- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 18, 2010

NEW DELHI | Top weapons makers, vying to feed India’s voracious appetite for arms, brought their helicopters, night-vision goggles and mine-proof vehicles to New Delhi this week in hopes of winning a share of one of the world’s largest defense budgets.

With its growing economy and emergence as an Asian power, India has rapidly increased its arms expenditures over the past decade, replacing obsolete Soviet-era military hardware with the latest technology in a race to keep up with regional rivals Pakistan and China.

“India is becoming a major actor worldwide,” said Filippo Bagnato, executive vice president for technical, industrial and commercial development of the Italian aerospace and defense giant Finmeccanica, on Tuesday.

This year’s DefExpo-India — the sixth such event — has drawn about 650 defense companies from 35 countries, including the Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp., Thales Group and BAE Systems, to set up stalls in a sprawling exhibition center in the heart of the capital.

India, which needs to replace equipment bought from the Soviets in the 1970s and ‘80s, led the world in the purchase of military hardware in 2004 and is still in the top four, according to Rahul Bedi, a South Asia analyst with London-based Jane’s Defense Weekly. He said India is expected to spend $80 billion between 2012 and 2022 to upgrade its military.

International defense giants are hoping to secure most of that multibillion-dollar pie: India imports more than 70 percent of its military equipment, mainly from Russia, Israel, France and Britain. American companies are also slowly finding a foothold in the Indian defense market as the relationship between the two countries has warmed over the past few years.

In addition to the need to update aging equipment, India’s defense buying spree is spurred by rivalries with both of its major neighbors — Pakistan and China.

It has fought three wars with Pakistan — two of them over the Himalayan region of Kashmir. Tensions with China have risen as well in recent years as the two nations contend for regional dominance.

The current budget for Pakistan’s powerful military, which also receives billions of dollars from the U.S. for helping fight Islamist militancy, is about $4.4 billion — a fraction of India’s current $26 billion, which represents a 10 percent increase. On the other hand, China’s defense spending increased by almost 15 percent last year to $71 billion, a figure that is thought by many analysts to represent only a portion of total defense spending.

Mr. Bagnato’s Finmeccanica already has sold Sea King helicopters, torpedoes and surveillance equipment to the Indian defense services, and this year it is hawking a slew of aircraft and surveillance equipment at its stall.

In 2008, Lockheed Martin won a contract to supply six C-130J Hercules transport aircraft for India’s air force, the first of which are expected to arrive in early 2011.

New Delhi is also shopping for 126 fighter aircraft, a deal worth $10 billion, and 197 helicopters worth about $4 billion.

Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony told reporters at the fair that the country’s defense policy “is not against any one country” but added that it was a top priority “to strengthen our armed forces to act as an effective deterrence.”

For the defense companies, that means India plans to keep spending enormous sums on arms.

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