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Indian Military Dependence on Russia

Analyses - 5 July 2022

India-Russia defense cooperation explains why India continues to walk a careful tightrope with Russia, and has decided not to condemn its invasion of Ukraine, as previously argued in an Institut Montaigne paper of June 2022. Russia is one of India's largest defense suppliers: according to a 2020 working paper by the Stimson Center, 70% to 85% of India's military platforms are of Russian origin. Deals with Russia have often included lower-scale projects based on domestic development and production, such as the recent $677 million deal to jointly produce over 600,000 AK-203 assault rifles in India. However, they also include large-scale, blockbuster deals for equipment such as fighter aircraft, submarines and India's flagship aircraft carrier, the repurposed Admiral Gorshkov. Such deals have also shown a continuous willingness for a high proportion of indigenous production and have fallen in line with much of the Indian government's efforts to promote the 'Make in India' Program. This push has also included multipurpose equipment, which have a broad applicability for use in numerous military dimensions and help boost India’s self-reliance goals in defense manufacturing. 

The following brief aims to provide a detailed analysis of India's military dependence vis-à-vis Russia, and to explain it: why are we not seeing more fruitful diversification efforts by New Delhi in this domain? And what makes these efforts so complicated? 

Figure 1: Trend Indicator Value of Arms Exports from Russia to India, 1991-2020
(in millions of $)

Source: Adapted from SIPRI

Assessing India’s military dependence vis-à-vis Russia

To assess India's military dependence on Russia, the situation in each of the three military branches needs to be reviewed from both a qualitative and quantitative standpoint.

The Army

About 90% of the Indian Army's equipment comes from Russia. More importantly, India's armored columns are made up of the T-90 and T-72 tanks. When it comes to anti-tank and air defense systems in the army, a significant portion is of Russian origin such as the Konkurs Anti-Tank-Guided-Missiles (ATGM), Korent ATGM, OSA surface-to-air missile, Pechora surface-to-air missile, Strela surface-to-air missile and the Igla. Besides Smerch and Grad, the multiple rocket launcher systems in use with the Army are Russian. 

The T-90s are now manufactured in India under license from the Russians without any transfer of technology. They are an upgrade of the T-72s.

About 90% of the Indian Army's equipment comes from Russia. 

Regarding small arms, AK-47 is the most common rifle seen in the hands of a soldier, in particular in Kashmir where hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers are stationed. And Russia and India have signed an agreement to produce AK-203 rifles jointly in India as mentioned above. 

The Navy

The Indian Navy's share of Russian equipment is, in contrast to the Army, estimated at only 40%. Despite the Indian names of surface ships, the Rajput-class destroyers, Talwar-class frigates, and Veer-class missile corvettes are all of Russian off-the-shelf sales. When it comes to firepower, India also operates a whole series of weapons made in Russia, including the Kh-35 (a turbojet subsonic missile) and P-20 anti-ship missiles, Klub anti-ship/land attack missiles and APR-3E torpedo. India's sole aircraft carrier - INS Vikramaditya - originally served in the Soviet Navy before it was decommissioned and bought by the Indian Navy in 2004. Regarding submarines, the 8 Kilo-class submarines acquired from Russia form the bulk of India’s fleet. And New Delhi also remains intent on the lease of a third Russian nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) - Chakra III.

Air Force

Around 70% of the equipment of the India Air Force (IAF) are of Russian origin. The Sukhoi Su-30 MKI fighters constitute about 14 of its 30 squadrons. There are also MiG-29UPG and MiG-21 fighters, IL-78 tankers, as well as two IL-76 aircrafts, which have been converted to carry Airborne Warning And Control Systems that India has bought from Israel.

Around 70% of the equipment of the India Air Force (IAF) are of Russian origin. The Sukhoi Su-30 MKI fighters constitute about 14 of its 30 squadrons. There are also MiG-29UPG and MiG-21 fighters, IL-78 tankers, as well as two IL-76 aircrafts, which have been converted to carry Airborne Warning And Control Systems that India has bought from Israel.

