Indo-russian defence relations: On the wane?


Member of The Month SEPTEMBER 2009
Senior Member
Jun 8, 2009

Is the present state of Indo-Russian ties a shadow of the height of mutual co-operation and friendship of the Soviet era? Many have claimed it to be so. The Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation signed between India and the Soviet Union in 1971 was a defining moment of Indo-Soviet ties that underlined the commitment to take the level of cooperation to new heights. However, relations between the two countries were defined by the contours of the Cold War and its dynamics and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to the loss of an indispensable ally for India. The slide in Indo-Russian relations is more apparent in the defence sector - a field monopolized by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The failure of the Indian defence establishment to develop indigenous weapon systems of the requisite quality has made it vulnerable to the excessive demands of foreign suppliers and dependant upon unreliable partners. Keeping in mind the legacy of Indo-Russian friendship and the aid of the latter in the development and energy projects in the country, India has stressed the importance of Russia as a useful ally in the 21st century. Indo-Russian defence trade reflects a part of their large geopolitical interests. However, the days of monopoly enjoyed by the Russian arms industry has been eclipsed by the entry of other foreign companies, particularly Israeli ones, in the Indian defence market. Indo-Israeli defence trade is expected to touch US$3.3 billion, making Israel the second-largest arms supplier to India.

A number of reasons can be cited for India’s diversification to other markets for arms supplies. The main reason behind the huge arms deals of the Soviet era was geopolitical in order to keep India as an ally by its side. Now due to a changed world order, Russia does not stick to similar terms and conditions when it comes to transfer of arms. Russia has shelved the “friendship prices” for arms to countries like India, insisting on hard currency payments.

Delay in the supply of equipment by Russian suppliers is seen as the main problem that compels India to look for reliable partners. Deadlines set for the supply of Su-30 MKI were not met and the wrangling over the price of the Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov has been a sore point in Indo-Russian relations. India has finally agreed upon a price of US$2.2 billion for the warship anticipated to reach Indian waters by 2012. The delay in the supply of critical defence machinery has in fact, prompted India to urge Russia to conclude a MOU for providing bank guarantees on timely supply of weapon systems and spares.

Often the equipment delivered by the Russian companies had key components of the hardware missing. Critical components of phase III fighter planes such as electronic warfare system, reconnaissance pod and high-accuracy direction-finding warning receiver were found unavailable after the shipment of supplies. Often, the case of sub-standard spare parts and machinery being inducted in the Indian defence sector has been a cause of concern for the Defence Ministry as in the case of the Tangushka Air Defence System which did not meet international safety guidelines. The T-90 battle tanks supplied by Russia suffered from a persistent problem of over-heating of the engines that harmed the durability of the machinery. Besides, the missile firing systems that form a crucial part of the T-90s were found missing when delivered to India.

India’s attempt to diversify arms supply from other countries has made Moscow uneasy of losing its stronghold over the Indian market. The Intellectual Property Rights Agreement signed by Manmohan Singh in 2005, has made Russia, allege critics, India’s preferred supplier of arms. The present Indo-Russian defence trade stands at US$9 billion. The major weapon systems purchased from Russia over the past seven years include the Su-30 MKI multi-role fighter aircraft, Il-78 tanker aircraft, R-77 air-to-air missiles and M-17IV military transport helicopters. Other big budget transactions with Russia include the US$1.6 billion contract for the supply of three 11356 frigates by 2012 armed with eight Brahmos supersonic anti-ship cruise missile systems and the lease of Akula class nuclear-powered attack submarine, Nerpa, worth US$50 million annually. Russia has also been roped in to build a nuclear reactor at Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu and has signed a US$700 million nuclear deal for supplying nuclear fuel.

India should look beyond its reliance upon foreign imports of military hardware and should make a serious effort to develop and upgrade its weapons industry to manufacture high-grade weapons like other developing countries such as South Africa and Brazil. On the other hand, though the defence ties with Russia have mellowed, India cannot ignore the importance of Russia as an important defence partner and ally. Both countries have common interests in the present world order and hence, it is imperative to tie up the loose ends and forge a stronger relationship in the 21st century.

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