A Sukhoi Su-30MKI Air Superiority Fighter of the Indian Air Force

by Richard Weitz

Along with pressing for fairer trade with Germany and China, the Trump administration should strive for greater commercial opportunities with India, especially in the defense sector.

India’s large defense budget and the country’s vast unmet weapons needs guarantee that India will remain an important arms buyer for years to come. India will soon surpass the United Kingdom to become the world’s third biggest defense spender, after the United States and China.

Last month, Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar said that India will purchase some four hundred military aircraft in the next three-four decades.

Per the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia supplied 68 per cent of India’s imported arms during the 2012-2016 period. The United States lagged considerably behind, providing only 14 percent of India’s imported weapons, with Israel occupying third place at 7 percent.

India is also the largest foreign purchaser of Russian weapons, buying some 38 per cent of Russian defense exports. At the end of 2016, India’s defense orders from Russia exceeded $4 billion.

In addition to having the advantage of long-established ties and Soviet legacy systems that need upgrades, Russian arms suppliers have been willing to offer more sophisticated military hardware and technologies to India than Western countries.

Still, India is also the lead foreign buyer of Israeli weapons and the second largest purchaser of British exports. Regrettably, India does not even rank in the top five of the foreign purchasers of U.S. defense exports.

Based on planned deliveries and orders, SIPRI expected that Russia would retain its dominant position for at least several more years—unless the Trump administration makes it a priority to support more U.S. defense sales in India.

Presently, three fourths of the Indian Air Force (IAF)’s current fighter fleet are of Soviet or Russian origin (including MiG-21s, MiG-27s, MiG-29s, and Su-30s).

Of note, Russia developed a unique “Indian” version of the Sukhoi Su-30 (known as the Su-30MKI, for “multirole, commercial, Indian”) that will remain the Indian Air Force’s top-line heavy fighter, at least until the Dassault Rafale enters service.

India now has acquired some 240 Su-30MKIs, which have undergone constant modernization. By the end of this decade, the Indian Air Force will possess around 270 of these planes.

In addition, most of the Indian army’s tank force consist of Soviet- or Russian-made T-72 and T-90 Main Battle Tanks. Approximately half of the major surface combatants and combat submarines in the Indian Navy were constructed in Russia or the Soviet Union.

Russia has leased nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) to India to allow the Indian Navy to gain experience with maritime nuclear propulsion—a Project 670 Skat-class (NATO: Charlie-class) vessel in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as currently a Project 971 Shchuka-B (NATO: Akula-class) multipurpose SSN, formerly known as K-152 Nerpa, which the Indians have renamed as the INS Chakra.

Russia and India recently signed about $10-billion worth of inter-governmental defense deals when Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Gao for the October 2016 BRICS summit.

The major deals included systems that no other country seems prepared to yet sell India:

four-five Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf Air Defense Systems (NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler) regiments (each having 16 launchers and 64 missiles) for as much as $6 billion;
four more Project 11356 Admiral Grigorovich class (Indian named Talwar-class) frigates for $3 billion (including new Ukraine-made engines); and
200 Kamov Ka-226T “Hoodlum” twin-engine light utility helicopters (in a joint venture of the majority shareholder HAL Corporation with Rosoboronexport and Russian Helicopters—the latter two as part of Rostec holding corporation) for over $1 billion.

Moscow gave India the right to produce some of the frigates (probably at the HSL shipyard) and 140 helicopters (at a new HAL plant at Tumakuru) under license, as well as service the helicopters.

Russia and India expect to finalize the S-400 surface-to-air missile contract later this year. Russian negotiators are encouraging India to forego the usual 30 percent offset package to speed delivery of the systems—an argument U.S. contractors should also use.

Russia has also agreed to repair, upgrade, and then lease India another multipurpose Project 971 Shchuka-B (NATO: Akula-class) nuclear-powered attack submarine for some $2 billion as well as consider assisting India to develop more nuclear-powered submarines beyond its newly commissioned Arihant-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN).

Russian analysts have argued that Western sanctions have not adversely affected their arms trade with India.

Looking ahead, Russians and Indians aim to take advantage of India’s having joined the Missile Technology Control Regime to conduct joint research and development to extend the range of their jointly developed Brahmos cruise missile beyond 300 kilometers.

Furthermore, Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation has agreed to prolong a 2006 agreement that allowed India to import 470 T-90S tanks and build another 530 under license. India aims to have a fleet of 1,600 T-90 tanks by 2020.

Russia is also offering the Indian Air Force an opportunity to upgrade the Su-30MKI engine from its current Saturn AL-31F engine to the AL-41F-1S engine now on the Russian Air Force’s Su-35 as well as make other upgrades under a possible modernization of India’s Su-30MKI to a future near-fifth generation “Super Sukhoi” configuration, with upgraded avionics, sensors, cockpit, and capacity to launch BrahMos supersonic missiles, at an estimated total cost of over $6 billion for all the 272 Su-30MKIs India has ordered to date.

Depending on the terms of reference, Russia plans to offer this modernized Su-30MKI variant, the MiG-31, the MiG-35 or the PAK FA in the new tender for India’s fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) project.

Perhaps the most ambitious Russian-India joint defense development project, launched in 2007, is the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), which is co-financed on an equal basis. The development teams includes Russia’s Sukhoi Aircraft Corporation, India’s state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), and the Indian Aeronautical Development Agency. They intend to manufacture a plane based on the Russian Sukhoi T-50 (PAK FA) fifth-generation multirole fighter, designed primarily for air superiority, with stealth, a single-seat, twin engines, and “supercruise” (sustained supersonic flight) capacity. Besides offering the plane to potential foreign buyers, the IAF plans to buy some 120 of these planes for around $25 billion.

Before finalizing the development contract, however, the Indian government is demanding improvements over the current T-50 prototype, such as a stronger engine. Furthermore, Indian officials have complained about inadequate technology transfer under the existing Sukhoi-30MKI acquisition, in which HAL only assembles rather than manufactures the planes and at a higher price than the turn-key imported planes from Russia.

They are also disappointed that Indian firms are receiving less valuable FGFA-related contracts than Russian ones even though both countries are contributing equally to the costs of developing the plane. Indians are still displeased by the slow pace of the project given their urgent need for a more air power to counter China.

The Russian-Indian arms relationship has experienced other problems. For example, Indians have complained about quality of some Russian weapons, seen by the recriminations over several Su-30MKI crashes, as well as delays, technology transfer restrictions, and rising costs of some Russian arms imports.

Russian defense companies are attempting to address Indian complaints about the lengthy time to obtain spare parts and other maintenance by establishing local logistics hubs, such as for the Su-30MKI, at the HAL facilities in Bangalore.

Even so, these problems with past Russian sales, competition from other suppliers, and efforts to improve India’s indigenous defense industry could lead New Delhi to buy fewer Russian weapons in coming years—if the United States makes a major effort to capture some of these sales.

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