India plans to induct light tanks, Russia's Sprut-SDM1 Light Tank is one of the options

It is important for India to diversify its base, to not become too reliant on any single nation, as it can become a leverage that can be exploited by that nation

by Vincent Fernandes

India was reliant, almost solely on the British, and other Western nations for its arms imports immediately after Independence but by the 1970s India was importing several weapons systems from the USSR, making it country's largest defence importer for decades when it came to both basic and sophisticated weapons systems.

Russia has provided some of the most sensitive and important weapons platforms that India has required from time to time including nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, tanks, guns, fighter jets, and missiles. For Russia, India is the largest importer, and for India, Russia the largest exporter when it comes to arms transfer.

Between 2000 and 2020, Russia accounted for 66.5 per cent of India's arms imports especially with respect to fighter jets, tanks, helicopters and submarines among others, while several major deals are in the pipeline.

India and Russia have an institutionalized structure to oversee the complete range of issues of military-technical cooperation. Bilateral projects currently underway include indigenous production of T-90 tanks and Su-30-MKI aircraft, supply of MiG-29-K aircraft and Kamov-31 and Mi-17 helicopters, upgrade of MiG-29 aircraft and supply of multi-barrel rocket launcher Smerch.

Over the years, cooperation in the military-technical sphere has evolved from a purely buyer-seller relationship to joint research, design development and production of state-of-the-art military platforms. Production of the Brahmos cruise missile is an example of this trend. The two countries are also engaged in joint design and development of the fifth generation fighter aircraft and multi-role transport aircraft.

As the war in Ukraine continues unabatedly with no end in sight, it has given rise to apprehensions on Russia's ability to deliver spares and hardware. Before the war, Russia has been one of the main exporters of fighter aircraft to India, including hundreds of Sukhoi and MiG jets. India's missile program has been developed with significant help from Russia or the Soviets earlier.

The BrahMos missile, which India will begin exporting soon, has been developed jointly with Russia. The Indian Army's main battle tank force is composed predominantly of Russian T-72M1 (66 per cent) and T-90S (30 percent).

The Indian Air Force's 667-plane fighter ground attack (FGA) fleet is 71 per cent Russian-origin (39 per cent Su-30s, 22 per cent MiG-21s, 9 per cent MiG-29s). All six of the service's air tankers are Russian-made Il-78s.

Russia and India are 'very motivated' to ensure that the defence cooperation between the two strategic partners is 'uninterrupted' by the Ukraine crisis, and 'barriers' created by 'negative external factors' are being effectively mitigated, Russian Ambassador Denis Alipov said.

The defence trade between India and Russia has crossed $15 billion since 2018, in the backdrop of some big deals including the $5.43 billion S-400 long-range air defence systems.

Other major contracts currently under implementation are construction of four additional stealth frigates in Russia and India, licensed production of the Mango Armor-piercing fin-stabilised discarding sabot (APFSDS) rounds for the T-90S tanks as also additional T-90S tanks, AK-203 assault rifles among others. The delivery of the second regiment of the S-400 is delayed by a few months as also the operationalisation of the agreement for the manufacture of 6.1 lakh AK-203 rifles at Korwa, Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.

India continues to remain Russia's largest arms buyer with a major chunk of legacy hardware from Russia and the Soviet Union, but the volume of imports has reduced in the last decade.

Current Challenges

The Indian Army is dependent on certain weapon systems especially in the area of air defence, rockets, missiles and certain tanks from Russia and Ukraine. The supply chain of certain spares and ammunition has been impacted to some extent. Russia has been useful to India in some ways, particularly in enhancing Indian military power. But Moscow's political compulsion to support China is a warning. India's dependence on Moscow for weapons is a vulnerability that the Indian decision-makers need to take more seriously.

Russia is also helping China set up its missile early warning system, one of the most sensitive bits of technology for any nuclear power. The source of divergence between Indian and Russian interests lies in the continuing problems that Russia faces in its relations with the US. It is important for India to diversify its base, to not become too reliant on any single nation, as it can become a leverage that can be exploited by that nation.

Besides trying to become self-dependent, conscious efforts should be made to expand the weapons platform bases to not only other countries but also domestically as well. India is now looking at certain alternative mitigation measures and identifying alternate sources from friendly foreign countries. All this will happen at Defexpo in October.