Around 70% of the equipment of the India Air Force (IAF) are of Russian origin. 

Most Indian helicopters are also coming from Russia, including the Mi-17 utility helicopters, the Mi-35 attack helicopters, the Mi-26 heavy-lift helicopters and the Kamov anti-submarine warfare helicopters. Last but not least, many Indian missiles are also "made in Russia": the R-77, R-37, the R-73 air-to-air missiles, the Kh-59, Kh-35, the Kh-31 air-to-surface missiles, the KAB laser-guided bombs which are operated from the Su-30 MKI and the famous S-400 Triumf air defence system.

Why Russia is India's number one weapons supplier

Certainly, after the demise of the Soviet Union, India initiated some rapprochement with the US, but increased diplomacy did not translate into substantial supply diversification for Indian arms imports: between 1997 and 2016, about three fourth of foreignly purchased weapons were still coming from Russia. Many reasons explain why Russia has been the preferred source for India's defense purchases over the past twenty years. 

Russia has never imposed sanctions or embargoes

New Delhi fears sanctions from the West, and especially from the US. This began in the 1960s, a time when India bought MIGs for the first time, after the US ended all arms sales to India and Pakistan because of the 1965 and 1971 wars. By contrast, India never apprehended any sanction from Russia. When India conducted a series of nuclear tests, in 1974 and 1998 respectively, the US imposed sanctions on New Delhi but Russia did not.. Similarly, the USSR agreed to ship heavy water for its nuclear reactors after the US and Canada suspended shipment for the Tarapur plant in reaction to the 1974 test.

The financial factor

Historically, the USSR did not often ask India for immediate payment after weapon delivery, nor did it request itin any hard currency. It supplied India with $35 billion in equipment between 1960-1990 "without immediate payment, and that too to be paid in Indian rupees at concessionary interest". More importantly, Soviet and later Russian equipment remains available at a reasonable price - "at comparable level of Western quality with 30-35% lower cost". For example, when we compare the Sukhoi-30MKI (Su-30) fighter, the backbone of the Indian air force, with the newly acquired Dassault Rafales, we see that the former has a higher maximum speed and service ceiling than the latter, albeit with lesser range available. However, the Su-30s can be produced at almost a fraction of the Rafales' cost, as evident from the fact that in 2018, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited proposed supplying 40 additional fighters at one-third of the cost of the Rafales.

Exclusive access to the most sophisticated Russian technologies

Moscow has created a trust-based relation with India in the military domain. Since the Cold War, it has been supplying India with high tech material it denies to other countries. Both the S-400 and the Su-35 fighter jet are cases in point. This is not a new development. The USSR had already loaned for a period of three years between 1988 and 1991. This lease was the first time any country had ever done so for another. However, when this occurred, India got sophisticated systems but not the state-of-the-art and transfers of technology - whereas such transfers occurred routinely for less advanced equipment. 

Technical assistance, transfers of technology and co-development

While India has for decades attempted to develop a military industry of its own, Russia has assisted the country more than any other in this direction. For example, it has helped it build factories to assemble licensed MiG-21 and MiG-23/27 fighters, as well as to repair T-72 tanks. Comparatively, Russia has been more open than the West to the transfer of technologies in the framework of joint ventures.

While India has for decades attempted to develop a military industry of its own, Russia has assisted the country more than any other in this direction.

Here, the joint development between India (DRDO) and Russia (NPOM) of the BrahMos missile is one of the largest successes of the bilateral relationship. The BrahMos propulsion technology is largely based almost entirely on Russia’s Yakhont SS-N-26 anti-ship cruise missile. Russia has also assisted India in the development of its first Indian nuclear-armed submarine (SSBN), INS Arihant, which has been inducted in the Strategic Forces Command in 2018. It notably played a key role in the reactor miniaturization.

