Evolving Indo-Russian partnership at crossroads

Updated: April 05, 2021 11:00 AM

Russia has been supporting the Indian military efforts for more than half a century and the Russian technology has been the very basis of Indian Armed Forces evolution, be it for battleships, fighter jets or battle tanks.

india russia tiesIndia’s initial tilt towards Russia commenced post-independence when British equipment supply for the modernization of the Armed Forces became difficult to procure. (Photo source: IE)

By Milind Kulshreshtha

Russia has been supporting the Indian military efforts for more than half a century and the Russian technology has been the very basis of Indian Armed Forces evolution, be it for battleships, fighter jets or battle tanks. India’s initial tilt towards Russia commenced post-independence when British equipment supply for the modernization of the Armed Forces became difficult to procure. India has seen multiple wars, skirmishes and asymmetric operations using Russian technology to varying degrees of success. Russian supplied warships, submarines (including nuclear subs) and aircrafts have been the mainstay of Indian Navy. This was feasible due to Russia’s support in setting up complete overhaul and repair facilities (including training of personnel) for keeping the systems fighting fit throughout the ship’s life-cycle of thirty to forty years.

Joint Working Groups

The sustenance of ships, submarines, aircrafts for many decades reflects the engineering maturity and the close collaboration between India and Russia. High level delegations were meeting regularly to ensure the quick decision making processes were in place and the bureaucratic delays minimized.

The three decade long strategic partnership initially commenced in the later part of 1980’s to ensure smooth running of the indigenous warships construction programme and was called JISWOG (Joint Indo-Soviet Working Group on Shipbuilding). Over a period, this was rechristened as JIRWOG (Joint Indo-Russian Working Group) and finally known as IRIGC (Indo-Russian Intergovernmental Commission). It was an instrument for Military Technology Cooperation and called IRIGC-MTC. With the expansion of the scope of discussions, it was recently renamed as IRIGC Military and Military Technical Cooperation or IRIGC (M&MTC). The Commission has also been expanded to include a Working Group represented by India’s CIDS (Chief of Integrated Defence Staff). This indicates the continuously growing collaboration between the two countries.

Arms Deal as Indicator of Geopolitical Realignments

The Russian Foreign Minister has been touring multiple countries and was in China in March’2021. In fact, during this visit, the two nations celebrated the 20th anniversary of the ‘Treaty on Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation’. Post India visit, Russian Foreign Minister is scheduled to visit Pakistan. This travel schedule may be considered as the reflection of evolving geopolitical alignments and, surely, has the trade mark dynamics of any arms exporting nation.

India globally stands second in list of countries importing military hardware and these are sourced mainly from Russia, France, Israel and US (in the decreasing order of supplies). Russia is concerned about its declining arms export share in the international arena. As per SIPRI Reports, Russia is the second largest Arms exporter (after USA) and has seen a decline of 22% in the last five years (with 90% of this decrease caused by 53% decline in its export to India). Russian exports military hardware to 45 countries, with India leading the list with 23% of total Russian exports.

Major Indo-Russian Projects

Warship Production has been the historic basis of successful Indo-Russia strategic partnership. After the successful delivery of modern guided-missile stealth Frigates under Project 1135.6, Goa Shipyard Ltd. shall be constructing follow-on ships of this class in collaboration with Russian side.

Brahmos missile development has been one of the major success stories and Russia side supplied key technologies for the missile system. Today, the missile has taken multiple avatars as land-based, shipborne and aircraft launched to provide a long term self-reliance to India. Export of these missiles shall put India in an exclusive club globally.

Aviation related equipment from Russian side has been a major support for IAF and Indian Navy. The integrated operations of MIG-29Ks with Russian supplied Air Craft carrier, INS Vikramaditya remains the pride of the Indian Navy. The Russian SU-30MKI forms the main component of maritime fighter jet squadrons and discussions for joint venture to manufacture Kamov-226 multi-purpose choppers are going on.

India and Russia have a long history of successful projects in space cooperation. Recently plans for setting up of a ground station in Russia for India’s Navic Global Navigations System are under consideration so as to make Navic more precise. Already MoUs exist between the two countries to enhance Space cooperation.

Russian S-400 Air Defence System

For Indian Armed Forces, a major system procurement and its upkeep is seen as a long term activity. No emergency or ad hoc purchases can ever fill the immediate vulnerabilities in India’s Air Defence (AD) capabilities. The S-400 SAM complexes are a much awaited upgrade which India has been looking to induct for a couple of decades. Major systems like SAMs for Air Defence have far reaching implications on the tactics of warfare, especially when India is planning to set up a separate Air Defence Theatre Command. The order placement, to equipment finalization and its delivery from a foreign OEM is a well-structured but highly time intensive procedure. IAF and the Procurement Panel have selected S-400 after a long consideration on IAF requirements and various evaluation trials. S-400 are considered to be superior AD systems available to India in the arms market. These AD systems are capable of engaging any aerial threats, be it aircrafts, UAVs as well as ballistic and cruise missiles in an integrated manner.

With adversaries like China and Pakistan, who possess advanced fighter jets equipped with long range missiles, the Air Threat to India is not limited to only Northern sectors. AD for safeguarding the central land mass and all the coastal region as per the concepts of Area Defense and Point Defense configuration shall too be required. Unlike the nations like the US who fight wars across the continents, India shares its borders with both its hostile neighbours and the tactics of standoff weapons delivery even without entering the contested zone is well understood by each side. World over, the aircraft tactics are some of the most complex military algorithms which are designed, and require some hard Real-time computations using niche processors. The AD systems involve timely detection of an incoming strike followed by continuous tracking of the high speed hostile aircraft (so as to generate the AD weapon launch parameters). Holding the radar ‘lock’ on a group of such fast moving and stealth fighter jets pushes the limit of radar physics. But this ‘cat and mouse’ game is never one sided gambit to favour the AD side only; with specialized “g-suits” fighter pilots are able to push the human limits and operate a ‘9g’ turn without losing consciousness. Such high speed maneuvers can confuse some of the best AD radars. India’s adversaries too have highly skilled fighter pilots and Air warfare tactics in place (like AEW i.e. Aerial Electronic Warfare) so as to keep their attack squadrons invisible even to modern AD systems. Definitely, World over, AD doctrines are a highly guarded national secret but knowing the potential AD capabilities of the adversary is always advantageous to plan any Air offensive. China too utilizes S-400 AD complexes supplied by Russian side to defend its air space.

CATSAA puts Indo-Russia Relationship at Cross Roads

With critical Indo-Russian deals under implementation or at various stages of negotiations, it clearly indicates that Russia shall continue to play an important role in the modernization of the Indian Armed Forces. Recently, improvement in the Indo-US relationships has seen a sharp rise in military imports from the US from a few millions of dollars to more than USD 3 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, the US threat of sanctions through CATSAA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) is a major crisis which has been associated with the planned induction of Russian S-400 SAM complex by India. Already, Turkey and China found themselves on the wrong side of these sanctions. However, diplomacy has to do the balancing act and tone down the US rhetoric on CATSAA sanctions against India. MEA and MoD can probably bring out the special circumstances of India’s case to convince the US. India is already a Russia dependent Armed Force and does not operate US fighter jets of any kind. Also, the Indo-Pacific dynamics with the US are totally unique. But, as is well known, the international military trade scenario can go beyond reasonable presumptions and handling the CATSAA situation shall be one difficult and a highly expensive balancing act for the Indian bureaucracy.

(The author is a Strategic Analyst and C4I expert. Email: milind@aikairos.com. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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