Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar will leave for Moscow and St. Petersburg Friday, October 30 to finalize two defense deals part of an over Rs 12,000 crore (over $1.8 billion USD) to acquire new equipment that was just approved by the Defense Acquisitions Council (DAC). This comes ahead of the planned December visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Russia and is also believed will help set the agenda for that future event. Additionally, it is reported that both countries will sign an agreement on Russia leasing another nuclear-powered submarine to India this December.
Some of the planned defense spending is meant to bridge gaps in the combat capabilities of the Indian Armed Forces. While India has a thriving indigenous defense industry, it has been beset by numerous problems which have served to seriously set back projects far beyond planned deadlines. As a result, New Delhi is increasingly forced to turn to external sources such as Russia for hardware. An overwhelming majority of India’s military equipment is sourced from Russia, either built there or domestically produced in India under license. Additionally, apart from the acquisition of weaponry and technology, a number of advanced projects between both countries are currently in advanced stages. Without a doubt, the India-Russia defense relationship is of great importance to the Russian economy and India’s armed forces.
Approved Defense Deals
Two major military purchases are expected to be finalized in Moscow in the coming days while discussions are expected on a variety of other possible future deals. The two deals with Russia involve an upgrade of India’s aerial fleet of Russian-designed transports and tankers and the purchase of new infantry combat vehicles (IFVs). In addition, the DAC also approved the acquisition of two more multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) regiments, new multi-purpose vessels for the navy and an upgrade to existing surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems. According to unnamed defense sources, some of the acquisition projects are intended to “overcome hollowness” in the Indian Armed Forces.
Deals with Russia
The larger of the deals worth Rs 4,250 crore is for a wide range of improvements to the Ilyushin Il-78 aerial refueling tankers and Il-76 (Candid) strategic transports of the Indian Air Force (IAF). In addition to enhanced avionics, the fleet will receive various upgrades extending their service life by 20 years. On the receiving end of most improvements are the IAFs Il-87s which will be fitted with new engines to help increase their range in addition to other modifications that will allow for greater fuel loads. It is likely the new engines will be PS 90 power plants that will provide enough lifting thrust to increase the load carrying ability of each aircraft by almost two tons.
The IAF has 14 Il-76 transports, three Il-76s fitted for AWAC (Airborne Warning and Control System) duties, three Il-76s deployed by the Aviation Research Center and six Il-78 tankers. For over two years, the IAF has failed to finalize a deal with European aircraft manufacturer Airbus to provide six new generation tankers under the Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) project. With no progress being made on that deal due to pricing issues, the planned modernization of the IAFs existing tankers will at the least provide a stop-gap measure until new aircraft can be procured.
The second deal with Russia concerns the acquisition of 149 BMP-2 IFVs for the army at a cost of Rs 924 crore. The decision to purchase these IFVs came as a result of an amendment to the “acceptance of necessity” (AoN) that was originally granted for Indian licensed production by the Ordnance Factory Board of 363 of the same IFVs.
Earlier this month, due to over five years of delays in the Future ICV (FICV) program, the Indian Army made clear its intention to accelerate the upgrade of 1,000-1,200 aging license-built BMP-2/2K “Sarath” IFVs to BMP-2M standard through the enhancement of their armament and fitting of more powerful engines. The FICV program has been beset by problems, one of them being its restriction to domestic companies and the eventual realization that foreign collaboration is necessary in several areas.
Several projects not involving Russia have also been approved by the DAC. The Indian Army will add two additional Pinaka MLRS regiments (each regiment has 18 Pinaka launchers and associated systems) at a cost of Rs 3,306 crore to boost its medium-range, high volume firepower. Manufactured by the Indian companies Tata and Larsen & Toubro (L&T), each Pinaka rocket can carry a 100kg payload to a maximum range of 40 kilometers.
The Indian Navy will replace its aging ocean-going tug force with four new 3,500 ton multi-purpose vessels at a total cost of Rs 2,800 crore. The existing Rs 1,500 crore plan to acquire two deep-submergence rescue vessels (DSRVs) has also been extended. These DSRVs will provide the navy with the ability to affect rescue missions of stricken submarines at deep depths and the acquisition of them has been in the planning stage for well over a decade though little progress has been made. Discussed later, the increasing frequency of reliability and safety problems in India’s submarine fleet make the need for DSRVs all the more apparent.
Additionally, Rs 1,800 has been budgeted to the “digitization” of 25 units of its ageing three-decades old Soviet-era Pechora SAM systems. This upgrade will extend the lifespan of the system by another decade and will see the replacement of existing analogue systems with digitized processors and data-links among other systems. The Indian Air Force intends to replace the Pechora with the final product of the now $2 billion USD Indo-Israeli Medium Range SAM (MRSAM) project which has been beset by repeated delays and initial test failures.
Possible Future Deals with Russia
While Parrikar’s Moscow visit will see the finalization of the two approved deals, it is expected that other possible future defense procurement deals will be discussed. These include utility helicopters, the lease of a nuclear submarine, two new diesel submarines and advanced SAM systems. On Thursday, Parrikar said in an interview with Russian state-owned TASS “..the project for joint production of Kamov Ka-226 helicopters. I hope to use my visit to have it inked on paper when the prime minister arrives. Also the purchase of S-400 missile systems. We anticipate these projects to be coordinated by next month.”
