India-Russia Defence Cooperation: A Time-tested Relationship

President Dmitry Medvedev’s December 2010 visit to India has given a fresh lease of life to a floundering albeit time tested relationship. During the Cold War the Soviet Union voted repeatedly in favour of India on UN resolutions on Jammu and Kashmir. Russia was the first major power to support India’s candidature for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and has for long supported the removal of restrictions on civil nuclear energy cooperation with India. It is the only country so far to have built and handed over nuclear power reactors to India. However, it is in cooperation in the field of defence sales and manufacture that must rank as the primary factor in sustaining and nurturing the India-Russia strategic partnership.

During Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s early-December 2005 visit to Moscow, India and Russia signed landmark agreements to further cement their defence cooperation that dates back to almost half a century. These include an agreement on the defence of intellectual property rights that prevents either side from using technologies received from the other without special permission, joint construction of a multi-purpose transport plane, plans for joint R&D work on a fifth generation fighter jet and joint development, operation and use of the GLONASS (GPS) System for peaceful purposes. It was also reported by the media that Russia is planning to lease two Shchuka-B nuclear submarines to the Indian Navy and had agreed to extend its cooperation to the Indian plan to build the country's first nuclear submarine. However, the Indian Defence Minister denied this. 
Ongoing joint arms projects between India and Russia include the manufacture of BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, the building of Su-30 MKI fighter jets, the manufacture of T-90 tanks in India under licence and the re-furbishing of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov. Current defence contracts between the two countries are worth over US$ 10 billion. The armed forces of the two countries have been regularly conducting joint air and naval exercises in both the countries. The two armies recently conducted the third in a series of battalion-level counter-terrorism exercises at Chaubatia in Uttarakhand in which 600 Indian and Russian soldiers participated. All of these exemplify the high degree of mutual confidence built over the years. 
India-Russia defence cooperation, which goes back to the Soviet era, had been shaken by but had survived the death throes of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had signed a treaty of peace, friendship and cooperation with the USSR shortly before the 1971 war with Pakistan. When that treaty had run its course after 25 years in 1996, it was mutually agreed to let it lapse. However, the relationship remained warm and friendly to the extent that former Russian Prime Minister Primakov had proposed a China-India-Russia triangle for geo-political and geo-strategic cooperation, an idea that was promptly cold-shouldered by the Chinese. 
During the Cold War, India-USSR cooperation had not gone much beyond a patron-client arms supply relationship. At the time of the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, over 70 percent of the weapons and equipment in service with India's armed forces were of Soviet origin. (About 55 per cent of Russia’s defence exports are to India.) Over the last two decades there has been increasing realisation in Russia that India is not only an important trading partner but also a prospective R&D partner. India is still among the largest purchasers of defence equipment from Russia. In the years ahead, India is likely to become Russia's foremost partner in jointly developing future weapons systems. “Our defence cooperation will be expanded and deepened as we will be moving from ‘seller-buyer’ relationship to organising joint designing, development, production and marketing. BrahMos missile is a perfect example of what India and Russia can achieve when they jointly work on producing high quality armaments,” Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee said in an interview with Alexander Lomanov, published in Vremya Novostei on November 18, 2005. Now that an agreement has been signed for the joint design and development 250-300 fifth generation fighter aircraft, the former defence minister’s words are ringing true. The fighter deal is worth US$ 35 billion; the aircraft will be designed and manufactured over 10 years. 
In this era of strategic cooperation and interdependence for defence production, the BrahMos is a path-breaking example of a cooperative design and development venture that optimally synergises the strengths of the R&D and production agencies of both India and Russia. It is the story of a successful collaborative effort between high-end Russian missile technology and Indian excellence in developing sophisticated software solutions in a short period of time and at a low cost. The BrahMos is a true force multiplier for the armed forces of India and Russia. This missile has also been adapted for ship-to-ground, submarine-to-ground, air-to-ground and surface-to-surface launch platforms. The Indian Artillery is in the process of inducting this missile to destroy targets deep inside enemy territory. 
In the past India has imported naval ships and submarines, the MiG and Sukhoi series of fighter-bomber aircraft and air defence radars from Russia, T-55 and T-72 tanks, BMP fighting vehicles, 100 mm, 122 mm and 130 mm artillery guns, 122 mm BM-21 Grad multi-barrel rocket launchers and almost its entire inventory of air defence artillery equipment. The Russian equipment was mostly tried and tested, rugged, suitable for Indian conditions and was purchased against soft loans, which were to be repaid over long periods under special Rupee-Rouble arrangements. These conditions suited India well, especially as it had meager foreign exchange reserves for many decades and could ill afford to buy defence equipment with hard currency.

