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India-Russia Defence Relations: Low Key, Yet Going Strong

Deba R Mohanty
16 December 2010

India is experiencing a unique moment in the history of its international relations where five heads of states visit New Delhi in a span of six months in 2010. The British Prime Minister has already visited in July 2010, signing nearly a USD 1 billion worth weapons supply to India, among others. The US President Barak Obama visited India from 6 to 8 November 2010, hogging the limelight with a series of announcements and promises related to trade, defence and international relations. The French President Nicolas Sarkozy and President of the Russian Federation Dimitry Medvedev will visit New Delhi, while the fifth top dignitary Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is also slated to visit in December 2010 (the last with whom India has virtually no military industrial relations). This is unique, unprecedented and challenging on the part of India in terms of not only fashioning but also prioritizing national foreign policy choices vis-à-vis major powers at a time when the global security scenario is witnessing much fluidity in current times. ‘Arms Dynamic’ plays one of the most important strategic considerations in this scenario otherwise dominated by esoteric terms like shared values, shared visions, shared concerns, etc.

Arms Dynamic

Grand strategic objectives of major powers and India notwithstanding, it is the ‘arms dynamic’ that has attracted the world leaders to New Delhi of late. ‘Arms Dynamic’, I attempt to define it as ‘the role of military hardware and software transactions in the ‘hard’ power calculus of suppliers and recipients in shaping bilateral or alliance political or military arrangements in global strategic affairs’. This has been a major determinant in global politics since World War II. Its relative importance seemed to diminish after the end of the Cold War and an era of ‘peace dividend’ would follow as argued by many in the West, especially in the United States and Europe. The debate on peace dividend dominated during the 1990s. However, it is interesting to note that since the end of 1990s, much preceding the 9/11, military efforts by major states, except in Europe, started to consolidate again. Consider this: global military expenditure was USD 1.26 trillion at the peak of the Cold War era in 1987, plummeted to USD 704 in 1996 and has gone up again to stand at USD 1.53 trillion in 2009. All indicators of military efforts – force structure, military R&D, equipment – have shown similar zigzag trends in the last quarter century, which suggests that arms dynamic has made a strong come back in global affairs and is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. It is interesting to note that while countries like UK plan to slash their defence budgets with the US a likely follower and UK and France coming together to concoct their arsenals for meeting future threats, global military efforts are still likely to intensify and increase further. This has significant implications for a country like India.

Pruning it down from arms dynamic to pure ‘arms trade’, it will be obvious that it is the lucrative Indian arms market, considered ‘weapons merchants’ paradise’, which is driving major arms suppliers to India of late, especially since 2002 when India opened up its military sector for private participation and open competition in arms acquisitions. Consider these: India’s military procurement budget has increased by 500 percent in the last eight years (crossing USD 15 billion in 2010 from USD 3 billion in 2002); primarily equipment-driven long-term military modernization programme underway since 2007 for the next fifteen years (2022) necessitating arms purchase worth USD 180 to 200 billion at a very conservative estimate (practically everything is needed either as replenishment or force modernization); inability of the Indian state-owned defence manufacturers to even produce more than 25 percent of the cumulative needs of the armed forces (license production arrangements excluded as they do not contribute much to self-reliance efforts); and last but not the least, the aggressive nature of industrial strategies pursued by arms manufacturers in order to survive in the global arms market. India offers one of the best platforms for arms manufacturers to do business. Interpreted in simple terms, it is lucrative arms business which drives major powers to India where there is convergence of business interests under larger ‘strategic interests’.

