EAST MEETS WEST
India is the only major nation that buys arms from both the US and Russia. Deals worth over $40 bn (Rs 2.8 lakh cr) are in the pipeline
As a missile system, the S-400 has no peers. It is the equivalent of a gigantic fly-swatter that can knock down anything in the air. Its manufacturers say the missile system can track 300 targets over 600 km away and use four different types of missiles to shoot down fighter jets, drones, cruise missiles and tactical ballistic missiles 400 km away (see graphic overleaf ). It is Russia’s trump card in the highly competitive arms business–NATO member Turkey has it and even US allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are looking to buy it. The S-400 is also today the crown jewel in a burgeoning India-Russia
arms relationship. India signed a $5.4 billion (Rs 40,000 crore) deal to buy five missile systems on October 5, 2018. Each system comprises eight launchers, 32 missiles, a command post and multiple tracking and fire control radars The deal was signed in the teeth of stiff opposition from the US. Both countries set up a special banking mechanism to pay for it in euros rather than dollars to bypass US financial channels.
By the end of next year, India will get its first missile system, making us the third global customer after China and Turkey. All five systems will be delivered by April 2023. The US has raised a geopolitical storm over the sales. It has halted deliveries of its frontline F-35 fighter aircraft to Turkey and imposed sanctions on China for buying the missile. Washington has issued veiled warnings of “consequences” as it dangles a Damocles-like sword of Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) over New Delhi. Russia has been under US sanctions since 2014 for its intervention in Ukraine, annexation of Crimea and alleged attempts to influence the 2016 US presidential elections.
In June this year, an unnamed US government
official told news agency PTI in Washington about the “serious implications on (Indo-US) defence ties” if India went ahead and bought the S-400 from Russia. “We don’t commingle highest technology systems. There are threats posed by the purchase of an S-400. See the conversation playing out in Turkey right now,” the official said, asserting that those same concerns would apply to India as well.
India’s response has been to highlight its policy of multilateralism and strategic autonomy—the freedom to choose its military suppliers. “We have many relationships... they have a history,” foreign minister S Jaishankar said at a joint press conference with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo in June on the S-400 issue. “We will do what is in our national interest... part of a strategic partnership is the ability of each country to comprehend and appreciate the national interest of the other,” he added.
In July 2018, the US Congress gave President Trump the power to issue CAATSA waivers to countries like India if he could certify that India was doing enough to end its dependence on Russian arms. As Washington has realised since then, New Delhi has actually increased its reliance on Moscow. India has to modernise its military as it confronts threats from a rampant China on its northern borders and an unstable Pakistan to its west. In the next decade, it will reportedly spend over $250 billion to do so. In the arms pipeline are a leased nuclear submarine, four multi-role frigates, transport helicopters and a factory to licenseproduce over 700,000 AK-203 rifles, the newest variant of the iconic Russian rifle. The IAF is topping up its sagging fighter fleet with additional buys of MiG-29 and Su30MKI fighter jets. Russian firms are strong contenders in contests to build hardware locally in collaboration with Indian partners—a Rs 40,000 crore order to build six submarines and a mammoth Rs 1 lakh crore contract for 110 combat aircraft for the IAF. A series of joint exercises have been planned between the militaries of both sides.
So Indo-Russian military ties will last well into the middle of this century at least. Meanwhile, India is also vital to American interests in the new Great Game playing out in the Indo-Pacific as the US deals with the threats of a rising China. India is also one of the largest markets for the US military-industrial complex. Hence, the arms tangle.
SLUMP, TRUMP AND SOCHI
Just two months into the Modi government’s second innings, South Block is unequivocal: Russia is back in the arms game. New Delhi-Moscow Aeroflot direct flights are now packed with Indian defence delegations. D-G Acquisitions Apurva Chandra, the key defence ministry
“Russia supplies weapons to China’s rivals India and Vietnam. Both are also courted by the US. Both want strategic autonomy” G. Parthasarathy Former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan
(MoD) bureaucrat who decides on arms sales, has already visited Moscow twice. Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) chief Satheesh Reddy and IAF Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa have also led high-level visits to the Russian capital. A top Russian official in Moscow terms “defence cooperation the backbone of our bilateral relationship”. And this has been the case for over half-a-century. In the mid-1960s, Moscow sold MiG-21 all-weather supersonic fighters and Foxtrot class patrol submarines to cement an Indo-Soviet strategic partnership when war-winning platforms were denied to India by the West. The relationship blossomed into the Peace and Friendship Treaty of August 1971 and multiple Soviet UN Security Council vetoes that allowed Indira Gandhi to successfully defeat Pakistan in the Bangladesh war. The relationship resumed after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 into ‘a special and privileged partnership’ under President Vladimir Putin. But in recent years, even the ‘special’ tag exchanged by the two countries in 2010 could not prevent ties from going south.
