Russia, India Defence Cooperation – Destined to Grow!

India gained independence after centuries of British rule just a couple of years after the Soviet Union emerged victorious in the Great Patriotic War, bringing Nazi Germany to its knees through heroic sacrifices and sheer grit of its people.

By the middle of the 1950s, an affinity had started to develop between the two nations nurtured by their geographical proximity and past struggles against invaders from the West. Slowly but inexorably, the Soviet Union and India gravitated into a strategic partnership by the early 1960s, a relationship that has not just endured for 50 years but has grown increasingly stronger with time.

Today, Russia is India's foremost and most dependable strategic partner. The partnership is characterized by close political alignment in global affairs, the complete absence of any mutually contentious issues, and a groundswell of people to people support. Most Russians above the age of 50 today fondly recall Indian films and songs just as most Indians above the same age recall how a Soviet nuclear submarine stopped the USS Enterprise in its tracks in December 1971 when the 7th fleet entered the Bay of Bengal to prevent the Indian Army from liberating Bangladesh! They also recall the numerous occasions during the past 50 years when the Soviet Union/Russia exercised veto power in the UN Security Council to block resolutions detrimental to Indian sovereignty over Kashmir sponsored or supported by the West.

Nature of the Partnership

The nature of the strategic partnership between Russia and India is special. Paradoxically, bilateral trade volumes do not reflect the depth of the partnership. In 2002, bilateral trade between the two nations stood at a mere $1.5 billion. Since then, as a result of concerted efforts by the leadership of the two nations, trade volumes increased by over 7 times to $11 billion in 2012.

In 2014, Russian imports from India amounted to $3.1 billion or 1% of its overall imports, and 0.7% of India's overall exports!

The true depth of the strategic partnership is best gauged by the nature of Russian exports to India over the past five decades comprising military, space, nuclear hardware, and technology that India could not have sourced from anywhere else in the world. In all cases, the hardware supplied represented the best in Soviet/Russian technology.

A complete list of highly coveted military, space and nuclear hardware supplied is beyond the scope of this article but it includes fighter jets (MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-25, MiG-27, MiG-29), warships (Osa class missile boats, Petya class corvettes, Foxtrot class submarines, Kashin-2 class destroyers, Kilo class submarines, Krivak-3 frigates, aircraft carrier), cryogenic engines, and nuclear reactors.

The Indian government's “Make-in-India” may represent a paradigm shift for Western and Israeli weapon system OEM, but it has been integral to the DNA of many Russian weapon systems’ exports to India from the early 1960s as illustrated by the list below:

  1. Licensed manufacture of MiG-21 variants
  2. Licensed manufacture of Su-30MKI
  3. Licensed manufacture of Konkurs 9M113M ATGM at BDL
  4. Licensed manufacture of T-72 tanks
  5. Licensed manufacture of T-90 tanks
  6. Licensed manufacture of BMP-2 APC

Examples of Transfer of Technology (ToT) that India could not have sourced from elsewhere include:

  1. SAM-2 missile technology under DRDO's Devil project. DRDO's Akash surface-to-air missile's antecedents can be traced to the SAM-2
  2. Construction of Arihant class SSBN and its nuclear reactor
  3. Construction of SSN and its nuclear reactor
  4. Development of cryogenic rocket engines that facilitated ISRO's cryogenic upper stage (CUS) development
  5. Missile RF seeker technology used on the Akash-1S, QRSAM and Astra

Slowly but surely, Russia and India have moved from a buyer-seller relationship to joint research, design development and production of state of the art military platforms. Examples of Russian-Indian defense technology development projects include:

  1. Brahmos, Brahmos-A, Brahmos-NG and Brahmos-2 missile variants
  2. Solid Fuel Ducted Ramjet (SFDR) missile engine
  3. Hypersonic Technology Development Vehicle (HSTDV)

Russian Weapon Exports and India's Threat Perception

India is embroiled in border disputes with two neighbours – China and Pakistan, both strong military powers, the former is also an economic giant. Since China and Pakistan are strategic partners with intertwined economies, India perceives a collusive threat from the two nations that prompts India to acquire the finest military hardware that it can acquire. As a result, India's domestic arms industry hasn't had the opportunity to grow and flourish.

