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Premvir Das: India still needs Russia

In terms of acquiring indigenous defence capabilities, the gap between what comes from Russia, and from all others put together, is huge

Premvir Das 

Premvir Das

The kernel of relations between India and Russia (and earlier the USSR) over the past 50 years has been defence cooperation. This resulted from a synergy of political and strategic interests between the two countries, starting in the mid-1960s. It was at this time that the erstwhile Soviet Union had begun to have serious differences with China and India had its own conflict with that same country which had left it devastated. India's defence relationship with the United Kingdom was on the wane following the Indo-Pak War of 1965 in which that country seemed to side with Pakistan while the USSR, confronted by the United States, had to back down in Cuba. India's request for submarines, first to the UK and then to the US, had been declined by those countries, while Pakistan was provided one by the latter. This is the context in which the defence relationship between India and Russia began, and strengthened steadily in the decades that have since elapsed.

This situation has begun to change. The last 15 years have seen increasing closeness between India and the US, flowing from a changed geopolitical environment in which the two countries see a mutuality of interests in the Indo-Pacific theatre. Defence cooperation between them has spurted. Initially, it began with joint exercises between the armed forces of the two countries and their navies in particular. The Malabar series of exercises, as these were termed, have grown in content as well as in participation of forces. This cooperation has, in the last seven years, moved on to supply of military hardware; platforms, primarily aircraft such as the C-130J, the C-17, and the P8I, costing $13 billion in all, have been purchased. More items carrying a price tag of over $2 billion (M77 guns, Chinook and Apache helicopters) are about to be contracted, making for a total of $15 billion or about Rs 1 lakh crore. The US is now our foremost supplier of military equipment.

At the same time, France has become a major player too. It is assisting an Indian shipyard in the construction of Scorpene submarines for the navy and is slated to supply 36 Rafale multi-role aircraft to the air force; it is certain that more of these will be ordered and the Air Chief has hinted as much in a recent interview. Israel has also supplied some sophisticated systems for early detection of aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles; more advanced versions are under joint development. In short, from being an almost monopolistic supplier of military hardware to India, Russia has now been relegated to one of the several who do and the relationship stands in danger of turning insipid.

There are reasons which have occasioned the change. As stated earlier, the developing international political environment is one. At this same time, facing pressure and economic sanctions from the US-led West following its involvement in Ukraine and the Crimea, Russia has been forced to move closer to China - and this is reflected in the type of military hardware it is supplying to that country, such as sophisticated aircraft and missile systems. It has not protested that country's clearly disconcerting acts in the South China Sea. Russia is also now offering military helicopters to Pakistan and supply of other systems, including multi-role aircraft, is being talked about; such supplies would not have been in the realm of possibility a few years earlier. It may be recalled that conventional submarines like the 877 EKM were sold by Russia to China in the late 1990s, a good 10 years after they had been made available to India.

So, where do we go from here? As far as purchases from the US are concerned, the huge investment has not led to a single rupee worth of 'Make in India'; some insignificant offsets being not much to write home about. Similarly, the purchase of Rafales from France at a cost that may reach over Rs 60,000 crore will not create manufacturing capabilities or jobs at home. Producing Scorpene submarines is essentially putting together of imported assemblies without much of technology transfer. The joint venture with Israel will give some value-addition but its extent will be small.

As against this, from the very beginning, cooperation with Russia has led to acquisition of broad spectrum capabilities at home. Starting with manufacture of MiG 21s and their airframes and engines in earlier years to that of the Su-30MKI today, it has been a significant learning curve indigenously - and co-development of the fifth generation fighter aircraft will add to it. Mechanised vehicles like BMPs, T-72 tanks and their modernised versions, and the T-90s are all being built in India with incremental improvements and indigenised content.

The story is even more satisfying in ship building. From the first ship starting in 1980 - the Godavari-class frigate - to the latest commissioned only a week ago - the 7,500-tonne INS Kochi - Russian weapons, sensors and design assistance have helped India acquire increasing competence. In this process, both public and private sectors have acquired strengths which they did not earlier have. INS Arihant, our own nuclear submarine, could not have been built without Russian assistance; the same goes for the vessels that will follow it.

So, in terms of acquiring indigenous capabilities, the gap between what has come from the Russians and what has come from all others put together is huge; in many categories, these technologies are what can be termed "cutting-edge". INS Vikramaditya, the aircraft carrier, and INS Chakra, the nuclear submarine that the navy operates today, have both come from Russia; no other country could or would supply such platforms. It is necessary to recognise these ground realities.

It is in this background that we should look at the defence interface between our two countries. At one level, we should tell the Russians that any military linkages with Pakistan will act to the detriment of the relationship. As far as its growing engagement with China is concerned, where our leverages are more limited, we must stress the negative implications of a bipolar world in which the US and China would be the two major players. We must focus on a strong defence relationship even as we diversify our sources, recognising that the 'Make in India' dream and access to critical military technologies is best possible through the Russian route and with governmental interface. We should seek cooperation in deep-sea mining and in defence-impacting space and nuclear technologies, where Russia's expertise is well known. Finally, we should enhance the scope of joint exercises between the two militaries - in particular, at sea, where the engagement while ongoing, could be further strengthened.

In brief, there is a need for India to take a fresh look at its defence relationship with Russia. Proactive military engagement between the two countries will also contribute towards their mutual goal: a world order that is not a de facto G-2 under the US and China, but a multi-polar one in which both Russia and India will be powers of consequence.

The writer is a former director general, Defence Planning Staff. He has also served as member of the National Security Advisory Board.

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First Published: Thu, October 08 2015. 21:50 IST