Conversely, the co-development of fifth generation fighter aircraft has been an issue for over a decade, and both sides have failed to reach an agreement over their development for a long time. Lately, Russia appeared to be prepared to share the source codes for a FGFA, which "outstrips anything on offer from other partners". This is very important for India as the country is now focusing on indigenization, with foreign imports being inducted to make up for the capability gap. Sameer Lalwani, in his paper which looks at the durability of India-Russia alignment, emphasizes that the Russian attitude differs from the American one on this topic - and that it matters a lot for India:

 "India's desire to access, co-develop, or lease the technology required to build its own systems still makes Russia an essential partner because of its relatively greater willingness to share the required sensitive technology and more relaxed standards for transfers. By contrast, stringent US guidelines on end-use of systems, classified technology, copyright protections, and operational restrictions pose a significant obstacle to licensing and transfer of defense technology to India, especially when India demands operational autonomy, seeks to refit purchased systems with materials from other foreign suppliers, and is judged to have unsatisfactory handling of intellectual property rights or classified and sensitive US technology".

Why is indigenization so important for India? Not only because of its willingness to develop self-sufficiency in a domain that is key for its national sovereignty, but also because imports of arms are very expensive. According to the SIPRI Trends in International Arms Transfers (2021) factsheet, "India was the world’s largest importer of major arms in 2017-21 and accounted for 11 per cent of total global arms imports in the period". This was despite Indian arms imports decreasing by 21% between the periods of 2012 to 2016 and 2017 to 2021. 

This India-Russia rapprochement list of factors explains that while Russian equipment is valued for its multipurpose use, Western equipment has often been acquired to account for capability gaps. Suppliers like France have been more often approached to provide secondary systems for pre-existing equipment, such as diesel engines for India’s shipbuilding sector and radar systems for the Air Force. On the other hand, much of the equipment bought from the US has been for training purposes, or material and troop transport.

While Russian equipment is valued for its multipurpose use, Western equipment has often been acquired to account for capability gaps. 

As a result, while the US sold about $17 billion to India in arms sales between 2000 and 2018, Delhi has signed $15 billion in new arms contracts with Moscow between 2018 and 2021.

However, India is willing to further diversify its sources of military equipment. First, the quality of Russian material is sometimes unsatisfactory. Air Force planes are a case in point: in 2012, India's Defense Ministry reported that "half of the 872 MIGs procured from USSR/Russia had crashed".

Second, India is getting closer to Western countries in the framework of the Indo-Pacific, as the US and European countries hope that New Delhi will help them to balance China in the region. Meeting some of these expectations, in 2019 India has pledged to purchase more US weapons systems after years of decline (see Figure 2 below).

Figure 2: India arms purchases from Russia, the US, UK, France and Israel
 (by year, 2000-2021)

Source: Adapted from SIPRI.

The US now has large-scale military deals with India, including lift aircraft (Hercules planes and Chinook helicopters), howitzers and parts and machinery for indigenously produced systems such as the Tejas. Other suppliers are also statistically significant, such as France, which has existing deals in place for the production and supply of diesel engines and radar systems, Scorpene submarines, Rafale aircraft and even SM-39 Exocet missiles. In 2021, Russia, France, the United States, Israel and the United Kingdom were India's largest defense suppliers, following India's push to diversify its suppliers. 

The Ukraine war is bound to accelerate this diversification process, as Yurii Poita argues for Institut Montaigne. It is showing that Russian weapons lag behind Western-made ones in terms of quality (tanks are a case in point). Moreover delivery of key equipment will be delayed because of the sanctions affecting Russian companies. The S-400 is a typical example given "the high probability of the presence of Western chips" present in this anti-aircraft missile system. The Russia-India arms trade may very well be affected by the Ukraine war, and in particular by the tech access restrictions faced by the Russian arms industry. The fact that India joined the G7 leaders in the final communiqué of the June summit in Germany reconfirms this trend from a diplomatic point of view, as New Delhi, along with the Group of Seven condemned "Russia's illegal and unjustifiable war of aggression against Ukraine".


Co-authored with Aadil Sud, a Graduate student in International Security at the Paris School of International Affairs, Sciences Po Paris


Copyright: Money SHARMA / AFP


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