The landmark 2006 Indo-US Nuclear Deal saw India buying $18 billion worth of US transport planes, anti-submarine aircraft, gunships, missiles, howitzers and heavy lift helicopters over a decade. The Russian arms industry, which counts India as its largest customer, lost out heavily. In its March 2019 report, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) attributed an overall 17 per cent decrease in Russian arms exports to the lack of orders from India and Venezuela. Russian arms exports to India, SIPRI says, dipped by 42 per cent between 2009-13 and 2014-18.
Then, Sochi happened. The first informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Putin at the Russian seaside resort in May 21 last year transformed the relationship. The outreach was partly driven by the huge dose of uncertainty injected into global diplomacy by President Trump. New Delhi was forced to hedge its bets. “India looks around and wonders, who’s (Trump’s) next (target)?” says Alexey Rakhmanov, the suave English-speaking head of the United Shipbuilding Corporation, the giant Russian conglomerate that makes all of Russian warships.
The mood in Sochi, according to one Indian official, was electric. The heads of state were like long-lost friends. Things started moving fast afterwards. In just six months, India signed deals worth over $10 billion with Russia, in one case paying up 40 per cent of the $3 billion refurbishment and lease of a nuclear submarine to be delivered in 2026.
Russia today is India’s largest arms supplier, followed by the US, Israel and France. And it wants to retain its lead in the $250 billion modernisation pie. What’s helping its cause is New Delhi’s determination to use arms sales as a lever to maximise foreign policy gains. Many of the defence deals are between the two governments and hence driven from the very top by the PM’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Another key figure is Pankaj Saran, India’s envoy to Moscow for three years until 2018, and now deputy NSA. Russian firms, as their western competitors have discovered, can no longer be bumped out of defence deals as they were a few years ago. Agreements have proceeded at surprising speed.
South Block sliced through the red tape and the enormous paper work that accompanies joint ventures between the two governments. The Indo-Russia Rifles Pvt Ltd joint venture, which will produce the AK-203 at an Ordnance Factory Board plant in Korwa, Amethi, was set up within a month of it being announced by Modi in March this year. The project in the erstwhile Gandhi family bastion was steered by what the Russians call “firm political will at the highest levels” and is one of the fastest to come up in the history of relations between the two countries. The Russian rifles that will equip the world’s second largest army
complete the prominent Russian tilt. “There are deals worth $14 billion in the pipeline…which is quite huge,” says Vladimir Druzhzhov, deputy director of the Federal Service of Military-Technical Cooperation (FSMTC), the apex agency overseeing Russia’s arms trade. It’s hard to recall such a mind-bogglingly large arms package in the heyday of the former Soviet Union, nor in the years following its break-up as Russia hocked arms for hard cash. Russia has always had first mover advantage—nearly 60 per cent of India’s military hardware is of Soviet or Russian origin. Just three platforms, the Su-30 MKI, the T-72 battle tanks and the Kilo class submarine— make up the backbone of the three services. Hardware like the T-90 tank, the AK-203 rifle and the Su-30MKI are far more cost-effective than their western counterparts, and hence can be procured in large numbers. Russian cutting edge-technology in certain fields offers game-changing advantages. The S-400 is as yet untested in combat, but IAF officials who evaluated the system over several years were impressed by its capabilities. The IAF sees in the S-400 a solution to its woes of dwindling fighter jets. It has only 30 squadrons (each with 18 jets), way below its sanctioned strength of 39. Five S-400 systems will plug an embarrassing void in medium- or long-range surface-to-air missiles. In a shooting war, the S-400 can guard Indian air space, leaving IAF jets free to carry out offensive missions.
Indian officials say Russia not parting with any of the key S-400 technologies is an aberration. “Russia gives us the kind of technology no other country on earth will give us,” says a senior naval official. The nuclear reactors of India’s Arihant class indigenous ballistic missile submarines have benefited from Russian design validation. In the years ahead, Russian assistance will be critical in India’s quest to join another exclusive club— the five permanent members of the United Nations who have designed and built their own nuclear-powered attack submarines or SSNs. SSNs are fast moving underwater battleships with unlimited endurance and can attack targets on land and at sea from underwater, using torpedoes and missiles. India currently has only one SSN, the INS Chakra, leased from Russia in 2012. It plans to field a fleet of six SSNs by the beginning of the next decade.
