Over 50% of all Indian materiel is of Soviet or Russian origin, necessitating Moscow’s sustained assistance for its maintenance, repair and overhaul

by Rahul Bedi

New Delhi: The Indian Air Force’s (IAFs) optimism over being able to source spares to ensure operability for its fleet of Russian combat and other military aircraft, despite punitive US-led sanctions imposed on Moscow over its Ukraine invasion, is belied by the recurring component shortages the force has always faced, even when no embargoes existed.

The IAF’s Vice Chief of Staff, Air Marshal Sandeep Singh sanguinely told reporters on Wednesday, March 2 that sanctions would not greatly impact the air force’s ability to obtain Russian spares and ancillary equipment, especially for its Sukhoi Su-30 MKI and MiG variant fighters.

“We are evaluating (the situation) and there will be difficulties, but it (sanctions) should not affect us too much,” Air Marshal Singh said. He, incredulously, added that the IAF would not in any way be ‘affected significantly’ in this regard, as its good relations with the US and Russia have persevered.

The three-star officer seemed to assume, without basis, that New Delhi’s enduring strategic, defence, diplomatic and political ties with Moscow and Washington prior to Ukraine’s invasion would rendered it immune from sanctions in perpetuity, despite the US’ determination to penalise Russia for its militarism. And, like most of the country’s officialdom, Air Marshal Singh, too, appears to presume that jugaad (creative innovation) or, even better, the eponymous ‘Indian rope trick’ would ‘mesmerise’ the US, the European Union and other sanctioning countries into indulging Delhi in its endeavours to maintain its military commerce with Russia, unhindered.

Resorting to financial Jugaad, much like what the IAF attains on its many platforms, however, does not appear to be an option for India to sidestep sanctions. According to New York-based finance website ‘Investopedia‘, sanctions by countries or organisations “provide a policy tool short of military force for punishing or forestalling objectionable actions”. It goes on to state that sanctions could prove costly to their targets, or simply put, that attempting any sanctions-busting ploy could prove detrimental, not only to Russia as the seller of embargoed goods, but also to India as the their buyer.

It also appears that Air Marshal Singh was in denial over the IAF’s own and the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) reiteration of Russian equipment spares shortages, which have adversely impacted not only the IAF, but India’s entire military, for decades. Over 50% of all Indian materiel is of Soviet or Russian origin, necessitating Moscow’s sustained assistance for its maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) and, in some instances, even its upgrade.

However, these spares paucities and continually delayed MROs had persisted even during what many officers called the ‘good years’ of India-Russia ties, and were routinely highlighted by innumerable parliamentary defence committees and Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) audits. But under the recent sanctions imposed on all Russian military and related entities, the never-ending problem of India obtaining Russian spares, despite Air Marshal Singh’s confidence, promises only to get much worse, if acquisition does not cease altogether.

“It (spares shortages) is a critical issue for the IAF and one that is getting more difficult by the day, in a situation unlikely to right itself for several years,” said military analyst Air Marshal V. K. ‘Jimmy’ Bhatia (Retd). The sanctions on Russia, the former fighter pilot warned, will prove a damaging handicap in keeping the IAF’s Russian platforms operational and could even force it to resort to unsuitable ‘grey market’ component purchases to make-up goods shortfalls.

Former Indian Navy Chief of Staff, Admiral Arun Prakash, goes an apocalyptic step further.

“Harsh sanctions on Russia could eventually result in the Indian military being virtually disarmed due to equipment and spares shortages,” he ominously warned, blaming Indian officialdom for the impending materiel quagmire that looms over the country’s armed forces. “Indian politicians,” the former naval chief said, “were seemingly indifferent to this crisis; the bureaucracy uncomprehending and the scientists from the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) were never held accountable for their inability to deliver competent weapon systems on time.”

The IAF presently operates over 410 Soviet and Russian fighters that comprise a mix of imported and licence-built platforms. These included around 14 ‘Flanker’ Su30MKI squadrons of around 260 fighters that constitute the IAFs ‘sword arm’; five ‘Fishbed’ MiG-21 ‘Bis’ ground attack squadrons accounting for some 90-odd aircraft; and five ’Fulcrum’ MiG-29 (UPG) air superiority squadrons, comprising 60-odd platforms, including eight dual-seat trainers. All of these are unanimously dependant on Russian spares and components, whose availability has always been uncertain, despite many of them having been constructed locally by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) under a transfer of Russian technology.

