending cover ups. This is particularly so in democracies such as ours and not in autocratic systems.

Consider this as an example of how the West has often come to happy arrangements with retrograde autocratic regimes. When the colourful Saudi Ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan landed in Crawford, Texas in August 2002 to meet his friend President Bush and to urge him to wage war on Iraq, he had travelled in a £ 75 million Airbus gifted to him earlier by BAE Systems as gratitude for their £ 40 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The deal itself was complicated involving the Bank of England, Saudi oil, Aramco, BP and Shell.

This is apart from the £ one billion paid into accounts controlled by the Prince. Much of it went to the fancied and exclusive Riggs Bank in Washington DC and it was discovered later that some of the money from these accounts were inadvertently transferred to two of the hijackers who blew up the WTC towers in 2001. But this was a minor hiccup in a mutually valuable relationship.

Arms productions by gigantic conglomerates need steady buyers along with repeat or new buyers. This is both to sell existing products and experiment new equipment for which wars are necessary. There is no magic code that will unscramble this gridlock.

India must therefore learn to quickly indigenise defence production to cut out both dependence on external sources and corruption that is endemic to the system and to provide employment to Indians along with a sense of pride. This will not happen overnight and there will be obstructions by vested interests.

So long as there are threats and regional ambitions, defence companies and their agents selling their wares will abound for the foreseeable future. The answer does not lie in stopping external purchases. The answer is in buying the best for the present while reconciling to the ultimate reality that no nation becomes great on borrowed plumes. 

The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)

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