A wide cross-section of serving and retired service officers and defence analysts in New Delhi feared that India’s military faced the ‘grim and worrying’ prospect of interrupted and interminably delayed Russian defence kit. US and European sanctions on Russia could conceivably jeopardise India’s recent $375 million BrahMos cruise missile export order from the Philippines

by Rahul Bedi

New Delhi: The spate of additional sanctions imposed by the US and its NATO partners on Russia following the ongoing military standoff over Ukraine is likely to adversely impact India at multiple levels, but particularly with regard to materiel supplies for which New Delhi is hugely dependent upon Moscow.

According to news reports from Washington, the penalties announced by US President Joe Biden on Russia were the ‘first tranche’ of sanctions intended to impose costs upon Moscow for recently recognising two breakaway regions of Ukraine. The US president further warned Russia that if it escalated the situation further by invading Ukraine, Washington would ‘go further with sanctions’. The US’s NATO partners too had responded similarly by enforcing financial and related sanctions on Moscow over the past 24 hours.

Consequently, a wide cross-section of serving and retired service officers and defence analysts in New Delhi feared that India’s military faced the ‘grim and worrying’ prospect of interrupted and interminably delayed Russian defence kit, critical to ensuring operational readiness. They said such disruptions acquired ‘grave ramifications’ at a time when India faced a collusive threat along its disputed northern and western borders from nuclear rivals Pakistan and China, operating in tandem.

“With widespread sanctions enacted upon Moscow, its domestic defence industry will most definitely be severely degraded on multiple fronts, particularly with regard to meeting export orders to India,” said Brigadier Rahul Bhonsle (Retd) of the New Delhi-based Security Risks consultancy group. And, since India was one of Moscow’s principal defence equipment providers, Delhi had to somehow ensure a steady supply of not only critical Russian military platforms, but spares and ancillaries for the bulk of equipment already in service, he cautioned. Sanctions on Moscow, Brigadier Bhonsle added, had the potential to ‘severely dent’ India’s overall military capability in the short and medium term.

An inventory of assorted Russian materiel awaiting imminent delivery to India reveals these prospective pitfalls. This includes four of five Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf self-propelled surface-to-air (SAM) missile systems, four Admiral Grigorovich Project 1135.6M frigates, leasing of one more Project 971 ‘Akula’ (Schuka-B)-class nuclear powered submarine (SSN) and providing 20,000 Kalashnikov AK-203 7.62x39mm assault rifles, which were part of a deal signed last December to locally licence and build 601,427 of them. Additionally, India had concluded assorted deals with Russia to provide it varied missiles, including man-portable Very Short Range Defence Systems (VSHORADS), ammunition and ordnance for employment by the Indian Army (IA) locked in a continuing faceoff with China’s People’s Liberation Army or PLA in eastern Ladakh since May 2020.

India was also in advanced discussions with Russia to procure 464 Russian T-90MS main battle tanks (MBTs) for the Indian Army (IA) and 12 Sukhoi Su-30MKI for the Indian Air Force (IAF) to be built by the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, amongst several other items, too many to tabulate.

But more critically, the US and European sanctions on Russia could conceivably jeopardise India’s recent $375 million BrahMos cruise missile export order from the Philippines. This was likely as Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyenia (NPOM) that formed the joint venture with India’s government-run Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to design, upgrade and manufacture BrahMos was responsible for providing the missile systems engine and seekers. And, if embargoed, it could seriously threaten India’s first major overseas contract to boost materiel exports fivefold, as declared by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), to $5 billion by 2025.

It is, however, no secret that over 50%, if not more, of India’s military’s assets are of Soviet and Russian origin, necessitating continued servicing, maintenance, overhaul and in some instances upgradation of a large proportion of them by their Original Equipment Manufacturers or OEMs.

The bulk of the IAFs 29-30 fighter squadrons, for instance, operate Russian aircraft including some 272 multi-role Su-30MKIs fighters, which are awaiting an upgrade to ‘Super Sukhoi’ standards, by fitting them with 5th generation features and rendering them capable of delivering a heavier weapons load. The IAF also continues to operate over 100 MiG 21 ‘Bis’ ground attack combat aircraft and a large number of Russian military transports and varied helicopters, some of which were being retrofitted, but all of which frequently needed spares without which they were simply grounded.

Alongside, the Indian Navy’s (IN’s) principal warships were predominantly Russian in both origin and design. These included INS Vikramaditya (ex-Admiral Gorshkov), the retrofitted 44,500 tonne Kiev-class aircraft carrier and its air arm of 16 MiG-29K/KuB fighters. Alongside, another 29 MiG-29Ks will comprise the combat fleet of INS Vikrant, the 37,500-tonne carrier presently undergoing sea trials and scheduled for commissioning in August to mark India’s 75th Independence Day anniversary.

The IN’s underwater platforms too included nine ‘Kilo’-class Type 877 diesel-electric submarines of a total of 16 boats while Russia had also provided the DRDO vital assistance in designing INS Arihant, the navy’s first indigenously designed and built nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) that joined service in August 2016.

Russia is also providing technical know-how to miniaturise the 82.5MW reactor for the 4-5 follow-on SSBN’s presently under construction at the classified Ship Building Centre at Visakhapatnam. No other country was willing to make such strategic technology transfers to India, but sanctions would thwart Moscow’s ability to continue doing so, imperilling the SSBN program.

Furthermore, over 95% of the IA’s fleet of around 3,000 MBTs operated by 67-odd armoured regiments were Russian T-72 and T-90S variants-imported directly and licence built-whilst some 2,000-odd Infantry combat vehicles or ICVs – the Boyevaya Mashina Pekhoty (BMP) 1 and 2 – were similarly sourced. The latter were presently being upgraded with Russian assistance, which too could summarily end with sanctions.

Senior military officials said three fundamental reasons dominated India’s preference for Russian materiel: it was competitively priced, hardy-capable of operating in extreme temperatures in the Himalayas and the western Rajasthan desert region – and, above all, familiar to succeeding generations of Indian servicemen. Relatively unfettered transfer of technology for licensed manufacture of varied platforms and equipment also helped.

“Russia is unlikely to be dislodged as the army’s principal weapon provider, even by a combination of the US, France, Israel, each one of whom have individually increased their defence exports to India in recent years,” said Amit Cowshish, former MoD acquisition advisor. It will continue to play a major role, not only in sustaining and retrofitting existing system, but also in providing newer ones, provided they were not sanctioned, he added.

India, however, already faces the prospect of being sanctioned for deploying the first of five S-400 systems it had ordered in October 2018 for $5.5 billion under the US’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The autarchic 2017 Act, that has no international or United Nations mandate, followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow’s alleged interference in the US presidential elections two years later in 2016. So far CAATSA has been invoked against China and Turkey for installing S-400 systems, but not against Delhi. However, all that could change in view of the sanctions over Ukraine, military officials cautioned.

And though India had reduced its dependence on Russia for military equipment by some 33% between 2011 and 2020 in an effort to diversify its network of materiel suppliers, switching to alternate sources was not an option military planners in Delhi desired, as it entailed colossal expenditure, reworked infrastructure and inordinate delays.

“India can ill afford all these major drawbacks at a time when the security situation in its immediate and extended neighbourhood is fast deteriorating,” said military analyst Major General A.P. Singh (retired). Changing suppliers is not even a default option presently, he declared, adding that sanctions on Russia over Ukraine spelt danger for India.