India-Russia Defence Relations: Contemporary Perceptions

From a mere USD 30 million worth of arms supply to India in 2002, the US has already agreed to supply or signed defence deals worth USD 11 billion in the last two years. Many defence deals with the US are also in pipeline. The current scenario gives sufficient indications that countries like the US, UK, France and Israel are emerging as major arms suppliers to India while countries like Israel and South Korea are fast emerging as military industrial collaborators in Indian defence industries apart from American, British and French companies. Since the resumption of full diplomatic ties since 1992, Israel has in the last decade supplied USD 12 billion worth of weaponry to India and is already the second highest supplier to India. Even countries like South Korea which has recently bid in the LPD naval system has already signed MoUs with India for joint industrial collaborations in many military systems production. British supply of Hawks jet trainers and French Scorpene submarines have been instances of large multi-billion dollar deals that have been underway for the past few years and both countries also see India as a big opportunity for their defence companies. All these developments put together give an impression that the influence of Russia as the dominant arms supplier to India seems to be diminishing while that of others on the rise. Even, collaborative military industrial efforts with Indian companies seem to attract non-Russian companies more than the Russians would imagine. It appears that Russians are more depending on government-to-government military transactions than expanding the larger defence relations to intra-company arrangements, including collaborative military R&D efforts. To sum up, perceptions seem real in the current context which gives rise to an assumption that the India-Russia defence relations are headed downhill while Russian peers in the Indian arms market are in ascendancy.

Are then the prospects for Russia as a dominant military equipment supplier to India dim in future? My argument is that despite the hype and considerable attention toward other suppliers by India in recent times, its robust relationship with Russia will ensure that the latter’s influence will ‘certainly not’ wane in immediate (5 – 10 years), ‘may not’ be in medium (10 – 25 years); and if Russia acts prudently then ‘perhaps never’ in long term future. It argues further that the bilateral relations would not suffer at the cost of any relationship that India may strive to improve with other major powers. Geopolitical calculations would suggest that India’s friendship with Russia would be independently nurtured despite much fluidity in international affairs.

Four Arguments

Defence relations between two countries are determined by a host of factors. During the Cold War, alliance politics dominated strategic affairs whereby the two super powers used to supply weapons to their respective allies or friends. This was also a period when dominant suppliers from either bloc were debarred from developing defence relations with countries from opposite camps. Countries like India which proclaimed independent foreign policy choices under the broader ‘non-alignment’ were left with hard choices for weapons acquisitions. India’s deepening defence relations with Soviet Union was thus criticized by the West while India had to make choices to either go for Soviet weaponry or build a formidable industrial base in an era of sanctions. Soviet help to India at a critical juncture in its history was a bi-product of mutual understanding between the two political leaderships, interestingly dominated by Communists in Soviet Union and Congress party’s long innings in India. As mutual political understanding between the two countries played out in larger global politics, it was obvious that both countries would deepen their defence relations. It is this mutual trust in each other that has stood the tests of time and will continue to be so in future.

What are the major factors in the India-Russia relations that have not only withstood tests of time but also evolved in such a manner that the foundations of the relationship have actually gone deeper? A set of five arguments are advanced here for further debate. First, there does not appear to be any major conflictual geo-strategic issues between the two countries which could mar their political relations in the contemporary times. In fact, Russia and India have common interests on major international issues. India’s aspiration to be in the high table is not opposed by Russia. The India-US civil nuclear deal and the entry into civil nuclear trade has been supported by Russia all along, knowing fully well that it would benefit considerably in this area of activity.

Second, no other country has such a long defence relationship with India where defence supply has been central to the bilateral relations. Western Weropean countries were dominant suppliers for slightly more than a decade from late 1940s till early 1970s. The US supplied a few systems during this period but after that it fully stopped its supply. It was only during the mid-1990s that Israel started supplying systems to India. Even in the case of Israel, very few big items have been purchased although of late its role in supply of critical technologies and involvement in programmes like UAVs, military electronics and avionics merit attention. It is only after India decided to open up its private sector for participation in defence production and enlarging its basket of choices in defence acquisitions that major suppliers like France, UK and the US have started coming in. Three primary factors – degree of politico-strategic relations, exports regulations and imparting or sharing of knowledge – typify a robust defence relationship between two countries. Except for Russia, none other supplier has reached a level whereby India can afford to look forward for a reliable strategic partnership. Russia is still ahead of others in this context.

