The U.S. has been pitching even the F-15 "Strike Eagle" to the Indian Air Force

India's substantial investments in various American military equipment have sparked discussions about a potential shift away from its historical reliance on Russian defence equipment. However, security officials and analysts, experts emphasize that this transformation isn't solely about transitioning towards Western allies; it primarily revolves around cultivating India's domestic weapons industry.

As the world's leading arms importer, India has taken significant steps to diversify its defence procurement strategy. While primary weapons acquisitions consistently feature joint manufacturing or technology transfer provisions, these agreements aren't limited to partnerships with Western nations. The context of Russia's involvement in the conflict in Ukraine has added impetus to New Delhi's ongoing ambition to fortify its defence industry and reduce its dependence on imports, a sentiment amplified by disruptions in military supplies.

Over the past two decades, India has spent over $60 billion on arms procurement, with nearly $39 billion originating from Russia. However, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has articulated a vision of ordering over $100 billion worth of weaponry from the domestic arms industry over the next decade, symbolizing India's commitment to self-sufficiency.

The recent purchases of U.S. defence equipment during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Washington exemplify this evolving strategy. While India's agreements with the U.S. for GE fighter jet engines and discussions about acquiring MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones highlight burgeoning ties, they are equally aligned with India's pursuit of self-reliance. The jet engine deal emphasizes future joint manufacturing, aligning with Modi's "Make in India" initiative and the prospect of assembling and maintaining SeaGuardians on Indian soil.

These developments signify a more amiable stance from the U.S., which is actively easing India's access to military technologies. Eric Garcetti, the U.S. ambassador to India, acknowledges this shift, highlighting increased technology sharing with India compared to some of the U.S.'s closest allies. However, the complex landscape of international defence technology sharing means that complete autonomy will take time, and stringent U.S. regulations currently limit the extent of technology transfer.

While India's overtures toward U.S. defence collaboration have been noteworthy, they do not indicate an immediate abandonment of its Russian partnerships. Experts point out that a comprehensive transition from Russian dependence is a gradual process that spans multiple decades. Thus, while the road ahead is complex and multifaceted, India's strategic drive towards self-sufficiency in defence remains a steady and considered endeavour.

Countering China

India predominantly employs Russian technology for its conventional weaponry. According to Arzan Tarapore, an Indian security expert at Stanford University, the most promising avenue for U.S.-India cooperation lies in "new systems that India doesn’t already have."

The primary objective for India is to bridge the technological disparity with its better-equipped rival, China, with which it shares a strained relationship. This is further complicated by China's close alliance with India's traditional adversary, Pakistan.

One challenge facing India is the impact of Russia's involvement in Ukraine, which has hampered Moscow's ability to fulfil arms and equipment orders.

Recent communications from India's air force to a parliamentary panel indicated that Russia's deliveries of spares for Sukhoi Su-30MKI and MiG-29 fighter aircraft would experience delays. A significant acquisition, believed to be the last two units of the five S-400 air defence systems procured from Russia for nearly $5.5 billion in 2018, has also encountered delays.

India had anticipated receiving two nuclear-powered attack submarines from Russia in the coming years, but even these deliveries may be postponed, defence officials noted.

These challenges have intensified India's determination to reduce its reliance on Russia, aiming for a diversified sourcing strategy for its arms acquisitions. The intention is to avoid overdependence on any single nation.

India's approach includes the purchase of French fighter jets, Israeli drones, American jet engines, and potentially German submarines. While these acquisitions will gradually decrease the proportion of Russian military technology utilized by India, officials project that this transition will span at least two decades.

Still Far From American Orbit

Bill Greenwalt, a former senior Pentagon official responsible for industrial policy, indicated that the era of U.S. and Russian dominance in the global defence market and their control over defence technology is gradually fading. Yet, the replacement for this dynamic remains in the process of evolution.

Greenwalt suggested that India might encounter frustration due to the rigorous U.S. export control system for arms, which imposes limitations on technology sharing and India's capacity to develop the systems it procures. He anticipated that India would likely seek collaboration with Western countries that offer technology transfer with fewer usage restrictions.

Exports to India are subject to stringent U.S. International Trafficking in Arms Regulations (ITAR), and given that the two nations lack a treaty alliance comparable to the AUKUS agreement, comprehensive technology sharing isn't feasible.

Prime Minister Modi's visit to the U.S. has been hailed as a milestone in bilateral relations, with agreements extending beyond defence to areas such as chips, space, artificial intelligence, and critical minerals.

India's participation in the QUAD alliance, alongside the U.S., Japan, and Australia, strengthens its bonds with the West but doesn't replace its longstanding association with Russia. According to Derek Grossman, a defence analyst at the Rand Corporation, the U.S. will exercise caution in sharing military technology with India due to this established India-Russia partnership.

Even if India manages a gradual transition away from Russian dependency over the next few decades, Grossman emphasized that the U.S. would harbour suspicions about the potential implications for Russian interests. He noted that India's approach is opportunistic and receptive to what the U.S. is willing to provide, but India is unlikely to sever its existing ties with Russia.