As the BrahMos supersonic anti-ship cruise missile arched gracefully into the sky for its sixth test flight on November 23, 2003, and pierced the hull of its target some minutes later, it marked a new high point in the defence cooperation relationship between India and Russia. 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, though the concepts underlying such a partnership and the aims and objectives may be different in either case.
As the BrahMos supersonic anti-ship cruise missile arched gracefully into the sky for its sixth test flight on November 23, 2003, and pierced the hull of its target (a de-commissioned naval snip) some minutes later, it marked a new high point in the defence cooperation relationship between India and Russia. Simultaneously, a new chapter commenced in the political relationship between the two countries that had been shaken by but had survived the death throes of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
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. Begun as a showpiece joint venture project on February 12, 1998, the BrahMos weighs about eight tonnes, carries a warhead of 200 to 300 kg and, cruising at a speed of nearly Mach 3, It can hit targets up to 290 km away from its launch platform with unerring accuracy. When the Indian Navy gets its first BrahMos missiles sometime in 2004 from the production facility at BrahMos Aerospace Pvt. Ltd., Hyderabad, it will become the only Navy to be equipped with a state-of-the-art supersonic anti-ship cruise missile. In Russia, the missile will be produced by the consortium NPO Masinostroyenia. The BrahMos will be a true force multiplier for the navies of Russia and India as also for other navies that may decide to buy it. Subsequently, this missile will be adapted for ship-to-ground, submarine-to-ground, air-to-ground and surface-to-surface launch platforms.
During the Cold War era, 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 per cent of the weapons and equipment in service with India’s armed forces were of Soviet origin. Over the last decade, there has been increasing realisation in Russia that India is not only an important trading partner but also a prospective R&D partner. During the then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh’s June 2001 visit to Moscow, a long-term defence cooperation agreement worth $10 billion was signed between India and Russia. This highlighted the extent to which the India-Russia defence cooperation relationship has recently developed. India is now among the largest purchasers of defence equipment from Russia and, in the years ahead, may become Russia’s foremost partner in jointly developing future weapons systems.
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, rugged, suitable for Indian conditions and was purchased against soft loans, which were to be repaid over long periods under special Rupee-Rouble arrangements.
In October 2000, India and Russia signed a deal for the supply of SU-30 MKI fighter-bomber aircraft and their licensed manufacture in India. Reported to have been the largest single defence deal ever signed by India, it was soon followed by another major deal for the acquisition of T-90S tanks. Negotiations for the acquisition of the Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov have been going on for a few years. Russia has offered the de-commissioned aircraft carrier free but India has to pay for its re-fitment and for the MiG 29K fighter aircraft and helicopters to be stationed on board.
India has for long been importing Russian military equipment either in fully assembled or 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 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 cooperation has turned toward the joint development and joint production of weapons, which is very important in the relations of the two countries.” Joint development would 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 have 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 has 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. However, what is more likely is that India may acquire some squadrons of the S-300 or S-400 air defence and anti-missile defence system and 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. The United States has also expressed its keenness for ballistic missile defence cooperation with India.
Indian and Russian foreign policies have seldom been in direct conflict with each other. In the post-Cold War era, there has been even greater congruence between the two. 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, make Western companies unreliable suppliers of defence equipment to India. It is 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, 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 and industrial 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.