India's reliance on imported weapon systems frequently make it the largest arms importer in any given year. Historically, Russia, by a wide margin, has been the largest arms exporter to India.

However, from 2014 to 2017 Russian weapon exports to India ceded significant ground to weapon exports from the US and Israel, raising concerns that Russia and India are perhaps drifting apart as can be seen in the chart (Fig. 1) compiled from SIPRI Arms Transfers data.

Figure 1. India’s main arms imports in 2012–2018

Of late, the US has stepped up in its defense interactions with India with an aim to contain the threat that it perceives from China's rapid military expansion and modernization. Also – to force India to reduce its dependence on Russian weapon systems and thereby intensify the economic squeeze of Russia. The US appears to be using its characteristic stick and carrot approach to dissuade India from purchasing Russian weapon systems, threatening sanctions if India does not comply and promising better weapons if it does. Some analysts believe the US pressure on India is working.

However, the drop in Russia's share of arms exports to India can be more logically explained in other ways.

The rise in the US weapons exports to India is linked to the 2005 India-US nuclear deal that gave India access to civilian nuclear technology and fuel from other countries. The deal was steered and supported by major US weapon system OEMs. As a qui-pro-quo, since 2008 India has awarded the US arms supply contracts worth more than $15 billion including that for the C-17 Globemaster and C-130J transport planes, P-8 (I) maritime reconnaissance aircraft, M777 light-weight howitzer, Harpoon missiles, and Apache and Chinook helicopters. Another $10 billion worth of orders are in the pipeline.

The rise of Israel as an arms exporter to India could be attributed to:

  1. The parallels between the external threats faced by Israel and India from bordering countries. Very often, Israel has just the weapon that the Indian armed forces need;
  2. India's desire to diversify its defense equipment sources.

A swing back in favour of Russia was evident in 2018. It's likely that Russia will continue to regain more of the lost grounds through forthcoming deals, such as:

  1. Supply of five S-400 systems
  2. Joint manufacture of Ka-226T helicopters
  3. Lease of another Akula-1 class SSN
  4. Supply of Project 11356 stealth missile frigates
  5. Supply of upgraded T-90S kits

On a somewhat longer timescale, India and Russia are negotiating an upgrade of the entire IAF fleet of 272 Su-30MKI aircraft.

The following are some very good reasons why India would continue to look favourably at weapon systems that Russia has to offer:

  1. Cost effectiveness of Russian military hardware
  2. Willingness to transfer latest weapon systems to India (Su-57, Su-35, MiG-35, S-400)
  3. High levels of mutual trust
  4. No-strings-attached nature of weapon exports
  5. Russian flexibility
  6. Suitability of Russian weapon systems to India

The first four points listed above require no elaboration.

Russian Flexibility

Russia has shown a lot of flexibility in meeting India's defense aspirations in contrast to the US.

In pursuit of a deeper strategic relationship to India, in 2012 the US signed an agreement with India referred to the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) which was aimed at streamlining the approval process for release of the US technology to India, removing bureaucratic hurdles with the aim of increasing defense trade and exploiting the potential for co-production/co-development.

Over the years, the US has alluded that it would be willing to transfer the following technologies to India under DTTI:

  1. Aircraft carrier
  2. Radar signature reduction
  3. Hot engine
  4. Stealth coating
  5. Advanced military helicopters
  6. Infantry combat vehicle

However, during negotiations, the US inflexibility rapidly came to the fore. In all the above cases, the US subsequently balked from substantive ToT. Instead it offered ToT for relatively low technology weapon systems, such as:

  1. Javelin Anti Tank Guided Missile (ATGM)
  2. Sealink Advanced Analysis (S2A) systems to track vessels and enhance maritime domain awareness
  3. Raven mini-drones
  4. Roll-on/Roll-off reconnaissance modules for C-130J
  5. Mobile electric hybrid power sources
  6. Chemical-biological warfare protection gear for soldiers

Ironically, the Javelin ATGM ToT offer was made only after DRDO successfully tested its own man portable ATGM.

Only in the cases of systems listed at points 5 and 6 has there been tangible progress.

Now the US is offering:

1. C-130J/C-17 launched small drone swarms

2. Light-weight small arms technology

3. ISTAR systems

4. Maritime domain awareness (MDA) solutions

5. Virtual augmented reality solutions for aircraft maintenance (VAMRAM)

The non lethal nature of the technology that the US is ready to transfer is evident.