The onrush of Indian orders has enthused the gigantic
Russian military-industrial complex. The Admiralty Shipyard in St Petersburg, where a bulk of India’s conventional submarines were built, is one such place which sees a possible return to the Soviet Union era ‘Golden Age’. Andrey A. Veselov, deputy director of international cooperation at the yard, circles his fingers to illustrate the point. “History,” he drawls, “develops in spirals.” Another senior executive calls India “the kind of friend you could trust your wife with”. But there are imponderables too. Indian officials have warily noted the growing Sino-Russian friendship. Both countries recently launched coordinated patrols between Japanese and South Korean airspace, deploying longrange bombers. The Moscow-Beijing axis, as one government official pithily puts it, has undergone a role-reversal: “Russia is now the junior partner.” Where does that leave India? Veteran diplomat G. Parthasarathy feels the Russian outreach to China is tactical in the face of US hostility. “Russia supplies weapons to India and Vietnam, who are both China’s rivals. Both, however, are also courted by the US. Both want strategic autonomy,” he says.
SPECTRE OF SANCTIONS
Any talk of US sanctions invokes visions of the period after the 1998 Pokharan nuclear tests, when the US imposed a full range of penalties against the Indian military and scientific establishment. Indian scientists were even banned from visiting the US. India did not operate any American military platforms at the time, but the denial of even small items like US-made oil seals was enough to ground the navy’s entire fleet of UK-made Sea King choppers. A lot of water has flowed down the Potomac since then. Washington now sees India as a major global strategic partner, a counterbalance to a rising China. For India too, the US is not a partner to be taken lightly. Russian influence is limited to the UN Security Council. The US influence spans multilateral institutions. New Delhi is also conscious of US support in helping it enter three key international bodies—the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group. Only a China-imposed holdout has prevented India’s entry into the exclusive Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) that decides nuclear commerce.
The US ire over the S-400 is also because it feels the missile system compromises potential sales of its top-ofthe-line fighter aircraft like the F-35 to India. The stealth F-35’s radar signatures, US officials say, can be profiled by
“INDIA LOOKS (AT TRUMP) AND WONDERS, WHO’S NEXT?” Alexey Rakhmanov President, United Shipbuilding Corporation “GIVEN THE PREVAILING GEOPOLITICAL UNCERTAINTIES, IT IS MOOT IF THE US WOULD WANT TO GO DOWN THIS PATH (OF SANCTIONS)” Sujan Chinoy Director-general, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses
the S-400’s radars. New Delhi rejected US counter-offers of PAC-3 and THAAD missiles, but is now attempting to mollify Washington with a smaller off-the-shelf purchase of NASAMS-2, a missile system designed to protect the national capital from threats like drones and low-flying aircraft. India also plans to buy US drones, missiles, helicopters and antisubmarine aircraft worth $8 billion (Rs 56,000 crore). Two US firms, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, are prime contenders for a $20 billion deal to supply the IAF with 110 jets. US sanctions, hence, appear a highly unlikely course of action.
“The menu of sanctions under CAATSA ranges from denial of visas to persons party to the S-400 contract, to more severe action such as denial of munitions licences to India,” says Sujan Chinoy, director-general of the MoD think-tank, Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). “The latter would mean the cessation of all defence and strategic cooperation. Given the prevailing geopolitical uncertainties, it is moot if the US would want to go down this path.”
WHITHER MAKE IN INDIA?
One way out of the arms tangle would be for the Indian military-industrial complex to achieve self-sufficiency in hardware. China, the world’s largest arms importer a decade ago, is today the world’s fifth largest arms exporter. Slow development cycles, an archaic decision-making process and the absence of a long-term roadmap make it difficult for India to achieve the goals of self-reliance in defence hardware. Take, for instance, the torturous development cycle of the Future Infantry Combat Vehicle (FICV)—an armoured vehicle designed to take troops into battle. The fully indigenous PPP project, aimed at fielding an indigenous system to replace the Soviet-origin BMP-2, was mooted 13 years ago. Today, even the first prototype in the Rs 60,000 crore proposal is nowhere on the horizon. The MoD cannot decide on who will fund the first prototype, costing a measly Rs 800 crore. The government’s ambitious Make in India programme to indigenously manufacture arms has not taken off because orders for platforms like the Arjun main battle tanks and Tejas Light Combat Aircraft have not been placed. While India is one of the top five spenders on defence globally, revenue costs—what it pays as salaries and pensions—are eating up a larger portion of the defence budget than capital costs or the money set aside for hardware purchases.
Former navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash says the outlook for the indigenous arms industry is grim. The traditional reflexes of arms dependency remain an obstacle to India’s ambitions of achieving strategic autonomy. Assembling hundreds of aircraft and thousands of engines, tanks and missiles has not led to self-sufficiency. “We can (and must) use arms purchases for diplomatic leverage, but there should be an overarching grand strategy for arms self-sufficiency which should use this lever for attaining self-sufficiency by, say, 2069—through ToT agreements, IPR violations or whatever it takes,” Prakash says. Clearly, until India unveils a roadmap for self-sufficiency and sets down that path, arms tangles will be par for the course. ■
SHAKE ON THAT Russian President Putin welcomes PM Modi in Sochi, May 21, 2018