Notwithstanding India’s growing mutual convergence with the US against China following the recent tensions on the Ladakh border, its armed forces remain heavily dependent on equipment, weapons and military platforms of Russian origin which form the bulk of its inventory. The dependence is likely to continue because more than 55% of Indian defence imports since 2014 have been from Russia.
A new Stimson Center working paper by Sameer Lalwani and others shows that 86% of the equipment, weapons and platforms currently in military service in India is of Russian origin. For the Navy, it is more than 41% while two-thirds of the IAF’s equipment is of Russian origin. The figure for the Army is a whopping 90%, by assigning country of origin to around 10,000 pieces of military hardware.
“India’s dependence on Russian-origin systems is most acute in the Army, but also in its Air Force and even its Navy, especially when focusing on India’s higher-end strike platforms. Because this dependence will endure for decades due to the long lifespan of these systems, an enhanced US-India strategic cooperation will have to figure out ways to work around this, ranging from policies (like CAATSA) to military interoperability,” said Lalwani, Senior Fellow for Asia
Strategy and South Asia Director at The Stimson Center in Washington DC.
Navy’s only active aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and its only nuclear attack submarine in service, Chakra II, are from Russia. So are the Army’s T-90 and T-72 main battle tanks, which have been deployed in Ladakh. The mainstay of the IAF, the Su30 MKI fighter, which is manufactured by HAL in Nashik is also of Russian origin. The country’s only nuclear-capable supersonic cruise missile, BrahMos, is produced by a joint venture with Russia.
There is substantial US military equipment in service, but it is fewer in quantity compared to the Russian-origin equipment. Apache and Chinook helicopters, supplied by the US, are now deployed in Ladakh as are the M777 howitzer guns for the Army. Boeing C-17 and C-130J are the backbone of the strategic airlift capacity of the IAF, while the Navy is getting four more P8I submarine hunter aircraft, following its original acquisition of eight aircraft against an order placed in 2009.
“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.
Data compiled by Stockholm-based SIPRI shows that even after the BJP government came to power in 2014, Russia continues to occupy the prime position as India’s defence supplier, with US$9.3 billion worth of exports to India. The US trails a distant second, with defence supplies worth US$2.3 billion to India 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 Russian track record in the past,” a Defence Ministry official said.
“Then the third factor is the kind of specialised equipment that Russia provides to us, which no one else will provide. 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,” the official said.
“But things are also changing now. We did not commit to the FGFA programme with Russia. We are negotiating hard on the price of AK103 rifles for ‘Make in India’. The US is also wanting to sell more modern weaponry to us, and more deals are being signed with them. Our supplier base is better spread out, if you include Israel and France, but Russia still remains a major supplier,” the official said.
As per SIPRI database, more than two-thirds of India’s total defence imports of US$51 billion since 2000 have been from Russia while the US has provided defence supplies worth US$3.9 billion in the same period. Last month, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh visited Moscow after approving proposals to acquire 21 Mig29 and 12 Su30 MKI fighter aircraft from Russia for US$2.4 billion.
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