In the same timeframe, Russia has offered to India substantial ToT and local production for a 5th generation fighter based on the Su-57, Ka-226T helicopter, Project 11356 frigate, MiG-35 fighter, Su-35 fighter, and Project 75I submarine.

In the past, Russia has skirted Western technology denial regimes using creative solutions such as lease to transfer SSNs to the Indian Navy, and the use of non state actors for cryogenic engine ToT.

Russia has been quick to adapt to growing Indian technological capability and desire for local manufacture through joint ventures.

Besides the existing Russia-India JVs listed earlier, Russia has proposed JV/ToT for:

  1. Building Project 12701 mine countermeasure vessels at GSL
  2. Building Project 75I with MoD chosen strategic partner.

Suitability of Russian Weapon Systems

Both India and Russia believe in a multipolar world order. They both face financially stronger adversaries. Their defense postures are aimed at deterring military coercion rather than indulging in aggression.

To keep deterrent costs within limits, Russia responds asymmetrically to threats through the use of disruptive technology. Unique Russian systems such as terrestrial air combat EW systems (like the Krasukha-2 and Krasukha-4) are examples of disruptive technology fielded by Russia for conventional wars.

India could do well to adopt the Russian approach and jointly develop low cost systems to counter overwhelming adversary technological and financial superiority.

Despite its significant strides in developing and manufacturing weapon systems such as missiles, radars, communication and combat management systems, India has a long way to go. It could take India between 20 to 30 years of relentless efforts and financial investments to create a large enough scientific and engineering talent pool with matching industrial base to address the entire spectrum of its weapon system needs. Every year spent in catching up with OEMs in Russia, Germany, France, the USA and Israel will put India one year back in developing the next generation weapon systems. The challenge ahead isn't trivial.

It would make sense for India to continue its fruitful partnership with Russia through more and more JV development of advanced next generation systems.

The Irrelevance of the China Factor

Many defense watchers in India are concerned about Russia's close defense ties with China. Such fears are baseless because operational effectiveness of modern weapon systems is more dependent on sensor capabilities and software algorithms rather than hardware. The formers are known and understood only by the original developer. For example, despite their common Russian origin, not only are IAF Su-30MKI physically different from PLAAF J-11 fighters but they differ to such a great extent in their sensor and software capabilities that no operationally significant assumptions can be made by a potential adversary.

The cost of developing software algorithms in support of weapon systems now invariably exceeds the cost of developing the hardware.

The Path Ahead

Unlike in the past, when India's bureaucracy was sceptical about sincerity and reliability of the Indian private sector, today there is a strong desire in the country to leverage the talent and financial clout of the private sector for defense manufacturing. Western OEMs such as Boeing, Lockheed and Dassault, being private enterprises themselves, have quickly adjusted to the change in sentiment and established JVs with numerous private sector entities. Similarly, Israel's Rafael has set up numerous JVs with the private sector.

Russian OEMs, being state enterprises, have hitherto limited their local manufacture and technology transfer tie-ups to public Indian sector companies such as HAL, Hindustan Shipyard Limited (HSL), and Ordnance Factory Board (OFB). Also, the tie-ups have focused on weapon systems integration more than manufacture of spare parts and assemblies required to keep the weapon system functioning. As a result, even when using Russian weapon systems integrated in India the Indian armed forces have been forced to rely on spares manufactured in Russia and channelled to India through a torturous logistics pipeline easily blocked by bureaucratic ineptitude or differing obsolescence perception between the Indian integrator and the Russian OEMs. Hence, Russian weapon systems posed maintenance challenges that have unnecessarily brought them disrepute.

Russia needs to harness the groundswell of support for manufacture of defence equipment and spares in the private sector through business to business tie-up with Indian private companies in general and Indian MSMEs in particular.

Russia understands the situation, that is evident from the joint statement issued by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the President Vladimir Putin calling for action to “improve the after-sales service” of Russian equipment and “to encourage joint manufacturing in India of spare parts, components, aggregates and other products for maintenance of Russian-origin arms… through transfer of technology and setting up of joint ventures.”

Vijainder K. Thakur

©New defence order. Strategy  №1 (60) 2020

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