Decommissioned Military Hardware – A Potential Diplomatic Asset for India
India’s efforts to increase its arms exports have, to date, met with limited success. This is not entirely surprising as India is an unknown quantity in arms manufacturing on the global scene, despite its robust domestic industry and the substantial production undertaken to date. It is noteworthy that the Republic of Korea (South Korea) has also made a serious foray into arms exports with much greater success in part because of the strategy it employed whereby decommissioned military equipment was donated to countries in South-East Asia and Latin America, refurbished and placed into service in the recipient countries. India could learn from this example as it has, in the recent past, decommissioned a number of items that could be gainfully be used as “gifts” to African and Latin American nations in order to forge greater ties and, possibly, influence in those countries.
South Korea made gifts of F-5A fighter aircraft to the Philippines, Chamsuri class Fast-Attack-Craft to the Philippines, Ghana, Bangladesh and Timor-Leste, and corvettes of the Dong-Hae and Pohang classes to Colombia and Peru respectively. In several of these countries, South Korea was able to follow-up such gifts with sales, such as FA-50 trainer/fighters to the Philippines, KT-1 trainers to Peru and a warship to Bangladesh.
South Korea is by no means the only country to employ such methods, with countries such as Israel, South Africa and the United States being notable examples. In the case of the former two, transfers of decommissioned equipment was usually for money, albeit at much discounted prices.
Israel has sold decommissioned 3 Sa’ar 4 class missile boats to Chile and 2 to Sri Lanka, as wells as 2 Sa’ar 4.5 class vessels to Mexico while surplus Dabur class vessels now serve with Argentina, Chile, Fiji, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. In addition, captured, used and then decommissioned T-55 tanks, after overhaul and upgrade, were sold in their Ti-67 incarnation to Uruguay where they constitute the backbone of that country’s armoured strength.
Israel’s exports of combat aircraft included the IAI Nesher to Argentina and later, a small number of Kfirs C.2s to Sri Lanka, Colombia, and Ecuador. In more recent times, and despite their age (over 30 years – plus time in storage), Israel was able to sell upgraded Kfirs – now to C.10 standard – to Colombia and Ecuador after overhaul and refurbishment at a unit price of USD 20 million. These aircraft now form the backbone of the Colombian air combat strength and are an important part of Ecuador’s air force. South Africa has followed in a similar vein with sales of Atlas Cheetahs – aircraft heavily based on the Kfir – to Ecuador despite the fact that each airframe was over 22 years old at the time of sale.
The United States and the Netherlands also have a long history of supplying surplus hardware to the countries of Latin America with warships, coast guard patrol vessels, maritime reconnaissance and transport aircraft being among the principle items transferred or sold. The United States donated and/or sold significant numbers of F-5E fighter planes and Cessna A-37 attack aircraft to the countries of Central and South America but was, subsequently, unwilling to transfer any combat aircraft more modern than the F-5, except for a small number of F-16s to Venezuela and Chile. In addition, the Netherlands sold Chile a number of surplus F-16s between 2004-2008.
With Latin American armed forces now operating an eclectic mix of aircraft, tanks and ships decommissioned from their host countries, a similar situation can be found in Africa where large numbers of tanks from the former Soviet-bloc have entered service with armies in the region. Patrol boats have been transferred from Germany, France and the United States, as well as used combat aircraft and helicopters from Russia, Belarus, Georgia and Ukraine (including 12 Su-30Ks formerly of the Indian Air Force to Angola). South Africa has sold a number of vintage Mirage F.1s (in service for some 30 years followed by a period in open storage) to Gabon and the Republic of Congo. Even Jordan has entered the fray with a sale of F-5Es to Kenya, which have subsequently seen extensive service during Operation Linda Nchi in Somalia.
In each of these cases, the sale or gift of arms has the potential of increasing the influence of the donor/vendor country in the recipient country. The disposal of decommissioned weapons in this way thus represents a low-cost, low-risk approach towards building influence and enhancing cooperation. It is an approach that India should seek to follow with more vigour.
India has made some tentative steps in this direction with gifts of OPVs to Sri Lanka, helicopters to Nepal, Maldives, Bhutan, and Mauritius, and, in more recent times, T-55 tanks and Mi-25 gunships to Afghanistan. However, it is suggested that India should follow the South Korean example and sell or donate surplus military hardware – and broaden the spectrum of equipment that it transfers to countries outside of its immediate neighbourhood with the intended aim of increasing its influence in those regions as well as laying the foundation for Indian arms exports in the future.
India has a variety of products that could find eager recipients provided India does not view the arrangements as transactional. If the aim is to increase influence, India may, like South Korea, have to make gifts of hardware or offer items at very low prices in order to achieve its objectives. In addition, India must be prepared to refurbish and overhaul items before transfer. While South Korea and the United States charge fees for this – as low as USD 1 for South Korean Chamsuri class fast-attack-craft and as high as USD 8.5 million for American Hamilton class Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) – Israel charges as much as USD 20 million for overhauled, refurbished and upgraded Kfir fighter aircraft. India will have to gauge its potential recipients and set prices, if sales are to be made, accordingly.
The obvious question would be what can India offer? India’s decommissioned Vijayanta tanks could be offered either as operational combat vehicles or as a source of spares to the Nigerian army which still operates a force of similar Vickers Mark.3 battle tanks. Indian T-55s could be a welcome addition to tank forces in Uruguay, Peru and Ecuador where the T-55 is already in service. Indian Vikram class OPVs could serve as useful assets for countries in Oceania (such as Papua New Guinea), Latin America and Africa where they would join vessels of even older vintage. What is more, India has, over the decades, acquired sufficient expertise at the repair and overhaul of this equipment and possesses a stock of spares that would make the transfer of such military equipment a viable and sustainable option for the recipient countries. It should be noted that in the case of the T-55 and the OPVs, India has the respective types in service so the refurbishment and re-operationalising of decommissioned equipment of their type should not pose any undue difficulties for India.
The other item that India can consider transferring is combat aircraft. Over the last decade, India has decommissioned significant numbers of MiG-21(-FL, M/MF and -bis variants) and MiG-23 (-MF and -BN variants). While these aircraft have a somewhat unfortunate reputation owing to their high attrition rate in Indian service, the types have served with distinction in Cuba and may prove to be attractive to Central and South American air forces unable to acquire aircraft of the F-5 class. Once again, India’s experience of overhauling, refurbishing and maintaining these aircraft, combined with its stock of spares could make transfers of airworthy and refurbished aircraft a possibility. Even countries such as Ethiopia (an operator of the MiG-23BN) and Angola (an operator of the MiG-23MLD) may find additional MiG-23 airframes useful, if only for cannibalization. Needless to say, an assessment would need to be made of airworthy airframes and aircraft which could be brought back to operational status. This may result in relatively few aircraft being available for transfer – as the South Africans discovered when their force of 21 Mirage F.1 airframes was found to contain only a dozen recoverable examples. Nonetheless, it is an option that is worth exploring.
India has little use for its substantial stock of decommissioned military equipment. However, much of this equipment is still potent and would make a welcome addition to the arsenals of countries which cannot afford new systems. For India, at little cost and at minimal risk, the possibility exists to use the supply of decommissioned systems – tanks, ships, or aircraft – to break into the military markets of Latin America and Africa. If India takes the long-term view and supplies this equipment as either gifts or at discounted prices, it could reap dividends in the years ahead.