The long-standing defence ties between India and Russia, will be on high trajectory of the regular annual summit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Vladimir Putin on October 21 in Moscow. This was indicated by Indian ambassador to Moscow Ajai Malhotra in his remark at a reception held here on the 81st anniversary of the Indian Air Force (IAF) on October 8, on the eve of 14th India-Russia summit, at the highest political level.
Malhotra highly praised the traditional, friendly cooperation between the IAF and Russia, stressing that “several Russian engineers and designers had devoted their entire working life to promoting Indian projects under the aegis of India-Russia military-technical cooperation.” He said Russia is India's largest partner in military-technical cooperation. “Cooperation in defence has for long been an important pillar of the India-Russia strategic partnership,” he noted, pointing out that roughly 70 percent of the IAF’s equipment is of Russian origin.
“India-Russia bilateral defence ties have transformed radically over the past several decades, evolving from a straightforward buyer-seller relationship to one involving licensed production, and more recently into one envisaging joint research, development, and production of advanced defence systems,” Malhotra said.
The Indian ambassador also stressed that the multi-billion-dollar Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft project as a “flagship project reflected this very important and fundamental change,” along with the Multi-Role Transport Aircraft project. He expressed satisfaction that “both these projects were proceeding as per schedule.”
Experts agreed that defence has remained, in the strategic sense, the centrepiece of India-Russia relations, which certainly impart additional strength to the bilateral relations in other key fields, including hydrocarbons and peaceful nuclear energy, trade and economy, space and application of GLONASS in the disaster management.
“Russia being a trusted partner of India since decades, it is wise on India’s part to maintain a strong defence relation with it, even as it enters into defence relations with new partners like the US and Israel and keeps the European pillar alive by continuing to forge ties with countries like France, in particular,” former Indian ambassador to Moscow, Kanwal Sibal said, ahead of the summit.
However, in the wake of postponement of Defence Minister A.K. Antony’s visit to Moscow on October 18, to co-chair the next meeting of the Indo-Russian Inter-Governmental Commission (IRIGC-MTC) on Military-Technical Cooperation with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu, a section of Indian media speculated that agenda of Singh-Putin summit talks will only be dominated by trade, economic and energy issues rather than the issues concerned with defence cooperation. Antony underwent a prostate surgery in mid-September.
It may be recalled, in this connection, that following Singh and US President Barack Obama reaffirmed last month their desire to further strengthen defence trade cooperation, endorsing a Joint Declaration on Defence Cooperation, Indian media carried reports to the effect that India-Russia defence relationship was losing its “closesness and warmth,” with New Delhi’s tilt towards Washington.
However, according to the experts, barring some temporary hiccups and small problems in the supply of contracted Russian military hardware to India recently, the bilateral ties in the field of military-technical field have remained stable and even scaled up new heights.
Of course, these small problems, surfacing from time to time in the past few years, referred to the issues of delayed delivery of completely overhauled INS Vikrmaditya (former Admiral Gorshkov) heavy aircraft carrier, Russian-leased nuclear-powered submarine INS Chakra which was handed over to the Indian Navy last year, and the flagship joint projects of Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) and the Multi-Role Transport Aircraft (MRTA).
Anonymous sources here said that at the Moscow summit, India was expected to raise the issue of the price of the FGFA project, and also the possibility of leasing one nuclear-powered submarine by Russians to the Indian Navy. It is likely that both leaders will also discuss the issue of streamlining a deal on the Russian lease of nuclear-powered submarine to India, they said.
India is ready to finance the completion of second “Nerpa” class nuclear submarine of project 971 (Shchuka-B) by the Amur Shipyard, RIA Novosti news agency reported recently quoting a highly-placed Russian defence industry official. “India has expressed interest in completion of the second vessel of this project. Its hull is complete and is on the slipway,” he said.
India needs “Nerpa” for practice by the naval crews in operating a missile carrier nuclear submarine for subsequent operation of indigenous nuclear submarine “Arihant.”
Russia has already invited Antony on a three-day visit to Russia in November during which he will attend a ceremony to hand over INS Vikramaditya to the Indian Navy on November 15. The Russian heavy aircraft carrier will be handed over to the Navy after a delay of five years following the renegotiated contract of $2.3 billion as against the originally contracted price of $974 million.
According to the reports, the preliminary design phase programme of the FGFA was completed in June and currently the research and development contract is under negotiations between India and Russia. Under the multi-billion-dollar FGFA contract, the IAF intends to buy some 300 of these stealth fighters that should be ready for induction from 2020 onwards.
All these issues were thoroughly discussed with the Russian side when the Indian Defence Secretary R.K. Mathur visited Moscow last month, leading a high-powered defence delegation to review the progress in the entire spectrum of military-technical cooperation, including the tragic accident of INS Sindhurakshak in August.
The sunken ship had returned to India from Russia in April following a major refit and mid-life upgradation for nearly two years in Russia. India spent $150 million on upgrade and it is reported to be under warranty till January 2014. Singh discussed the issue with Putin on the sidelines of G-20 Summit in St Petersburg, in early September. The issue may come up again for discussion at the Moscow summit.
It is also expected that the summit talks will focus on the development of joint ventures for the production of military and tank ammunition, as well as modernization of the T-90 tanks.
Dadan Upadhyay is an Indian journalist based in Moscow.
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