India: The global arms bazaar’s anchor buyer

The Su-30MKI is remarkable primarily for its universality. Source: AP

The Su-30MKI is remarkable primarily for its universality. Source: AP

When India acquires a weapons platform, it influences arms acquisitions in countries around the world. This is especially working to Russia's advantage.

With India set to become the world’s biggest player in the arms bazaar over the next two decades, its acquisition of high-octane military hardware will play a decisive role in the buying decisions of other countries.

Take the Sukhoi-30 Flanker. In the spring of 1997 the Indian Air Force (IAF) took delivery of the first batch of these air dominance fighters from Russia, and started assembling them locally. According to Defense Industry Daily, India's expertise in manufacturing and maintaining the aircraft has turned it into "a regional resource for Su-27/30 Flanker family support".

The availability of regional expertise has played a key role in deciding which aircraft Malaysia and Indonesia would field as their frontline attack fighter. Today both Southeast Asian countries outsource their pilot training and Flanker maintenance requirements to India.

“In August 2003, Malaysia signed a $900 million contract with Irkut Corp for 18 Flankers. Malaysia flies the F/A-18D Hornet and was offered Boeing’s F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, but instead it chose the Su-30MKM (Modernizirovannyi Kommercheskiy Malaysia – Modernised Export Malaysia) which is strongly similar to India’s Su-30MKI,” says DID.

For the Malaysian deal, Irkut was the main contractor, but canards, stabilisers and fins were manufactured by India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd under a $25-30 million value subcontract, and India plays a role in helping the Royal Malaysian Air Force maintain its fleet.

India’s order which influenced Malaysia has had a snowballing effect. “The MKM model has become the basis for other customers," says DID. "Indeed, the Su-30MKM/SM appears to be gaining ground on previous Su-30 versions as a preferred baseline for exports and for local production. The Su-30MKAs sold to Algeria are based on the MKM."

The Indian Su-30MKI has also become the go-to model for the parent country, with the Russian Defence Ministry ordering 30 heavy Su-30SM fighter planes which are modelled on the IAF version. "The military is attracted by how easy it is to add different weapons and equipment to the Su-30MKI, transforming it into an attack fighter-bomber, a heavy interceptor aircraft or something else," says Russian military analyst Konstantin Bogdanov.

Bogdanov explains why the Indian Flanker has become so popular with air forces. “As a basic platform for the multirole heavy fighter aircraft, the Su-30MKI is remarkable primarily for its universality. It boasts a so-called “open architecture”, making it relatively easy to add new systems in the basic electronic equipment and to use advanced guided weapons (supplied by different manufacturers),” he says.

Stealth spinoffs: 1000 PAK-FAs

India’s clout now extends to future aircraft as well. Sukhoi’s PAK-FA stealth fighter, which is set to enter the IAF sometime during the early 2020s, is another Russian aircraft that has received a boost from its No.1 customer. While Russia leads the programme, India is set to provide significant assistance, aiming to have a 25 per cent stake in designing and developing the PAK-FA.

Brazil could end up as a major PAK-FA manufacturer if the BRICS member accepts Russia’s offer of joint development along the lines of the Indian model. “India is already onboard with the Russian programme, which it designates the Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), and with the project in its prototype stage, there is still plenty of scope for Russia to offer development opportunities to Brazil,” says Janes Defence Weekly.

Mikhail Pogosyan, General Director of the Sukhoi Design Bureau, calculates there could be a world market for 1,000 PAK FAs in the next 40 years. “I am strongly convinced that our joint project will excel its Western rivals in cost-effectiveness and will not only allow strengthening the defence power of Russian and Indian air forces, but also gain a significant share of the world market,” he says.

Potential buyers include current weapons clients such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Venezuela, Algeria, Iran, Syria and Kazakhstan. “America’s oil-rich Arab allies may also order PAK-FA aircraft if Washington refuses, as expected, to sell them F-35s and instead exports up to 100 F-35s to Israel,” says a report by the Heritage Foundation.

One likely buyer is China. Although Beijing is developing its own stealth fighter aircraft, the Chinese military could buy up to 250 PAK-FA planes, if its own programmes encounter delays, according to Heritage.

Rafale: Re-incarnation in India

France’s Rafale has virtually come back from the dead because of India. After New Delhi picked the aircraft, there has been renewed interest in the Rafale – from Canada, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Dassault Aviation was prepared to down the shutters of the Rafale plant if it had got shot down during India’s prolonged Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft competition. “We have waited 30 years for this,” said former French President Nicolas Sarkozy after France bagged the 126-plane order.

The combat jet is now flying into more markets, with CEO Eric Trappier declaring that India is “not the sole country where we could sell Rafale”.

Dassault has answered an RFI from Canada, a country that, according to the Dassault CEO, is studying cancelling its F-35 JSF purchase because of the high cost of the Lockheed Martin fighter. The French are in preliminary talks with Canadian manufacturers so as to be ready to sign an industrial agreement if Canada decides to cancel its 65-aircraft F-35 purchase.

In the United Arab Emirates, talks on a 60-Rafale purchase are proceeding with a “new roadmap”. Dassault has answered an RFI issued by Qatar, and has also made a proposal to Malaysia based on the supply of 18 aircraft.

Clearly, India is proving to be a game changer in the global arms bazaar. If only the mandarins at South Block could use that leverage to bring down prices and bring home more offset contracts for Indian companies.

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