India has expressed its intention to purchase Russian Kamov Ka-226 helicopters and establish domestic facilities for license-built production of them. Anatoly Isaykin, head of Rosoboronexport (Russia’s intermediary agency for defense-related exports) told reporters earlier this week “According to the results of the tender, the Indian side is interested in purchasing Ka-226 helicopters and also in establishing domestic production facilities. The Russian side is ready to transfer these technologies to India.” The Ka-226 is a multi-mission helicopter that will be specially modified with a new engine for Indian requirements, primarily high-altitude operations along the Himalayan borders.
The Indian Navy currently operates nine Russian-designed and built Kilo-class diesel electric attack submarines known in India as the Sindhughosh-class. Earlier this month, a significant step was taken in overhauling India’s ageing submarine fleet when Indian defense firm, Pipavav Defense and Offshore Engineering signed an agreement with the Russian shipyard, Zvyozdochka to overhaul the submarines. India’s Tehelka news magazine reports that Parrikar intends to discuss the purchase of two new Kilo-class submarines during the upcoming trip. India is currently set to acquire six French-designed Scorpene-class diesel attack submarines being built under license in India’s Shipyard Mazagon Docks (MDL) but none have yet to be commissioned despite the 2012 original planned entry into service date due to numerous delays.
India’s Sindhughosh-class are increasingly showing their age while becoming dangerous liabilities. Currently the readiness rate of the submarine fleet is at or below 40 percent. In 2013, the INS Sindhurakshak exploded in the Mumbai Naval dockyard and sank claiming the lives of 18 sailors in an event which brought widespread criticism upon the Indian Navy over safety issues. In 2014, INS Sindhuratna suffered a battery leak in the Arabian Sea which saw the death of two officers as well numerous others injured.
On Monday, a source at India’s Defense Ministry told TASS about plans of Russia to lease another nuclear attack submarine to India. The source said “Parrikar will hold talks on this strategic project with his Russian counterpart Sergey Shoigu. After the ten-year contract is signed another two or three years will be required for upgrading the submarine in keeping with India’s requirements.” Earlier this year, New Delhi had made clear its intentions to lease a new submarine from Russia. Currently India is leasing the Akula-class INS Chakra from Russia for ten years since it was acquired in 2012.
The DAC is also considering the acquisition of around a dozen Russian S-400 SAM systems that have a 400 kilometer range and which is considered one of the most advanced SAM systems in the world today. Parrikar in an interview with TASS stated his intention to finalize this deal prior to Modi’s December visit. Even if this deal is accepted by the DAC and finalized with Russia prior to December, it will be some time before the systems are brought into service. Additionally, Russian diplomats have said such a deal might be unlikely unless India clarify its position on the joint Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) program. Just last year, China finalized a $3 billion USD deal with Russia for six S-400 batteries.
Past Russia-India Arms Sales and Current Technology Collaboration
About 70 percent of India’s current military equipment is sourced from Russia. The Indian Air Force for example currently operates 220 Russian-built Su-30MKI fighter jets, a figure which will rise to 270 once all are acquired. This will equate to roughly 40 percent of the strength of the air force. Currently India is working on a deal to produce replacement parts for the aircraft as only around 55% of the fleet is operational due to serviceability issues. As already stated, the majority of the Indian Navy’s submarine fleet is sourced from Russia while its surface fleet is highly reliant on Russian weapon systems.
Russia has traditionally been India’s greatest source of defense technology though in recent years that changed as the U.S. for a time surpassed Russia. Last August, Indian Defense Minister Arun Jaitley told the Indian parliament that the U.S. had surpassed Russia in that regard. Between 2011 and late 2014, India imported $13.9 billion in military equipment from the U.S. and $5.34 billion from Russia. This year though India and Russia have grown closer.
Both countries are partners on the supersonic BrahMos PJ-10 anti-ship cruise missile and the stealth Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA fighter. In addition to a variety of other projects, India is also receiving assistance with its first indigenous nuclear ballistic missile submarine INS Arihant. Russia is a vital partner to India in the defense sector. While India has the capability to indigenously produce advanced weapons systems, routinely such endeavors have been set back due to corruption, over-involvement by the bureaucracy and pricing issues.
Due to problems in India’s defense procurement plans, an external supplier such as Russia is required to fill deficiencies. Despite India’s advanced indigenous defense industry, repeated delays have forced New Delhi to seek stop-gap weapons, particularly from Russia until issues can be hammered out. The security situation faced by India necessitate such moves. Bordered by two-nuclear armed nations, Pakistan and China, the former of which India has poor relations with, New Delhi cannot be passive in ensuring its security.
Russia has been for decades India’s primary source of weaponry and increasingly, the relationship is advancing beyond purchasing to now collaboration on weapon development. Some will say that this relationship should be taken as an indication of New Delhi’s strategic direction in the world, that it is aligned with Moscow. The truth though is far different. New Delhi has traditionally taken a middle course foreign policy wise. If anything, Russia has become the principle source of weaponry due to its low costs comparative to countries in the west, and Moscow’s inclination to essentially sell weapons to whoever desires them.
India Prime Minister Modi is pursuing a policy to increase his country’s involvement in world affairs. Simultaneously, he is confronted with neighboring China that is advancing its own interests in the Indian Ocean much to New Delhi’s dismay as neighboring Pakistan continues on its current confrontational course while offering itself as a willing partner to China. Hampered by problems in its own indigenous weapon development programs, a west that is either reluctant to sell weaponry, to slow to provide it, or too expensive, India is forced to turn to Russia for weaponry. If one thing can be said though, the defense relationship is increasingly turning into one of equal partners.