Both the sides need to be pragmatic and not be guided by a stubborn approach.

Close on the heels of Navy Chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta’s public criticism of the time and cost overruns in the refurbishment of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov (INS Vikramaditya), came the news of the very high failure rate of the Russian Klub anti-ship missile. 

However, this was followed by the revelation that Russia had agreed to lease an Akula-class nuclear-powered submarine to India – something no other nuclear weapon state will ever do as it will give a much-needed fillip to India's long-delayed project to indigenously produce such a submarine. Though the cosy arms purchase relationship that India has had with Russia for many decades appears to be fraying at the edges, it is certainly not at risk of collapsing completely.

Joint exercises

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. 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 research and development and production agencies of both India and Russia. 

Current defence contracts are worth over $10 billion and include 350 T-90 tanks, 40 Su-30 combat aircraft, 80 Mi-17 medium-lift helicopters, technology for the RD-33 engine that powers MiG-29 aircraft, two regiments of Smerch multi-barrel rocket launchers and three stealth frigates. 

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 Grad multi-barrel rocket launchers and almost its entire inventory of air defence artillery equipment. 

The Russian equipment was mostly tried and tested, extremely rugged and thus suitable for Indian conditions. It was also purchased against soft loans, which were to be repaid over long periods under special Rupee-Rouble arrangements. 

Under a June 2001 defence cooperation agreement, the two countries agreed to work together for the joint development of several major weapons platforms including a fifth-generation combat aircraft, IL-214 transport aircraft, submarines and frigates. Russia has also offered to upgrade the Indian fleet of Mi-8 and Mi-17 transport helicopters by extending their service life and technical capabilities. It was also reported to include a plan to create an air defence system, which would cover the whole of India’s territory. 

Future course

India may in due course 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. 

It is logical for India to hedge its bets and continue to rely on Russia for its major weapons platforms, even as it enhances its vigorous efforts to develop and manufacture maximum defence equipment indigenously. The present spat needs to be resolved through mutual discussions and hard bargaining to get the best deal for India. 

Both the sides need to be pragmatic and not be guided by a stubborn approach. Dozens of weapons and equipment factories in Russia depend on Indian orders, without which these would probably have to close down. Also, India’s buyers’ clout can ensure that high-tech designs are not transferred to countries inimical to India. 

The best long-term strategy would be to continue to diversify India’s arms import base so as to further reduce the present dependence on Russian arms and equipment. In the short-term, there is no option but to re-negotiate the Gorshkov deal on the best terms that India can get as there is no way India can get another aircraft carrier in less than a decade. A tried and tested defence equipment partner cannot be forsaken without first making guaranteed alternative arrangements.