After the barbaric border clash between soldiers of India and China at Galwan Valley, Indian Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh rushed to Russia to approve major defence deals with Moscow, apprehending a further escalation with China.
Experts have questioned this urgency that India displayed with Russia visit. Netizens have wondered why did the Indian minister fly to Russia for assistance against China and not approach the US who has consistently backed India against Beijing?
During the Russia visit, Rajnath Singh signed deals with Russia approving proposals to acquire 21 Mig29 and 12 Su-30 MKI fighter aircraft. Similar deals over the years have now gotten India at a position where 86 percent of the defence equipment in the Indian armed forces is of Russian origin which explains the heavy dependence that the Indian Army has on Russia.
A new Stimson Center working paper by Sameer Lalwani and others revealed the heavy dependence of Indian defence equipment currently in service. With a whopping 90% for the Army, 41% for the Navy and two-thirds of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) equipment is of Russian origin.
“India’s share of Russian systems has grown, not decreased, because of Indian Army acquisitions. While India’s naval and air forces are decreasing their quantitative reliance on Russian arms, their most advanced or offensive capabilities still originate from Russia,” wrote Lalwani.
According to data compiled by Stockholm-based thinktank, SIPRI, since 2014 when the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) came to power, India’s prime supplier for military equipment has been Russia with US$9.3 billion worth of exports to India. The US is trailing behind with only US$2.3 billion worth of export in the same period.
“There are many reasons for this. One is legacy issues. India and Russia have a longstanding defence relationship and there is familiarity with each other’s processes and systems.
The second is dependability. That is based on the Russian track record in the past,” said a Defence Ministry official. He further explained that the third factor is the kind of specialised equipment that Russia provides to India, which no one else does.
“The S-400 is the latest example, but we also have the nuclear submarines leased to us and the aircraft carrier. That makes a difference,” he added.
Diving a little deeper, it is evident that Navy’s only active aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and its only nuclear attack submarine in service, Chakra II, are from Russia. The Army’s T-90 and T-72 battle tanks along with IAF’s Su30 MKI fighter, manufactured by HAL in Nashik are also Russian origin. India’s only nuclear supersonic cruise missile, BrahMos is produced by a joint venture between India and Russia.
Meanwhile, the US’s share is much less significant with Apache and Chinook helicopters, supplied by the US which are now deployed in Ladakh. The M777 howitzer guns for the Army and Boeing C-17 and C-130J which provides airlift capacity to the IAF along with the Navy’s proposition to get four more P8I submarine hunter aircraft, are all turned in US’s favour.
“Each of these systems has its advantages and uses. The question is not of individual weapons of Russian or American origin but of using them effectively to develop maximum combat capability. The big showpiece platforms get talked about a lot more, but everything matters. That is our operating philosophy,” a senior military officer said.
Lalwani stated that if US’s defence planners want to leverage greater Indian military cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, they will have to start countering with the trade-offs of an aggressive Russia containment policy and develop some “second-best” frameworks for both policies.
He further added that to help bolster India’s maritime capabilities which are sure to get hit by pandemic-related budget cuts and the costly demands of defending the border with China, the US might employ tools to reduce the costs of Indian acquisitions.
“This would require a rethink of India less as a lucrative defence sales opportunity and more as a partner in need of cost-efficient capability boosts. Mechanisms like foreign military financing could help India acquire more P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft and reconnaissance drones to enhance India’s maritime domain awareness,” he concluded.