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Explained: How dependent is India on Russia’s weapons?

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has long-term implications for India, most significantly on the decades old defence trade between the two. How strong are India's ties with Russia, and what is the value of weapons India has bought from Russia?

Written by Krishn Kaushik , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: March 3, 2022 7:23:45 am
Russian army tanks are loaded onto railway platforms after drills near Ukraine. (AP Photo/File)

Even as the most immediate impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on India is the evacuation of thousands of Indian students who are stuck there, it is becoming clear there will be long-term implications too.

New Delhi has been trying to walk a fine line, negotiating its relationships with the United States and other Western nations on one side, and the historically deep and strategic ties with Russia on the other, even as its stand is becoming incrementally critical to Russia as its forces continue to fight in Ukrainian cities.

However, both the sanctions imposed by the United States and other countries on Russia, and how Russia views Delhi’s slowly shifting stand are going to have a long-term impact, most significantly on the decades old defence trade between the two.

How strong are Indian and Russian defence ties?

India was reliant, almost solely on the British, and other Western nations for its arms imports immediately after Independence. But this dependence weaned, and 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. In fact, it 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.

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According to several people, the defence trade, which remains significant, is one of the important causes why India has not taken a critical stand openly against Russia. However, India-Russian ties cannot be viewed only from that perspective.

The legacy of buying weapons from Russia has made India somewhat dependent on it, and even though India has tried to expand the base of countries from which it buys new military systems, Russian-origin weapons still have the lion’s share. According to one estimate, the share of Russian-origin weapons and platforms across Indian armed forces is as high as 85 per cent.

According to an April 2020 working paper published by Sameer Lalwani of the Stimson Center, along with other researchers, the “breadth of Russian-origin platforms in the Indian military—which our analysis suggests composes 85 percent of major Indian weapons systems rather than the 60 percent figure often cited—have created a ‘lock-in’ effect, while the depth of relative support to India’s technology base and strategic systems have engendered a relatively high degree of indebtedness and trust in key strategic circles.

However, it added that the paper found “scant evidence that India’s extended arms collaboration and geopolitical relationship with Russia have led to a diffusion of strategic thinking that has directly or indirectly shaped military doctrine.”

A serviceman waves from a military truck parked in a street in Mykolaivka, Donetsk region, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. (AP Photo)

What is the value of weapons India has bought from Russia?

Russia is the second largest arms exporter in the world, following only the United States. In the five-year period between 2016 and 2020 America’s share in the global arms trade was 37 per cent, compared to 20 per cent of Russia’s, as per the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks the global arms trade and military expenditure.

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. Of the $53.85 billion spent by India during the period on arms imports, $35.82 billion went to Russia. During the same period imports from the US were worth $4.4 billion, and from Israel it was worth US$ 4.1 billion.

According to a SIPRI report on international arms transfer trends published in March 2021, between 2016 and 2020 Russia delivered major arms to 45 states. “India remained the main recipient of Russian arms in 2016–20, accounting for 23 per cent of the total, followed by China (18 per cent).

Russia’s share in Indian arms imports was down to about 50 per cent between 2016 and 2020, but it still remained the largest single importer. SIPRI noted that although “several large Russian arms deals with India, including for combat aircraft, were completed by 2020, India placed new orders for a variety of Russian arms in 2019–20. The ensuing deliveries will probably lead to an increase in Russian arms exports in the coming five years.”

What are the kinds of weapons Russia has given India?

Almost everything, over the years. At the moment there are two major defence deals between India and Russia that might be jeopardised by the current crisis. First, and most significant, is the deal to buy five units of the state-of-the-art S-400 Triumf air-defence system. It is among the most advanced in the world, and India placed an order for five units for around $5 billion in 2018. The first unit was delivered in December 2021, and has been deployed at an Indian Air Force base in Punjab.

The deal has been under the threat of American sanctions, even as the US had not decided on it yet. But the fresh round of sanctions on Russia could sound alarm bells for it.

