India-Russia defence ties: rebound or decline?

India-Russia choppers

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Moscow that saw the inking of sixteen pacts in diverse areas, including a pact on the joint manufacturing of 200 Kamov helicopters, has renewed optimism that after years of decline, India and Russia are beginning to mend their defence relationship.

Mr Modi’s visit by preceded by the meeting of defence ministers in November and a host of joint naval and ground exercises in December, which set the state for an upswing in defence ties – the robust pillar of India-Russia strategic partnership.

The last few years have seen a growing sentiment amongst policymakers and opinion makers that ties between India and Russia, while not fraying in the geo-political sense, are witnessing a de-emphasis of sorts. The onus of this state of affairs has been placed on the decline of Russian defence trade with India. Defence trade has formed the most essential component of the long- standing, time tested strategic relationship that the two countries have enjoyed since the 1960s. In fact, as a commentator points out, ‘defence trade (is) the raison d’être for strategic relations between the two nations’.

What makes the fall in Russia’s share of military sales to India more significant is that it is accompanied by an increase of defence acquisition from the US. India’s purchase of ten C-17 Globemaster-III strategic airlift aircraft worth $4.1 billion and eight P-8I maritime patrol aircraft worth $2.1 billion, propelled the US replace Russia as the largest supplier of defence equipment to India in 2015.

These developments, along with Russia’s subsequent sale of four Mi 35 attack helicopters to Pakistan and the sale of twenty four Su 35 fighter jets to China (two of India’s prominent rivals), has strengthened the perception that Russia has indeed begun the process of downgrading its military-technical relationship with India from that of an exclusive partner to a preferred partner.

New Optimism: Make in India

However, with the promise of defence agreements worth nearly $9 billion, there is a hope that India-Russian defence ties maybe witnessing a rebound. More than the value of these deals, it is the strategic nature of the weapons systems that re-emphasises India’s trust in the Russian military-industrial complex, despite a tumultuous history of delays and cost overruns.

Furthermore, the Russian companies have exhibited the least reluctance to India’s demand for technology transfers and collaborative manufacturing even with high percentage of offsetting. In this most recent case, Reliance Defence signed a manufacturing and maintenance deal with Russia’s AlmazAntey to jointly produce the state-of-the-art S-400 “Triumf” air defence systems (which were deployed successfully during the Ukraine crisis) and jointly manufacturing more than 140 Kamov Ka-226 light helicopters. Beyond this, advanced negotiations for leasing a second nuclear submarines (Project 971 Shchuka-B class) and jointly manufacturing Grigorovich-class frigates are also expected to take place in the near future. The Russian company Neva Design Bureau has also received an invitation to participate in the tendering process to design and construct a second aircraft carrier for the Indian Navy, while it continues to develop the aviation-technical equipment on India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier ‘Vikrant.’

Russia’s financial crisis and implications

But the scope of such a rebound may be limited by Russia’s decreasing leverage. Russia is currently faced with several fiscal challenges. Not only is its ability to curtail its fiscal deficit limited due to falling global crude oil and natural gas prices, it is committing itself to new theatres of operation like Syria. Along with fast emptying coffers, Russia is attempting to build new alliances to offset frayed ties with the US and NATO countries following the Ukraine crises. Both these factors are compelling Russia to diversify its arms market and hence selling to Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and state of the art weapons systems to China, despite concerns of Chinese reverse engineering aircraft like the episode with the Su 27 Flanker jets.

Irritants in India-Russia defence trade

Further, a cursory look at Indian defence purchases from Russia shows that there is a delay of close to 15 years on most items, big ticket or otherwise (SIPRI database on International Arms Transfers). Among them, the most infamous is the case of India’s largest aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, which was initially billed between $625- $750 million, but was later hiked to $2.3 billion along with a five-year delay in delivery. More recently, the induction of Perspective Multirole Fighter (PMF), the derivative Indian version of the Russian state of the art PAK FA T-50 fifth generation fighter jet, continues to be delayed. The final agreement on this was supposed to have been taken during the India-Russia summit in November 2015.

Cost overruns and delays apart, it is plausible that in the long term maritime defence trade between the two countries may begin getting restricted to the trade of only components of advanced weapons systems as is being seen in the case of constructing INS Viraat, which is touted to be India’s first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, given that Russia itself possesses only a single aging non-nuclear Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier.

Therefore, India will continue to diversify its defence procurement. In turn, Russia will continue selling its weapons systems to countries willing to pay for it, even if it ends up supplying to countries antagonistic to each other – this situation will most likely see increased cooperation amongst US and Russian arms manufacturers as well. However, the decline in defence trade would be offset by an increase in trade in other sectors such as energy and pharmaceuticals.

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India Writes Network
India Writes Network
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