In turn, these shortages resulted in low operational availability of the IAF’s Russian fighters and assorted transport and rotary platforms. In a revelatory declaration in Parliament in December, 2015, the MoD had stated that the operational availability of the IAFs combat fleet was barely 55%, due primarily to the unavailability of spares even then. Little has changed in the intervening seven years.

This parliamentary disclosure signified that merely around 350 of the 700 predominantly Russian combat aircraft in service at the time – many of which have since been retired –were available at any given time to undertake operations. Furthermore, the MoD pointedly stated that between 15-20% of Russian-origin fighters were “aircraft on ground (AOG) due to a shortage of spares’ and that even the operational availability of the IAF’s frontline Su-30MKI’s was a dismal 50%.

Thereafter, the Su-30MKI’s availability climbed to around 60%, but the perennial spares problem for even this advanced, multi-role aircraft and the twin-engine MiG-29s, featured prominently in Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s discussions with Russian officials in Moscow in mid-2020. Ironically, this was three years after HAL had signed two agreements with Russia for long-term maintenance and spares support for the IAFs Su-30MKI fleet.

The two five-year agreements, worth an estimated $300 million, were aimed at providing the swift delivery of some 57,000 Su-30MKI spares, local licensed manufacturing of some components and a logistics hub for the advanced fighters in Bangalore, where HAL builds them. But IAF sources said little had been achieved thereafter.

“The usual promises were made (by Rajnath Singh in Moscow) and protocols signed like earlier, but the situation on the ground simply did not alter,” a retired three-star IAF officer had declared at the time, declining to be named. The operational serviceability of fighters, he lamented, remained a chronic problem for the IAF and one that appeared difficult to overcome, due primarily to the spares shortage.

Under the present sanctions regime, the same officer declared, this would only worsen, as Russia would seek to manufacture equipment for itself, rather than hand-hold India’s military by shipping it spares.

Hitches over spares not confined to IAF fighters

In August 2017, the CAG had severely indicted the IAF for ‘low’ serviceability and ‘poor’ availability of its Ilyushin Il-76 ‘Candid’ transport aircraft fleet and Il-78 ‘Midas’ mid-air tankers that were adversely impacting the force’s operational efficiency, due to its inability to source spares from Russia. The CAG divulged that the average availability of the IAF’s 14 Il-76’s from 2010-16 was just 38%, while that of its six Il-78’s for the same period was 49%; significantly lower than the ‘desired’ 70% serviceability levels. Besides, the avionics of both platforms dated back to 1985, due to which they were “not permitted to operate in international flying corridors,” the CAG had stated.

These unending complications over military spares for India were exacerbated following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, after which many defence manufacturing units and factories fell under the boundaries of breakaway republics like Ukraine, that were inimical to Moscow. This spawned not only a scarcity of spares, making them difficult, if not impossible, to source, but also prohibitively expensive, as some of the production lines had closed due to little or no demand. This also resulted in the entire Indian military, including the IAF, obtaining spares of dubious quality from the open market which, in some instances, even led to equipment failures, for which accountability was rarely apportioned.

Notwithstanding Air Marshal Singh’s bluster over the IAFs uninterrupted military trade with Russia resuming imminently, he does also not seem to take into account the dual Swords of Damocles of sanctions that hang over the force, which also include the US’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

This 2017 Act, that followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow’s alleged interference in the US elections two years later, directly threatens the IAFs recent deployment of the first of five S-400 Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf self-propelled surface-to-air missile systems that India had acquired in late 2018 for $5.5 billion.

So far, CAATSA has been invoked against China and Turkey for installing S-400 systems, but not against Delhi, which appears to have been (for now) accorded a silent waiver by Washington. Perhaps in this instance, too, India’s military, especially the IAF, and its political and bureaucratic establishment are quietly banking on managing these calamities collectively, via Jugaad or the rope trick, or possibly, even both.