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Indo-Russian defence relations deepen no new big-ticket buys

For Moscow, New Delhi is a crucial partner, as the latter buys 30 per cent of all Russian arms exports

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Russian President ’s sixth visit to India which started today, has been his most barren yet in terms of defence contracts signed between the two countries.

An earlier Indian order, placed in February 2010, for 59 Mi-17V5 medium lift helicopters was increased marginally to 71. And, a protocol signed in the past year for the purchase of 42 fighters led to the signing of a contract for 42 kits for licenced manufacture in Limited (HAL).

Never having had to compete for defence contracts in India, Russia faces increasing difficulties in competitive contracting, mandated now by the Defence Procurement Policy of the Ministry of Defence (). But remains India’s largest weapons supplier, by virtue of transitioning up the procurement chain. A step ahead of the competition, Russia has offered defence equipment first as arms sales, then licensed production, then joint development, and the growing supply of what is euphemistically known as “sub-strategic” systems.

One such system, the nuclear-propelled attack submarine, , joined the Indian Navy in April on a 10-year lease for $920 billion. Defence Minister had confirmed there was a proposal to lease a second submarine. Russian ambassador to India, Alexander Kadakin, terms the Chakra “a shining example of the very confidential strategic cooperation between India and Russia.

Off camera, Kadakin flatly, and factually, states no other country would transfer such a system.

India pays a price for this privilege. When Russia raised the price of the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya from $947 million to $2.3 billion, India quietly acquiesced. And when the delivery of the vessel, which was originally scheduled for 2008 and then delayed to 2012, was pushed back by another year after a major engine failure during pre-delivery trials in September, India acquiesced again.

The matter was raised during President Putin’s visit today. It had been raised more strongly by Antony with his counterpart, Anatoly Serdyukov, when the former defence minister had visited India in October.

But Russia repeatedly compensates in the “sub-strategic” segment that remains below the radar. The indigenous nuclear ballistic missile submarine, INS Arihant, continues to benefit from significant Russian technological advice.

Another strategic programme being negotiated is for the “precision code” of Russia’s GLONASS satellite navigation system, an alternative to the US Global Positioning System (GPS). This would provide Indian aircraft and weapon systems with a navigational accuracy of one metre, something that only the US and Russian systems enjoy at present. MoD sources told Business Standard the matter remains “under discussion” but would eventually yield results.

Russian officials also cite the joint development programmes that characterise Indo-Russian defence cooperation. The Brahmos joint venture has yielded a sophisticated supersonic cruise missile that is now being developed into a hypersonic missile that will travel at above Mach 6 (4,300 kilometres per hour). The supersonic Brahmos, meanwhile is being adapted to be fired from a Sukhoi-30MKI fighter.

Next year, design and development would begin on the $6-billion Indo-Russian programme to jointly develop a fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA). No other countries are collaborating on such an advanced aircraft, which involves sensitive technologies like stealth. Another Indo-Russian JV, Multirole Transport Aircraft Ltd (MTA Ltd), began work this month on a military transport plane for both air forces.

Given the strategic relationship, New Delhi considers Russian sensitivities. After the Russian MiG-35 was rejected in April 2011 in the Indian contest for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), the MoD ordered 42 additional Sukhoi-30MKI fighter, without any tendering or competition.

For Moscow, New Delhi is an increasingly crucial partner, and not only because India buys 30 per cent of all . Joint development with India reduces development costs and risk at a time when Russia is spending heavily on modernising its forces. Its State Armament Programme will spend almost $650 billion to increase the proportion of modern weaponry in the Russian military to 30 per cent by 2015, and 70 per cent by 2020.

Russian analysts close to the Kremlin are urging Moscow to deepen “an emerging common defence market” between the two countries. They are recommending the co-development of a fifth-generation medium fighter program in addition to the FGFA (which is a heavy fighter); and an advanced battle tank based on the Russian Armata.

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