Third, India-Russia defence relations have already become mature which normally comes in alliance politics like anglo-saxon model or very special relationship like US-Israel. Very few parallel example can be found in case of other countries like the ones that Russia has developed with India. All major purchases from Russia from T-90, MiGs, Su-30s to Admiral Gorshkov and Nerpa suggest the range of products that a country can sell to anybody, which is indeed exceptional. Russia as a special country is willing to help in indigenous systems like nuclear submarines which other countries would hesitate to argue the least. Not to be left behind in other fronts, the India-Russia military cooperation has also witnessed a great leap forward in joint training and military exercises. The Indian and Russian armies have conducted a joint military exercise named EX INDRA -10 in the Kumaon Hills around Ranikhet in late October 2010. The exercise spread over a ten day period enabling greater synergy between the forces and a clearer understanding of the doctrine practiced by each country to combat terrorism, thereby further cementing the relationship which has existed between the two countries.

Fourth, India-Russia defence relations have long entered the next phase of industrial cooperation which even pre-dates India’s new liberalized competition based arms market. The Brahmos JV is the example in this context. Besides, sensing the changing mood of Indian political leadership to adopt and practice open, transparent and competitive arms acquisition as well as production policies, Russia has offered joint efforts in some strategic programmes which other countries would take long to decide. The recent tenth meeting of the India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Military Technical Cooperation (IRIGC-MTC) held in New Delhi in early October 2010, led by the Indian Defence Minister AK Antony and the Russian Defence Minister Mr. A E Serdyukov, has expressed satisfaction at the conclusion of the shareholders agreement for formation of a joint venture company for the development and production of the Multirole Transport Aircraft (MTA). Further, both sides have agreed to expedite modalities for the proposed project for the joint design, development and production of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA). “India hopes to get 45 MTA and also finalize the FGFA, … all the issues we have discussed and solved between our two countries… now it is in the final stages of the Indian government, some technical formalities between the governments is needed and I am sure we will be able to complete very soon…within a few months,” Antony later told a joint press conference. “As per this agreement, India will receive approximately between 250-300 most modern FGFA. These two projects are the major achievements of this year and for the next ten years these two projects, MTA and FGFA, will be a shining example of India and Russian defence cooperation,” he added further. The Joint Commission also reviewed the status of several other ongoing and proposed projects, including the licenced production of T-90 Tanks and the establishment of the repair and overhaul facilities for various Russian origin defence equipment in India.

Challenges and Ways Forward

Central assumptions on the robustness and promising futuristic scenarios of India-Russia defence relations may not be as smooth as it seems and thus should not be taken for granted. Four practical issues need to be highlighted here for understanding the flip sides of the relationship. First, a new Indian strategy of defence industrial cooperation model as well as competition based acquisition suggests that the often one-sided defence supply lines that have largely been processed through inter-governmental arrangements are likely to change tracks to embrace open competition. This is likely to put pressure on Russia to remain a player in the future Indian arms market. Second, although Russia has been able to forge industrial and company level ties with mainly state-owned entities like HAL, it faces a challenge in forging such ties with Indian private companies, many of which are expected to play a key role in the future Indian military industrial landscape. The on-going or announced JVs between private Indian and foreign companies far outnumber such JVs between Indian and Russian companies. Russia practically works on a single window model with Rosboronexport as the nodal point for military acquisition and industrial cooperation. Third, as and when competitive model will take root, Russians may have difficulties in forging ties with Indian companies due to their rigid bureaucratic systems, which needs further reforms as like those in India which is already undergoing reforms in its higher defence management sector. And finally, although defence relationship constitutes only one of the cores of any strategic partnership, Russia has thus far managed to deepen its relations with India based overwhelmingly on defence with very low degree of economic / trade relations. This may prove counter productive for Russia in coming times as its peers have been stressing on simultaneous economic and defence relations in a larger framework. It is high time that Russia must adopt trade with India as a strategic tool to enhance its relationship with India.

India and Russia have enjoyed a partnership that has been special throughout the last half a century. Russia is likely to be India’s predominant defence supplier for the foreseeable future. Even though other suppliers are likely to increase their stake in the lucrative Indian arms market, Russia will in all probability retain its predominant position. However, new realities must lead to pragmatic approaches by both countries in order to reap the best of their friendships. In this scenario, India’s new strategic outlook is increasingly becoming evident, while it remains to be seen as to how Russian strategy shapes up in future.

(The author is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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