Defence Cooperation

India-Russia military equipment relationship

The Statesman | Nov 26, 2001

Headline-grabbing reports of a $10 billion long-term defence cooperation agreement between India and Russia during External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh's June 2001 visit to Moscow once again brought to the fore the extent to which the India-Russia defence cooperation relationship has recently developed.

Headline-grabbing reports of a $10 billion long-term defence cooperation agreement between India and Russia during External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh’s June 2001 visit to Moscow once again brought to the fore the extent to which the India-Russia defence cooperation relationship has recently developed. Though India had remained steadfastly nonaligned during the Cold War, it had been dubbed an ally of the erstwhile Soviet Union by most Western governments, analysts and academics. In reality, except for the USSR’s support for India’s positions in various international fora, particularly on Kashmir, and India’s quiet in several Soviet interventions, India-USSR cooperation during the Cold War era did not go much beyond a patron-client arms supply relationship.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 had led to a period of lukewarm relations as Russia struggled to cope with the cataclysm that threatened its very survival as a viable nation-state. By this time over 70 per cent of the weapons and equipment in service with India’s armed forces were of Soviet origin and the sudden drying up of reliable sources of supply and spares made important military hardware unserviceable. India was forced to either deal with sundry intermediaries and pay exorbitant prices or look elsewhere. Efforts were also stepped up to manufacture crucial spare parts indigenously.


However, over the last few years there has been increasing realisation in Russia that India is an important trading partner and the Russians have made concerted efforts to streamline their erratic supply lines. Once again, India is now the largest purchaser of defence equipment from Russia and, in the years ahead, may become Russia’s foremost partner in jointly developing future weapons systems.

In October 2000, India and Russia signed a deal for the supply of SU-30 MK I 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-90 S 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 tor its re-fitment and for the lighter aircraft and helicopters to be stationed on board. Negotiations for the purchase or lease of several other major weapon platforms, including submarines and frigates, are being conducted. MiG-AT, the Russian advanced jet trainer (AJT) aircraft has also been in the reckoning for selection along with a few other West European AJT’s.

The erstwhile Soviet Union had seldom agreed to sell new models of weapons systems to other countries. During the Cold War, like the US, the Soviets sold either used weapons or those that were new but had been in service for many years, even decades. In the buyers market now prevailing and due to Russia’s need to earn hard currency from exports, this has now changed. Russia is now willing to sell modern, hi-tech weapons systems and, in some cases at least, deliveries to foreign clients are being effected almost simultaneously with the introduction of new weapons systems in Russias armed forces. India’s recent defence equipment deals with Russia have been mostly hard currency contracts and it is clear that Indian orders are a valuable source of foreign exchange for Russia.

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 Tune 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 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 us well as technology are shared in a transparent manner. Only a few months ago Russia and India had announced that the jointly developed cruise missile BrahMos had been successfully test flown.

The two countries have now agreed to work together to develop high-tech fighter jets, submarines and ships under the present defence cooperation agreement that is estimated to be worth a total of $10 billion. The June 2001 deal 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 buy 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.

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.

One example should suffice to highlight India’s concerns. India has had problems obtaining spare parts for its British origin Sea Hawk naval fighters since the post-Pokhran II sanctions of mid-1998 because US companies had supplied some of the sub-components to the British manufacturer.

Hence, it is logical for India to 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. In addition to Russia, India is increasingly looking towards France, Germany, Israel and a few other countries for its weapons acquisitions. 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.


Despite its seemingly insurmountable internal problems, Russia remains a great power with a first rank nuclear weapons capability and an immense strategic reach. Like Phoenix it has risen from the ashes before and it will doubtlessly do so again. It is in India’s longterm interest to balance its long-standing friendship and cooperation with Russia with its newfound strategic partnership with the United States. Brahma Chellaney has expressed a similar view: “While building closer links with the United States, the world’s pre-eminent power, India cannot neglect Russia. Despite Russia’s present fragility, its strategic importance for India has not declined. Rather, the growing imbalance of power in Asia has only reinforced the value of a close Indo-Russian partnership for Asian stability.”

At present, India enjoys warm relations with both Russia and the US; both appear to be eager for a strategic partnership with India, though the concepts underlying such a partnership and the aims and objectives may be different in either case. It is a scenario which “John Foster Dulles, the archetypical American Cold Warrior in the sixties, would have found difficult to understand.” 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 hedge its bets and not lean on either the US or Russia too much. India must retain its strategic autonomy and create its-own space in the emerging geo-strategic environment.