Can Russia stop Indian drift?

India operates three Russian-made A-50EI airborne early warning and control aircrafts. Source: BERIEV Aircraft Company

India operates three Russian-made A-50EI airborne early warning and control aircrafts. Source: BERIEV Aircraft Company

The latest Defence Ministry figures show Russia has the lion’s share of India’s defence imports but with Israel and the United States grabbing marketshare, the question is how long can Moscow stay on top?

The deep sea diving rupee makes currency conversions a tricky task. At last week’s exchange rate India’s defence imports amounted to $38 billion for the three-year period April 1, 2010 to March 31, 2013. Russia stays on top of the list of suppliers with $16 billion in orders.

In fact, Moscow’s defence portfolio in India is worth $20 billion, which is enough to keep Russian factories from Nizhny Novgorod to Komsomolsk-na-Amure buzzing for years.

Should Russia be celebrating? Yes, but not for long. For, Israel and the United States have carved sizeable chunks of India’s lucrative defence procurement cake. In fact, most industry experts appear to have missed out on the significance of the year 2011-12 when Israel – not Russia – was the Indian Army’s leading weapons supplier.

To be sure, there is no way Russia could have kept in step with the Soviet Union which had an 80 percent share of India’s defence imports. Russia’s westward focus during the 1990s and the inability of its industry – which was going through turmoil – to supply spares to its biggest client forced India to start looking elsewhere.

The drift has been relentless since the 2000s, with India buying big-ticket items such as howitzers and transport planes from the United States as well as missiles and AWACS from Israel. What has worked in Washington and Israel’s favour is their ability to keep assembly lines running and supply weapons platforms quickly. This has been in contrast to the drawn-out dramas that have accompanied deals with Russia.

Again, Israel has proved to be a reliable partner, and has sold India a lot of hot defence gear. With both countries facing intensely hostile security environments their need are similar, creating a lot of synergy. Israeli supplied surveillance technology has drastically reduced Pakistani infiltration across the line of control in Kashmir.

Needless to say reliability in supplying weapons and their effectiveness in operations has generated tremendous goodwill in the Indian armed forces.

Strategic partnership

Predictably, India’s dalliance with Israel and the United States has caused a great deal of disquiet in Russia. On at least one occasion Moscow has directly snubbed New Delhi. In April 2011 a flotilla of five warships from the Indian Navy's Eastern Fleet that went for joint naval exercises to Vladivostok was turned back.

It doesn’t take a diplomat to see that bilateral relationships can nosedive after such incidents. There might be a future admiral of the fleet among the officers on those Indian warships, which ended up doing tabletop war games instead of marine manoeuvres.

Russian view

Russia has a right to be peeved. Some say the reason for the Vladivostok cancellation was the scratching of the MiG-35 from India’s MMRCA dogfight. Frankly, in a fair fight some of the winners in India’s defence procurement contests may not have made it to the finish line. The Rafale, for instance, is unlikely to win a dogfight against the Su-35 – now China’s frontline fighter – or arguably against the MiG-35.

“We know what gimmicks are used to manipulate deals,” says Russian ambassador to India Alexander Kadakin. “Sometimes, terms of tenders are crafted specifically to get the required results.”

Kadakin acknowledges that India, being “an emerging superpower”, has the right to build defence ties with other countries, but says unlike “some newly-acquired partners”, Russia has never hesitated to transfer the most sensitive defence technologies to India.

“Name a country that will lease you a nuclear submarine. Will the Americans, the British or the French lease you such a platform?” Kadakin asks, referring to the Akula-II nuclear-powered attack submarine leased to India by Russia last year. “This is the unique character of our privileged strategic partnership.”

Without transparency, such issues can fester and poison a strategic partnership that has lasted 40 years – barring the hiccup of the Boris Yeltsin years – and is good for several more.

Friends vs allies

India’s defence diversification strategy is aimed at reducing dependence on any one supplier. However, in the process the Indian armed forces must not look like the United Nations of weapons. Currently, no other country in the world has so many suppliers.

The motives of suppliers need to be carefully analysed too. Uncle Sam’s current willingness to sell virtually anything to India can be seen in the backdrop of mass unemployment and hunger in its Bible Belt, where a lot of weapons are manufactured. In fact so desperate is Washington for cash that it wouldn’t mind selling its F-35 stealth aircraft if India showed the slightest interest.

Consequences are important too. The sale of American weapons to India unsettles China, which – perhaps rightly – sees a plan hatched in Washington to surround it with stooges.

Building a defence base

India cannot afford to be stuck with the title of the world’s leading arms importer forever. In its own interest it needs to spawn private sector defence companies that will be able to produce aircraft and tanks that the DRDO for some inexplicable reason has been unable to.

India’s new defence procurement strategy released earlier this year aims to develop a robust defence base. If this strategy takes wings, in a few years India will be able to produce enough at home. It is in the area of joint production that Russia needs to press ahead.

The PAK-FA fifth generation fighter and the BrahMos anti-ship missile are the most visible outcomes of joint venture production. The work of Russian scientists and engineers in India’s Arihant nuclear submarine and its successors has been publicly acknowledged by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

It is an area in which Russia has a head start and few rivals.

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