India has for long been importing Russian military equipment either as fully assembled systems or in SKD/CKD form. While some projects like the MiG series of aircraft, T-72 tanks and BMPs have involved local manufacture under license, there has rarely been any real transfer of technology. During then Defence Minister Jaswant Singh's June 2001 visit to Moscow, special emphasis was laid not only on technology transfer but also on the joint development and production of future weapons systems. That this was a mutually acceptable position was confirmed by Russia's Deputy Prime Minister, Ilya Klebanov when he said, "Our co-operation has turned toward the joint development and joint production of weapons, which is very important in the relations of the two countries." Joint development was expected to synergise the specialised capabilities of the two countries to the mutual benefit of both. Due to the burgeoning costs of the development of major weapon platforms, the trend the world over is to undertake joint or multilateral development in which costs as well as technology are shared in a transparent manner. 
Under the June 2001 defence cooperation agreement, the two countries had agreed to work together for the joint development of several major weapon platforms, including a fifth-generation combat aircraft, IL-214 transport aircraft, submarines and frigates. Russia also offered to upgrade the Indian fleet of Mi-8 and Mi-17 transport helicopters by extending their service life and technical capabilities. MiG-AT, the Russian advanced jet trainer (AJT) aircraft was also in the reckoning for selection along with a few other West European AJTs. The 2001 agreement was also reported to include a plan to create an air defence system, which would cover the whole of India's territory. It was also expected that India would consider the acquisition of some squadrons of the S-300V or S-400 air defence and anti-missile defence system to integrate them into its existing surface-to-air defences against enemy aircraft and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), while simultaneously undertaking indigenous development of the system. 
Konstantin Makienko of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), Moscow, said before the 10th meeting of the India-Russia Inter-governmental Commission on Military-technical Cooperation held at New Delhi in October 2010, “Growing international competition for the Indian defence market will push Russia to expand its cooperation with India into new sectors where it has no rivals, such as strategic weapons and technologies.” Makienko also suggested that the two countries could diversify their defence ties into nuclear submarine technologies despite continuing international restrictions against India. Russia had leased a nuclear-powered submarine to India in the late 1980s and is now completing preparations to lease an Akula II-class nuclear-powered attack submarine to India for 10 years. India could not have obtained such a vessel from any other major power.
The acquisition of defence equipment from Russia has not been completely free of problems. Time and cost overruns have been commonplace, particularly in the case of the refurbishment of the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov; and, soon after the break-up of the Soviet Union, there were major problems with the supply of spares. Kanwal Sibal, former ambassador to Russia, has written, “… there have been problems with regard to adherence to delivery schedules, price escalation and inadequate product support, leading to calls for reducing our over-dependence on it and diversifying our sources of defence procurement. Until recently, Russia has believed political reliability, price advantage and technology access guaranteed its hold on the Indian market. But now with the expansion of the India-US defence ties, including important defence acquisitions, its concerns are mounting.” However, the Russians are gradually getting their act together and it is expected that their internal processes will soon be better streamlined.
The export controls imposed by the US-led West, military technology denial regimes, weapons, equipment and spares supply agreements that are hostage to unilateral sanctions and the impact of non-proliferation policies, had made Western companies unreliable suppliers of defence equipment to India till very recently. Hence, it was logical for India to hedge its bets and continue to rely on Russia for its major weapons platforms, even as it diversifies its sources of acquisition of weapons and further enhances its vigorous efforts to develop and manufacture maximum defence equipment indigenously. There is increasing realisation that no country can afford to plough a lonely furrow in developing military hardware. The future of defence equipment modernisation lies in joint development followed by joint manufacture and, eventually, a joint approach to marketing.
At present, India enjoys warm relations with both Russia and the US; both appear to be eager for a long-term strategic partnership with India, even though the concepts underlying such a partnership and the aims and objectives may be different in either case. Being simultaneously wooed by two of the three major world powers of the early 21st century is recognition of a militarily self-confident India's gradual emergence as a future economic, industrial and military powerhouse. However, in the prevailing era of strategic uncertainty, it would be wise for India to retain its strategic autonomy and create its own space in the emerging geo-strategic environment. Towards this end, joint defence equipment R&D and production ventures, particularly in the area of critical technologies, must be pursued vigorously for mutual benefit with all strategic partners.

(The author is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.)