NEW DELHI: Something is stirring between India and Russia and while the focus is on the economic relationship, it is actually military cooperation where the action is happening after a period of quiet. The action owes less to Russia’s efforts and more to India hedging its bets, given the incoherent and unpredictable character of the man in the White House.
This is not to say India’s strategic elites have entirely given up on the United States but after enduring Trump in his first term, there is a realisation that it could be some time before the U.S. returns to a more predictable and familiar course in its external relations. The turn to Russia also flows from disappointment with the U.S. government’s inability to make good on promises to transfer sophisticated military technologies to India. The fault is not so much to do with the U.S. government since the U.S. defence industry is in private hands and its motives are commercial, not strategic.
As a defence industry insider described it: “Why should U.S. industry transfer technology to India? This is their proprietary technology, built up at considerable cost. And while they may not be averse to making in India, they will stop short when it comes to transferring such technologies to Indian entities”.
Ergo, it’s back to old, familiar and dependable Russia that saw its 70 per cent military market share in India in 2014 decline to 58 per cent in 2018. Arms exports to India slumped to 42 per cent in this period as India diversified purchases and acquisitions to include the U.S. and Israel. Now the good times could be returning.
In this year alone, India has sealed deals with Russia for a second Akula class nuclear-powered submarine ($3 bn), 464 new upgraded t-90 tanks ($2 bn), Igla-S short range air defence system ($1.47 bn) and a joint venture to manufacture the Kalashnikov 203 series of rifles ($1 bn). Last year, two king size deals were hammered out for five regiments of the S-400 ballistic missile defence system ($5.2 bn) and four advanced Talwar class frigates ($950 mn), two to be supplied by Russia and two to be built at Goa Shipyard under tech transfer.
Add to that, there are reports of India planning to buy Russian MiG-29s to augment its existing fleet and more Su-30MKI fighters. An agreement to build the Kamov helicopter in India is also there. The Russians have reportedly showcased their minesweepers to India, aware that the Indian Navy has no such vessels in its fleet. There is also the multibillion dollar Project 75I to make advanced conventional submarines in India. But there the Russians may have to contend with the French who are already building six Scorpene submarines in Mazgaon Dock. The buzz is the French could bag the Project 75I tender since their existing infrastructure in Mazgaon Dock may only require an upgrade.
It begs one question: With the Indian economy not doing well, where is the money for all these acquisitions coming from? Some maybe paid for in Indian rupees but what about the rest? What about U.S. sanctions? India could run foul of CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) for buying Russian arms. Presumably, these have been thought through.
What’s interesting is that the Russians appear more amenable to transferring some technologies to India, even to making in India. During Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s recent visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg, there was agreement on setting up working groups for after sales support of specific weapons and platforms. The Russians may set up warehouses in India stocked with spare parts and components to ensure ready supply to the Indian military. Russian OEMs are expected to partner with Indian firms to make spare parts.
The Russians may have realised that they cannot take India for granted anymore. The very factors which caused India to turn away from Russian equipment—high prices, shoddy quality, poor after-sales support—may have got the Russians to clean up their act. But they will have to shape up even more, given India’s exposure to quality Western equipment and the emphasis on ‘Make in India’.