S-400 is considered one of the most advanced air defence systems in the world. (Express Archive)

Similarly, India and Russia had just signed a deal to manufacture around 6 lakh AK 203 rifles at a factory in Amethi.

But apart from these ongoing projects, Russia has also pitched to make six AIP-powered conventional submarines for the Navy under the P75-I project, along with four other international bidders. The final call is yet to be taken.

In fact, the first submarine India ever got was also Soviet. The first Foxtrot Class submarine bought from the USSR entered Indian service in 1967 as INS Kalvari. Of the total 16 conventional diesel-electric submarines with the Indian Navy, eight are Kilo class, of Soviet origins.

India is also in talks with Russia to lease two nuclear-ballistic submarines, Chakra 3 and Chakra 4, the first of which is expected to be delivered by 2025. Earlier too, INS Chakra 1 and INS Chakra 2 were Russian vessels, both of which were returned after their leases expired. India has one indigenously manufactured nuclear ballistic submarine commissioned, of the four that are being built. However, a lot of the technology is based on Russian platforms.

The only aircraft carrier in service with India, INS Vikramaditya is a Soviet-made Kiev-class vessel that came into service for the Indian Navy in 2013. India’s first indigenously-made aircraft carrier is expected to be commissioned this year.

India’s missile programme 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.

Russia has also been one of main exporters of fighter aircraft to India, including hundreds of Sukhoi and MiG jets.

BrahMos missiles displayed during a Republic Day parade rehearsal in Delhi. (AP Photo/File)

A US Congressional Research Service report on Russian arms sale and defence industry, published in October 2021 has quoted figures from the Military Balance 2021 report of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), a global security, political risk and military conflict think tank, that “India’s present military arsenal is heavily stocked with Russian-made or Russian-designed equipment.”

It mentioned that the Indian Army’s main battle tank force is composed predominantly of Russian T-72M1 (66 per cent) and T-90S (30 per cent).
The Indian Navy’s sole operational aircraft carrier is a refurbished Soviet-era ship, and its entire complement of fighter and ground attack aircraft are Russian-made or produced in India on license (the Navy’s fighter fleet comprises 43 MiG-29K/KUBs). Four of the Navy’s 10 guided-missile destroyers are Russian Kashin class, and 6 of its 17 frigates are Russian Talwar class.

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.

Is India trying to expand its weapons base?

Over the last few years there has been a conscious effort to expand the weapons platform bases to not only other countries, but also domestically as well.

SIPRI noted in its international arms transfer trends report last year that between 2011–15 and 2016–20 arms imports by India decreased by 33 per cent. “Russia was the largest arms supplier to India in both 2011–15 and 2016–20. However, Russia’s deliveries dropped by 53 per cent between the two periods and its share of total Indian arms imports fell from 70 to 49 per cent. In 2011–15 the USA was the second largest arms supplier to India, but in 2016–20 India’s arms imports from the USA were 46 per cent lower than in the previous five-year period, making the USA the fourth largest supplier to India in 2016–20.”

France and Israel were the second and third largest arms suppliers to India in 2016–20, it said.

According to the report, the “overall drop in India’s arms imports between 2011–15 and 2016–20 seems to be mainly due to its complex and lengthy procurement processes, combined with its attempts to reduce its dependence on Russian arms by diversifying its network of arms suppliers. As India perceives increasing threats from Pakistan and China and as its ambitious plans to produce its own major arms have been significantly delayed, it is planning large-scale programmes for arms imports.”

It added that based on India’s outstanding deliveries of combat aircraft, air defence systems, ships and submarines, India’s arms imports are expected to increase over the coming five years.

But 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.

The US Congressional report had stated: “Many analysts in India and beyond conclude that the Indian military cannot operate effectively without Russian-supplied equipment and will continue to rely on Russian weapons systems in the near and middle terms… In this sense, much of Moscow’s influence in India comes through its willingness to provide weapons systems and technologies that no other country will export to India. Russia also continues to offer advanced weapons platforms at relatively attractive rates.”

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